Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Full Planet, Empty Plates'


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Tortilla protests, bread riots, rice rustlers, just three of the consequences of rising food prices around the world, as my next guest writes in his new book "Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity." Did you know that China now eats twice as much meat as the United States, that a third of the U.S. grain harvest now goes to ethanol production, or that it takes over 500 gallons of water to produce the food you eat every day?

All reasons why we may be on a path to greater food shortages, my next guest says. How serious is it? What can we do about it? Lester Brown is the author of "Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity." He's also founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, where he joins us. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, welcome back.

LESTER BROWN: My pleasure, Ira.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number if you'd like to talk with Lester Brown. "Full Planet, Empty Plates." How dire, Lester, is the situation? How close are we to running out of food?

BROWN: No one knows for sure. What we do know is that the world food situation has tightened. We know that world grain prices today are roughly double those of five years ago. Now, for you and me, that's not a big deal because the amount of wheat in a loaf of bread is - you know, it accounts for, at most, 10 percent of the cost of a loaf of bread. So if wheat doubles, you know, the loaf of bread costs another 10 or 20 cents.

But if you live in New Delhi and go to the market and buy wheat, bring it home to make chapatis, if the price of wheat doubles, the price of your chapatis double. So we're in this country quite insulated from basic commodity price rises, but many people in the world are not.

And what we're now seeing in response to this doubling of grain prices in recent years is that in many countries people can no longer afford to eat every day. And in a country like Nigeria or Ethiopia or India or Peru, for example, a substantial percentage of the population - 20, 25 percent - is now - now consists of people who are not able to eat every day, and they actually plan foodless days, days in which they do not eat at all.

FLATOW: When will this become important to people who can eat?

BROWN: Probably when it translates into political instability. We have seen in recent years a great deal of instability when prices go up, and we're probably going to see even more in the future. We've seen it in the countries in the Arab Middle East, in North Africa. We've seen it in countries like Ethiopia, the Sudan, India, other relatively low-income countries.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number, talking with Lester Brown, author of "Full Planet, Empty Plates." You've been writing about this for a long time. I'm going to quote something you wrote in 1967: Conventional agriculture now provides an adequate and assured supply of food for one-third of the human race, but ensuring an adequate supply of food for the remaining two-thirds poses one of the most nearly insoluble problems confronting man.

If it was insoluble back in 1967, what gives you hope that it is soluble now?

BROWN: Well, it is soluble, but it would take an enormous effort. We'd have to focus on three key issues. One, we'd have to get the brakes on population growth. If we add the two billion projected by 1950, we're going to have a real struggle on our hands. The second thing we need to do is to raise water productivity.

We need to raise water productivity in the same way over the last half-century we've raised land productivity. And then we have to take on the big one. We've got to figure out how to stabilize climate and do it fast, because it is now emerging as a major threat to world food security.

FLATOW: We are on the brink, almost, here in the United States, due to fracking and increased natural gas production, of becoming an energy exporting nation. Would - does natural gas offer a way of cutting back on ethanol, which might be more, you know, allowing the grains to be more used for food?

BROWN: Well, it would do that. At the same time, it would lead to substantial releases of carbon, which would exacerbate the climate situation, which itself is a threat to food security. What we now have is an agricultural system that has evolved over 11,000 years a rather remarkable climate stability, and now suddenly the system, the climate system that agriculture was designed to maximize production in, is now changing.

And with each passing year the agricultural system and the climate system are more and more out of synch with each other. And this is a fundamental threat, one of the most fundamental we face to future food security, which means affordable food prices.

FLATOW: When you say it's out of synch, do you mean the growing seasons have changed, or the areas where we'll be able to plant crops is going to move?

BROWN: Probably some of both. The most immediate effect will probably be in the effect of temperature on crop yields. It's pretty well-established now that with each one degree Celsius rise in temperature, we can expect at least a 10 percent decline in grain yields. So rising temperatures quickly translates into declining yields.

I mean, we saw this this past year in the, in the - throughout the Midwestern United States with intense heat and drought combining to sharply reduce the U.S. corn harvest.

FLATOW: Let's go to Kerry(ph) in Sunfield, Michigan. Hi, Kerry, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY

KERRY: Hello.

FLATOW: Hey there.

KERRY: Hey, I'm enjoying the conversation. I work in the water treatment industry, and an ethanol plant is one of my customers. It's one of the little-known facts about an ethanol plant is that they produce mash, which is a result of the ethanol process. And that mash is actually a superior cattle feed for many uses compared to the grain that went in to begin with.

And there are some distribution and logistics problems. You have to have everything lined up to be able to use it. But it's kind of misleading to say that a third of the grain goes in to ethanol production. It implies that all you get out of it is ethanol and nothing else.

BROWN: That's correct. It usually doesn't get very much attention. I grew up on a dairy farm in Southern New Jersey, and every week we used to get deliveries of brewer's grain from beer breweries in Philadelphia. And we fed those brewer grains to cattle as kind of a staple part of their diet.

So there - when you take out the ethanol, there is something left, and it can be used as a cattle feed, and it should be. You can't feed it to pigs and chickens, but you can feed it to cattle.

FLATOW: And is that happening, or is it something that, Lester, that is just going wasted now?

BROWN: Well, the ethanol distilleries sort of sprung up quickly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when corn prices - when gasoline prices rose dramatically. Suddenly it made it economic to convert corn into ethanol to fuel cars. So that was the big change there. But we don't - because these ethanol distilleries were built very quickly, they did not in many cases take into account how they would deal with the byproduct - that is, what we used to call brewer's grains.

It's a high-fiber useful feed supplement for cattle. But I don't think it's all being used for cattle feed right now.

FLATOW: Kerry, thanks for calling, interesting comment.

KERRY: Thanks a lot.

FLATOW: Let's talk about China. Why is their changing diet a problem?

BROWN: It's a problem only insofar as there are 1.3 billion Chinese, and when they double their meat production, it takes a huge amount of grain to support that increase. So we have the world's largest population, in terms of individual countries, moving up the food chain now at a record rate, and that's one of the reasons why world corn prices this past summer were at the highest level on record.

FLATOW: And I remember years ago when you were on the program talking about when people's standards of living go up, as they are in China, that their - also, their desires for higher standard of living products go up, which require more energy.

BROWN: Right. To put it in terms of grain, the average person living in India - and I'll use India, because it's near the bottom. The average person consumes about 400 pounds of grain a day - I'm sorry, per year, or roughly one pound of grain per day.

In the United States, meanwhile, we consume about 1,600 pounds of grain per person, per year, or four times as much. And of that, we consume maybe 200 pounds directly as bread and breakfast cereals, and so forth. The rest of it we consume in meat, milk and eggs. It takes a lot of grain to live high on the food chain.

FLATOW: You also mentioned if people in China - and we can talk about India - if their standard of living goes up, and they want to have a glass of beer once a week or once a day, there's not enough - I think I remember you saying there's not enough grain in the whole world to supply that.

BROWN: There's not enough grain to support the increase that that would translate into. Yeah. I remember once doing the calculations for China. You know, one beer per day for each person in China, it translates into a huge amount of grain - I mean, far more than a country like Australia would produce, for example.

So any increases income - in income tend to increase the amount of grain we consume per person, raising it from a low of 400 pounds per year, as in India, to, say, 1,600 pounds a year, as it is in the United States.

FLATOW: Let's go to Jane in Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona. Hi, Jane.

JANE: Hi. Good morning, fellas.


FLATOW: Good afternoon to you.

JANE: I'm - I have to say, Lester Brown, I'm a fan.

BROWN: Thank you.

JANE: Anyway - yes, yes. No, thank you for all you do everywhere. Anyway, my husband and I, we were traveling up towards Glacier National Park, and we happened to notice that almost everywhere where we stopped, there were many Chinese visitors. And at one point, we stopped into one of the small local Chamber of Commerce to pick up a map, because ours was from 1978.

And while we were there, we asked: Why are there so many Chinese visitors here? And the Chamber of Commerce folks said that, actually, they've been there buying literally thousands of acres of grainland all across Montana and Idaho, and we were shocked.

BROWN: It's something that's happening all over the world. We used to think that this only happened in developing countries, but we're now discovering...

JANE: Yeah.

BROWN: discovering that the Chinese and, to a lesser degree, the Japanese and other countries, as well, are investing in land in the United States. I think I say somewhere in the book that land is the new oil. Food is the new gold.

JANE: Yeah. Yeah.

BROWN: And I think we're beginning to realize how valuable the land is.

JANE: Oh, my gosh. As a person who lives on 100 acres who with a husband who built a bioshelter, I can't tell you how much I believe in what you're saying and what you're doing.

BROWN: Well, thank you, Jane.


FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Jane. Have a happy New Year.

JANE: Yes. Thank you, Ira. Bye.

FLATOW: Bye-bye. Do we have enough land to feed enough people, Lester?

BROWN: Well, it sort of depends on what level of - at what level of consumption. If we're talking about the level of consumption in India today, the answer is, you know, we could feed a lot of people. I think the numbers I calculated with the current grain harvest would be something close to 10 billion.

But if you're talking about the U.S. level of consumption, then we're looking at something more like two-and-a-half billion. So the answer to your question is a question. The answer to your question, how many people can the world support, is at what level of consumption? At the Indian level, we've got a lot of slack. At the U.S. level, we're already in trouble.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR, talking with Lester Brown, author of "Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity."

In the couple of minutes we have left, let's talk about the politics of this. I mean, is there a political solution?

BROWN: Well, one of the things we've noticed just in the last few years is that land has suddenly become a valuable commodity. And so investors, agribusiness firms, governments in countries that import food are beginning to feel very - the governments are beginning to feel very insecure. And so they are actually buying land in other countries on which to produce food for themselves.

So this is the new development that has emerged over the last few years, and this is what I call the new geopolitics of food, because whoever controls the land and the water that goes with the land is going to control the food supply. So there's actually a global land rush on right now with people trying to buy land wherever it's available, knowing full well that the price is likely to go up about twice as fast as the Dow Jones industrial index does.

FLATOW: Hmm. Are there - do people get together - do countries get together and talk about this like they might talk about oil cartels? Are there going to be land cartels, food cartels?

BROWN: You know, so far, it seems like it's every country for itself. There was a time a half century ago after World War II, we created the United Nations and the - all the specialized agencies in health and food and agriculture and population and so forth, and countries were working together to come up with global solutions for problems.

But now it's reached the point where importing countries don't feel they can depend on the world market, so they're all beginning to look after their own narrow interests, and I think that's a dangerous trend.

FLATOW: Well, people have been in and do go to war over oil, will they - will that start to happen over land and food on that land?

BROWN: It may well, because we can live without oil. We can't live without food. We can't live without water, and that means land. So that's why I say, you know, land is the new gold.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And we know what the price of gold is doing. We'll know what the price of food is doing too that way, I imagine.

BROWN: Right. Actually the increase in land prices in recent years, I think, has been far greater than the increase in gold prices.

FLATOW: More valuable than gold.


FLATOW: Wow. All right. Lester, thank you for taking time to be with us today. Always exciting to talk to you and learning something.

BROWN: Enjoyed it, Ira. Thanks much.

FLATOW: Lester Brown, author of "Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity." He's also founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.