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‘Crop yields can’t be increased anymore: world hunger imminent’ – eco-analyst

With the population of 7 billion people living on planet Earth – and that number could increase tenfold in the coming decades – the dwindling resources of our world become a major concern, for the poor as well as the rich nations. Scientists warn of incoming famine of unprecedented proportions; water is the next gold and resource to be fighting for. Humanity demands more and more, but will mankind be able to survive at time when resources we grew used to come to an end? We discuss these perils with prominent environmental analyst, founder and president of Earth Policy Institute. Lester Brown is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Lester Brown, environmental analyst, founder and president of Earth Policy Institute, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us. “The world is on a verge of a massive, never before seen hunger crisis” - this is your prediction. But food production levels are as high as ever, and according to the UN, third of all food produced is never even consumed. Are you exaggerating?

Lester Brown: No, unfortunately, I’m not, and I wish I were. One would think that by now, with all the technological advances in agriculture and food processing and distribution, we would have been able to virtually eradicate hunger in the world - but the unfortunate reality is that there are as many hungry people in the world today as when I started working on these issues some 40 years ago.

SS:You’re also warning countries, developed countries, that they’ve exhausted their land resources and are losing the ability to produce crop. However, there are GMOs which are trumpeted as the answer to world hunger. Could they save the day?

LB: GMOs so far has been used only to alter the characteristics of grains, soybeans or what have you. There’s not a single record of genetically modified crop raising yields. There’s not a single case where genetic modification has been successful in raising yields.

SS:But do you think it could save the day if GMOs were used to actually produce more food?

LB: Well, the question is what do you do? Because, we’ve had a good half century of advanced plant breeding and it turns out the plant breeders have done virtually everything we could think of to do. You make a list of things you can do to raise yields - and plant breeders have done that. Once you’ve done that, and once you’re pressing against the limits of photosynthesis - which is what we are now doing in many parts of the world where yields are high - there’s not much more you can do.

SS:Ok. There’s another problem, which is migration - a UN expert panel on climate change has said: “The search for food and water will cause mass migration”. What do you think, where will all these people go? Are we thinking America, Europe? I mean, places, where there is food?

LB: Clearly, the net migration rates in the world favor North America because of its resources, its abundance of food and so forth - but at some point, we run up against water constraints. And indeed, in the world today, farmers are using irrigation water at a rate that cannot be sustained. That is, they are over-pumping aquifers, and lowering, or depleting the underground water resources. Once those aquifers are depleted, then the rate of pumping cannot exceed the rate of recharge from rainfall.

SS:Right, so, you’ve just brought up water - obviously it is something that you can’t really produce. There’s already tension between Egypt and Ethiopia over the resources of the Nile, between Israel and Palestine, between countries in central Asia. Even between the states within the United States - do you feel like the next big war will be actually fought over water?

LB: It’s always a possibility, but I would hope that we would instead of devoting resources to war, we would devote the resources to increasing the efficiency of water use, for example, designing more water-efficient irrigation systems, breeding crops that are less water-demanding and could do better in arid areas. So, there are still quite a few things that we can do, that’s within the range of modern science and that we have not yet done to maximize the efficiency of world water use.

SS:But besides the world water use, there are rich Middle East countries that have already heavily invested in desalination plants. Do you think technology advance will be up to the challenge of dwindling resources?

LB: Well, desalting seawater is technology that has been around for some time. The cost of desalting seawater is affordable by urban communities, because they don’t use that much water. But farmers, using irrigation to produce food simply cannot afford to use desalted seawater. The desalted seawater would cost more than the total value of their crops - so it’s a non-starter. We have to concentrate on increasing of efficiency of water use in agriculture as well as throughout the economy, but agriculture’s a big place, because 80% of the water that we use in the world is used to for irrigation.

SS:I want to talk also about excessive waste of water that actually causes lack of resources and eventually tensions. I mean, if you look at Syria and you look at Yemen, the tensions there kind of grew from lack of water into an open civil war. So, I’m thinking, how come the West isn’t taking this seriously? What starts as an ecological problem actually becomes a security problem after a while. Why aren’t the Western countries treating climate change as a security problem already?

LB: I think they are. The most recent studies by the international community and by the U.S. Department of Defense, for example, have identified climate change as a major threat to future security. Some have argued that it is now the principal threat to our future security. It’s not armed aggression from some other country around the world, it is climate change itself. We have to keep in mind that agriculture as it exists in the world today evolved over 11-thousand year period of rather remarkable climate stability. So, the agricultural system we have today is designed to maximize production with that climate pattern. But that climate pattern is now changing, and with each passing year the crop production and the climate system are more and more out of sync - and this makes it more difficult for farmers to expand production fast enough.

SS:I’m going to say something now that may sound like a bit of a stretch, but poverty and hunger, they really could push young people into the arms of extremism, right. What do you think, if the world actually cured hunger, could it also cure things like terror and extremism?

LB: Well, it would certainly make life much more pleasant for close to a billion people, who do not get enough food, and that billion consists largely of children. They’re not getting enough food, they’re not well enough nourished to develop their full physical and mental capacity, and that’s sad, when you realized that by the time they finish childhood, they’re already handicapped in their ability to learn. We have not begun to look at the economics of childhood nutrition, of childhood malnutrition, as we should - because if we did, we would see that we should be redefining our security budget and shifting resources from the military to food security.

SS:You know, according to your calculations, it says that if India and China simply adopt the Western model of economic growth and personal lifestyle - the world won’t be able to support that due to sheer number of people. Like, if Chinese are going to drive as much as the Americans, they would have to earn more cars than the number that already exists in the world. Do you see governments of those countries looking for an alternative?

LB: Those countries and the U.S. as well - I mean, we’re seeing rather substantial shift in the U.S. energy economy at the moment. We’re seeing cars moving away from gasoline and toward the use of solar and wind-generated electricity. The future belongs to electric cars, and the fuel source for the energy sector will not be oil, it will be solar and wind energy in the future. We’re seeing the same thing with buildings. Anyone, who is building a house today and puts a solar panel on the rooftop - can get electricity from that panel at about half the cost they would pay to the local utility if they bought their electricity from the utility. This is beginning to change. There are some builders in the U.S., the ones who build thousands of new homes a year, who automatically put solar panels on the rooftop, so that most of electricity will come from the solar sources. This is a real attraction in selling homes, because if you can buy a house to live, where there’s no electricity bill, because electricity is coming from a rooftop - that’s a strong incentive to buy solar powered homes.

SS:So, we were just talking about, you know, how behavior changes once we ran out of our usual resources. You’re saying, like, you’re going to buy a house with no electricity but it’s going to be so much more attractive because the power will be coming down from the sun; but every behavioral shift takes decades to settle in. I mean, look at how many years it took to make smoking uncool or make recycling garbage a household norm, in the West, at least. Do we have enough time? 20, 30 years, to actually change our living habits?

LB: Time is our scarcest resource. We’re going to have to move much faster than we have in the past. The exciting thing about using solar panels to produce electricity is that this is largely market-driven; this is a profitable thing to do. If you want to generate electricity today, and you’re the utility, you don’t build coal power plants. You build solar farms and use electricity from the sun. This is clearly the future, and it is moving fast. In recent book that we’re going to be publishing in a few weeks, I noted that we’re going to see a half-century of change, compressed into the next decade. That is, we’re entering a period of very rapid change and it’s largely because it is market driven. It is profitable now to invest in solar panels, whether you are an individual homeowner or a factory owner, or a retail outlet. Some of these companies are investing literally billions - I mean, companies like Google, for example, are investing very heavily in the new energy sources, because they see that this is the future, and the great thing about solar and wind energy is that the amount you use today has no effect on what’s available tomorrow. That is, it’s a non-depletable resource, and with oil and coal that was never the case. We always had to worry about the wells going dry and coal mines being depleted, and then we have to try to find some more. That’s not the case with solar and wind energy.

SS:Let’s talk a bit about oil, because, not long ago, you’ve actually highlighted rising oil prices as the new stress to the planet - but, you know, oil prices are going down now. Can the planet actually relax, as of now?

LB: The price of oil has fluctuated widely over the last year. I don't think it’s going to change the future of oil very much. For one thing, finding new oil is becoming very difficult. It’s in the Arctic Ocean, or it’s in the Kashagan reservoir under the Aral Sea, and the cost of doing that, whether it is off-shore oil in the Atlantic Ocean, it’s very costly to develop these resources, and increasingly, we’re going to see cutback. In fact, the major oil companies, Exxon, Shell and...I’ve forgotten which third one was in this example, but all three have cut back on their investments in developing new sources of oil, because it’s no longer economic.

SS:That’s funny you say that, because one of the reasons for falling oil prices is the U.S. shale revolution, actually. They’re actually investing a great deal in that, but shale extraction not only costs money, but the methods cause major concerns, environmental concerns: fracking causes earthquakes, methane leaks, uses harmful chemicals. Are these risks worth it?

LB: Not really. Fracking is not the answer, and we’re seeing a decline of fracking in many parts of the U.S. now. It’s because it doesn’t make economic sense anymore. If oil from fracking could compete with solar energy in cost, or wind energy cost, you at least have an economic case for continuing this. But it’s becoming difficult now for oil from fracking to compete with new energy sources.

SS:We heard this term “peak oil” for so many years, and you’re mentioning solar energy as a substitute to everything, but are we really going to run out of oil before we’ll figure out a way to substitute it with something else? The reason I’m asking is because not every country has a whole lot of sun to depend on.

LB: The amount of solar and wind energy in the world is enormous, beyond anything we can sort of imagine. One of the biggest investments in energy occurring right now is in China, where they are investing in a huge number of wind farms, and wind electric generation has overtaken nuclear power generation. It’s not just overtaken it... nuclear power is increasing like this, and wind is increasing like this - it’s really quite dramatic. We see countries like Ireland and Denmark on some days getting 40% or more of their electricity from wind - and that’s just going up very fast. It’s just the matter of how fast we can build the turbines and the solar panels to harness these super-abundant resources of energy.

SS:So you’re saying that we’re going to find in time something to replace the lack of oil, there’s no danger of that transitional period.

LB: That’s true. We’re in a situation now, where we’re looking at the future that is based only on sustainable uses of energy, not ones that run out. Oil eventually runs out, coal runs out, natural gas runs out, but solar and wind do not - and that’s their great attraction.

SS:So in a way, rising oil prices are a good thing to precipitate the development of solar and wind energy as an alternative to this costly resource, right?

LB: Right. The way it is turning out, whether oil is priced high or intermediately priced or even priced low, it doesn’t make sense anymore, because it’s a depletable resource and whenever you have depletable resources, you have to keep researching and exploring to find more, and then try to develop them - and the more you do this in the world, the more marginal the resources become, because you pick the easy ones first. You pick the, as they say, pick the low-lying fruit first and then you have to go to the other sources, and that’s when the costs begin to climb. The die is cast, oil is on the way out, solar and wind is in the process of taking over. That’s not really a debatable issue, and if you look at the growth rates of solar and wind in the world today, they’re just phenomenal.

SS:You’ve also talked about how the “market’s ecological truth” has to be spoken to people. What does that mean, exactly?

LB: Well, if you burn coal, for example, you produce a lot of air pollution, and in the U.S. that has a medical cost of tens of billions of dollars a year. I think, in the U.S., some 31,000 people died from polluted air, and in China the numbers are much higher than that, of course. So, what we need is a comprehensive cost analysis to look at all costs. Not just the cost of pumping the oil or digging the coal, or what have you.

SS:Alright, so, from what I gather: the ecological costs have to be put into the pricing of goods - how do you explain that to a consumer that can afford $2 per gallon for gas, but not $11 per gallon?

LB: I think, the point is, when you include the indirect costs, with the direct costs - the ones you were just citing - then oil is just not a viable option, and there’s no way you can change the economics of oil, because future oil production, we can say with confidence, will be more costly than past oil production, and that’s because you move into increasingly more marginal areas. With solar and wind, that’s not the case. How much solar energy you used today, how much wind energy you used today does not affect what’s left for tomorrow, because it just keeps coming all the time, and that’s one of the great advantages of renewable sources of energy, including solar and wind.

SS:You also pointed out that the global economy lacks a body of global ecological control, but I’m thinking, countries can’t even follow through on promises made at summits like Kyoto, for instance. Who will accept the decision of international body over the use of their own resources?

LB: It’s a very difficult thing to do. We’ve had who knows how many international conferences over the last half century involving resources and environment and so forth, and they’re not usually terribly successful. They may make some advantages, gains on the edge. But what we’re seeing now, is major investors in the energy sector, the Warren Buffetts of the world, not investing in oil anymore, or coal, but in solar and wind energy. this is where they see the future, and given their success as investors, you can’t really seriously challenge them. They’ve been extraordinarily successful, because they’ve been able to see the future before others had. They will lead; they will be the leaders taking us into the new energy economy that’s now beginning to unfold.

SS:Mr. Brown, thank you very much for this interesting insight. We were talking to Lester Brown, environmental analyst, founder and president of the Earth policy institute, talking about man-made climate change, the danger it poses for our planet, and what we can do to stop it. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.