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Goldmark: The food squeeze is tightening all around us

Corn plants weakened by the drought lie on

Corn plants weakened by the drought lie on the ground after being knocked over by rain in Bennington, Neb. (Sept. 19, 2012) Credit: AP

We have drifted into a serious and fascinating global problem that will affect every human being on this planet: the food squeeze. For the first time in decades, we're on the verge of producing too little food to feed the planet.

As with all perfect storms, several forces are converging to create this danger. They include:

Falling water tables, particularly in the three biggest food producers: the United States, India and China.

Global warming-driven increases in temperatures and drought that reduce crop yield, as was dramatically the case here in the United States this summer.

Slowdown in grain-productivity increases derived from technology breakthroughs, as new advances appear less powerful than the previous round.

Growing population in the poorer countries.

Soil erosion, in large part from overgrazing.

The conversion of food stocks -- largely corn -- into biofuel for cars.

Rising grain demand as people around the globe move up the food chain to middle-class diets with more meat and poultry.

Overfishing of many of the world's fisheries.

Many of these trends are deeply rooted, long-term trends that will not be easily reversed. A new book by Lester Brown called "Full Planet, Empty Plates" tells us that over the past decade, world grain reserves have fallen by a third and food prices have doubled. Most Americans spend about 10 percent of their income on food. But millions of families in poor countries need to spend as much as 80 percent -- and for them, a big increase in food prices can spell disaster. A recent survey by Save the Children in India reported that a quarter of Indian families experience foodless days. For them, the food squeeze has already begun.

The United States sits in an interesting position as the jaws of the squeeze begin to close around poor countries. American agriculture is enormously productive, and we still have some unused capacity. U.S. agricultural know-how has been the source of high-yield grains used around the world. The United States is not far advanced in water conservation, so for our own sake we will have to get serious on that subject as well.

The world is fast becoming interdependent in terms of food economy. Asian countries are beginning to battle over that continent's rivers. Exports from the major food producers -- including the United States, Europe, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Australia -- will be needed by the emerging economies and the poor countries of Asia and Africa. And along the way we are going to have to stabilize the planet's population and encourage people to eat only as much meat as they need, not more.

What do we need to do? The first steps are clear. We must build up global grain reserves so we can ride out sudden shocks and droughts, and prevent individual countries from shutting down exports when a bad crop season hits someone else. Russia and Vietnam, for example, both temporarily closed off exports in recent years, which sharpened the squeeze on grain importers who relied on them.

We need the food surplus countries, led by the United States, to start producing more food, sustainably, for the long haul. And the United States needs to stop the inefficient manufacture of biofuels from grains better suited to produce food. The grain turned into ethanol here in 2011 could have fed some 400 million people.

We also need all the countries of the world, especially those like Israel that have pioneered efficient drip irrigation, to pool their knowledge on water and soil conservation. Soil and water are the indispensable ingredients for food, and we need to make sure supplies of both are adequate and environmentally sustainable.

Oil-price spikes and shortages are one thing. Food spikes and shortages would be a hundred times more disruptive and dangerous. But we can avoid them if we address the food squeeze now.

Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.