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Lester Brown's Posts

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The Downfall of the Plastic Bag: A Global Picture

By Janet Larsen and Savina Venkova Worldwide, a trillion single-use plastic bags are used each year, nearly 2 million each minute. Usage varies widely among countries, from over 400 a year for many East Europeans, to just four a year for people in Denmark and Finland. Plastic bags, made of depletable natural gas or petroleum resources, are often used only for a matter of minutes. Yet they last in the environment for hundreds of years, shredding into ever-smaller pieces but never fully breaking down. Over the last century, plastic has taken over the planet. On the one hand, plastic seems …

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Fisheries and Aquaculture Fact Sheet

The world fish catch is a measure of the productivity and health of the oceanic ecosystem that covers 70 percent of the earth's surface. The extent to which world demand for seafood is outrunning the sustainable yield of fisheries can be seen in shrinking fish stocks, declining catches, and collapsing fisheries. Seafood plays a vital role in world food security. Roughly 3 billion people get about 20 percent of their animal protein from fishery products. The world fish catch has hovered around 90 million tons over the last 20 years. The wild fish catch per person has dropped dramatically, from …

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Can We Prevent A Food Breakdown?

As food supplies have tightened, a new geopolitics of food has emerged—a world in which the global competition for land and water is intensifying and each country is fending for itself. We cannot claim that we are unaware of the trends that are undermining our food supply and thus our civilization. We know what we need to do. There was a time when if we got into trouble on the food front, ministries of agriculture would offer farmers more financial incentives, like higher price supports, and things would soon return to normal. But responding to the tightening of food supplies …

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U.S.-India: Dealing With Monsoon Failure

The scene plays out in India. At a reception, I met the head of Indian operations for Esso (now ExxonMobil). When I asked him how business was, he said it was great. In particular, diesel sales to fuel irrigation pumps were nearly double the previous year’s level. Why? Because farmers were pumping continuously to try to save their crops. Soon after, I met an embassy staff person, an avid duck hunter. He usually took off a few weeks in the fall to go hunting on a lake up north. This year he had canceled his vacation because the lake was …

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Peak Water and Food Scarcity

At the international level, water conflicts among countries dominate the headlines. But within countries it is the competition for water between cities and farms that preoccupies political leaders. Neither economics nor politics favors farmers. They almost always lose out to cities. Indeed, in many countries farmers now face not only a shrinking water supply but also a shrinking share of that shrinking supply. In large areas of the United States, such as the southern Great Plains and the Southwest, virtually all water is now spoken for. The growing water needs of major cities and thousands of small towns often can …

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Many Countries Reaching Diminishing Returns in Fertilizer Use

When German chemist Justus von Liebig demonstrated in 1847 that the major nutrients that plants removed from the soil could be applied in mineral form, he set the stage for the development of the fertilizer industry and a huge jump in world food production a century later. Growth in food production during the nineteenth century came primarily from expanding cultivated area. It was not until the mid-twentieth century, when land limitations emerged and raising yields became essential, that fertilizer use began to rise. The growth in the world fertilizer industry after World War II was spectacular. Between 1950 and 1988, …

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Moving Up the Food Chain

For most of the time that human beings have walked the earth, we lived as hunter-gatherers. The share of the human diet that came from hunting versus gathering varied with geographic location, hunting skills, and the season of the year. During the northern hemisphere winter, for instance, when there was little food to gather, people there depended heavily on hunting for survival. Our long history as hunter-gatherers left us with an appetite for animal protein that continues to shape diets today. As recently as the closing half of the last century, a large part of the growth in demand for …

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China and the Soybean Challenge

Some 3,000 years ago, farmers in eastern China domesticated the soybean. In 1765, the first soybeans arrived in North America, but they did not soon catch on as a crop. For 150 years or so the soybean languished as a curiosity in gardens. Then in the late 1920s, a market for soybean oil began to develop, moving the soybean from the garden to the field. During the 1930s, soybean production in the United States climbed from 400,000 tons to over 2 million tons. And as growth in the demand for the oil gained momentum, soybean production jumped to over 8 …

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10 Things to Know About Food on World Food Day

October 16 is World Food Day. It offers the opportunity to strengthen national and international solidarity in the fight to end hunger, malnutrition, and poverty. With falling water tables, eroding soils, and rising temperatures making it difficult to feed growing populations, control of arable land and water resources is moving to center stage in the global struggle for food security. Here are some facts to consider: There will be 219,000 people at the dinner table tonight who were not there last night—many of them with empty plates. Ensuring adequate food supplies was once a rather simple matter, the sole responsibility …

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U.S. Nuclear Power in Decline

By J. Matthew Roney Nuclear power generation in the United States is falling. After increasing rapidly since the 1970s, electricity generation at U.S. nuclear plants began to grow more slowly in the early 2000s. It then plateaued between 2007 and 2010—before falling more than 4 percent over the last two years. Projections for 2013 show a further 1 percent drop. With reactors retiring early and proposed projects being abandoned, U.S. nuclear power’s days are numbered. The nuclear industry's troubles began well before the 1979 accident at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear plant sowed public mistrust of atomic power. In 1957, …

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