By David L. Brown
Who will feed the growing populations of the world’s third world countries in the coming years? Yes, the threat of famine has been dismissed repeatedly ever since Paul Ehrlich and others raised a warning in the 1960s, but it is no longer possible to ignore these problems.
Take China as an example. The Middle Kingdom has a population of over one billion, and that figure is projected to grow to 1.5 billion by mid-century. Unfortunately for China, its ability to produce food has peaked and may be falling. The reasons are many, including loss of topsoil to erosion, but the most ominous sign is that China is running out of water. Here is a statement from a recent e-mail alert I received from the Earth Policy Institute:
Historically, water scarcity was a local issue. It was up to national governments to balance water supply and demand. Now this is changing as scarcity crosses national boundaries via the international grain trade. Since it takes 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of grain, importing grain is the most efficient way to import water. Countries are, in effect, using grain to balance their water books. Similarly, trading in grain futures is in a sense trading in water futures.
Falling water tables are already adversely affecting harvests in some countries, including China, the world’s largest grain producer. Overpumping has largely depleted the shallow aquifer under the North China Plain, forcing farmers to turn to the region’s deep fossil aquifer, which is not replenishable. Wheat farmers in some areas of the Plain are now pumping from a depth of 300 meters, or nearly 1,000 feet.
Overall, China’s grain production has fallen from its historical peak of 392 million tons in 1998 to an estimated 358 million tons in 2005. This drop of 34 million tons exceeds the Canadian wheat harvest. China largely covered the drop-off in production by drawing down its once vast stocks until 2004, at which point it imported 7 million tons of grain.
This information is adapted from the recently published book Plan B 2.0 written by the Institute’s president, Lester R. Brown. Brown is a prominent spokesman for the issues of global climate change, overpopulation, and food production.
The future for China may be grim if it cannot continue to grow food for its expanding population, and the outlook for declining water resources is a clear warning bell. For the time being China can use its balance-of-trade dollars to buy grain, thus as Brown points out, in effect importing water. But another huge Asian nation may not be so lucky. As the report from Earth Policy Institute points out:
Water shortages are even more serious in India simply because the margin between actual food consumption and survival is so precarious. At this point, the harvests of wheat and rice, India’s principal food grains, are still increasing. But within the next few years, the loss of irrigation water could override technological progress and start shrinking the harvest in some parts of the country, as it is already doing in China.
India has a population roughly equivalent to that of China, but lacks the big purse of trade dollars to continue to import food should their needs increase. It will be even harder for nations such as India should commodity prices begin to rise. And rise they shall, because the world as a whole is struggling to maintain farm production levels as demand continues to grow. Besides these two Asian giants, Egypt, Algeria, Iran, Mexico and Pakistan are also woefully short of water. Algeria, Egypt and Mexico already import much of their grain, and in 2004 Pakistan entered the world grain market with a purchase of 1.5 million tons of wheat. The needs of all these nations and others will continue to grow, and in keeping with the law of supply and demand the price of grains will be bid up as shortfalls occur in the supply chain.
Those countries that continue to maintain a strong balance of trade with the West may be able to continue to purchase food commodities for some time, but the price will become dearer. Oil producing countries will remain in a good position as long as demand for oil exists, having something of value to exchange, but what about places such as Egypt with its 74 million people and already importing 40 percent of its grain supply? Similarly, Algeria with its 33 million, imports more than one-half of the grain it consumes. As the e-mail alert points out:
Overall, the water required to produce the grain and other farm products imported into the Middle East and North Africa last year equaled the annual flow of the Nile River at Aswan. In effect, the region’s water deficit can be thought of as another Nile flowing into the region in the form of imported grain.
And the big question is: Will there be sufficient grain to feed these billions of hungry mouths in the years ahead? This is an important question, for on it hinges the possibility of world famine beyond anything humanity has ever experienced. And what is taking place in the U.S. as we contemplate this possibly grim future:
• We are diverting a significant portion of our corn crop to production of ethanol fuel. By next year it is estimated that 20 percent of the corn produced in the U.S. will be shipped to ethanol plants rather than entering the grain trade.
• We are similarly beginning to build the infrastructure to turn soybeans into biodiesel fuel, and this effort seems to be experiencing an explosion as speculators jump on board this new investment bubble.
• We are continuing to pump fossil water from the Ogalalla Aquifer to provide 70 to 90 percent of the irrigation water used to grow farm crops in Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas. The Aquifer is being rapidly depleted and is not a renewable resource. Water shortages are also appearing elsewhere as rivers and streams are diverted to growing crops.
• Even more water is being diverted completely from agricultural uses to supply our growing cities, in places such as California where Los Angeles is a rapidly expanding and thirsty outpost of Mexico.
• North American rainfall patterns are uncertain as climate change sets in; the West has experienced nearly a decade of drought and higher temperatures can depress crop yields and even destroy entire crops.
• Our President has stated that another farm crop, switchgrass, can replace imported oil. This ranks as one of the most unserious suggestions we have heard.
• The increased demands for farm products, both as biomass for fuel production and for sale in the international grain markets, will surely cause farmers to begin cultivating marginal lands that are prone to erosion. We have been there before, when in the 1970s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz exhorted farmers to plant “fencerow to fencerow.” The result of that was an environmental disaster as millions of unsuitable acres were planted to row crops.
So the question again is who will feed the billions of today and tomorrow? The outlook appears unencouraging, as everywhere around the globe water resources become a limiting factor to food production. Here is the conclusion of the e-mail alert from the Earth Policy Institute:
At what point does water scarcity translate into food scarcity? In which countries will the irrigation water losses from aquifer depletion translate into a drop in grain production? David Seckler and his colleagues at the International Water Management Institute, the world’s premier water research group, summarized this issue well: “Many of the most populous countries of the world—China, India, Pakistan, Mexico, and nearly all the countries of the Middle East and North Africa—have literally been having a free ride over the past two or three decades by depleting their groundwater resources. The penalty for mismanagement of this valuable resource is now coming due and it is no exaggeration to say that the results could be catastrophic for these countries and, given their importance, for the world as a whole.”
Since expanding irrigation helped triple the world grain harvest from 1950 to 2000, it comes as no surprise that water losses can shrink harvests. With water for irrigation, many countries are in a classic overshoot-and-decline mode. If countries that are overpumping do not move quickly to reduce water use and stabilize water tables, then an eventual drop in food production is almost inevitable.
I will leave that as the final word. You may find it interesting to read my earlier post, “Overshoot and Collapse: A Model for Our Future?” published here on August 6 and commenting on information drawn from Plan B 2.0. Look for my review of that book soon.