1PUSHING BEYOND THE EARTH’S LIMITS
Lester R. Brown, President
Earth Policy Institute
When historians look back on our times, the last half of the twentieth
century will undoubtedly be labeled ―the era of growth.‖ Take population. In 1950,
there were 2.5 billion people in the world. By 2000, there were 6 billion. There has
been more growth in world population since 1950 than during the preceding 4
Recent growth in the world economy is even more remarkable. During the
last half of the twentieth century, the world economy expanded sevenfold. Most
striking of all, the growth in the world economy during the single year of 2000
exceeded that of the entire nineteenth century. Economic growth, now the goal of
governments everywhere, has become the status quo. Stability is considered a
2departure from the norm.
As the economy grows, its demands are outgrowing the earth, exceeding
many of the planet’s natural capacities. While the world economy multiplied
sevenfold in just 50 years, the earth’s natural life-support systems remained essentially the same. Water use tripled, but the capacity of the hydrological system
to produce fresh water through evaporation changed little. The demand for seafood
increased fivefold, but the sustainable yield of oceanic fisheries was unchanged.
Fossil fuel burning raised carbon dioxide (CO) emissions fourfold, but the capacity 2of nature to absorb COchanged little, leading to a buildup of CO in the 2 2
atmosphere and a rise in the earth’s temperature. As human demands surpass the
3earth’s natural capacities, expanding food production becomes more difficult.
Losing Agricultural Momentum
Environmentalists have been saying for years that if the environmental
trends of recent decades continued the world would one day be in trouble. What
was not clear was what form the trouble would take and when it would occur. It
now seems likely to take the form of tightening food supplies, and within the next
few years. Indeed, China’s forays into the world market in early 2004 to buy 8
million tons of wheat could mark the beginning of the global shift from an era of
4grain surpluses to one of grain scarcity.
World grain production is a basic indicator of dietary adequacy at the
individual level and of overall food security at the global level. After nearly tripling
from 1950 to 1996, the grain harvest stayed flat for seven years in a row, through
2003, showing no increase at all. And in each of the last four of those years,
production fell short of consumption. The shortfalls of nearly 100 million tons in
52002 and again in 2003 were the largest on record.
With consumption exceeding production for four years, world grain stocks
dropped to the lowest level in 30 years. (See Figure 1–1.) The last time stocks were this low, in 1972–74, wheat and rice prices doubled. Importing countries competed
1 Excerpted from Lester R. Brown, Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Scarcity Challenge in an
Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures (W.W. Norton & Co., NY: 2005), forthcoming.
2 vigorously for inadequate supplies. A politics of scarcity emerged—with some
6countries, such as the United States, restricting exports.
Figure 1-1. World Grain Stocks as Days of Consumption, 1960-
In 2004 a combination of stronger grain prices at planting time and the best
weather in a decade yielded a substantially larger harvest for the first time in eight
years. Yet even with a harvest that was up 124 million tons from that in 2003, the
world still consumed all the grain it produced, leaving none to rebuild stocks. If
7stocks cannot be rebuilt in a year of exceptional weather, when can they?
From 1950 to 1984 world grain production expanded faster than population,
raising the grain produced per person from 250 kilograms to the historical peak of
339 kilograms, an increase of 34 percent. This positive development initially
reflected recovery from the disruption of World War II, and then later solid
technological advances. The rising tide of food production lifted all ships, largely
eradicating hunger in some countries and substantially reducing it in many
Since 1984, however, grain harvest growth has fallen behind that of
population, dropping the amount of grain produced per person to 308 kilograms in
2004, down 9 percent from its historic high point. Fortunately, part of the global
decline was offset by the increasing efficiency with which feedgrains are converted
into animal protein, thanks to the growing use of soybean meal as a protein
supplement. Accordingly, the deterioration in nutrition has not been as great as the
9bare numbers would suggest.
The one region where the decline in grain produced per person is unusually
steep and where it is taking a heavy human toll is Africa. In addition to the nutrient
depletion of soils and the steady shrinkage in grainland per person from population
growth in recent decades, Africa must now contend with the loss of adults to AIDS,
which is depleting the rural work force and undermining agriculture. From 1960
through 1981, grain production per person in sub-Saharan Africa ranged between
140 and 160 kilograms per person. (See Figure 1–2.) Then from 1980 through 2001
it fluctuated largely between 120 and 140 kilograms. And in two of the last three
years, it has been below 120 kilograms—dropping to a level that leaves millions of
10Africans on the edge of starvation.
Figure 1-2. Grain Production per Person in Sub-
Saharan Africa, 1960-2004
Several long-standing environmental trends are contributing to the global
loss of agricultural momentum. Among these are the cumulative effects of soil
erosion on land productivity, the loss of cropland to desertification, and the
accelerating conversion of cropland to nonfarm uses. All are taking a toll, although
their relative roles vary among countries.
Now two newer environmental trends—falling water tables and rising
temperatures—are slowing the growth in world food production, as described later in this chapter. (See also Chapters 6 and 7.) In addition, farmers are faced with a
shrinking backlog of unused technology. The high-yielding varieties of wheat, rice,
and corn that were developed a generation or so ago are now widely used in
industrial and developing countries alike. They doubled and tripled yields, but
there have not been any dramatic advances in the genetic yield potential of grains
The use of fertilizer, which removed nutrient constraints and helped the new
high-yielding varieties realize their full genetic potential during the last half-century,
has now plateaued or even declined slightly in key food-producing countries.
Among these are the United States, countries in Western Europe, Japan, and now
possibly China as well. Meanwhile, the rapid growth in irrigation that characterized
much of the last half-century has also slowed. Indeed, in some countries the
12irrigated area is shrinking.
The bottom line is that it is now more difficult for farmers to keep up with
the growing demand for grain. The rise in world grainland productivity, which
averaged over 2 percent a year from 1950 to 1990, fell to scarcely 1 percent a year
13from 1990 to 2000. This will likely drop further in the years immediately ahead.
If the rise in land productivity continues to slow and if population continues
to grow by 70 million or more per year, governments may begin to define national
security in terms of food shortages, rising food prices, and the emerging politics of
scarcity. Food insecurity may soon eclipse terrorism as the overriding concern of
Growth: The Environmental Fallout
The world economy, as now structured, is making excessive demands on the
earth. Evidence of this can be seen in collapsing fisheries, shrinking forests,
expanding deserts, rising CO levels, eroding soils, rising temperatures, falling 2
water tables, melting glaciers, deteriorating grasslands, rising seas, rivers that are
running dry, and disappearing species.
Nearly all these environmentally destructive trends adversely affect the world
food prospect. For example, even a modest rise of 1 degree Fahrenheit in
temperature in mountainous regions can substantially increase rainfall and
decrease snowfall. The result is more flooding during the rainy season and less
snowmelt to feed rivers during the dry season, when farmers need irrigation 15 water.
Or consider the collapse of fisheries and the associated leveling off of the
oceanic fish catch. During the last half-century the fivefold growth in the world fish
catch that satisfied much of the growing demand for animal protein pushed oceanic
fisheries to their limits and beyond. Now, in this new century, we cannot expect
any growth at all in the catch. All future growth in animal protein supplies can only
come from the land, putting even more pressure on the earth’s land and water
Farmers have long had to cope with the cumulative effects of soil erosion on
land productivity, the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses, and the encroachment of
deserts on cropland. Now they are also being battered by higher temperatures and
crop-scorching heat waves. Likewise, farmers who once had assured supplies of
irrigation water are now forced to abandon irrigation as aquifers are depleted and
wells go dry. Collectively this array of environmental trends is making it even more
difficult for farmers to feed adequately the 70 million people added to our ranks
Until recently, the economic effects of environmental trends, such as
overfishing, overpumping, and overplowing, were largely local. Among the many
examples are the collapse of the cod fishery off Newfoundland from overfishing that
cost Canada 40,000 jobs, the halving of Saudi Arabia’s wheat harvest as a result of aquifer depletion, and the shrinking grain harvest of Kazakhstan as wind erosion
18claimed half of its cropland.
Now, if world food supplies tighten, we may see the first global economic
effect of environmentally destructive trends. Rising food prices could be the first
economic indicator to signal serious trouble in the deteriorating relationship
between the global economy and the earth’s ecosystem. The short-lived 20-percent
rise in world grain prices in early 2004 may turn out to be a warning tremor before
Two New Challenges
As world demand for food has tripled, so too has the use of water for
irrigation. As a result, the world is incurring a vast water deficit. But because this
deficit takes the form of aquifer overpumping and falling water tables, it is nearly
20invisible. Falling water levels are often not discovered until wells go dry.
The world water deficit is historically recent. Only within the last half-
century, with the advent of powerful diesel and electrically driven pumps, has the
world had the pumping capacity to deplete aquifers. The worldwide spread of these
pumps since the late 1960s and the drilling of millions of wells, mostly for
irrigation, have in many cases pushed water withdrawal beyond the aquifer’s
recharge from rainfall. As a result, water tables are now falling in countries that are
home to more than half of the world’s people, including China, India, and the
21United States—the three largest grain producers.
Groundwater levels are falling throughout the northern half of China. Under
the North China Plain, they are dropping one to three meters (3–10 feet) a year. In
India, they are falling in most states, including the Punjab, the country’s
breadbasket. And in the United States, water levels are falling throughout the
southern Great Plains and the Southwest. Overpumping creates a false sense of
food security: it enables us to satisfy growing food needs today, but it almost
22guarantees a decline in food production tomorrow when the aquifer is depleted.
With 1,000 tons of water required to produce 1 ton of grain, food security is
closely tied to water security. Seventy percent of world water use is for irrigation,
20 percent is used by industry, and 10 percent is for residential purposes. As
urban water use rises even as aquifers are being depleted, farmers are faced with a 23 shrinking share of a shrinking water supply.
At the same time that water tables are falling, temperatures are rising. As
concern about climate change has intensified, scientists have begun to focus on the
precise relationship between temperature and crop yields. Crop ecologists at the
International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and at the U.S. Department
of Agriculture (USDA) have jointly concluded that with each 1-degree Celsius rise in
temperature during the growing season, the yields of wheat, rice, and corn drop by
Over the last three decades, the earth’s average temperature has climbed by
nearly 0.7 degrees Celsius, with the four warmest years on record coming during
the last six years. In 2002, record-high temperatures and drought shrank grain
harvests in both India and the United States. In 2003, it was Europe that bore the
brunt of the intense heat. The record-breaking August heat wave that claimed
35,000 lives in eight nations withered grain harvests in virtually every country from
25France in the west through the Ukraine in the east.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that during this
century, with a business-as-usual scenario, the earth’s average temperature will
rise by 1.4–5.8 degrees Celsius (2–10 degrees Fahrenheit). These projections are for
the earth’s average temperature, but the rise is expected to be much greater over
land than over the oceans, in the higher latitudes than in the equatorial regions,
and in the interior of continents than in the coastal regions. This suggests that
increases far in excess of the projected average are likely for regions such as the
North American breadbasket—the region defined by the Great Plains of the United
States and Canada and the U.S. Corn Belt. Today’s farmers face the prospect of
26temperatures higher than any generation of farmers since agriculture began.
The Japan Syndrome
When studying the USDA world grain database more than a decade ago, I
noted that if countries are already densely populated when they begin to
industrialize rapidly, three things happen in quick succession to make them
heavily dependent on grain imports: grain consumption climbs as incomes rise,
grainland area shrinks, and grain production falls. The rapid industrialization that
drives up demand simultaneously shrinks the cropland area. The inevitable result
is that grain imports soar. Within a few decades, countries can go from being
essentially self-sufficient to importing 70 percent or more of their grain. I call this
the ―Japan syndrome‖ because I first recognized this sequence of events in Japan,
27a country that today imports 70 percent of its grain.
In a fast-industrializing country, grain consumption rises rapidly. Initially,
rapidly rising incomes permit more direct consumption of grain, but before long the
growth shifts to the greater indirect consumption of grain in the form of grain-
intensive livestock products, such as pork, poultry, and eggs.
Once rapid industrialization is under way, it is usually only a matter of years
before the grainland area begins to shrink. Among the trends leading to this are the
abandonment of marginal cropland, the loss of rural labor needed for multiple
cropping, and a shift of grainland to the production of fruits, vegetables, and other
First, as a country industrializes and modernizes, cropland is used for industrial and residential developments. As automobile ownership spreads, the
construction of roads, highways, and parking lots also takes valuable land away
from agriculture. In situations where farmers find themselves with fragments of
land that are too small to be economically cultivated, they often simply abandon
their plots, seeking employment elsewhere.
Second, as rapid industrialization pulls labor out of the countryside, it often leads to less double cropping, a practice that depends on quickly harvesting one
grain crop once it is ripe and immediately preparing the seedbed for the next crop.
With the loss of workers as young people migrate to cities, the capacity to do this
Third, as incomes rise, diets diversify, generating demand for more fruits and vegetables. This in turn leads farmers to shift land from grain to these more
profitable, high-value crops.
Japan was essentially self-sufficient in grain when its grain harvested area peaked in 1955. Since then the grainland area has shrunk by more than half. The
multiple-cropping index has dropped from nearly 1.4 crops per hectare per year in
1960 to scarcely 1 today. Some six years after Japan’s grain area began to shrink,
the shrinkage overrode the rise in land productivity and overall production began to
decline. With grain consumption climbing and production falling, grain imports
soared. (See Figure 1–3.) By 1983 imports accounted for 70 percent of Japan’s
28 grain consumption, a level they remain at today.
A similar analysis for South Korea and Taiwan shows a pattern that is
almost identical with that of Japan. In both cases, the decline in grain area was
followed roughly a decade later by a decline in production. Perhaps this should not
be surprising, since the forces at work in the two countries are exactly the same as
in Japan. And, like Japan, both South Korea and Taiwan now import some 70
29percent of their total grain supply.
Based on the sequence of events in these three countries that affected grain production, consumption, and imports—the Japan syndrome—it was easy to
anticipate the precipitous decline in China’s grain production that began in 1998
(as described in the next section). The obvious question now is which other
countries will enter a period of declining grain production because of the same
combination of forces? Among those that come to mind are India, Indonesia,
30Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, and Mexico.
Of particular concern is India, home to nearly 1.1 billion people. In recent
years, its economic growth has accelerated, averaging 6–7 percent a year. This
growth, only slightly slower than that of China, is also beginning to consume
cropland. So, too, are the needs of the 18 million people added each year to India’s
population. In addition to the grainland shrinkage associated with the Japan
syndrome, the extensive overpumping of aquifers in India—which will one day 31 deprive farmers of irrigation water—will also reduce grain production.
Exactly when rapid industrialization in a country that is densely populated
will translate into a decline in grain production is difficult to anticipate. Once
production turns downward, countries often try to reverse the trend. But the
difficulty of achieving this can be seen in Japan, where a rice support price that is
32four times the world market price has failed to expand production.
The China Factor
China—the largest country in the world—is now beginning to experience the
Japan syndrome. Perhaps the most alarming recent world agricultural event is the
precipitous fall in China’s grain production since 1998. After an impressive climb
from 90 million tons in 1950 to a peak of 392 million tons in 1998, China’s grain
harvest fell in four of the next five years, dropping to 322 million tons in 2003. For
perspective, this decline of 70 million tons exceeds the entire grain harvest of
Behind this harvest shrinkage of 18 percent from 1998 to 2003 is a decline
in grain harvested area of 16 percent. The conversion of cropland to nonfarm uses,
the shift of grainland to higher-value fruits and vegetables, and, in some of the
more prosperous regions, a loss of the rural labor needed for multiple cropping are
34all shrinking China’s grainland—just as they did Japan’s.
In addition, China is also losing grainland to the expansion of deserts and
the loss of irrigation water, due to both aquifer depletion and diversion of water to
cities. (See Chapter 8 for further discussion of these pressures.) Unfortunately for
China, none of the forces that are shrinking the grainland area are easily countered.
Between 1998 and 2003, five consecutive harvest shortfalls dropped China’s once massive stocks of grain to their lowest level in 30 years. With stocks now
largely depleted, China’s leaders—all of them survivors of the great famine of 1959–
61, when 30 million people starved to death—are worried. For them, food security
35is not a trivial issue.
Not surprisingly, China desperately wants to reverse the recent fall in grain
production. In March 2004, Beijing announced an emergency supplemental
appropriation, expanding the 2004 agricultural budget by one fifth ($3.6 billion) in
an effort to encourage farmers to grow more grain. The support price for the early
rice crop in 2004 was raised by 21 percent. While these two emergency measures
did reverse the grain harvest decline temporarily, whether they can reverse the
36trend over the longer term is doubtful.
When China turns to the outside world for commodities, it can overwhelm
world markets. For example, 10 years ago China was self-sufficient in soybeans. In
2004, it imported 22 million tons—quickly eclipsing Japan, the previous leading
37importer with 5 million tons.
When wheat prices within China started climbing in the fall of 2003, the
government dispatched wheat-buying delegations to Australia, Canada, and the
United States. They purchased 8 million tons, and overnight China became the
38world’s largest wheat importer.
China is a fascinating case study because of its sheer size and extraordinary
pace of industrial development. It has been the world’s fastest-growing economy
since 1980. The economic effects of this massive expansion can be seen in the rest
of the world, but China is also putting enormous pressure on its own natural
resource base. In the deteriorating relationship between the global economy and 39 the earth’s ecosystem, China is unfortunately on the cutting edge.
With water, the northern half of China is literally drying out. Water tables
are falling, rivers are going dry, and lakes are disappearing. In a 748-page
assessment of China’s water situation, the World Bank sounds the alarm. It
foresees ―catastrophic consequences for future generations‖ if water use and supply
cannot quickly be brought back into balance. More immediately, if China cannot
quickly restore a balance between the consumption of water and the sustainable
yield of its aquifers and rivers, its grain imports will likely soar in the years
For people not living in China, it is difficult to visualize how fast deserts are
expanding. It can be likened to a war, yet it is not invading armies that are claiming
the territory, but expanding deserts. Old deserts are advancing and new ones are
forming, like guerrilla forces striking unexpectedly, forcing Beijing to fight on
several fronts. Throughout northern and western China, some 24,000 villages have
either been abandoned or partly depopulated as drifting sand has made farming
On the food front, the issue within China is not hunger and starvation, as
the nation now has a substantial cushion between consumption levels and minimal
nutrition needs. Rather, the concern is rising food prices and the effect that this
could have on political stability. China’s leaders are striving for a delicate balance
between food prices that will encourage production in the countryside but maintain
42stability in the cities.
As noted earlier, smaller countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan can
import 70 percent or more of their grain, but if China turns to the outside world to
meet even 20 percent of its grain needs, which would be close to 80 million tons, it
will provide a huge challenge for grain exporters. The resulting rise in world grain
prices could destabilize governments in low-income, grain-importing countries. The
entire world thus has a stake in China’s efforts to stabilize its agricultural resource
The Challenge Ahead
It is difficult to overestimate the challenges the world faces over the next
half-century. Not only are there a projected 3 billion more people to feed, but there
are also an estimated 5 billion people who want to diversify their diets by moving
up the food chain, eating more grain-intensive livestock products. On the supply
side, the world’s farmers must contend with traditional challenges, such as soil
erosion and the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses, but now also with newer trends
such as falling water tables, the diversion of irrigation water to cities, and rising
At the World Food Summit in 1996 in Rome, 185 governments plus the
European Community agreed that the number of hungry people needed to be
reduced by half by 2015. Between 1990–92 and 1995–97, the number did decline
by some 37 million from 817 million to 780 million, or over 7 million a year—but
this was much less than the 20 million per year needed to reach the 2015 target.
And then things got even worse. From 1995–97 to 1999–2001, the number of
hungry people in the world began to increase, rising by 18 million to 798 million.
This increase in hunger is not too surprising, given the lack of growth in the world
45grain harvest from 1996 to 2003.
Against this backdrop of a slowly deteriorating food situation, there is the
prospect that the Japan syndrome will soon take effect in other countries,
shrinking their grain harvests. Is India’s grain production likely to peak and start
declining in the next few years, much as China’s did after 1998? Or will India be
able to hold off the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses and the depletion of aquifers
long enough to eradicate most of its hunger? There are signs that the shrinkage in
its grain area, which is a precursor to the shrinkage of overall production, may
Because aquifer depletion is recent, it is taking agricultural analysts into
uncharted territory. It is clear, for example, that water tables are falling
simultaneously in many countries and at an accelerating rate. Less clear is exactly
when aquifers will be depleted and precisely how much this will reduce food
levels on 2If the climate models projecting the effect of rising atmospheric CO
the earth’s temperature are anywhere near the mark, we are facing a future of
higher temperatures. We do not know exactly how fast temperatures will rise, but
in a world of rising temperatures, there is reason to be concerned about world food
On another front, in Africa the spread of HIV/AIDS is threatening the food
security of the entire continent as the loss of able-bodied field workers shrinks
harvests. In sub-Saharan Africa, disease begets hunger and hunger begets disease.
In some villages, high HIV infection rates have claimed an entire generation of
young adults, leaving only the elderly and children. Without a major intervention
from the outside world, the continuing spread of the virus and hunger that is
cutting life expectancy in half in some countries could take Africa back to the Dark
In a world where the food economy has been shaped by an abundance of
cheap oil, tightening world oil supplies will further complicate efforts to eradicate
hunger. Modern mechanized agriculture requires large amounts of fuel for tractors,
irrigation pumps, and grain drying. Rising oil prices may soon translate into rising
As we look at the prospect of swelling grain imports for Asia, where half the
world’s people live, and for Africa, the second most populous continent, we have to
ask where the grain will come from. The countries that dominated world grain
exports for the last half-century—the United States, Canada, Australia, and
48Argentina—may not be able to export much beyond current levels.
U.S. grain production, though it has reached 350 million tons several times
over the last two decades, has never risen much beyond this. U.S. grain exports,
which two decades ago were running around 100 million tons a year, have
averaged only 80 million tons in recent years as rising domestic grain use has more
than absorbed any production gains. The potential for expansion in both Canada
and Australia is constrained by relatively low rainfall in their grain-growing regions.
Argentina’s grain production has actually declined over the last several years as
49land has shifted to soybeans.
By contrast, countries such as Russia and the Ukraine—where population
has stabilized or is declining and where there is some unrealized agricultural
production potential—should be able to expand their grain exports at least modestly. However, the low yields that are characteristic of northerly countries that
depend heavily on spring wheat, as Russia does, will likely prevent Russia from
becoming a major grain exporter. The Ukraine has a somewhat more promising
potential if it can provide farmers with the economic incentives they need to expand
50production. So, too, do Poland and Romania.
Yet the likely increases in exports from these countries are small compared
with the prospective import needs of China and, potentially, India. It is worth
noting that the drop in China’s grain harvest of 70 million tons over five years is
51equal to the grain exports of Canada, Australia, and Argentina combined.
Argentina can expand its already large volume of soybean exports, but its
growth potential for grain exports is limited by the availability of arable land. The
only country that has the potential to substantially expand the world grainland
area is Brazil with its vast cerrado, a savannah-like region that lies on the southern
edge of the Amazon Basin. (See Chapter 9.) Because its soils require the heavy use
of fertilizer and because transporting grain from Brazil’s remote interior to distant
world markets is costly, it would likely take substantially higher world grain prices
for Brazil to emerge as a major exporter. Beyond this, would a vast expansion of
cropland in Brazil’s interior be sustainable? Or is its vulnerability to soil erosion
likely to prevent it from making a long-term contribution? And what will be the 52 price paid in the irretrievable loss of ecosystems and plant and animal species?
Ensuring future food security is a formidable challenge. Can we check the HIV epidemic before it so depletes Africa’s adult population that starvation stalks
the land? Can we arrest the steady shrinkage in grainland area per person,
eliminate the overgrazing that is converting grasslands to desert, and reduce soil
erosion losses below the natural rate of new soil formation? Can we simultaneously
halt the advancing deserts that are engulfing cropland, check the rising
temperature that threatens to shrink harvests, arrest the fall in water tables, and
protect cropland from careless conversion to nonfarm uses?