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Lester Brown on the realities of 21st-century farming

News Section Icon Published 28/01/2013


World agriculture is now facing challenges unlike any before. In this guest blog, environmental guru and Earth Policy Institute President, Lester Brown, discusses the realities of farming in the 21st century and what it means for global food scarcity.

All aboard the grain train

Producing enough grain to make it to the next harvest has tested farmers ever since agriculture began, but now the challenge is deepening as new trends ­– falling water tables, plateauing grain yields and rising temperatures – make it difficult to expand production fast enough.


Along with this is the growing demand for grain as 80 million more people are added to the world's population each year, as people in emerging economies move up the food chain and as grain is funnelled away to produce feed for farm animals and fuel for cars.

Rising food prices

World food prices have more than doubled over the last decade. Those who live in the United States, where only 9 percent of income goes on food, are largely insulated from these price shifts. But how do those who live on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder cope? They were already spending 50–70 percent of their income on food. Many were down to one meal a day before the price rises. Now millions of families in countries like India, Nigeria and Peru routinely schedule one or more days each week when they will not eat at all.

What happens with the next price surge? As food prices rise, we are likely to see more food unrest, like the time when high food prices helped fuel the Arab Spring back in 2011. This will lead to political instability and possibly a breakdown of political systems. Some governments may fall.

The world is now living from one year to the next, hoping always to produce enough to cover the growth in demand. Farmers everywhere are making an all-out effort to keep pace with the accelerated growth in demand, but they are having difficulty doing so.

Tonight there will be 219,000 people at the dinner table who were not there last night, many of them with empty plates.

A rush for land

As food supplies tighten, we are moving into a new food era, one in which it is every country for itself. Welcome to the new geopolitics of food scarcity.

This is evidenced most clearly in some of the more affluent grain-importing countries – led by Saudi Arabia, China, India and South Korea – buying or leasing land in other countries on a long-term basis on which to grow food for themselves. Most of these land acquisitions are in African countries, where millions of people are being sustained with food aid from the UN World Food Programme.


As of mid-2012, hundreds of land-acquisition deals had been negotiated or were under negotiation, some of them exceeding a million acres. A World Bank analysis of these "land grabs" reported that at least 140 million acres were involved – an area that exceeds the cropland devoted to corn and wheat combined in the United States. This onslaught of land acquisitions has become a land rush, as governments, agribusiness firms and private investors seek control of land wherever they can find it.

The solutions are out there

We have the resources to address these seemingly insurmountable issues.

Feeding the world’s hungry now depends on new population, energy and water policies. Unless we move quickly to adopt new policies, the goal of eradicating hunger will remain just that – a goal.

Time is running out. The world may be much closer to unmanageable food shortages – replete with soaring food prices, spreading food unrest and, ultimately, political instability – than most people realise.

Lester R Brown is President of Earth Policy Institute ( and author of Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity. The Washington Post called Lester Brown "one of the world's most influential thinkers". The Telegraph of Calcutta refers to him as "the guru of the environmental movement". In 1986, the Library of Congress requested his personal papers, noting that his writings "have already strongly affected thinking about problems of world population and resources".

We say: it doesn’t have to be this way

There is enough food in the world for everyone. One of the big problems is that factory farming diverts vast quantities of grain from hungry people and feeds it to farm animals. We are campaigning for an end to factory farming and we need your help.


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