Feb 26, 2015 by


Over his 50-year career, Lester Brown has become known for his accurate global environmental predictions. As he enters retirement, he warns the world may face the worst hunger crisis of our lifetimes

Lester Brown fears the world may be on the verge of ever greater levels of hunger. Video produced by Laurence Mathieu-Léger

Suzanne Goldenberg   THE GUARDIAN

Vast tracts of Africa and of China are turning into dust bowls on a scale that dwarfs the one that devastated the US in the 1930s, one of the world’s pre-eminent environmental thinkers has warned.

Over 50 years, the writer Lester Brown has gained a reputation for anticipating global trends. Now as Brown, 80, enters retirement, he fears the world may be on the verge of a greater hunger than he has ever seen in his professional lifetime.

For the first time, he said tens of millions of poor people in countries like Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Peru could afford to eat only five days a week. Most of the world was exhausting its ground water because of overpumping. Yields were flatlining in Japan. And in northern and western China, and the Sahel region of Africa – an area already wracked by insurgency and conflict – people were running out of land to grow food. Millions of acres of were turning into wasteland because of over-farming and over-grazing.

“We are pushing against the limits of land that can be ploughed and the land available for grazing and there are two areas of the world in which we are in serious trouble now,” Brown said.
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“One is the Sahel region of Africa, from Senegal to Somalia. There is a huge dust bowl forming now that is actually stretching right across the continent and that dust bowl is removing a lot of top soil, so eventually they will be in serious trouble,” he said.

In areas of China, villagers were abandoning the countryside because the land was too depleted to raise flocks or grow food. “At some point there will be a reckoning,” he said. “They will be abandoning so much land, both for farming and for grazing, that it will restrict their efforts to expand food production.”

The result would be far worse than anything America saw in the 1930s. “Our dust bowl was serious, but it was confined and within a matter of years we had it under control … these two areas don’t have that capacity.”

Brown has previously used his broad vision and his fluency with data to identify and explain major developments in the global food system and environment – as a junior analyst for the US Department of Agriculture, founder of the first US environmental thinktank, the Worldwatch Institute, and now as founder and president at the Earth Policy Institute.

This latest warning – that demand for food is fast outstripping supply – may be one of his last as an institutional insider.

Brown intends to retire in June and wind down the Earth Policy Institute. It’s the end to a prolific career – 53 books in 630 editions including Basque and Esperanto which helped shape the thinking of two generations of academics and activists.

“He’s the godfather of merging environmental and food issues,” said Danielle Nierenberg, who joined Worldwatch in 2001 and went on to co-found her own institute, Food Tank. “If you are talking about food and the environment, everybody looks to Lester Brown.”

On a mission to India in the 1960, Brown was early to realise the monsoon had failed and the country was facing a poor harvest. His report prompted president Lyndon Johnson to order huge shipments of US wheat to India, averting a famine.

Thirty years later, Brown warned China would be forced to import huge quantities of grain to feed its people. The country’s planners shifted more resources to agriculture – and Chinese security agents shifted their attention to Brown.

“For months after that I could be giving a talk in Oslo or Tokyo or Zurich and if I talked about China and food security threats there, and that China would at one point be importing large amounts of grain, there would be someone in the audience who would pop up and loudly and disruptively challenge virtually everything I had said,” Brown said.
Just a ditch separates the Ningxia Baofeng Energy plant from Li Jiayun (not her real name) who is hoeing her field. Li’s family planted 50 to 60 mu of red dates, but after they used the water from the ditch to irrigate the plants, many of them died. Sweet corn also won’t grow here. The government moved the villagers to the Hongshiwan Mine Relocation building. They have to travel 2 to 3 km to get to their land. Many of them are willing to build new homes in the old place to be closer to their land
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Failed crops near the Ningxia Baofeng Energy plant in Shenzhen, China. Photograph: Lu Guang/Greenpeace

In the noughties and beyond, Brown sounded the alarm that climate change was threatening global food supply. He was among the first to predict that fracking would transform America’s energy landscape, and forced the shutdown of more than 100 coal-fired power plants.

“He was asking questions that were consistently a decade or more ahead of their time,” said Ken Cook, founder of the Environmental Working Group who has known Brown since the 1970s.

At a time when agriculture was all about expansion, Brown raised concerns about limits, and whether soil and water could keep up with demands, and what fertilisers and pesticides were doing to the earth.

“No serious agricultural economist now can work without thinking of these matters but they were nowhere on the radar screen until Lester put those issues there,” Cook said.

Brown appears in good health. A lifelong runner, he came second in his age class in a 10-miler last year. There is an extra pair of running shoes by the bookcase.

His recall of statistics is effortless and Brown is fizzing with ideas for new projects. There are at least two books in the works.

But in a digital age, Brown is barely computer literate. He has no computer in his office, which has stacks of reports piled up on every surface and most chairs. He never learned how to type properly, he confesses. He dictates his books, and then proofreads the hard copy.

After losing a major funding source, Brown said he could not bear the prospect of a new round of fundraising. And after having commanded the attention of presidents and prime ministers – he directs visitors to the pictures of him with seven heads of state – Brown said he finds it more difficult to be heard.

“I don’t feel I have the same confidence that I can reach the key decision makers on an issue the way I did 30 years ago,” he said. “People are not so dependent on two newspapers and a few wire services like they used to be. So while there are many opportunities and channels through which information can go, I am not sure it means we are reaching more people.”

But it has been a giddying ride. Brown wells up when he mentions his parents: sharecroppers who never finished elementary school and, he says, never read a book.

He grew up on a series of New Jersey farms without running water or indoor plumbing, growing asparagus some years, and later tomatoes. But he was bright enough to learn to read by the age of four and to make his way to university at Rutgers, where he studied agriculture.
Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute speaks during an interview with AFP at his office in Washington,DC on January 10, 2011.
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Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, at his office in Washington, DC. Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

After a number of years in government – where he found the bureaucracy constraining – he founded his first thinktank, Worldwatch Institute, leaving a quarter of a century later to found Earth Policy Institute.

Work almost always took precedent. In his autobiography he writes about sleeping in his office for nights on end, and paring down his wardrobe to a series of Oxford blue shirts and – for formal occasions, clip-on bowties – to wear with his suits and running shoes. He eventually divorced, and his wife and children moved to Colorado while he stayed in Washington.

There are now places in the world … where they are saying things like: ‘we can only eat five days this week’
Lester Brown

Even today, he does not own a car, and most days walks the mile to work from his apartment in an art deco building.

Looking ahead towards retirement, surrounded by his books and walls full of honorary degrees, he seems a bit astonished by the course his life has taken. Some of the changes in the world food system are just as dramatic, he said.

It’s now taken for granted that family planning and improving childhood nutrition are essential to development, but Brown said that was not the case when he started.

Other developments seem a step backward. Global food prices have doubled over the past decade, leading to greater hardship than ever before.

“In so much of the developing world people live in cities, not so many in the countryside, and so they buy their food,” he said. “What is happening in countries like Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Peru is that low-income families have reached the point where they can no longer afford to eat everyday.”

He went on: “It used to be the low end of things where you only had one meal a day. But there are now places in the world and tens of millions of people where they are saying things like: ‘we can only eat five days this week’. That is how they are managing.”

His blue eyes look pained, and he shakes his head.

“I have been working on these issues for half a century plus, and it is only in the last year or two that this actually become an issue in a number of countries.”

It may well be the topic of a future book.
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