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Book Review: “Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity” by Lester R. Brown

By Visiting Animal — February 05, 2014

Ken Swensen last joined us at Our Hen House when he reviewed Dave Simon’s Meatonomics: The Bizarre Economics of Meat and Dairy. Not sure about you, but we at OHH fell in love with Ken’s brain, and are delighted to welcome him back today to review a different – yet equally important – book, Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity by Lester R. Brown. If you have ever claimed to be an environmentalist, read this review – and read this book. 

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“Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity” by Lester R. Brown

Review by Ken Swensen

“The purpose of this book is to help people everywhere recognize that time is running out.” 

So begins Lester R. Brown in Full Planet, Empty Plates, his latest effort to alert us that what’s at stake is nothing less than the fate of human civilization. Like Bill McKibben, Al Gore, James Hansen, David Orr and many others, Lester Brown is pleading with us to rise from our slumber. So why would Our Hen House readers choose this particular environmental overview? Because Mr. Brown is informed on every aspect of the threats we face, is an outstanding writer with crystal clear explanations and complete command of the facts, and most of all because he is the rare environmentalist that understands the devastating impacts of animal agriculture.

To praise the writings of Lester Brown one must stand in a long line of notable critics. The Washington Post calls him “one of the world’s most influential thinkers.” The Financial Times reviewer called his earlier book, Plan B, “the best book on the environment I’ve ever read.” Personally, I have not read a more important book than Full Planet, Empty Plates.

At 123 fact-filled pages, Full Planet is the distillation of 40 years’ experience at the forefront of the environmental movement. (Mr. Brown founded Worldwatch Institute in 1974 and Earth Policy Institute in 2001.) The critical question is whether we hear his wake-up call. We are at the point of no return; the fate of humans and millions of other species hangs in the balance.

Mr. Brown believes that like civilizations past, environmental degradation is leading to a sharply diminished global food supply. The demand for food is rising inexorably, while our ability to increase production is about to hit a wall. If we do not make an immediate environmental U-turn, Mr. Brown warns that food insecurity will spread, “eventually bringing down our social system.” Overpopulation, rising meat consumption, and ethanol production are all increasing the demand for food. Meanwhile, rising global temperatures, soil erosion, desertification, aquifer depletion, and a finite quantity of arable land are limiting supply.

The book is filled with amazing facts, most of them deeply disturbing. A single sentence was sometimes enough to drive me to the internet to research a particularly mind-blowing state of affairs. For example:

** India has 2 percent of the world’s land, 18 percent of the world’s people, and 15 percent of the world’s cattle. Due to overgrazing and drought, “25 percent of India’s land surface is slowly turning into desert.”

** Half of the world’s people live in countries that are depleting their aquifers. Water reserves that were created over millennia are being emptied over decades.

** Scientists’ consensus estimate is that crop yields will decline by 10 percent for each 1-degree-Celsius rise in temperature, though one credible study places that figure at 17 percent. (The projected temperature rise by the end of the century is 6 degrees Celsius should we continue on our current path.)

Mr. Brown devotes an entire chapter to China’s demand for soybeans, 90 percent of which are fed to pigs. Rapidly rising meat consumption in China may be the most alarming development on the planet. “Put simply, saving the Amazon rainforest now depends on curbing the growth in demand for soybeans,” explains Mr. Brown. Meanwhile, 1.3 billion increasingly affluent Chinese aspire to American levels of meat consumption, and China is developing a massive factory farming system spanning national borders in order to satisfy that demand.

Unfortunately, rather than suggesting healthier plant-based diets as a solution to the devastating effects of animal agriculture, Mr. Brown proposes animal farming systems that more efficiently convert grain into meat, fish or dairy products. He does urge us to “reduce excessive meat consumption, ” noting that a large segment of the world’s populace is consuming meat at unhealthy levels. Still, there is no mention of the words “vegetarian” or “vegan,” and only the slightest nod to the unbearable conditions under which most animals are raised for food. Indeed, his use of the words “animal protein” or simply “protein” to refer to food products from animals helps perpetuate the myth that animal products uniquely serve our protein requirements.

Still, the acknowledgement of the destructiveness of the world’s animal agriculture systems is an environmental breath of fresh air. Mr. Brown’s authoritative voice warns that the developing world’s rush towards more factory farmed meat and fish will come at a very high price. And so I believe he is a potential ally of the animal rights movement. Humans and the rest of the animal kingdom are inextricably linked. The chaotic world Mr. Brown conjures, when human food supplies have dwindled, would likely be a devastating one for animals; most wildlife would be hunted to extinction, habitats further destroyed for short-term gain, and critical environmental concerns waylaid.

Mr. Brown’s proposed reforms are urgent and exceedingly difficult to enact. We need to halt population growth, eradicate poverty, reduce meat consumption, reverse biofuels policies, conserve soil and water, and stabilize climate. As if that’s not difficult enough, he adds that “time is our scarcest resource.” Sad to say, these changes are almost impossible to visualize over a short time frame. Indeed, the U.N. predicts world population will hit 9.3 billion by 2050 and meat consumption is expected to double over 40 years. No country has ever reversed the depletion of aquifers, soil quality is diminishing throughout the world, the largest known deserts on earth are now being created, the rainforests continue to shrink, and the world’s carbon emissions are growing at an alarming rate.

To be a well-informed environmentalist is to test the limits of optimism. For those who wish to be so informed and thereby tested, Full Planet, Empty Plates is required reading.

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Headshot_KS_OHHKen Swensen is a lifetime New Yorker. Forty years ago he gave up meat and dairy and switched to a macrobiotic diet. Three years ago he became a vegan and realized that animals need all the help we can muster. Ken runs a small business, trying to get two kids thru college. He volunteers for ACTAsia for Animals supporting their work teaching Chinese schoolchildren compassion for animals and respect for the environment. He has an MBA from New York University.






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