JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. On behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to welcome you to Books for Breakfast with Lester Brown who will discuss his Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble.
Our guest believes that, with a committed global cooperative effort, “we can build an economy that does not destroy its natural support systems, a global community where the basic needs of all the earth’s people are satisfied, and a world that will allow us to think of ourselves as civilized.”
Lester Brown founded the WorldWatch Institute in 1974. The organization is devoted to the analysis of global environmental issues. Ten years later, he launched The State of the World Report and expanded the Institute’s publications by launching WorldWatch, a bimonthly magazine featuring articles in his research. Currently he is the President of the Earth Policy Institute, which is an interdisciplinary research organization.
Although this former tomato farmer and agency head in the U.S. Department of Agriculture is modest about the contributions he has made during his long career in trying to save the planet, others are quite vocal in praising him. The Telegraph of Calcutta dubbed him “the guru of the environmental movement,” and The Washington Post said he was “one of the world’s most influential thinkers.” The Library of Congress has requested his personal papers and manuscripts in recognition of the role of his work in shaping the global environmental movement of the late 20th century.
In recognition of his devotion to public service and for his exceptional contributions to solving global environmental problems, he has been awarded over twenty honorary degrees, given a MacArthur Genius Grant, and was the recipient of the United Nations’ Environment Prize, a Worldwide Fund for Nature Gold Medal, and the 1994 Blue Planet Prize.
He is a prolific writer of nearly thirty books, including: World Without Borders, Building a Sustainable Society; Saving the Planet, Who Will Feed China, which was discussed here in December 1994; and Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth.
During the forty years since the publication of Silent Spring and the birth of the modern environmental movement, the environmental community has worked hard to arrest the deterioration of the earth’s health. Many battles have been won, but there are more that remain to be fought. We should all be grateful that Mr. Brown is on the front line leading us in this crusade to save our planet.
LESTER BROWN: Thank you. The book I’m going to be drawing from this morning, Plan B, presents an alternative to Plan A which is not working very well. The thesis of Plan B is that we are creating a bubble economy based on the over-consumption of the earth’s natural capital. We talk about trends—deforestation, over-grazing and de-desertification, over-pumping, over-fishing. These are all indicators measuring the over-consumption of the earth’s natural capital.
The worrisome thing about a bubble economy is that if you don’t deflate the bubble, eventually it will burst. That’s my overriding concern at the moment.
I’d like to talk a bit about one of the overuses of natural capital, and that is over-pumping of aquifers.
I should back up and say that those of us in the environmental movement have been saying for many years now that if the environmental trends of recent decades continue, we eventually will be in trouble. It was not clear, however, what form that trouble would take and when it would come.
The trouble will come in the food sector, and the first global economic indicator to signal serious trouble in the relationship between us now 6.3 billion and the natural systems on which we depend will be rising food prices within the next two or three years.
Over-pumping is historically a recent phenomenon. Throughout most of irrigation history, we did not have the capacity to over-pump. It has only been with diesel pumps and powerful electrically-driven pumps that we can actually pump water from underground faster than aquifers recharge. This is now happening throughout the world. I’ll talk briefly about the big three grain producers— China, India, and the United States—that together account for half of the world grain harvest.
Water tables are falling throughout the northern half of China. Under the North China Plain, which produces half of China’s wheat and a third of the corn, in the early 1990s the government reported that water tables were falling about five feet per year. They now report that in many areas they are dropping by ten feet per year.
Over-pumping is a way of expanding food production in the short run that virtually guarantees a decline in food production in the long run when the aquifer is depleted. We are now just beginning to see widespread aquifer depletion in the world.
India: over-pumping now in almost every state. Only in the northeast is there not any substantial over-pumping.
The U.S.: southern Great Plains of the United States, southwestern United States, extensive over-pumping.
Water scarcity, historically a local issue, is now crossing national boundaries via the international grain trade. When countries push up against the limits of their water supplies—like most of the countries in North Africa, the Middle East, China—they satisfy the growing need in cities by taking water from agriculture. This loss of productive capacity is then compensated for by importing grain. It takes a thousand tons of water to produce one ton of grain, so the most efficient way to import water is in the form of grain.
Aquifer depletion is a new challenge for farmers. It has not happened before on any meaningful scale. Now we are seeing it in scores of countries. More than half of the world’s people now live in countries where water tables are falling.
The second challenge that the world’s farmers are facing is rising temperature. Most of the climate models that project the effects of global warming on agriculture are based on broad assumptions about the effect of warming on crop production. But within the last year or two we’ve begun to get research that focuses on the precise relationship between temperature and crop yield, coming from the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and the Agriculture Research Service in the Department of Agriculture.
The consensus rule of thumb is that for each one degree Celsius rise in temperature during the growing season above the optimum we get a 10 percent decline in grain yield—for wheat, rice, and corn. And when you look at the IPCC projections for this century, you can begin to understand the potential risks that we are facing. In each of the last two years, there have been substantial reductions in the global harvest because of heat- and drought-induced reductions in the harvest last year in India and the U.S. and this year in Europe. In France through the Ukraine, the heat wave in August lowered the harvest rather dramatically.
The rise in temperature is becoming quite clear. We used to say that the sixteen warmest years on record have come since 1980. We can now say that the four warmest years on record have come in the last six years. So that trend is, if anything, gaining momentum.
Farmers are facing two new challenges: (1) aquifer depletion and spreading water shortages; and (2) rising temperatures, taking the edge off of the harvest.
These challenges are making it difficult for farmers to expand production fast enough. World grain production has been basically flat for eight years. In the last four years, world grain production has fallen short of consumption. In 2000 it fell short by 16 million tons; then 27 million tons; last year it was 93 million tons; this year 91 million tons. Ninety million tons is nearly 5 percent of world consumption. With four years of drawing down stocks, at the end of this year world grain stocks will be at the lowest level in thirty years.
We have to go back to 1972. Some of you will remember the Soviets secretively cornered the world wheat market, and in the process drove up both wheat and rice prices, roughly doubling the historical level.
Now all eyes will turn to next year, because if the world’s farmers cannot dig their way out of this 90-million-ton hole that we were in last year and again this year, then there will be havoc in world grain markets. There will not be enough grain to go around, and intense competition among the 100 or so countries that import grain for exportable supplies.
If I were to pick an event that will be the wake-up call, it will be when China turns to the world market for massive quantities of grain. In Who Will Feed China?, I pointed out that China would have a unique experience among major grain-producing countries in that its grain production would turn downward, and that was so far beyond the realm of conventional wisdom that it attracted much attention.
China’s grain production, which increased from 90 million tons in 1950 to 390 million tons in 1999, has now dropped to 330 million tons. That 60-million-ton drop is equal to the Canadian grain harvest or to the grain exports of Canada, Australia, and Argentina combined, a very substantial drop.
The Chinese have been covering that decline by drawing down their stocks, but they can only do this for maybe one more year. Then they will be turning to the world market for massive quantities of grain—40, 50, 60 million tons. The largest grain importer in the world today is Japan at 26 million tons, just to put that in perspective.
When China turns to the world market, it will necessarily have to come to the U.S. because we control half the world’s grain exports. We have a fascinating geopolitical scenario starting to unfold: we have 1.3 billion Chinese consumers who have a $100 billion trade surplus with the United States. That surplus is enough to buy our entire grain harvest twice. They will be competing with us for our grain and in the process driving up food prices.
Now, what does the U.S. President do, especially if it happens to be a political year? Twenty-five years ago, he would have said, “Get lost, we’re going to restrict exports, or even embargo,” as we did in the mid-1970s to some countries after the world grain market tightened. But we now have a stake in a politically stable China. The Chinese economy is the engine powering the Asian economy because Japan’s economy has been more or less flat in the water now for the last decade.
But more than that, the Chinese economy is the only large economy in the world that has had a full head of steam in recent years, so it is now beginning to play a global role. If you use purchasing power parity instead of exchange rates to compare the size of economy, China is now number two. It has moved ahead of Japan and is second behind the U.S.
For the first time in their history, the Chinese will be dependent on the outside world for part of their food supply. What it means for us is that, like it or not, we will be sharing our food with the Chinese. At that point the world will suddenly have changed in a very fundamental way. We will be living in a world very different from the one we’ve known throughout our lifetime.
What we have here is environmental trends, such as falling water tables, rising temperatures, driving economic trends—food prices—that have political consequences. Most people do not realize how close we are to having to face some realities we’ve been able to largely ignore, like climate change.
We know what happened in Africa when we ignored the rise in HIV infection rates. We knew it was happening in the 1980s, but it has only been in the last two or three years that national governments and the international community have begun to focus on it. Exactly the same thing is happening today with falling water tables in China and in India.
One would think that when water tables start to fall the alarm bells would go off and there would be a concerted national effort to raise water productivity and to further slow population growth and get things in balance, but not one country has done that.
You would think, with CO2 levels rising, and, if you look at the global temperature chart, the upturn in the last twenty years, that governments would be responding, “Hey, we don’t want to go there.” But we’re not.
The wake-up call will come within the next couple of years. The question is: what do we do?
Plan B has three important components:
(1) A global full-court press to raise water productivity throughout the economy, and importantly in agriculture. We forget, because we have always taken it for granted, the availability of water for food production in most of the world. We drink, on average, about four liters of water a day in one form or another—water, coffee, pop, juice. But the food we eat each day requires 2,000 liters of water to produce, 500 times as much as we drink. If we’re facing a future of water shortages, we are facing a future of food shortages. Most people now begin to recognize that water shortages are coming, but they have not yet connected the dots and realized that it also means food shortages.
We need to raise water productivity, not unlike the effort we launched in the middle of the last century to raise land productivity. We came out of World War II, began to look toward the end of the century, and saw enormous growth in population and not much new land to bring under the plow, so we concentrated on raising land productivity, which has now nearly tripled. Grain yield per hectare went from 1.1 tons per hectare in 1950 to 2.8 tons per hectare last year.
(2) Stabilize population, sooner rather than later. Of the UN’s three projections—the high, the medium, and the low—we’re now on the medium trajectory, which will take us close to 10.8 billion people by 2080. The low trajectory would have world population peaking at 7.4 billion in roughly 2045, about forty years from now. We must do everything we can to accelerate the shift to smaller families and move from that middle trajectory to the lower one.
We’ve long been aware of the population/food relationship, but we haven’t really focused very much on the population/water relationship. Most of the 3 billion projected to be added by 2050, the overwhelming majority, will be added in countries where water tables are already falling and wells are going dry. That’s not a recipe for economic progress and political stability.
We need to provide family planning service, but also create the social conditions for accelerating the shift: universal education for all youngsters, importantly young females; basic health care of the sort that WHO has outlined and that Jeffrey Sachs has described—about $28 billion additional dollars a year worldwide; school lunch programs in the forty-two low-income countries— an additional $62 billion per year. Now, $62 billion sounds like a lot, but it’s less than [the] $87 billion [being allocated to reconstruct Iraq].
(3) Climate stabilization. I propose that we cut carbon emissions in half by 2015. My proposal may come as a bit a surprise coming from a city where cutting carbon emissions by 7 percent by 2012 – the Kyoto Protocol – is seen as dangerous to the economy.
I’ll give a couple of quick examples.
1) If we were to say worldwide that over the next three years we’ll phase out all of the old-fashioned, inefficient incandescent light bulbs, a technology that hasn’t changed very much since Edison, and replace them with the compact fluorescent bulbs that use only a quarter as much electricity, we could close hundreds of coal-fired power plants. We’re not talking about changing the lighting, just changing the bulbs.
2) If we were to decide by 2010 to raise the fuel efficiency of the U.S. automobile fleet to the level of last year’s Prius, we’d cut gasoline use in half. No change in miles driven, no change in the number of cars, just more efficient engines.
3) On the supply side, wind will emerge as the world’s leading power source because it’s abundant, cheap, inexhaustible, widely distributed, clean, and climate-benign. No other energy source has those six characteristics.
Abundant. You may have seen reference to the National Wind Resource Inventory taken by the Department of Energy in 1991. It pointed out that Kansas, North Dakota and Texas had enough harnessable wind energy to satisfy national electricity needs. We now know that that was a gross underestimate because it was based on the wind turbine technologies of 1991. Advances in wind turbine design since then, which enable us to operate at lower wind speeds, to more efficiently convert wind into electricity, and which harvest a much higher wind regime, have greatly increased the size of the harnessable, usable wind energy resource.
Remember that in 1991 the average turbine was maybe 120 feet tall. The new turbines going in today are about 300 feet tall. So we’re harvesting a much larger and richer regime, because the further you get from the actual surface of the land, the higher the wind speed.
Cheap. The modern wind industry began in California back in the early 1980s, when wind-generated electricity cost thirty-eight cents per kilowatt hour. In the last few years, long-term wind supply contracts have been signed at three cents per kilowatt hour, and the projections are that in many parts of the world the price will drop below two cents by 2010.
Once we get cheap electricity from wind, then we have the option of electrolyzing water to produce hydrogen. This is not a new technology.
Hydrogen is the fuel of choice for the new fuel cell engines that every major automobile manufacturer is working on, but it goes beyond that. If we are in a crunch, let’s assume that food prices begin to soar two years from now, and it appears that rising temperatures are one of the causes, we will suddenly have a new lobby for reducing carbon emissions, consumers, and then everything will change.
If we want to, we could move very quickly to a hydrogen economy. It’s fashionable to say, “It will take decades to create the infrastructure.” You need two things to produce hydrogen – cheap electricity and water.
There are 160,000 service stations in the U.S. Every one has electricity and water. They can produce their own hydrogen.
We have a hydrogen generator demonstration in our office. We have a small solar cell, three inches by five inches; we have hooked that up to a little hydrogen generator; and we have a tube that feeds it into a little fuel cell that generates electricity and runs a fan. Commercially that’s not the way I would do it. Our receptionist will set this up for you and operate it. She’s not an engineer. This is not a complex technology.
What the service stations will need beyond the hydrogen generator is a compressor, because hydrogen is a very voluminous gas. If you compress it, you can put enough in a car tank to drive 300 miles before it needs a refill.
And you don’t need fuel cell engines. Internal combustion engines in the cars on the street now can be easily converted to hydrogen. Kits cost a few hundred dollars for the conversion. If you’ve been in Tokyo, you’ve ridden in taxis which don’t run on gasoline, but use gas—propane or methane. It has helped clean up the air enormously.
The big challenge is to keep this bubble economy from bursting, to deflate the bubble, and particularly the food bubble economy which is the most obvious and pronounced. We may find ourselves in the situation within the next few years where we will have to move at wartime speed.
Recently, I reread some of the economic literature of World War II. I began with President Roosevelt’s State of the Union Address January 6, 1942, one month after December 7, 194l, in which he laid out our goals in arms production. He said: “We’re going to produce 45,000 tanks, 60,000 cars, 20,000 anti-aircraft guns, and 6 million tons of shipping.” We suddenly were faced with an enormous logistical challenge. We forget now that we were overnight involved in wars on the far sides of two vast oceans, and the logistics of that were extraordinary.
Roosevelt and his colleagues in the Administration realized that at that time the U.S. automobile industry represented the largest concentration of industrial power in the world. So after his State of the Union Address, he called together the leaders of the automobile industry and he said, “We’re going to depend heavily on you guys to produce these arms.”
They said, “We’ll to do everything we can, but it will be a stretch producing cars and all these arms too.”
He said, “You don’t understand. We’re going to ban the sale of private automobiles in the United States.” And that’s exactly what happened. From April of 1942 to the end of 1944, there were almost no cars produced in the U.S.—600 one year and a couple hundred another year, but during the Depression even we’d been producing 3 or 4 million cars a year.
We had an entire industrial base which was converted to arms production. It was an amazing transformation, and it happened not in decades, or even years. In a matter of months, Chrysler went from cars to tanks.
They did it then and if we need to, we can do it now. The difference is that the threat that we’re now facing may be even greater than the one that we faced in 1942.
The question is: can we make the shift? Last year’s defense budget was $343 billion, which—and that’s without Iraq—is more than all our NATO allies spent together plus Russia, China and the “Evil Axis.”
The late Admiral Eugene Carroll said shortly before his death, “For forty-five years we’ve been in an arms race with the Soviet Union. Now we’re in an arms race with ourselves.”
If we were to take that $343 billion military budget plus our State Department, foreign aid, USAID budget, it would probably come to about $360 billion. The question is: if we plan to spend $369 billion in our foreign policy budget, how should it be allocated to best advance U.S. interests in the world? If we step back and ask that question, the allocation will be very different from the current allocation.
My final point: September 11, 2001 and events since then remind me that political leaders and the media for the last two years have been so focused on terrorism, and more recently Iraq, that we’ve almost forgotten the trends that are undermining our future. I’ve mentioned only two of them this morning, but there are a dozen.
If Osama bin Laden and his colleagues succeed in diverting our attention from the trends that are undermining our future, they will succeed beyond their wildest expectations, and that is the challenge we face.
Question & Answer
QUESTION: Everything that you’ve said today is about strategic thinking and about visions out into the future, which is highly impressive. But to implement them you need political will, and politics and politicians do not tend to think strategically. It was possible to make this major shift in the Second World War because the politicians were facing an immediate threat. You’re talking about a growing threat but one that will go beyond this political term and probably beyond the next. How do you convert this long-term or mid-term strategic threat into the minds of politicians who think short term?
LESTER BROWN: Sometimes political change comes in response to a dramatic event. Pearl Harbor was such an event. Sometimes political change comes in response to gradual buildups and societies cross thresholds. The Berlin Wall coming down was an example of that. Resistance to the great socialistic experiment in Eastern Europe had been building over time, and one morning people woke up and realized that it was over. The centrally planned economy, the one-party political system was finished. Everyone knew it, including those in power, and so we had in Eastern Europe in 1989-1991 an essentially bloodless political revolution, Romania being a minor exception to that.
A threshold was crossed, and social thresholds by definition, when crossed, lead to change, and often unpredictable change.
I use the food example because we will face food shortages, for the reasons I mentioned. If it turns out that grain prices double overnight, as they did in 1972-1974, and we can’t get them back down because there’s not enough water to produce enough food and we have to begin making adjustments, we’ll begin to realize that we have to make fundamental changes.
I’ve worked on almost twenty State of the World Reports over the years at WorldWatch outlining these problems. People were interested and they sold lots of copies, but it didn’t translate into the major policy changes that are needed. We win a battle here and there, but we’re losing the war for sure.
Sometimes it’s gradual social change across a threshold and then everything begins to change. Many low-income countries that import a substantial amount of food will not be able to compete, and the political instability in those countries could disrupt global economic progress. Three of those countries happen to be oil exporters—Indonesia, Nigeria, and Mexico, for example—all of which import substantial quantities of food.
It’s hard for me to describe, and hard for us to imagine, how much things could change if this scenario is to unfold more or less as it may. But it could lead to some dramatic changes, which may not depend on political persuasion, but rather on the need to respond to a very serious situation.
QUESTION: What is the role of science and technology in solving some of the problems, such as the water shortages? What about desalinization and genetically modified crops that could increase the yield?
You mentioned the economic dilemmas caused by a future where China may want to import American grain. Couldn’t this help to eliminate the subsidies in America and elsewhere for agricultural products, which would help the agriculture in developing countries?
One of our biggest economic problems now is the economic imbalance with China, where we’re importing too much, so it would be very healthy if the Chinese wanted to import our grain at high prices.
LESTER BROWN: 1) Technology and desalting. We’ve made steady progress in reducing the cost of desalted sea water, but we would probably have to reduce that cost by maybe ten to make it usable for food production. It takes 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of grain. That huge amount of water puts farmers at a disadvantage. For drinking water, we can afford desalted water for the four liters we drink, but for the 2,000 liters we need each day to produce our food, it’s not there yet economically.
2) GMOs. It has been fashionable for companies to advertise genetically modified crops as a solution to the world’s food problem. The reality is that up until now the principal successes have been in breeding varieties that are resistant to insects. This has substantially reduced insecticide use in agriculture. They have also increased the resistance of crops like soybeans to herbicides.
But the companies that are releasing new crop varieties that are genetically modified have not yet released a single variety of wheat, rice, or corn that will substantially increase yields. The reason is that traditional plant breeders have done almost everything possible to raise yield, which is how we got the tripling of world grain land productivity.
3) Selling grain to China would be a plus for our trade balance with China, and also eliminate the need for subsidies because prices would be much higher. That will not help the developing countries very much because most of the subsidies are for grain and most of them are grain importers. They don’t have the potential to produce a lot more grain.
If we eliminated the subsidies on cotton and sugar, these two crops could be produced competitively, whereas corn or wheat production is not competitive with the U.S. Those would be potential gains.
QUESTION: You indicated a number of optimistic road maps for dealing with future problems, such as wind power. One other potentially optimistic implication of what you said is the conversion of China from a grain exporter to an importer, or from self-sufficiency to import.
When you combine that with China’s recent change from a petroleum exporter to a petroleum importer, and then look at China and its relationship to the world and its potential as the largest economy, and the politically dominant player in the world twenty-five or fifty years from now, doesn’t this dependency of China on the rest of the world for both petroleum and grain indicate that China’s self-interest would be in a world peace, a global economy that is not in conflict?
LESTER BROWN: Yes. China became a net oil importer seven years ago, and its imports have been growing very rapidly since then and are projected to keep growing at an extraordinary rate. That’s based largely on the role of the automobile.
I have real doubts as to whether China will ever be able to develop an automobile-centered economy, partly for land reasons. In this country, for every five cars added to the national fleet you have to pave an area the size of a football field. And when you begin thinking about how much land it would take in China if they had a car in every garage . . .
But the growing dependence of China on the outside world for energy and for grain, not to mention minerals and raw materials like iron ore and forest products, will make a positive contribution to a peaceful, stable China that is an integral part of the international community.
QUESTION: A comment about the oceans, to parallel what you said about food supply. Ocean fishing increased very rapidly from about 1950 to 1998. It peaked in 1998 and is now declining, along with one of your other statistics.
Some years ago, the Club of Rome was quite successful in getting many people outside of the immediate environmental community alert to the problems. Unfortunately, many of the predictions that looked dire at the time didn’t turn out that way, and in some ways it had left a general bad taste in many people’s mouths. Please comment on what is different about today.
LESTER BROWN: If you look at the Club of Rome analysis, it’s not as far off the mark as one might think. Many of the problems they anticipated were avoided by over-consuming natural capital. They did not assume the over-consumption of natural capital. They assumed that when we reached the limit we would protect the base, which we have not done. It’s like a foundation that makes grants from the interest from its endowment, and when you get some enthusiastic program officers who want to make more grants than the interest flow will sustain, they begin using the capital base itself. If you do that, eventually you have neither the capital base nor the interest.
That is what has happened. If you go back and subtract out the excessive consumption of natural capital—deforestation, over-fishing, over-plowing, and over-pumping—then they are not so far off.
What I find impressive about looking back is the number of important issues that they missed, that have become so important. They didn’t have very much on climate change, for example.
There have been a couple of books that have had a major impact on thinking. The first was Silent Spring—that gave birth to the modern environmental movement. The Limits to Growth took things to another level, broadened very much the level of concern.
But what we have learned since then is that you can have environmental problems here and there, although most all of these changes are gradual and incremental, so that we don’t respond to them until it’s late in the day. The HIV epidemic in Africa and population growth are two examples.
But we’re very close now to a wake-up call on the environmental front. It’s in our interest to be prepared, to have a road map, a sense of what we can do and how we can do it, and how we can do it quickly if that’s needed.
QUESTION: How much precious water do we require to make hydrogen? Secondly, I understand that beef production is the most inefficient form of agriculture and that to have one pound of meat on your table requires seven times as much grain or water as anything else. Do you foresee any advantage in government pressure on reducing consumption of beef and Big Macs?
LESTER BROWN: Most of the world’s beef and mutton is produced with grass. The exception is the feedlots, most of which are in the southern Great Plains. Most of the beef we consume, most of the beef in the Big Mac, comes from roughage not from grain. But the last several months of a steer’s life is spent in the feedlot being finished, fattened, and grown out and ready to go to the slaughterhouse. That’s where the inefficiency comes in, because that’s where it takes seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef.
Most of us are consuming too much animal fat in fat-rich livestock products. It would be to our advantage to move down the food chain.
If we get in a real squeeze, one of the options that I have on the food front is to impose a tax on the consumption of livestock produce to reduce consumption, particularly in this country to free up grain for human consumption elsewhere in the world. That would probably be the least painful way of dealing with an acute food shortage if it should develop suddenly.
To return to your first question: The amount of water required to produce hydrogen is small. It’s more like the four liters we drink per day than the 2,000 liters required to produce food.
Once you use the hydrogen, it becomes water again. It recombines with oxygen and becomes water. So it’s a very short cycle, and not a major claimant on water resources. And indeed, it would probably save a great deal of energy because when you use thermal power plants to produce electricity, for example, you use a lot of water. It’s not as much as irrigation but it’s getting up there.
QUESTION: Is it possible for nations to become food self-sufficient? Will food always be an object of trade?
LESTER BROWN: Over time, as populations have built up in certain parts of the world that has been possible only because they could import food. Japan would be a classic case of this, where its population pressure began to build several generations ago. Japan turned to the oceans for its animal protein with a fish-and-rice diet.
Japan consumes about 10 million tons of seafood a year. If China were to follow that same path, given its population ten times as large as Japan, it would need 100 million tons of seafood, which is the world fish catch. That option is not available, so the building pressure of population on the land in China must be solved through other means.
Trade probably will become even more important in the future, and particularly now with water shortages beginning to drive trade patterns. In effect, trading in grain futures is trading in water futures, and countries are using grain to balance their water books. Trade will continue and probably expand to the extent that it’s possible.
JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much for presenting your views this morning.