Sunday, January 23, 2011

the food bubble


Video - Jayati Ghosh: Food prices set to surge due to Wall Street speculation

Radio Ecoshock | You have seen food prices going up at the local grocery store. That could be just the beginning. According to Lester Brown, a leading expert in both the environment and world agriculture, those bulging supermarket shelves are part of a "food bubble", which could crash.

Lester Brown founded the World Watch Institute, with it's annual "State of the World" reports. He's written 50 books, won many honors, is recognized as a thought-leader for our era. Now in his own Earth Policy Institute, Brown's new book is "World on Edge, How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse."

Brown compares our world food situation to the real estate bubble in the United States. We are in a "food bubble" he says.

Here is a quote from the Press Release at earth-policy.org
"Our early 21st century civilization is in trouble. We need not go beyond the world food economy to see this. Over the last few decades we have created a food production bubble-one based on environmental trends that cannot be sustained, including over pumping aquifers, over plowing land, and overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide," notes Lester R. Brown, author of World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (W. W. Norton & Company).

"If we cannot reverse these trends, economic decline is inevitable," notes Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental research organization. "No civilization has survived the ongoing destruction of its natural support systems. Nor will ours.

"The archeological records of earlier civilizations indicate that more often than not it was food shortages that led to their downfall. Food appears to be the weak link for our global civilization as well. And unlike the recent U.S. housing bubble, the food bubble is global."

"The question is not whether the food bubble will burst but when," says Brown. While the U.S. housing bubble was created by the overextension of credit, the food bubble is based on the overuse of land and water resources. It is further threatened by the climate stresses deriving from the excessive burning of fossil fuels. When the U.S. housing bubble burst, it sent shockwaves through the world economy, culminating in the worst recession since the Great Depression. When the food bubble bursts, food prices will soar worldwide, threatening economic and political stability everywhere. For those living on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder, survival itself could be at stake."
In the Radio Ecoshock interview, we also discuss the impact of climate change on world food production.

Lester Brown also explains the difference between "event driven" problems, and "trend driven." In a short example, food prices might go up for a short time, because of a failed harvest some where, or speculation. That is "event driven." But food prices will definitely go up in the long run, due to oil depletion, soil depletion, and pumping out the water tables (water depletion). That are predictable "trend driven" processes.

We also talk about the gender problem in food. In many countries, especially Muslim countries like Pakistan, but not limited to Muslim countries - men eat the most food, first. Women and children get the left-overs, if any.

I remember seeing a BBC documentary about the after-math of the Pakistan floods last Summer. In woman after woman, the fingernails were very white, a sign of malnutrition. Food aid was not getting through to them, while men were eating. And this is true for the billion or so people at the bottom of our human "food chain" - those who get perhaps only one meal a day, and go to bed hungry every night. Again, women suffer the most. That's something to keep in mind, as the food bubble bursts.

Lester Brown does not shrink from the contentious issue of over-population. After all, should we try to infinitely expand world food production, even as the eco-system deteriorates, just because humans cannot control their own population? Lester goes into various measures we could be implementing to limit, and then reduce population.

We cover a lot of other issues, please listen to the audio interview. And as a bonus, I recorded the original press teleconference for you as well. That 45 minute recording is available here (in Lo-Fi, 10 megabytes).

You may also be able to download a free preview copy of Lester's new book here.