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The New Geopolitics of Food

Foreign Policy magazine hosted an event yesterday in Washington with Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, to chat about their food issue and his cover article on the "New Geopolitics of Food." Brown's survey piece is worth reading for a host of fascinating details and data points - his politics are old-guard leftist, and his predictions of a future with "every-country-for-itself philosophy" for food provision seem very throwback to me, but the information is worth gathering to draw your own conclusions about the issue.

Contra reports by The Economist and others in recent months, Brown believes the problems in food supply are not a temporary issue, but a long-term and rising problem. China's situation is particularly interesting, as with an expanding middle class has come, as anticipated, a growth in meat and protein demand. China consumes twice the meat of the U.S. today, according to Brown, and while it today produces roughly 14 million metric tons of soybeans, it consumes more than 70 million (not just as foodstuffs but as feed for animals). The ripple effect is obvious: today, more land in the United States is filled with soybeans than wheat, and China imported roughly 22.5 million metric tons of soybeans from the States last year, an increase of about 20 percent from 2009. Meeting this demand, according to Brown, could soon become a challenge.

Brown pointed out one story I'd missed completely - that South Korea, in what could be a trend followed by other nations, decided a few months ago to bypass international markets entirely, setting up an office in Chicago to buy directly from grain producers in America. He noted the problems of winter wheat crops in the U.S. and Russia from the past year, which just translate to annoyance on the part of Americans, can be calamitous for other nations. And his take on the "water bubble" in the Middle East is interesting:

While temperatures are rising, water tables are falling as farmers overpump for irrigation. This artificially inflates food production in the short run, creating a food bubble that bursts when aquifers are depleted and pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge. In arid Saudi Arabia, irrigation had surprisingly enabled the country to be self-sufficient in wheat for more than 20 years; now, wheat production is collapsing because the non-replenishable aquifer the country uses for irrigation is largely depleted. The Saudis soon will be importing all their grain.

Saudi Arabia is only one of some 18 countries with water-based food bubbles. All together, more than half the world's people live in countries where water tables are falling. The politically troubled Arab Middle East is the first geographic region where grain production has peaked and begun to decline because of water shortages, even as populations continue to grow. Grain production is already going down in Syria and Iraq and may soon decline in Yemen. But the largest food bubbles are in India and China. In India, where farmers have drilled some 20 million irrigation wells, water tables are falling and the wells are starting to go dry. The World Bank reports that 175 million Indians are being fed with grain produced by overpumping. In China, overpumping is concentrated in the North China Plain, which produces half of China's wheat and a third of its corn. An estimated 130 million Chinese are currently fed by overpumping. How will these countries make up for the inevitable shortfalls when the aquifers are depleted?

Some of Brown's points run afoul of typical categorization. He maintains the lessons of the past decade is that export bans don't work, with major blowback on trade restrictions (particularly in Southeast Asia), and that the decision of the U.S. and the European Union to invest in biofuels has had terrible consequences.

Yet when it comes to Brown's policy recommendations and the American left's solutions on food policy - population restriction, carbon caps, sin taxes, meat rationing (proposed straight-faced by one participant) - strike me as particularly tired and unlikely to work in the real world. Brown views this as a problem of overpopulation and climate, setting the solution to food problems as one where scientists triumph over economists; I think it's more likely a problem driven by poor governance and market barriers.

The real question for me hinges on the future of Subsaharan Africa. If it can be remade, by the Gates Foundation and others, as new breadbasket - the barrier to which is proper water and transportation infrastructure, not land - through proper technological investment and development, it will provide another source to meet demand. In all, I'm more confident in technological advancement to meet market demands for more supply, and that fears of "peak food" are enormously exaggerated.