Tough Choices: Facing the Challenge of Food Scarcity

Author: Lester R. Brown
ISBN: 0-393-31573-8
159 pages
September 1996

Food scarcity is emerging as the defining issue of the new era now unfolding, much as ideological conflict was the defining issue of the historical era that recently ended. More fundamentally, food scarcity may be the first major economic manifestation of an environmentally unsustainable global economy.

In Tough Choices: Facing the Challenge of Food Scarcity, Lester Brown observes that prices were climbing because world carryover stocks of grain had fallen to 48 days of consumption, the lowest level on record, and production was falling behind demand. Brown argues that the continually expanding demand for food is colliding with some of the earth's natural limits, including the sustainable yield of oceanic fisheries, the sustainable yield of aquifers that supply irrigation water, and the physiological limits of crop varieties to use fertilizer.

Tough Choices notes that while the growth in production is slowing, the growth in demand may be growing faster than ever before. The world continues to add 90 million people a year, but in addition, the Asian economy, led by China, is growing by 8 percent a year, boosting incomes and the consumption of grain-intensive livestock products at record rates. As the region's 3.1 billion people, more than half of the world total, move up the food chain, it puts great pressure on the earth's land and water resources.

Tough Choices is about just that. Some developing country governments that have waited too long to stabilize their populations may now have to choose between quickly slowing population growth or sacrificing any hope of dietary improvements. In water-scarce regions, governments will have to choose between water for indoor plumbing and water for irrigation. Densely populated countries, such as China, India, and Indonesia, will have to decide whether to use land for automobile-centered transportation systems or to satisfy their food needs.