Full Planet, Empty Plates

Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity by Lester Brown (Reviewed by Honor Eldridge)


In this book, Brown addresses the booming global population and the expanding demand for food. He worries that “the world may be much closer to an unmanageable food shortage – replete with soaring food prices, spreading food unrest, and ultimately political instability – than most people realize”.


As climate change stresses the planet’s resources, humanity’s ability to grow and produce food is being tested. With record temperatures, low rainfall and an ever-increasing number of extreme weather events, crop-yields have dramatically decreased. As Brown says “Food is the new oil. Land is the new gold”. Those most feeling the effects are those in developing nations in the global south. Poor agricultural practices are exacerbating the problem. “Nearly a third of the world’s cropland is losing topsoil faster than new soil is forming, reducing the land’s inherent fertility”, leading to new dust bowls and deserts to emerge across the world. Similarly 40% of the world’s irrigated area now depends on aquifers, a resource that is being pushed to its limit to meet the demand. Staple crops like rice and corn are particularly vulnerable to changes to the climate and therefore yields of crops that the vast majority of the global population rely on are decreasing year on year.


Beyond the growing population, part of what is driving the increased demand (and therefore the scarcity) is the rising incomes of countries like China and India. “In every society where incomes have risen, the appetite for meat, milk, eggs and seafood has generated an enormous growth in animal protein consumption” to the detriment of the planet. Meat consumption in the US peaked in 2007 and has been decreasing since then but when the population growth in Sub-Saharan Africa is set to reach 2.2bn by 2050 the problem is set to become even more pronounced.


Brown’s book clearly and carefully details the issues at play. Food systems are fragile and are currently in crisis. He reviews each aspect and contributing factor in order to make is easily understandable to the wider public. As a concise book, it provides a clear introduction to food and climate change for those who haven’t yet come to see the importance of this issue.