Four pressing needs must be addressed together, he says. Instead of better seeds, tractors or pumps to raise water, feeding the world now depends on new population, energy and water policies. Water scarcity, especially, concerns him.
“We live in a world where more than half the people live in countries with food bubbles based on farmers over-pumping and draining aquifers. The question is not whether these bubbles will burst, but when. The bursting of several national food bubbles as aquifers are depleted could create unmanageable food shortages,” he says.
“If world population growth does not slow dramatically, the number of people trapped in hydrological poverty and hunger will only grow,” he says.
The madness of the food system since 1950 astonishes him. Last year, the US harvested nearly 362.9 million tonnes of grain, of which one-third went to ethanol distilleries to fuel vehicles. Meanwhile, more than 130 million people in China alone, he estimates, live in areas where the underground water resources are being depleted at record rates.
Why can politicians not understand that every 1°C above the optimum in the growing season equates to roughly a 10 percent decline in grain yields, he asks.
“Yet if the world fails to address the climate issue, the Earth’s temperature this century could easily rise by 6°C, devastating food supplies,” he says.
The ever greater number of weather-related crises suggests strongly that climate change is beginning to bite and that the heatwaves, droughts and excessive rainfall around the world in the last few years have not been a blip, but a new reality.
“We have ignored the Earth’s environmental stop signs. Faced with falling water tables, not a single country has mobilized to reduce water use,” Brown says.
“Unless we can wake up to the risks we are taking, we will join earlier civilizations that failed to reverse the environmental trends that undermined their food economies,” he says.
He says we know the answers. They include saving water, eating less meat, stopping soil erosion, controlling populations and changing the energy economy.
“But they must be addressed together. We have to mobilize quickly. Time is the scarcest resource. Success depends on moving at wartime speed. It means transforming the world industrial economy, stabilizing populations and rebuilding grain stocks,” he says.
Brown believes we need to redefine the term “security.”
“We have inherited a definition from the last century that is almost exclusively military in focus. Armed aggression is no longer the principal threat to our future. The overriding threats are now climate change, population growth, water shortages and rising food prices. The challenge is to save civilization itself,” he says.