Nations struggling to keep crops growing during climate change
World food security being imperiled, agriculture specialist says
The old story of the rich having too much, the poor not enough is taking an increased urgency over the past few years. According to environmental and agricultural specialist Lester Brown, the author of "Full Planet, Empty Plates," both affluence and lack are spinning the world to an unprecedented food crisis.
The United States just last year saw as much as $200 billion in agricultural losses after a record drought.
"We have yet to grasp what climate change means in terms of food security," Brown, president of the U.S.-based Earth Policy Institute. "We're looking at changes on a scale we haven't seen yet."
In order to keep grain harvests growing in India, Brown points to the fact that groundwater is being pumped for irrigation at a rate much faster than it is being naturally replaced. In north Gujarat, water tables are falling by 20 feet annually.
Simultaneously, India's monsoon rains, essential for the agriculture in that country show signs of shifting, this year coming at least two weeks earlier than expected and causing widespread deaths in the Himalaya region of India and Nepal.
India's wealthy have turned to a richer diet, its poorest struggle to get enough calories each day and its farmers battle more extreme weather, the country's risk of food shortages is growing.
"I think water is going to be the constraint," he said. Countries in the Middle East such as Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iraq have already seen their water availability - and grain production - peak and begin to decline. Now "the question is what happens when that occurs in a big country," such as India, Brown says.
The world's agriculture, Brown says "has evolved over 11,000 years to maximize production in a stable system. Suddenly the climate system is changing, and each year it and the agriculture system will be more out of synch with each other."
Continued destruction of the Amazon rain forest, in part to feed China's growing demand for soybeans, appears to be disrupting rain cycles in South America, threatening more frequent droughts and crop losses in important grain growing regions in Brazil and Argentina.
China is also struggling with severe weather, such as worsening droughts and fast-dropping groundwater tables. The United States just last year saw as much as $200 billion in agricultural losses after a record drought.
It all adds to an exponential growth in world hunger, Brown said, with the risk that an extreme weather disaster in a major grain-producing country such as the United States, China or India could bring quick and more global famine.
How serious are the odds of that happening anytime soon? Enough that Brown thinks the world's population will not grow from the current seven billion to nine billion by 2050, as the United Nations predicts.
"I don't think that (population increase) will happen," he said. "The only question is, will it not happen because we get our act together to (slow population growth), or because we don't?"
© 2014 - Distributed by THE NEWS CONSORTIUM
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