Full Planet, Empty Plates by Kester R. Brown

Monday, November 19th, 2012

The alarming state of our food supply on planet Earth is the topic of Full Planet, Empty Plate, written by Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute.* A warning in the Preface sets off the alarm: “Welcome to the new geopolitics of food scarcity.  As food supplies tighten, we are moving into a new food era, in which it is every country for itself.”

The Table of Contents is also indicative of this alarm. Here are a few of the titles: Food: The Weak Link; Food or Fuel; Peak Water and Food Scarcity; Rising Temperatures, Rising Food Prices.  In every one of these chapters, Brown explains in detail, with statistics, the future status of our food supply. And it’s not pretty!

For example, in Chapter 4: Food or Fuel? The author discusses how land is now being used to raise crops that will be used to replace the gasoline in our cars. Sounds ecological, except that this land takes away food from hungry people who need to grow food to eat.

Another example is Chapter Eight: Rising Temperatures, Rising Food Prices. Brown notes that with every one-degree Celsius rise in temperature above the norm, there is a 10% lower yield in corn, wheat, and rice crops.

Perhaps the best way to alert you to what Brown considers an emergency, I am printing a few of the quotes from this 141-page booklet:

Chapter One: Food: The Weak Link (Italicized words are direct quotes)

Closely associated with the decline in stocks of grain and the rise in food prices is the spread of hunger…..toward 1 billion. Unfortunately, if we continue business as usual, the ranks of the hungry will continue to expand (p.7).

Chapter Three: Moving Up the Food Chain-

It is the increase in consumption of livestock products plus the conversion of grain into fuel that have boosted the annual growth in world grain demand…As incomes rise, the pressure on farmers to produce enough grain and soybeans to satisfy the growing appetite for livestock and poultry products will only intensify (p. 15).

(My note: Notice that none of this is eaten directly by people; the grain is grown for livestock or fuel. A good case for eating less meat & riding bikes!)

Chapter Five: Eroding Soils Darkening our Futures-

In farming, erosion results from plowing land that is steeply sloping or too dry to support agriculture….not protected by terraces, perennial crops, strip cropping or in some other way loses soil during heavy rains. Thus the land hunger that drives farmers up mountainsides fuels erosion (p. 46).

Chapter Six: Peak Water and Food Scarcity-

We live in a world where more than half the people live in countries with food bubbles based on overpumping….For the world as a whole, the near simultaneous bursting of several food bubbles as aquifiers are depleted could create unmanageable food shortages…..not a single country has succeeded in arresting the fall in water tables (p. 71).

In that same chapter is a list of 18 countries with overpumping aquifiers. We are on that list, along with China and India (highest populations) Mexico, Spain and others.

The last chapter, Can We Prevent a Food Breakdown? tells us that the challenges to world agriculture has never been seen before. With world food prices constantly rising because of all the issues discussed in this book, millions of families schedule one or more days of the week when they just don’t eat. This leads to unrest politically and could create instability.

Brown calls for the mobilization of our entire society in order to prevent a breakdown in our food system. This includes stabilizing the burgeoning world population, eradicating poverty, eating meat excessively, and reversing the biofuel policies that encourages using land for food or water for fuel instead of using it to grow food for people. These actions must be taken simultaneously because they are all related and reinforce one another.

The threats of: climate change, population growth, increased water shortages, rising food prices, and states and countries that are failing politically are the challenges we face in the 21st century. We need an environmentally sustainable path in order to feed the world. Brown claims that just as in other civilizations that have failed, food is the weak link.

This is a powerful book to read and absorb and I am still reeling from all the information. But I think having our heads in the sand is no longer an option. We all share the planet and we all need to share in its & our survival. Since the booklet does not list any organizations that are addressing the problems, my advice would be to pick one or two that you feel are addressing any one of these threats and volunteer your time or make a donation to help with their programs. Such organizations as Friends of the Earth, Food & Water Watch, Sierra Club, etc. all have programs on which you can focus some of your tome, energy and/or money.

This book is a wake-up call. Hopefully, we are not too late. To get you own copy, contact *Earth Policy Institute (epi@earth-policy.org) Lester Brown, the author, is president of EPI, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C. The paperback version costs $15 and the cloth copy costs $25. Discounts available for groups. (Great book for teachers in high school or college studying environmental concerns or political science.)

Note: I meant to post this to appear while I was away and accidentally hit the publish button. Sorry for so many articles in a row. Read what you can.