College of Agriculture & Natural Resources
Agricultural & Resource Economics

UMD Hall of Fame Alum Lectures on "Food as the New Oil"

AREC graduate headlines new Distinguished Lecture Series
Image Credit: 
Earth Policy Institute

For its inaugural Distinguished Lecture Series, the University of Maryland Council on the Environment featured world-renowned environmental analyst Lester Brown, a UMD Hall of Fame alum who received a master’s degree in agricultural economics from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Brown spoke to a crowd of more than 200 about his most recent book, Full Planet, Empty Plate: The Geopolitics of Food Scarcity.

When he first began his career as a member of the U.S. Department of Foreign Agriculture Service in 1959, the world was dominated by an era of food surplus. And now, 53 years later, the world is plagued with extreme food scarcity, and resources such as corn, grain and soy beans are at an all-time high in price.

“Families are beginning to plan foodless days,” Brown claimed. In Nigeria, 27% of the families set up two foodless days a week, as well as 14% of the families in Peru, and those aren’t the only places. With these days becoming part of life for families across the world, the facts are becoming obvious. “Hunger not only spreads,” said Brown. “It deepens.”

Some countries are forced to halt their exports simply to keep food prices down. “Food panic formed a new geopolitics,” said Brown solemnly. “Food became oil.”

Among other reasons, Brown cited population growth, the use of grain to produce ethanol for cars, and climate change as the main catalysts that are increasing this food problem.

“There are 80 million new people a year where we are already over-populated," said Brown. "And 219,000 people will be at the dinner table tonight who weren’t there last night.”

In the past year according to Brown, 124 million tons of grain was used to produce ethanol. Brown said the amount of grain used to fuel a 25 gallon SUV tank is enough to feed one person for a year.

On the subject of climate change, Brown said crops are more commonly going into thermal shock due to the rising temperatures across the planet.

As for solutions, Brown urged the need to “cut carbon emissions by 80%, not by 2050, but by 2020.”Brown said it will require a “war-time mobilization” and that it is important to make the shift from fossil fuel to renewable energy.

“One of the keys is redefining security,” said Brown, acknowledging that security today was developed in a time plagued by two world wars and the Cold War. He said it needs to be redefined in a fiscal sense.

Brown ended the lecture in a serious tone. “Civilization itself is at risk,” he warned. “What do we do?” Answering his own question, Brown said it can start by everyone finding their own issue they are interested in and doing research to solve it.

“Each of us needs to get involved,” he concluded, “Saving civilization is something we all have a stake in.”

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