Q&A: World Faces Catastrophe

A crisis is looming: grain prices reach new records, governments around the world ban their food exports to ease domestic riots and the number of hungry people grows dramatically. To learn more about the underlining causes of a possible food crisis, which countries might be affected and what governments can do to alleviate the situation, NEWSWEEK's Ana Elena Azpurua talked with Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, based in Washington. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Are we on the verge of a food catastrophe?
Lester Brown:
It depends on how you define it. The number of hungry people in the world is rising very rapidly. We don't know exactly how much because it takes a year or two before all the data is collected and compiled by [the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization] in Rome, but we are looking at an enormous increase in hunger and potential starvation in the months ahead. We might be on the edge of a catastrophe. The new harvest is still some months away and we are already having riots and fights. My concern is that this could increase the number of failing states in the world, creating even more instability.

Why are we feeling a food shortage now?
There are a number of forces that work on the demand side. We are adding 70 million people a year. There are three or four billion who want to move up the food chain. They want to consume more milk, eggs, meat. On the supply side, water scarcities are spreading in many countries, especially in China, India and Pakistan but also in countries in the Middle East and North Africa. And then the big thing, of course, is the enormous diversion of grain into ethanol distilleries in the United States. In fact, the growth this year in the grain going into ethanol distilleries in the United States exceeds the worldwide growth in demand for grain for food and feed.

What countries or regions will be more affected by a food crisis?
It would be those low and middle-income countries that import a substantial part of their grain supply. This includes the two most populous countries in the world: India and China. Pakistan, being another very large country, might also be affected. Certainly, countries across North of Africa [will be affected], from Morocco to Egypt, because they all import a substantial share of their grain supply. Iraq and Afghanistan will also feel the crisis.

Could we say that India and China will be on the top of the list?
They will be affected, in the sense that they are the most populous countries and food prices have risen dramatically in both, creating a certain amount of social unrest. Other, small countries spread around Africa, particularly those that are heavily depending on food aid, will be very directly affected because the rise of commodity prices of grain effectively reduces the budgets of the world food programs—USAID's budget for example. A lot of people are going to be forced to tighten their belts when they don't have any notches left. The people who will be most affected are those who are on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder. These are people who even before this doubling of wheat, corn and rice prices were just sort of hanging on there by their fingertips. Now many of them will lose their grip and began to fall off.

Will the United States feel the crisis?
Not nearly as much as low-income countries, because if you buy a loaf of bread in the U.S. for three dollars, the value of the wheat in that bread may only be 30 cents. Therefore, if the price of wheat doubles then the price of bread goes from $3 to $3.30, which is only a 10 percent increase.  If you live in India or Pakistan and you buy wheat as wheat and the price doubles, the cost to your food doubles.

What can governments do to alleviate the food crisis?
The one government that could make a huge difference very quickly, if it wanted to, is the U.S. government. If the U.S. announces that the amount of grain going into ethanol distilleries will be limited until the price stabilizes at a more reasonable level, then we could also do something. But, at this moment, I don't see any indication that the leadership in Washington is prepared to do anything.

You've been working on food security for a long time. Are you frustrated at how things are playing out?
Yes, because politicians have not been paying enough attention to the food situation. They keep thinking that the growth in the food supply that have characterized the last past century will continue in the future, when in many cases it will not. There is not enough water or land. Eventually, those things begin to make it difficult to expand the food supply fast enough to keep up with demand and when you add, on top of that, the enormous diversion of grain in the U.S. to ethanol distillers to produce fuel for cars, then you got a serious problem. I don't see any short-term solution.