The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World
Joel K. Bourne Jr. is a finalist for the 2016 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award for The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World. His book focuses on the farmers and scientists working to solve a mounting crisis: the urgent need for greater food production at a time when climate change threatens to destroy farmland. Bourne weaves together elements of history, journalism, and advocacy to present a pressing problem and the innovators who hope to solve it. The following is an excerpt from the book’s introduction.
The Erstwhile Agronomist
People are fighting. Killing for bread, some are even pulling out knives. What is happening? What is this? Famine? —Egyptian man in breadline, March 2008
Every now and then someone asks me what I studied in college. Since I’ve spent most of my career as a writer for National Geographic, they expect to hear English or journalism, or perhaps something even more esoteric. I reply, “Agronomy,” and typically get blank stares. When I explain that it’s a combination of soil science and plant science for row crop production, their interest wilts. Journalists call this MEGO—short for “my eyes glaze over.” We apply the term to topics that are dull, complex, and boring. Journalism, for whatever reason, is fascinating. Agronomy, alas, is MEGO.
I’ve come to believe that few people in my home country know, much less care, what an agronomist is these days. Those that do tend to view the discipline with fear or loathing—the realm of migrant workers, chemical agriculture, and “Big Food.” It doesn’t matter that nearly every morsel they put in their mouths—every crumb that gives them life and vigor—was likely produced through the art and science of agronomy. The first five presidents of the United States were all farmers, as obsessed with new seeds and breeds as we are with the latest cell phone. Thomas Jefferson even risked his life to smuggle rice seeds out of Italy—an offense punishable by death at the time.
Today the cities most of us call home would be concrete wastelands if it weren’t for a steady stream of victuals pouring in from the farms and fields that now blanket 40 percent of the Earth’s dry land. I once covered a New York City mayoral election from Hunts Point in the South Bronx, at the time one of the most blighted urban neighborhoods in the nation. I’ll never forget the empty crack vials in the gutters, or the endless line of semis threading their way down the streets. Each day 15,000 trucks stream in and out of the Hunts Point Terminal Market, delivering produce from 49 states and 55 countries to keep New Yorkers fed. Imagine the chaos that would ensue if those trucks ever stopped coming. Though I love my profession and believe it is fundamental to a functioning democracy, a nation can survive without journalists. It cannot last a day without farmers.
The world contains more than 50,000 edible plants, but only three—wheat, rice, and corn—directly or indirectly (through livestock feed) provide 80–90 percent of all the calories that humans consume. For most of human history, food demand was pretty steady, driven by world population growth. The more mouths to feed and the more farmers there were (since most occupations before the industrial revolution were agricultural), the more land farmers cleared to grow crops to feed them. Though religious freedom was allegedly the big draw for colonists to the United States, the tantalizing pull of free farmland helped fill the ships with thousands of landless peasants willing to risk the hardships of colonial life for a few acres of their own.
For the most part, farmers have more than kept up. Even during the staggering population boom of the last half century, when the number of people on the planet skyrocketed from 3 billion in 1960 to 6 billion in 2000—the fastest doubling in human history—our annual grain production rose even faster, nearly tripling during the same period. Unlike previous centuries, when more food was grown by cutting more forests and plowing more plains to create more farmland, this time the increase came mostly from steadily increasing yields on lands already in production. Better seeds, combined with more fertilizer, pesticides, and irrigation, enabled farmers to grow more crop from each acre. Farmers grew so much extra food during the 1960s that they actually helped alleviate global poverty by making food cheaper in most places around the world. The change was so dramatic it was dubbed the “green revolution.”
Despite the enormous impact that agriculture has had on our lives and the planet, many urbanites and suburbanites in the United States look upon the rural hinterlands, and the 2 percent of the population that now tends them, with a certain amount of disdain. When my father was a boy in the 1920s, nearly a third of the US population lived on farms. Today, the closest most people get to country is when they hit the wrong button on the car radio dial. And this is not just a US phenomenon. In a 2013 survey of more than 27,000 primary-school children in the United Kingdom, one in three thought cheese was a vegetable, and one in five thought pasta came from animals. Another survey found that a quarter of Australian sixth-graders thought yogurt grew on trees.
Our estrangement from the land isn’t unusual. In fact, our increasing urbanization is viewed in economic circles as downright beneficial. One of the main economic criteria used by the World Bank to distinguish rich developed nations from poor developing ones is how few people actually work in agriculture. In the eyes of economists, the fewer farmers the better.
I understand why they do this, but it still rubs me wrong. For nearly half my life a farmer was all I aspired to be. I grew up in a rural town in eastern North Carolina and spent much of my youth working and playing on my grandfather’s farm in the county. I hunted quail, squirrels, and wood ducks in the pines, hardwood sloughs, and swamps, and fished for bass and bream in the ponds and bordering river. I worked in tobacco with the children of the black families that had lived on the farm since it was a plantation. I chopped weeds out of the cotton, mowed pastures, built fences, planted wildlife plots, helped my father harvest honey from his hives, and picked up trash along the highway. I learned how to drive a tractor years before I learned to drive a car. I don’t remember ever deciding to be a farmer. I just assumed it was my destiny. I applied to only one college, North Carolina State University, and enrolled in the School of Agriculture and Life Sciences in the fall of 1981….
The more I learned about production agriculture, however, the less certain I became. As a boy I’d watched my father clean up the family farm after my grandfather passed away, taking out the old hedgerows that provided such great habitat for the quail I loved to hunt. He sold my grandfather’s herd of Hereford and Angus cows, whose hungry lowing had been the baritone chorus of my youth, and plowed their pastures into fields. This was 1972, when Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz told every farmer in America to plant fencerow to fencerow. Farming was no longer a family affair. It was agribusiness. The American farmer was going to feed the world.
Over the years I’d watched as that rich, black bottomland soil turned into light-gray sand—little more than a growth medium to hold the crop roots that were fed by heavy applications of fertilizer. The river that had once flowed deep and clear around the pastures became a chocolate milkshake filled with eroded soil every time it rained. After the eradication of the boll weevil, cotton grew more plentiful. But it still needed frequent dousing with insecticides. The number of coveys I could find with my half-trained bird dogs dropped from four or five in a day, down to two or three, and then finally one, if we were lucky. When I asked a wildlife expert from the university what was going on, he told me that planting fencerow to fencerow had destroyed the habitat the quail loved, while the pesticides had poisoned the birds outright, weakened them so they forgot their defensive instincts, or so reduced the insect populations that baby quail chicks had little to eat. Quail, tough little birds that had flourished on southern farms since colonial days, were no match for agribusiness.
My college adviser was a barrel-chested agronomist from Pennsylvania named Bill Fike, a man I greatly respected. On a whim one day, I asked him about organic agriculture, which generated a good belly laugh from his substantial belly. “Fine for your garden,” he said, “but it’ll never feed the world.” My classmates were mostly farm boys who had been driving sprayers almost as long as they’d been riding bikes. Many of them worked for agricultural chemical companies in the summer selling farmers the latest weed or insect killers. They all firmly believed that they were providing a much-needed service—giving good, scientific advice to less educated farmers. It was part of the escalating chemical war waged on weeds and bugs that each year destroyed a third of our food supplies. What could be wrong with that?
I remember one day sitting in a weed science class during my junior year. It was a warm October afternoon and the professor had cracked a few windows to let in the sweet Carolina air. He was one of the senior faculty, famous among the student Agronomy Club for using the same mimeographed tests from the previous decade and going off on tangents when the mood struck. That afternoon, someone got him going with a question about DDT.
“The greatest chemical ever invented,” he said with surprising vehemence. “It saved millions of lives during World War II and afterwards against malaria. Rachel Carson was just a goddamn kook . . . part of a multi-million-dollar PR campaign to smear a perfectly good chemical. There was no scientific basis for that book at all.”
I’d never read Rachel Carson, but I knew the gist of Silent Spring. My father loved to fish almost as much as he loved working on the farm. We’d spent a lot of time bobbing around the North Carolina coast in our old wooden skiff from the late 1960s onward. I remembered the wonder I felt when I spotted my first brown pelican skimming over the waves like a pterodactyl from my dinosaur book. It was soon followed by the great fish hawks the ospreys, and even bald eagles that once again began nesting in the tops of tall cypress trees along Pamlico Sound—birds even my father hadn’t seen since his youth in the 1930s. I thought it was common knowledge that DDT had accumulated in their food chain, causing thinning eggshells and high chick mortality, and that they were now rebounding a decade after the chemical had been banned. I cautiously raised my hand from the back of the room.
“If that’s the case, why are we just now seeing pelicans, ospreys, and eagles coming back to the coast?”
The professor turned on me as if I’d just spat in his coffee.
“Wildlife?” he shouted with complete disdain. “It’s all cyclical!” That was it. End of discussion.
I was shocked. I knew that he’d spent much of his career testing the effectiveness of the latest pesticides, but this putative man of science was wearing chemical blinders. For the first time I realized that even tenured professors at large land-grant universities could be full of crap—and that I was just a few semesters away from a degree that I no longer believed in….
[A]fter graduation I hit the road. I sold my Scout, bought a plane ticket to Hawaii, and helped build hog fences in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. I then joined a crew of mostly British kids on an old tall ship named Zebu, after the African cow, that we sailed to Australia. I left the group in Sydney, bought a $500 car, and drove up to the Queensland outback, where I found work as a tractor driver on a big sheep and wheat station. I helped with the shearing and disked fields so big I’d make only two circuits before lunch and another two before dark.
I made enough money in the outback to get to New Zealand’s North Island, where I hitchhiked down to the farming community of Te Awamutu. There I volunteered to work on a sheep and dairy farm owned by a young couple who had five kids and were struggling to make ends meet. Milk and sheep prices were so low that Mike, a young farmer with rugged Kiwi good looks, had stooped to modeling for a clothing catalog, which spurred no end of ribbing at the local pub. I spent a few weeks helping him vaccinate sheep and milk his dairy herd amid rural valleys more beautiful than any I’d seen before, with deep-green hills covered in clover and sprinkled with white sheep.
After New Zealand I traveled to Indonesia and walked through the terraced rice fields where women and children, their backs bent, ankle deep in water, traipsed by in endless servitude to the crop. On every farm I visited, I saw the same toil, the same struggle, the same anxiety, whether it was drought or poor prices or mounting debt. By the time I got back home, I still loved the farm, but I wanted no part of farming. So I did what millions of other kids had done before me. I got a job in the city and never looked back….
In retrospect, my background served me well. At National Geographic I was frequently tapped to cover rural issues—whether Louisiana shrimpers suffering from wetland loss, Central Valley farmers struggling through record drought, or sugar barons producing biofuel in Brazil. I told my colleagues it was because I was the only one on staff who spoke fluent “redneck.” Growing up around people who worked hard to wrest a modest living from the land and waters gave me enormous sympathy and respect for their plight. I never pulled punches when covering their industries. Instead, my sympathies for the working men and women made me dig even harder into the corporate and government policies at the top that were putting those at the bottom—as well as you and me—at greater risk.
Like most journalists, I was covering random environmental brush fires around the world. It wasn’t until I was assigned to cover the global food crisis in 2008 that all the disparate issues I’d reported on over the years came into clear focus. After decades of producing surpluses and low food prices in many nations, the green revolution was over, leaving unsustainable monocultures and ecological destruction in its wake. More ominously, the system of agriculture I’d been trained in was no longer capable of feeding the 7 billion people on the planet. Pandemonium ensued. Agronomy was MEGO no more.
That spring, tens of thousands of Cairo residents walked out into the streets before dawn and performed a painful ritual that would have been familiar to the pyramid’s builders nearly 5,000 years before. They formed long lines outside of government bakeries and fought each other to buy bread. Several people died in the riots.
Egyptians eat more wheat per capita than anyone else in the world. Bread is so important there it goes by the name of aish, also the word for “life.” In the six months leading up to the riots, the world market price of wheat soared to $13 a bushel, the highest in inflation-adjusted dollars since World War I. The price of bread from Egypt’s private bakeries rose fivefold. People could still buy subsidized baladi, the flat, round loaves known as “country bread,” for a fixed price of five piastres, or one US cent, far below the cost of the wheat within it—if they could endure the long lines to get it.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, Egypt’s farmers grew enough wheat to feed the nation and even export some to their neighbors. No more. Although the high dam at Aswan, finished in 1970, expanded their irrigated area and helped triple wheat yields between the 1950s and 1990s, the number of Egyptians more than quadrupled, from 20 million in 1950 to 83 million in 2010. Farmers could not keep up. Today they harvest little more than half of the 18 million tons that Egyptians eat each year, forcing the nation to import the rest. Egypt is now the world’s largest importer of wheat.
The Egyptians were not alone. Between 2005 and 2008, the international prices of wheat and corn—known as “maize” outside the United States—tripled, while the price of rice shot up fivefold. Protesters in Haiti flooded the streets soon after the Egyptians rioted, breaking down the gates of the presidential palace. Five died, including a UN peacekeeper, all because the price of rice, beans, and cooking oil had soared out of reach. The rioters ultimately forced the resignation of Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis, who was powerless to reduce food prices. It was the same story in Cameroon, where 40 people were killed. The same in Bangladesh, in Bolivia, in Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast. The same in Mexico, Yemen, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Sri Lanka, Senegal, and Somalia.
Violent protests occurred in more than a dozen countries around the world, while many other countries took drastic action to prevent similar riots at home. Russia pressured retailers into freezing the price of basic commodities before the 2007 elections to quell growing anger at rising food prices. Vietnam, one of the world’s largest exporters of rice, banned all rice exports to preserve domestic stocks, as did India and Thailand.
Even in the United States, nearly 15 percent of households found themselves “food insecure”—the highest percentage since the US Department of Agriculture had begun measuring the statistic in 1995. The number of US citizens receiving food stamps had hovered between 20 and 25 million since 1980, but as unemployment rose during the financial crisis in 2008, more and more people needed help to feed their families. By 2012 the number had doubled, to more than 46 million.
Thanks to the global grain trade—which has been going on at least since Egypt was the bread basket for the Roman Empire— price spikes are usually short-lived, evened out by the flow of grain from countries with surpluses to those with shortfalls. Only a handful of countries, however, are fortunate enough to produce surplus grains. Bad weather in Brazil, the United States, or Russia can cause shortages that make prices rise, but they quickly fall as governments import more grain from elsewhere and farmers respond to higher prices by planting more of the crop. It’s classic supply and demand. The conventional wisdom has long been that the best cure for high grain prices is high grain prices.
This time was different. In 2007 and 2008 the world’s farmers reaped near-record grain harvests. Something was fundamentally wrong. “This is not a supply shock this time,” said Chris Barrett, an agricultural economist at Cornell University in the midst of the crisis. “This is being driven by a long-term imbalance between production and consumption.”
In other words, the world is running out of food.
In 1992, an estimated 824 million people were considered malnourished around the world. The problem was so dire that at the United Nations World Food Summit of 1996, the developed countries committed to halving world hunger by 2015.
Progress has been pitifully slow. A month from that mark, the number of hungry has fallen by less than 20 million. If the 805 million malnourished people on the planet were gathered into one nation, it would have the third largest population, behind China and India—almost the size of the populations of the United States and the European Union combined. As horrific as that is, more than twice that number of people are undernourished, unable to get essential vitamins and minerals from the foods they eat. In 2014, some 2 billion people, mostly poor women and children, suffered such “hidden hunger,” often leading to stunting, blindness, cognitive problems, susceptibility to disease, and early death.
Poverty is partly to blame. The world’s farmers produce enough calories today to feed 9 billion people a healthy, 2,700-calorie- per-day, mostly vegetarian diet. Unfortunately, the bulk of those calories are grown on fertile, well-watered lands half a world away from the people who need them most, and they cost money to transport. When nearly half the planet lives on less than two dollars per day—like 16 million Egyptians—price spikes can make three, or even two meals a day impossible to afford.
The food riots in Haiti in 2008 revealed the pitfalls of relying on free trade to provide a poor nation with its staple grain. Haiti had been self-sufficient in rice as late as the mid-1980s. But in 1994, when President Bill Clinton restored ousted President Jean Bertrand Aristide to power, he requested that Aristide drop Haiti’s protective tariffs on imported rice. The country was soon flooded with cheap “Miami rice” from the United States, a crop that is heavily subsidized and grown in just a few states, including Clinton’s home state of Arkansas. The imports destroyed local rice production—Haiti’s small farmers simply couldn’t compete—and left the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere at the mercy of the international grain market. From then on, Haiti imported the bulk of its rice from the United States, while the US Agency for International Development (USAID) tried to help Haiti’s farmers grow cash crops like coffee and mangoes to sell back to American shoppers. US diplomats defended the policy even as Haitians were rioting in the streets and filling their children’s stomachs with cookies made from butter, salt, and dirt.
Two years after the riots, former president Clinton—now a UN special envoy to Haiti—publicly apologized for the rice policy that had done so much harm to Haiti’s people, as well as for the impact of decades of agricultural trade liberalization on poor countries around the globe.
“It has not worked,” Clinton said bluntly. “It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake. . . . I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did. Nobody else. . . . And it’s failed everywhere it’s been tried. You just can’t take the food chain out of production.”
The other, more worrisome problem is global grain reserves. Most years the world’s farmers easily grow more grain than the world’s consumers can use. The surplus is stored in grain elevators or warehouses as insurance against a bad crop the following year. These reserves also help keep prices down. Cereal grain production fell short of consumption only three years during the 1960s, and three years during the 1970s. The number of deficit years rose to five during the dry 1980s and fell back to four years in the 1990s.
Since 2000, however, the world has consumed more grain than it has grown in 8 years out of 12, whittling down global stock-piles to less than 70 days of consumption—the lowest levels since the mid-1970s. In 2007, world grain reserves fell to a 61-day supply, the second lowest level on record, helping fuel the panic that drove the food price crisis. The reasons for the drawdown are multiple and complex, but the trend is clear. Demand is slowly outstripping supply.
Population growth is the classic driver of food demand. The world has nearly 80 million more mouths to feed each year, and we will have another 2.4 billion people by midcentury. That’s like adding another China and India to the global table. While poverty is part of the problem, it’s compounded by the fact that much of the world is getting richer. When people have more money, they tend to eat more meat and dairy products. It takes five times more grain to get the equivalent amount of calories from pork as it does from simply eating the grain itself. Ten times more in the case of grain-fattened beef. More than two-thirds of the world’s agricultural land is already used to grow feed for livestock, yet world meat consumption is on track to double by 2020. If everyone in the world ate as much meat as Americans do (176 pounds per person per year), we’d need to find another planet to raise the feed and fodder for all our livestock.
We are not simply feeding more food to ourselves and our farm animals. We are now feeding it to our cars as well. Ethanol distilleries currently consume more than a third of the US corn crop; land devoted to biofuel crops is projected to increase fourfold by 2030, rising to 10 percent of all arable land in the United States and 15 percent of farmland in Europe.
With grain consumption spurred by increases in livestock, cars, and people, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization projects that we’ll need to boost grain production by at least 70 percent by 2050. Other agricultural experts put the number even higher, at 80–110 percent. Gebisa Ejeta, a plant breeder at Purdue University who won the 2009 World Food Prize—the Nobel for aggies— put that number into perspective: “We’ll have to learn to produce as much food in the next four decades as we have since the beginning of civilization.”
That in itself would be a nearly impossible task. But an additional hurdle lies in our way. The fundamental requirements for growing food grains haven’t changed much in the past 10,000 years: suitable soil, adequate freshwater, and a climate that food crops can endure. The first two are finite resources, already showing their natural limits as we plow under the last available farmland and steadily drain our aquifers. A benign climate also seems a thing of the past. Though disappearing ice caps and horrific “superstorms” grab the headlines, the largest, most devastating impact of climate change will be on our ability to grow food.
Agricultural experts are already seeing its effects on important crops. The heat wave that hit Europe in 2003 resulted in the deaths of 72,000 people—a headline-making climate tragedy. What most journalists missed, however, was the 20–36 percent plummet in grain and fruit yields that year from crops withered by the heat. In 2010, Russia, one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, lost a third of its crop, thanks to the hottest summer since 1500. Back-to-back droughts in the United States during 2012 and 2013 were the worst since the 1950s, affecting over half the nation’s farmland and costing more than $30 billion. The drought-driven food price spikes during 2012 were the third to occur in the previous four years, and they continued to spur social unrest and violence around the world. Just as bread riots ignited the French Revolution, high food prices helped spur the Arab Spring.
The scientific consensus is that we need to limit the rise of global average surface temperatures to 2°C to avoid world-altering climate change. In 2013, our emissions were on track to increase temperatures as much as 3.6°C–5.3°C by century’s end. And here’s the scariest part: a broad review of climate change studies published by England’s Royal Society—the oldest and most prestigious scientific group in the world—concluded that a 4°C increase could make half of the world’s current farmland unsuitable for agriculture. The ultimate irony is that agriculture, as currently practiced, is one of the greatest offenders, pumping out a third of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. We are literally farming ourselves out of food.
We’ve actually been in this situation before, but it’s not a comparison that gives anyone any comfort. Anthropologists have long pondered why, in the 200,000-year history of Homo sapiens, it took so long to develop agriculture, which appeared on the planet only about 10,000–12,000 years ago. Some anthropologists and climatologists now believe that growing crops actually may have been impossible during the previous interglacial periods because of weather extremes. Ice cores in Greenland and lake bed sediments in Europe and North America contain an incredibly detailed climate record of the last 200,000 years, showing large, abrupt spikes of warm and cold periods, wet and dry periods, some of which lasted only a decade or two. Disastrous floods, droughts, and windstorms were much more frequent before the relatively warm, wet, stable Holocene climate of the last 11,000 years that enabled farming to flourish. The not-so-subtle warning is that increasing climate volatility caused by human-induced climate change could, at some point, end agriculture as we know it. And, as one of my agronomy professors liked to say, there can be no culture without agriculture.
As I walked across the eroded fields of Malawi, saw the effects of Punjab’s pesticide-poisoned groundwater, and toured massive hog farms in China, the agronomist stirred within me. It became abundantly clear that the 7.3 billion of us who share this incredible planet are intimately connected by our dependence on the soil, the waters, and the climate that feeds us. And unless we put forth a global effort to change our trajectory, these primal elements that have enabled our species to flourish and dominate the planet will not sustain us much longer….It’s not hard to imagine an aging, wealthy, and heavily armed Fortress Europe or Fortress America inhabited by 20 percent of the world’s temperate agricultural “haves” attempting to wall off the remaining 80 percent of the world’s population—the young, poor, tropical and subtropical agricultural “have-nots,” who will do their best to get in. Barring a dramatic decline in population growth, a rapid decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, or a global outbreak of vegetarianism—all of which are trending in the opposite direction at the moment—we’re facing nothing less than the end of plenty for the majority of Earth’s people.
Excerpted from The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World by Joel K. Bourne Jr. Copyright (C) 2015 by Joel K. Bourne Jr. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
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