Eco Books - environmental books online
Contact Us
Our Bestselling Books

Books on:

Animal Rights
Black History
Clean Energy
Eco Design
Eco History
Food and Nutrition
Genetic Engineering
Green Cities
Green Politics
Local Economics
Natural Building
Peace and Nonviolence
Simple Living
Trees and Forests

Tough Choices

Facing the Challenge of Food Scarcity

by Lester R. Brown

159 pages, paperback, W. W. Norton, 1996

Tough Choices presents unsettling facts and figures showing that we are entering a new era of food scarcity and discusses the political problems this entails.

Quotes from Tough Choices

"The thesis of this book is that food scarcity will be the defining issue of the new era now unfolding, much as ideological conflict was the defining issue of the historical era that recently ended. Even more fundamentally, Tough Choices argues that rising food prices will be the first major economic indicator to show that the world economy is on an environmentally unsustainable path.

"An early hint of the shift to an economy of scarcity came in late April 1996, when wheat prices on the Chicago Board of Trade soared above $7 a bushel, the highest level in history and more than double the price a pear earlier. Corn was selling for more than $5 a bushel, also a record. And the price of rice, the third of the three grains that provide most of humanity's food and feed, was on the way up.

"Prices were climbing because the world carryover stocks of grain had fallen to 48 days of consumption, the lowest level on record. As grain futures prices surged in the late spring, news coverage moved from the financial pages of newspapers to the front pages, reflecting an urbanized society's deepening concern about the security of its food supply.

"Even though we live in an age of high technology--space exploration, the World Wide Web, and genetic engineering-- humanity was suddenly faced in 1996 with one of the most ancient challenges: how to make it to the next harvest. In the popular media, this worrying turn of events was explained largely by drought in the winter wheat region of the Great Plains. But was weather the cause of the runaway price rises? Or was it the precipitating event, bringing a deteriorating situation into focus? Was the dramatic climb in prices in late 1995 and early 1996 a temporary matter, a blip on the price charts? Or did it signal a fundamental shift from a world food economy dominated by surpluses to one that would be dominated by scarcity?

. . .
"Water tables are now falling in major food-producing regions throughout the world. This is most dramatic where irrigated agriculture depends on fossil water, such as in the southern Great Plains of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Libya. An estimated 25 percent of U.S. irrigated cropland is watered by the unsustainable practice of drawing down underground aquifers. In Iran, as estimated on third of all cropland depends on irrigation that involves the overdrafting of groundwater. . . . In India, water tables are falling in several states, including the Punjab--the country's breadbasket. The double cropping of winter wheat and rice there has dramatically boosted the overall grain harvest since the mid- sixties, but it has also pushed water use beyond the sustainable yield of the underlying acquifer." "In China, which is trying to feed 1.2 billion increasingly affluent consumers, much of the northern part of the country is a water-deficit region, satisfying part of its needs by overpumping acquifers. Under Beijing, for example the water table has dropped from 5 meters below ground level in 1950 to more than 50 meters. . . . The water situation is particularly acute in Hebei Province, where the depletion of groundwater is shrinking the area of irrigated farmland. As the demand for water in industrial cities within the province has grown, farmers have increasingly been excluded from reservoirs they have traditionally depended on. Acquifer depletion is proceeding so fast that it is leading to subsidence, sinkholes, and fissures. Groundwater depletion around the industrial city of Mandan has created some 30 fissures in the land, including one passing through the heart of the city that residents fear may cause buildings to collapse."

Overpumping is a way of converting a minor crisis in the short run into a major crisis in the long run. It lets policymakers avoid difficult questions about carrying capacity and population policy, about the need to create water markets, and about the importance of investing in efficiency. In fact, it is a way to defer tough choices to the next generation, leaving them with even more demanding adjustments."

"Draining rivers dry may be rationalized as essential to human food production, but the benefits it confers on one front have to be weighed against the heavy toll it takes on another. Dried-up or diminished outflows threaten the survival of fish that spawn in these rivers. Estuaries that have served as breeding grounds for oceanic species are destroyed. The nutrient flows from the land to the sea that help sustain fisheries are diminished or even disrupted entirely."

"The dilemma is that as population grows, the resulting increases in urban and industrial demand can be satisfied only by diverting water from the very irrigation needed to supply that population's food."

. . .
"In rural /urban terms, the countryside will be the winner and the cities, the losers. Indeed, emerging food scarcity may reverse the terms of trade between the countryside and the city. Land and water values seem certain to escalate. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, cities--with the control of capital and technology--have had an advantage. But in a world where capital, technology, and certainly labor are relatively abundant and where land and water are scarce, a reversal in the terms of trade may be inevitable."

Table of Contents of Tough Choices

  1. The Challenge
  2. The Debate
  3. Demand for Grain Soaring
  4. Land Hunger Intensifying
  5. Water Scarcity Spreading
  6. Rise in Land Productivity Slowing
  7. The New Politics of Scarcity
  8. Responding to the Challenge

Reader Comments

Your name (will be published)
Your email address (will not be published)
Your comment
Type the letters appearing in the box below

Eco Books Home | Contact Eco Books