The Daily Ticker Blog

Food Is the New Oil and Land the New Gold: Lester Brown

Bernice Napach

The United Nations food agency reports that food prices are rising again, reaching 6-month highs and nearing levels not since 2008. Higher prices then spurred food riots in the Middle East and North Africa, which fueled the Arab Spring.

There's no sign of widespread food riots now but eventually there could be, says Lester Brown, president and founder of the Earth Policy Institute and author of the new book "Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity."

Related: Why Rising Corn Prices Matter To Your Bottom Line

"The term 'food unrest' will become part of our daily vocabulary," Brown tells The Daily Ticker.

It reflects the imbalance between the supply of food and demand for food globally.

On the demand side, says Brown, is a growing global population -- 80 million more people born each year -- and more people moving up the food chain, which means as many as 3 billion people are consuming more "grain intensive products" like meat, milk and eggs. "Rising affluence may have eclipsed population growth" as a major demand factor for food prices, says Brown.

And in the U.S. about one-third of the corn crop is diverted to produce ethanol for gasoline. "We're now using more grain to fuel cars than to feed livestock and poultry" says Brown.

Related: Food Prices Heading Higher: Midwest Drought Takes Heavy Toll

On the supply side, severe drought in the U.S., Russia, the Ukraine, Pakistan and Kazakhstan have crushed grain harvests at a time when crop yields are stagnating in many countries. "Rice yields in Japan haven't increased at all and the same is true for wheat yields in France, Germany and the U.K," says Brown. He doesn't expect that "glass ceiling" will be broken anytime soon.

"We're doing everything we know how to do. We've eliminated nutrient constraints, moisture constraints and we've designed the most efficient plans we can….there's not much else to do."

Related: Midwest Drought: Is It the Cause of Higher Gasoline Prices?

The impact of all this are higher food prices in the U.S. and more competition for U.S. grains from China—which dominates soybean consumption now, says Brown. But in countries like Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Peru and The Republic of the Congo the effect is much more dramatic.

"There are now millions of families in the world that plan foodless days. They can't afford to buy enough food at inflated prices to maintain their consumption levels," says Brown.

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