The Viridian Design Movement

Viridian Note 00412: Hunger

Key concepts
grain harvest shortfalls, climate change, mass starvation, price rises, Lester Brown
Attention Conservation Notice:
Grim, scary, involves one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. There are no new entries in the Viridian Aromatizer Contest even though it ends in three days. Last chance, people!


Disasters? Hey, California is fully briefed, and has corporate sponsorship, too!

Post-consumer alteration gets re-defined as "designer fanfic."

I'm heading for New York and Boston, pronto. Drop on by.

Tuesday, May 11th – In New York

7:30 PM Talk & Signing
Barnes & Noble #2017
396 Ave. of the Americas (at 8th St.) New York, NY 10011

Tuesday, May 12th – In Boston

7:00 PM Talk & Signing
Harvard Coop
400 Massachusetts Ave., Harvard Sq. Boston, MA 02238

Eco-Economy Update 2004-9
For Immediate Release
Copyright Earth Policy Institute 2004
May 5, 2004

Food Crunch in 2005 Now Likely

Lester R. Brown

Closing the gap in the world grain harvest this year following four consecutive grain harvest shortfalls, each larger than the one before, will not be easy. The grain shortfall of 105 million tons in 2003 is easily the largest on record, amounting to 5 percent of annual world consumption of 1,930 million tons.

The four harvest shortfalls have dropped world carryover stocks of grain to the lowest level in 30 years, amounting to only 59 days of consumption. Wheat and corn prices are at 7-year highs. Rice prices are at 5-year highs. (See data

(((Yum! Carbs! Globesity crisis and famine at the same historical instant!)))

Can the world's farmers close the gap this year? In addition to the usual uncertainties farmers face, they must now contend with two newer trends – falling water tables and rising temperatures.

If there is another large shortfall, grain prices will continue the rise of recent months, driving up food prices worldwide.

The production gain we need this year is huge. To start, we need to increase world grain output enough in 2004 to eliminate last year's shortfall of 105 million tons.

In addition, we need 15 million tons to feed the 74 million people who will be added to world population this year. With the grain left in the bin as this year's harvest begins at the dangerously low level of 59 days of consumption, we also need to rebuild to the 70-day level that is considered the minimum needed for food security. If we try to do just half of that rebuilding this year, going up to 65 days of consumption, we will need another 30 million tons.


Combining the estimated increases of 35 million tons for wheat, 12 million tons for rice, 10 million tons for corn, and 3 million tons for other grains gives an increase of 60 million tons over last year's harvest. This is an improvement, but it would still be 60 million tons short of what we need to close the gap. And if we include the goal of modestly rebuilding stocks, we will be short by 90 million tons.

As noted earlier, falling water tables and rising temperatures are making it more difficult for farmers to expand grain production. Water tables are falling and wells are going dry under the North China Plain, which produces a third of China's corn and half of its wheat; in most states in India, including the Punjab, its breadbasket; and under the southern Great Plains and southwest of the United States.

In addition, farmers in all three countries are losing water to cities. Beyond this, in dozens of smaller countries farmers are also losing irrigation water to aquifer depletion and to cities.

(((Have we fully considered the "calamitous human dieback" option? Might put a dent in Krispy Kreme stocks, but...)))

Record or near-record temperatures have withered crops in key food-producing regions of the world in each of the last two years. Since 1970, the earth's average temperature has risen 0.6 degrees Celsius. Three of the four warmest years on record came during the last four years – years of crop shortfalls. This year's average global temperature will almost certainly be above the norm (defined as the average for 1950-80). What we do not know yet is how much above it will be and which food-producing regions will be most affected.

If the estimated 2004 shortfall of 60 million tons materializes, it will take the world into uncharted territory. Either grain stocks will drop by 12 days of consumption, falling to an all-time low of 47 days, or food prices will rise and force a reduction in consumption – something that will be particularly difficult for the 3 billion people who live on less than $2 a day. In reality, the shortfall will be covered by some combination of declining stocks and rising prices.

(((Climate changes
= New World Disorder starves. Now consider a possible Mideast oil crisis on top of that. Could get hairy.)))

A shortfall on the scale projected almost guarantees the emergence of a politics of food scarcity in 2005 of the sort that occurred in the early 1970s, when exporting countries such as the United States restricted grain exports in order to curb the rise in domestic food prices.

((("American food bomb.")))

There are already early signs of this. In September 2002, Canada – on the heels of a heat-reduced harvest – announced it would limit wheat exports to assure that domestic needs were satisfied. Two months later, Australia, also experiencing a drought-reduced harvest, limited exports to its traditional customers only. In mid-2003, the European Union stopped issuing grain export certificates for several months. And in January 2004, Russia imposed an export tax on wheat to combat rising bread prices.

The risk is that a year from now, lower grain stocks and soaring food prices could destabilize governments in low-income grain-importing countries on a scale that would disrupt global economic progress. If this lowers the Nikkei stock index, the Dow Jones 500, and other key indicators, we may realize that our economic future depends on a worldwide effort to stabilize population, raise water productivity, and stabilize climate – and at wartime speed. (((Got wartime speed already, thanks.)))

Lester R. Brown is President of the Earth Policy Institute and author of Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble.

Additional data and information sources at or contact jlarsen(at) For reprint permission contact rjkauffman(at)

If you find this Update useful, please feel free to share it with friends and colleagues, to post on your website, or to distribute on your listserv.

O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O
O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O

Go back to the Viridian Design home page.