Book – Full Planet, Empty Plates by Lester R. Brown

Title: Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Security

Author: Lester R. Brown

Published: 2012

Pages: 161 pages (paperback, no pictures but lots of graphs)

Brief Summary – This book discusses the future of food on the planet.  Although there may currently be enough food for everyone on the planet, a great deal of that food is being used for less efficient purposes or is being wasted. Similarly  most of the food being created is using resources which are not sustainable, so there is now way this system can go on forever… especially as the world population increases.

Detailed Summary – This summary will basically describe each chapter, as they are actually quite well broken down into logical chunks which describe all the main issues related to food that we are currently facing on a planetary scale.

  • Chapter 1 – Food: The Weak Link

The world used to have more food than they needed.  There was always a reserve of excess grain incase of crop failure.  However, as time has gone on, this amount of excess has dropped, and now if there were many large failures the prices would skyrocket and their might not be enough food for that season.  The food system is very fragile, for many reasons which are explained in the subsequent chapters.

  • Chapter 2 – The Ecology of Population Growth

Populations are growing, but only for the most part in the developing world.  The problem is the developing world is also where people do not have enough money to pay for food, and they are often the ones who have to deal with the effects of climate change most intensely. In order to make our food system sustainable, we must stabilize human population growth.

  • Chapter 3 – Moving Up the Food Chain

As countries “develop” they often eat more meat.  The United States used to be the largest consumer of meat in the world, but as people in China and other countries continue to climb the economic ladder they want meat as well.  By eating meat instead of grains you need a lot more land and resources.  Animals require land, water and most importantly, a lot more grain in order to build up their bodies so there is more to eat.  More meat = less food.

  • Chapter 4 – Food or Fuel?

Currently, there is huge political pressure in certain countries to include biofuel (or gas that is created from the oil of crops) for the power of vehicles.  Some areas, such as Europe even have minimum requirements.  However, as more food goes to fuel, less is available to eat, and therefore the prices go up.  When oil prices go up, biofuel become even more affordable in comparison, and when they go down they seem less affordable.

  • Chapter 5 – Eroding Soils Darkening Our Future

Topsoil is a very valuable resource.  If land is used to intensively, or if nutrients don’t have time to get back in the soil, the land becomes less efficient.  If trees and others plants are cut down in already dry areas, the land can easily turn to dessert.  The topsoil runs off with rainwater, and the land is no long arable.  Desertification is happening in many area of the world, including China, Africa and the middle east.  This also creates sand storms, which harm human health and can cover roads and cities, forcing people to move elsewhere.

  • Chapter 6 – Peak Water and Food Scarcity

Agriculture requires quite a lot of water. So do cities… As cities grow they demand more fresh water, which incentivizes farmers to sell their water.  Also, many countries are taking water from underground aquifers at a rate which is not sustainable… meaning that if they continue this way the aquifers will dry up and be unavailable to future generations.  In some countries, like India, the groundwater level is dropping by a few feet to a few meters every year… maning old wells are drying up, and new, deeper wells are being dug.

  • Chapter 7 – Grain Yields Starting to Plateau

Basically over the last 50 or so years there have been many improvements in agricultural practices, including the use of fertilizer, irrigation and improved seed varieties that have increased the yield of a crop for one acre of land.  However, in recent years the efficiency has plateaued for many major grain staples… if more land can’t be found, and land can’t be made more productive then it will be difficult to increase the amount of food that is produced.

  • Chapter 8 – Rising Temperatures, Rising Food Prices

As climate change accelerates, many issues with farming are caused… which vary depending on the specific area.  Some coastal areas will be inundated by the rising sea levels and periods of droughts or floods cause crops to fail.

  • Chapter 9 – China and the Soybean Challenge

Soybeans didn’t use to be popular… until they found out that by mixing 1 part soybean meal with 4 parts wheat or corn for animal feed they could increase the efficiency with which the animals put on weight, increasing the animal yield. Soybeans are mainly produced in China and the United States, but as Brazil got into the mix, a great deal of the amazon rainforest has been cut down to grow fields or raise cattle.

  • Chapter 10 – The Global Land Rush

As countries lose the ability to produce all the food they need for their growing populations they are turning to other countries.  In particular, many countries (such as China and Saudi Arabia) are buying land in other countries (particularly African countries like Sudan and Ethiopia) on which to grow food to feed their own population.  The problem is, much of the land is communally owned but is already farmed by the local people.  When the government sells the land, the local people lose their land and their ability to cultivate food or earn a living – creating social unrest.

  • Chapter 11 – Can We Prevent a Food Breakdown?

The author discusses 4 main pressing needs for the world that can help to solve some of these problems….

  1. Stabilizing population – the more the world population grows, the more food we will need, and the less land we will have, since cities also grow. As population grows they often also require more resources which are tied to food, such as water and energy.
  2. Eradicate poverty – this is obviously very tied with the first point.   Population stabilization can only happen if poverty is reduced, since having children in a poor family gives the family more chances to make money, or more hands on the farm, more likelihood that come children will survive to support the family and support the parents in old age.
  3. Reduce excessive meat consumption – as countries develop they often idealize a more western consumption happen, which includes eating more eat and less grain.  Animals are not efficient, and each level you go up the food chain means less food.  Not all animals are equal but it can take up to 10 tons of grain to create one ton of meat.  Therefore, if you ate the grain instead of the beef you could support many more people off the same amount of agricultural land.
  4. Reverse biofuel technology policies – there is no reason that using food to propel our cars is more sustainable.  Getting energy from the food is not very efficient, and even creating the food in the first place uses a lot of land, water and energy.  It would be better to reduce our reliance on car and come up with clean energy such as solar or wind.

Final Thoughts – I think this is great read for anybody interested in food, issues related to poverty or anything related to overpopulation.  Food scarcity isn’t just about hungry people or those dying of starvation… it affects everyone and almost every aspect of our society.  Food is related to energy use, clean water, pollution, the economy, political stability and many other things we consider important on a daily basis.

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About Amanda

Hi, I’m Amanda! Originally from Ottawa, Canada, I am currently living with my partner (Steve) in Sucre, Bolivia for the next year. I work in the unique space between industrial design and international development – but what does that even mean? I’m passionate about working WITH marginalized communities in a way that utilizes design to improve the lives of different types of people around the world. I have worked, studied, traveled, and researched on every continent (except Antarctica), and most recently I lived in Ghana, Bangladesh and Nepal. I love exploring new cultures and learning more about myself along the way.
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