Brown: ‘We are on the edge’ regarding food security

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The world faces a severe food security crisis as a result of climate change, soil erosion and population growth. Food security is a much greater threat to national security than armed aggression, Lester Brown told EURACTIV in this exclusive interview on the fringes of the 'Forum for the Future of Agriculture'.

Lester Russel Brown is an American environmentalist and founder of the Earth Policy Institute. His latest book is called 'World on the Edge'.

He was speaking to EURACTIV's Stephanie Friedrich.

In your new book, World on the Edge, you mentioned the challenge that the world is facing in terms of food security. Since the EU is currently discussing reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), how do you think it should food security into consideration?

I don't really know enough about the CAP to respond usefully to that, but the level in wheat yields is something that needs to be looked at pretty carefully because, although some say that we can yield beyond that, that may or may not be the case.

If wheat yields are plateauing in Western Europe as rice yields are in Japan, and now possibly in China, that is something we need to be aware of, because it may well enforce population policy, for example. If yields are starting to plateau in most agricultural […] countries, and it is going to happen in other countries as well – Egypt's wheat yields have plateaued as well, by the way, in the last six years, after increasing rather dramatically. So that would be my one thought – that we need to take a close look at wheat yields in Europe and see if this plateauing is in fact something we can overcome or are we pushing against the constraints of photosynthetic efficiency?

You also said that countries' national security will in the future depend much more on global food security. In terms of European food security, what should we do in addition to agricultural policy? What other policy sectors can we use to achieve food security?

That is a good question. We have inherited a definition of security from the last century that was informed by two World Wars and a Cold War. So if you mention the term 'national security' to someone today, at least in Washington, people will automatically think of the military.

But if you were to look at the threats to our future in the 21st Century, not the ones from the 20th Century, if I start with a clean pad and say 'What are the threats to our future today?' – it is climate change, falling water tables, population growth, soil erosion, ice caps meting, a whole series of issues.

Armed aggression does not make the top five on my list; it might make the top ten, but it certainly does not make the top five.

So we need to reconceptualise the concept of security and realise that food security is an important part of the total, but also to restructure our budgets fiscally. So that we concentrate on the new threats to security and not the ones that belong to the last century.

The keys to food security, I think, are climate stabilisation, population stabilisation, dramatic rises in water productivity, and just to cite three of the important ones, soil conservation, deforestation, these are the issues that are now going to determine our future. And I don't think we have quite realised it yet.

Europe has set itself the target of taking 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, among others from biofuels. What is your take on biofuels with regard to food security?

The use of crops to produce fuel for cars – I don't think it's a good idea. It was interesting, former President Bill Clinton spoke at the Agricultural Conference in Washington a couple of weeks ago. What he talked about was that he did not think it was a good idea to make grain into fuels for cars. He said 'we are fuelling our cars on the backs of the poor', because it drives up food prices and it is the low-income people of the world who really suffer from those rises in the food prices.

What time-frame are you looking at when you say that things are about to get serious? Do you think we are going to see dramatic changes in food security in the next ten years?

Well, the title of my book is 'World on the Edge', and I think we are on the edge. I do not think we have to wait ten, twenty or thirty years. I think it could happen any time, and what we are now seeing I think is a trend-driven break in the world food supply.

On the demand side the trends are population growth, rising affluence and conversion of grain to produce fuel for cars, on the supply side it is climate change, falling water tables and spreading water shortages, soil erosion, and it's a shrinking backlog of unused agricultural technology in the more agriculturally advanced countries.

To come back to something you said about controlling the global population rise. To what extent do you think Europe can act on this rise, when in fact it is mainly happening in other countries? What can we do concretely to stop the world population from growing so quickly?

For starters, according to the most recent survey data, there are 215 million women in the world who want to plan their families but do not have access to family planning services. Filling that family planning gap takes about that much effort [indicates tiny amount] – it's an amount so small it would get lost in the rounding of our defence budget, for example.

Incidentally, those 215 million women and their families are likely to have three children in each family and now represent a billion people, which are mostly the one billion poorest people in the world.

One of the keys to breaking out is educating everyone, but especially girls, making sure they get at least elementary school education. When that happens, average family size drops dramatically. The second thing is to fill the family planning gap, so that every woman has access to family planning services. We can't afford not to do this.

I have one final question, and that concerns GMOs: you know Europe is very…

…GMO-sensitive.

Exactly. Do you think Europe should embrace this new technology? Do you think that public opinion and fears about risks to human health should be overcome?

It is interesting that GMOs were coming on the market at the time of the Mad Cow Disease episode. I think people lost confidence in governments at that time. And so they did not want to have anything to do with GMOs. There has been relatively little resistance in the United States and we have – latest numbers I heard – 70% of products on supermarket shelves today contain genetically modified crops like cornmeal, cornstarch, corn oil, soy beans, everything – I mean from meat substitutes to soy bean oil.

I don't know of a single health problem of anyone who has been consuming food from supermarkets. That does not mean there could not be a problem. I think we need to continue monitoring.

Just as an example, I think it was Cargill that had a breeding programme for wheat or some crop where they were using a protein trying to create a high-quality protein in the Brazil nut. Someone pointed out that that DNA transfer might affect people who are allergic to nuts, and they would not even know it. So Cargill, as soon as that issue was raised, they immediately altered that particular research programme. Now, the chances are it would not have been a problem, but it might have been. And because it could have been, they took it off. Now, someday we may miss one of those things and get in trouble. So far we do not know.

OK. I think one of the arguments in Europe is that once you start on GMO production and dissemination throughout the world, there will be cross-pollution, so even if after ten, fifteen years we realise that there are long-term risks to human health, it might be too late to take them out of the food chain.

Conceivably. So far we have not seen any evidence of that. If we alter – I mean the difference between genetic modification is that we are transferring DNA from one species to another, and that is what makes it risky. I mean nature does that, too, to some degree, but on a much lower key than we do. Genetic modification is a very conscious transfer of DNA from one species to another.

Is there something that you would like to tell me that I have not asked you about, another message that you have for the European public?

My sense is that food security is going to become the security issue, as I mentioned during the luncheon session. Food I think may well be the weak link for our modern civilisation, as it was for so many earlier civilisations, as archeological sites now tell us. That is why I think the increasing number of hungry people in the world today is actually a very dangerous sign.

Not only has the number of people who are hungry, which was dropping during the last decade of the last century, gone up during the last decade, there is also not anything underway to arrest that rise. That is a dangerous trend I think.

If I were to pick three trends that I would monitor most closely, that could tell us some more about where we were heading as a civilisation, the first would be an economic one: grain prices. The second would be a social one: the number of hungry people in the world. The third would be a political one, which is the number of failing states. I think those three will tell more about the future than perhaps we want to know.

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