Environmentalism

Never Right, But Never in Doubt

Famine-monger Lester Brown still gets it wrong after all these years

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"Could food shortages bring down civilization?," asks environmental activist Lester Brown in the current issue of Scientific American. Not surprisingly, Brown's answer is an emphatic yes. He claims that for years he has "resisted the idea that food shortages could bring down not only individual governments but also our global civilization." Now, however, Brown says, "I can no longer ignore that risk." Balderdash. Brown, head of the Earth Policy Institute, has been a prominent and perennial predictor of imminent global famine for more than 45 years. Why should we believe him now?

For instance, back in 1965, when Brown was a young bureaucrat in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he declared, "the food problem emerging in the less-developing regions may be one of the most nearly insoluble problems facing man over the next few decades." In 1974, Brown maintained that farmers "can no longer keep up with rising demand; thus the outlook is for chronic scarcities and rising prices." In 1981, Brown stated that "global food insecurity is increasing," and further claimed that "the slim excess of growth in food production over population is narrowing." In 1989, Brown contended that "population growth is exceeding the farmer's ability to keep up," concluding that, "our oldest enemy, hunger, is again at the door." In 1995, Brown starkly warned, "Humanity's greatest challenge may soon be just making it to the next harvest." In 1997, Brown again proclaimed, "Food scarcity will be the defining issue of the new era now unfolding."

But this time it's different, right? After all, Brown claims that "when the 2008 harvest began, world carryover stocks of grain (the amount in the bin when the new harvest begins) were at 62 days of consumption, a near record low." But Brown has played this game before with world grain stocks. As the folks at the pro-life Population Research Institute (PRI) report, Brown claimed in 1974 that there were only 26 days of grain reserves left, but later he upped that number to 61 days. In 1976, reserves were supposed to have fallen to just 31 days, but again Brown raised that number in 1988 to 79 days. In 1980, only a 40-day supply was allegedly on hand, but a few years later he changed that estimate to 71 days. The PRI analysts noted that Brown has repeatedly issued differing figures for 1974: 26 or 27 days (1974); 33 days (1975); 40 days (1981); 43 days (1987); and 61 days (1988). In 2004, Brown claimed that the world's grain reserves had fallen to only 59 days of consumption, the lowest level in 30 years.

In any case, Brown must know that the world's farmers produced a bumper crop last year. Stocks of wheat are at a six-year high and increases in other stocks of grains are not far off. This jump in reserves is not at all surprising considering the steep run-up in grain prices last year, which encouraged farmers around the world to plant more crops. By citing pre-2008 harvest reserves, Brown evidently hopes to frighten gullible Scientific American readers into thinking that the world's food situation is really desperate this time.

Brown argues that the world's food economy is being undermined by a troika of growing environmental calamities: falling water tables, eroding soils, and rising temperatures. He acknowledges that the application of scientific agriculture produced vast increases in crop yields in the 1960s and 1970s, but insists that "the technological fix" won't work this time. But Brown is wrong, again.

It is true that water tables are falling in many parts of the world as farmers drain aquifers in India, China, and the United States. Part of the problem is that water for irrigation is often subsidized by governments who encourage farmers to waste it. However, the proper pricing of water will rectify that by encouraging farmers to transition to drip irrigation, switch from thirsty crops like rice to dryland ones like wheat, and help crop breeders to develop more drought-tolerant crop varieties. In addition, crop biotechnologists are now seeking to transfer the C4 photosynthetic pathway into rice, which currently uses the less efficient C3 pathway. This could boost rice yields by 50 percent while reducing water use.

To support his claims about the dangers of soil erosion, Brown cites studies in impoverished Haiti and Lesotho. To be sure, soil erosion is a problem for poor countries whose subsistence farmers have no secure property rights. However, one 1995 study concluded that soil erosion would reduce U.S. agriculture production by 3 percent over the next 100 years. Such a reduction would be swamped by annual crop productivity increases of 1 to 2 percent per year—which has been the average rate for many decades. A 2007 study by European researchers found "it highly unlikely that erosion may pose a serious threat to food production in modern societies within the coming centuries." In addition, modern biotech herbicide-resistant crops make it possible for farmers to practice no-till agriculture, thus dramatically reducing soil erosion.

Brown's final fear centers on the effects of man-made global warming on agriculture. There is an ongoing debate among experts on this topic. For example, University of California, Santa Barbara economist Olivier Deschenes and Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Michael Greenstone calculated that global warming would increase the profits of U.S. farmers by 4 percent, concluding that "large negative or positive effects are unlikely." Other researchers have recently disputed Deschenes' and Greenstone's findings, arguing that the impact of global warming on U.S. agriculture is "likely to be strongly negative." Fortunately, biotechnology research—the very technology fix dismissed by Brown—is already finding new ways to make crops more heat and drought tolerant.

On the other hand, Brown is right about two things in his Scientific American article: the U.S. should stop subsidizing bioethanol production (turning food into fuel) and countries everywhere should stop banning food exports in a misguided effort to lower local prices. Of course these policy prescriptions have been made by far more knowledgeable and trustworthy commentators than Brown.

Given the fact that Brown's dismal record as a prognosticator of doom is so well-known, it is just plain sad to see a respectable publication like Scientific American lending its credibility to this old charlatan.

Ronald Bailey is Reason magazine's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.