Today there are three sources of growing demand for food: population growth; rising affluence and the associated jump in meat, milk, and egg consumption; and the use of grain to produce fuel for cars.
In early January, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that its Food Price Index had reached an all-time high in December, exceeding the previous record set during the 2007-08 price surge. Even more alarming, on February 3rd, the FAO announced that the December record had been broken in January as prices climbed an additional 3 percent.
Will this rise in food prices continue in the months ahead? In all likelihood we will see further rises that will take the world into uncharted territory in the relationship between food prices and political stability.
Everything now depends on this year’s harvest. Lowering food prices to a more comfortable level will require a bumper grain harvest, one much larger than the record harvest of 2008 that combined with the economic recession to end the 2007-08 grain price climb.
If the world has a poor harvest this year, food prices will rise to previously unimaginable levels. Food riots will multiply, political unrest will spread and governments will fall. The world is now one poor harvest away from chaos in world grain markets.
Climate change seems to have fallen off the political map lately. But it remains the urgent issue of our time. Indeed, it is the issue that will determine “our time.”
Several books released this year reflect this reality. And yes, reading them can be grim going. There are no requisite Hollywood endings, only monumental problems, from the highest melting mountain glacier to the deepest toxic dung lagoon (the proverbial pile of poo) of the animal factories. There are rising oceans, onerous heat, desertification, walloping storms, vanishing forests and depleted soil — enough pestilence and disaster for a Bible update.
But weighted as they are with mind-boggling issues, and warnings that we must attend to our planet or veer into disaster by 2020 or 2030, they do offer hope, opening up new ways of thinking and illuminating pathways forward.
Lester Brown founded the Earth Policy Institute and Worldwatch Institute
Cars promise mobility, and in a largely rural setting they provide it. But in an urbanizing world, where more than half of us live in cities, there is an inherent conflict between the automobile and the city. After a point, as their numbers multiply, automobiles provide not mobility but immobility, as well as increased air pollution and the health problems that come with it. Urban transport systems based on a combination of rail lines, bus lines, bicycle pathways, and pedestrian walkways offer the best of all possible worlds in providing mobility, low-cost transportation, and a healthy urban environment.
Last week, President William J. Clinton made a stop in Chicago to address the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment at its annual Climate Leadership Summit. Since leaving office, President Clinton has spent his time focusing on issues that, to him, make a difference. One that the former president has chosen to tackle is the environment, and in his opinion, the economy and the environment go hand in hand.
In his view, the future is green and in relation to the economy, green is gold. Count him among those who believe we can best increase economic activity by investing in the new emerging energy economy.