Brown is probably the world's leading expert on food security. The prolific
author of more than 50 books has shifted the goal posts on food politics
debates many times over, starting with his first book in 1963, Man, Land and Food. His most famous
book, Who Will Feed China?, launched
conversations from Washington to London to Beijing about agricultural
productivity in the world's most populous country. His books on international
environmental issues have been translated into more than 40 languages.
significant amount of Russia's fields near Moscow going up in flames this
summer, following a severe drought, Brown weighs in on what he finds most
worrisome -- and what the future of global food security might look like.
Foreign Policy:When's the last time Russia faced
a predicament like these recent droughts?
Lester Brown: Well, Russia has never seen
anything exactly like this. One of the interesting things about the heat wave
in Russia this year was, one, that it lasted two months -- it started in mid-late
June and went until mid-August.
other thing is that the average temperature in Moscow in July was 14 degrees
higher than the norm. I mean, that is a huge jump. If it had been one day or a
few days, that would have been one thing, but for the average for a month to be
that high is a little bit scary because it is an example of the kinds of more
extreme climate events that the climate models say we should expect as
FP:If the elevated temperatures and
drought had happened in one of the world's breadbaskets -- say, the American
Midwest or China -- what might the impact have been?
LB: While the heat wave in Russia
reduced their grain harvest -- and I'll use round numbers and say from 100
million tons to 60 million tons, so they lost 40 million tons -- it could have
been much worse.
heat wave had been centered in Chicago, we would have lost at least 150 million
tons of grain, maybe 200 million tons of grain. If the temperature of Chicago
had been 14 degrees above normal during July, there would be chaos in world
because the area around Chicago is such an exceptional piece of agricultural
real estate. Just to give you an example of how productive it is, the U.S.
state of Iowa produces more grain than Canada.
is much more like Canada. It's relatively low rainfall, it's pretty far north,
and you're growing wheat not corn, so yields are not very high. Even when
you're using the most productive technologies and inputs and so forth, you
don't get very high yields in either Canada or Russia.
FP:What if the droughts had been in
the North China plains?
LB: Well that's the other worrisome
scenario. The two most dangerous places in the world to have a drought like the
one near Moscow this summer would be a drought centered in Chicago or one
centered in Beijing.
is located in the North China Plain. The North China Plain produces half of
China's wheat and a third of its corn. China, like the United States, produces
400 million tons of grain a year. So anything that took a big chunk of their
grain supply would have had an enormous effect on the world.
where China would likely have come to buy grain in the event of a drought would
have been the United States, because we are the leading grain exporter. So for
American consumers, if the Moscow heat wave had been in Beijing, we would see
our food prices going up dramatically and the temptation would be, politically
of course, to restrict exports, to keep our food prices under control. But
China is our banker today and so there are limits.
FP:According to the Wall Street Journal, for the first
time in more than a decade, China is importing significant amounts of corn from
the United States. Is this year exceptional, because of flooding or other
factors driving down yields in China? Or is China now coming onto the world
grain market in a big way? I know Beijing doesn't release specific data about
LB: No one knows for sure whether
the dam is about to break in China -- whether China is permanently coming into
the world market for large quantities of grain.
can tell you that the things that really impact grain harvests are high
temperatures, heat waves, and drought. That's when you get the really big
reductions in harvests. And this year? Flooding, though it can be very
destructive locally, doesn't usually have a major impact on the size of a
country's grain harvest.
factor is the Chinese are losing a lot of cropland as they build more factories
and cities expand, as they build roads and highways and parking lots. Last
year, there were 12 million new car sales in China. This year, they estimate
there will be 17 million. Last year they passed the United States -- we sold
just over 11 million vehicles; they sold 12 million. But at 17 million, they're
going to be way ahead of us this year.
add cars, you have to pave land. You just can't keep adding cars without
paving. You need more roads, more highways, more parking lots. And China's
losing land at a pretty good clip now in part because of the enormous growth in
their automobile fleet. In this country, the rule of thumb is that for every
five cars you have to pave one acre -- roughly a football field.
are the things on the supply side that are making it difficult for China to keep
up with a near record growth in demand because in China, a large part of its
1.3 billion population is moving up the food chain and consuming more
grain-intensive livestock products.
now consumes far more meat in total than in the United States. It accounts for
roughly half of the world's pork consumption. Half the world's pigs live in
China, and it takes a lot of grain to feed those pigs.
FP:How has your thinking on China
changed since the publication of your 1995 book, Who Will Feed China?
LB: First, that book had an enormous
impact in starting conversations in Beijing. The idea that China would have to
import grain from the outside world, and that a good part would have to come
through the United States, was rather scary.
rather scary because -- though I knew it intellectually, I hadn't fully
absorbed the emotion of the situation -- all the leaders in Beijing at that
time and indeed today are survivors of the great famine of 1959 to 1961, when
according to official numbers, 30 million people starved to death. That sort of
experience affects how one thinks about food security. As a result, China's
leaders started investing more heavily in agriculture; they raised the support
price of grain to encourage farmers to produce as much as they could; they
invested in irrigation efficiency; they invested enormously in agricultural
much further can they continue to increase productivity? The problem today is
they now have their rice yields up to the level of the Japanese -- and the
Japanese hit the rice yield ceiling about a dozen years ago. Rice yields
haven't been rising in Japan, nor are they likely to rise much more in China.
So the Chinese are hitting some sort of technological limit now with the
rather substantial increases in grain production over the last 15 years.
China produced almost 15 million tons of soybeans. They consumed 15 million
tons of soybeans. In 2010, they will again produce 15 million tons of soybeans,
and they will consume 61 million tons -- which means they're importing like 46
million tons of soybeans. Now that is equal to more than 100 million tons of
grain in terms of resource requirements on land, water, and so forth. Demand is
going up and up.
the one area where my thinking has changed somewhat is that I've always before
been reluctant in thinking about things in a very broad sort of historical
sweep. But we know that when earlier civilizations declined and collapsed, it
was most often because of a shrinkage of their food supply. In the Sumerians it
was rising salt levels in the soil, with the Mayans it was soil erosion
associated with deforestation and over-plowing.
of assumed that in our modern world, food could not be the weak link. I now
think not only that it could be, but that it probably will be the weak link.
And if I were to do a scenario that would take us from failing states to a
failing global civilization, one of them would be the one I just described -- a
Moscow-type heat wave centered in Chicago that would decimate the U.S. grain
harvest. Another would be a heat wave of similar magnitude near Beijing.
On special guided trips, arranged for tourists and
permitted by Pyongyang, Patrick Chovanec, a professor at Tsinghua University's
School of Economics and Management in Beijing, has twice visited North Korea.
On each trip, he and his fellow travelers were accompanied by official guides,
only permitted in certain areas, and asked to delete "objectionable" photos
from their digital cameras. Yet the visits afforded Chovanec a rare glimpse
inside the Hermit Kingdom.
FP recently caught up with Chovanec to share his
experiences to take us, vicariously, inside Kim Il Sung's mausoleum, a North
Korean classroom, and a gilded casino that has seen better days. What we
learned: North Korea is indeed a real place, where ordinary people must make
due in extraordinary circumstances.
Policy: When were you in North Korea -- and where did you visit?
Chovanec: I've made two trips to North Korea. The first was
two years ago, in October 2008. I visited the capital, Pyongyang, and some
surrounding sites including the DMZ [demilitarized zone]. It was organized as
part of a special U.S. citizen tour invited to witness the Mass Games. At the
time, we were told our group marked the 1000th U.S. citizen to visit the
country since the end of the Korean War.
I just returned from my second trip in July. This
time I saw a very different part of the country, the Rason "Special Economic
Zone" in the far northeast corner of North Korea, bordering Russia and China. Only
a handful of Americans -- or any Westerners, for that matter -- have been
allowed to go there. This is the border zone where the two U.S. journalists,
Euna Lee and Laura Ling, were captured last year.
kind of restrictions do foreign visitors face? Were you free to move about?
Americans tend to assume that traveling to North Korea is illegal, like Cuba,
but that's incorrect. There are economic sanctions, so you can't do business
there, and since there are no diplomatic ties the State Department warns that
you're essentially on your own. But the main barrier has always been on the
North Korean side, which rarely grants visas to U.S. citizens. That's started
to change in the past few years, but only a few groups are allowed in every
Visiting North Korea is unlike visiting any other
country. It's very restrictive. You cannot bring your cell phone into the
country. When you enter, they mark down any books you bring in, and you're
expected to take same number out again. Bibles or anything related to [South] Korea
is prohibited. Each group has two "minders" to keep an eye on everyone. You
cannot leave the hotel without a minder, and when outside, you must stay with
the group at all times (and that's no joke -- in 2008, a 53 year-old South
Korean tourist who wandered off on her own to watch the sunrise was shot in the
head and killed by a soldier). You must ask the minders' permission before
taking any photo, although most visitors end up taking hundreds of photos
anyway. When you exit the country, however, the border guards may review the
photos in your camera and make you delete any they find objectionable.
What were your impressions of Pyongyang?
is the country's showcase. Living there is a privilege granted only to the
regime's most loyal and useful subjects. But besides the grand monuments -- including
a larger-than-life version of Paris' Arc de Triumph -- the buildings are all
grey, concrete cinderblock structures. Few are taller than eight stories,
because they have no elevators. If you look into the windows, every single room
-- office or apartment -- has dual portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il
hanging on the wall. Along the street, there are no ads or commercial signage,
just propaganda posters and billboards. Every few blocks, there are these
little blue and white canvas kiosks that sell soft drinks. The sidewalks aren't
crowded like in China, and the streets are very broad. At every intersection
stands a uniformed policewoman -- handpicked, they say, for their beauty -- directing
traffic with parade-ground precision. One thing that really surprised me was
the number of luxury sedans and SUVs, brands like BMWs and Mercedes, on the
city streets. Obviously somebody has cash and connections.
Everywhere you go in Pyongyang, the skyline is
dominated by a huge 105-story concrete pyramid, the Ryugyong Hotel, which looms
over the city like the pyramid-shaped Ministry of Truth in Orwell's 1984. It was intended to be the world's
tallest hotel, but it turned out to be structurally unsound, so it was never
completed. It's been standing there, abandoned, since 1992. It doesn't appear
on any official maps, and nobody ever talks about it, because it's such a
The most memorable thing about Pyongyang, though, is
the total darkness that descends at night. Because electricity is in short
supply, there are hardly any lights at all -- a couple of bulbs here and there,
and the headlights of passing buses. People are out and about, but all you can
see are the dark shapes right beside you. Back at the hotel, you look out the
window and there's just nothing. It's like the whole city was just swallowed
about the region you visited more recently, in the northeast? How did that
is about as far from Pyongyang as you can get, in every sense, but it's equally
important in many ways. The northeast was the epicenter of the devastating
famine that took place in the 1990s. People there had to improvise to survive. They
set up private marketplaces to sell vegetables they grew in their gardens, or
rabbits they raised on their own. The
border zone along the Tumen River became the main crossing point for refugees
fleeing into China, and for smuggling Chinese goods back into North Korea. After
the famine, the government tried to co-opt the situation by establishing a
special economic zone, which was supposed to attract foreign investment. Other
than a big gambling casino, though, nothing much has really happened.
So Rason offers a window onto a much grittier
reality than Pyongyang. Most roads are unpaved. The town's main square -- emblazoned
with the slogan "Kim Jong Il is the Sun of the 21st Century!" -- has long ago
crumbled into potholes. At dawn, the whole town wakes to recorded patriotic
songs and messages blared from loudspeakers. During the day, people walk around
pushing their belongings -- including their children -- in makeshift
wheelbarrows. At night, police jeeps cruise the dark like sharks, shouting
harsh commands over their megaphones at passersby. The economy is very basic. Farmers
rely on bony oxen to plough their fields. The local fishing fleet consists of
rusted hulks that belch so much oily smoke they look like they're on fire. When
you visit Pyongyang, you're shielded from a lot of these things, but in Rason,
you get a better look at what life is really like for most North Koreans.
Did I hear you mention a gambling casino?
That's right, when the North Koreans first set up the Rason special economic
zone, they cut a deal with a somewhat shady Hong Kong business tycoon to build
the Emperor Hotel and Casino, a $180 million five-star seaside resort. It
became a really hot spot for Chinese tour groups to come and gamble. Then in
2004, a local official from Yanbian, just across the Chinese border, blew RMB
3.5 million (nearly half a million dollars) in embezzled public funds at the
Emperor's gaming tables. The Chinese launched a huge crackdown on visitors, and
the place has been deserted ever since. We stopped by to check it out. The
hotel is open and it's fully staffed. There's a bright red British phone booth
in the lobby, a fancy buffet with an ocean view, and girls running around with
big electric fly-swatters shaped like tennis rackets. Everything's ready to go,
but I don't think any guests have checked in for years. It's pretty surreal.
Did you encounter any other investors in the "special economic zone"?
of fact, we bumped into some Americans. They actually were missionaries, based
just across the border in China. They can't preach in North Korea, of course,
but they've come as "investors" to build and run an orphanage, a bread factory,
and a soy-milk factory. These "businesses" don't make money; they're just there
to help people. To this day, one of most popular themes in North Korean
propaganda involves evil Christian missionaries who inject Korean children with
deadly germs, before the revolution. They even put the story in comic books for
kids. Officially, they're inhuman monsters. Unofficially, the government
invites them in because they're the only people willing to extend a lifeline.
One of the big news items in North Korea this past year was the disastrous
currency revaluation. On this last visit, did you see any evidence of its
indirectly. One of the most interesting parts of our trip was when they took us
to see the local market in Rason. Like I say, these markets sprang up on their
own in response to the famine, and the government is very ambivalent about
them, so it's rare for foreigners to be allowed to see them. No cameras were
allowed, and they called out the reserves -- about a half dozen extra minders --
to keep their eyes on us.
The market was pretty lively; it was certainly
packed with people from all walks of life -- soldiers, school kids, families. It
was housed in a large corrugated metal building, with different sections
devoted to shoes, clothing, plastic knick-knacks, and school supplies. Most of
the goods appeared to be imported from China. All the vendors are middle-aged
women. Because of recent crackdowns, they're the only ones still permitted to
sell; everyone else was forced back to their work units. The currency change
also hit hard. A lot of vendors lost all their working capital along with any
profits they might have saved. Some speculate that was the intent all along.
The other group that was hit really hard by the
currency revaluation was Chinese traders. They also lost their shirts, and a
lot of them have stopped coming. We only saw a handful of Chinese traders
staying at our hotel. Despite the fact that North Korea depends on trade with
China to survive, it's not exactly an easy environment for the Chinese who try
to do business there. This summer, two Chinese traders were arrested and beaten
to death by North Korean border guards on suspicion of espionage, along another
part of the border.
What about the food situation? There are rumors North Korea might be on the
verge of another famine.
you enter the market, there's an outdoor section where people are selling
vegetables they have presumably grown on their own private plots. When we left,
I asked whether we could take a quick walk up and down the aisles. The answer
was "No, absolutely not." Food is way too sensitive an issue, and people
growing and selling their own food is a real sore spot with the regime.
Some of the other members of our group, who know
more about farming than I do, said the corn crops in the fields we passed
looked stunted -- just knee high at a time in season when they should have been
shoulder high. If that's true, it's because there's no chemical fertilizer,
which requires imported oil to make. The only fertilizer they have is night
soil -- human sewage -- which they collect in ox-drawn carts. They also plant
the same crop year after year, depleting the nutrients in the soil. I guess
they just can't afford to let any field lie fallow, because they're already
living on the edge, but the result is going to be declining yields and
ultimately crop failure.
There was only one time when a teenage boy came up
to us to beg for food. He was very quickly hustled aside by the minders, and
given a stern talking to. I hope that's all that happened. It was a very
distressing situation. Even if people aren't starving, it's pretty clear that
life is hard.
Any other revealing experiences?
visited a kindergarten in Rason to watch a performance by the schoolchildren. While
we were waiting for it to start, we had a look around. On one of the walls was
a painting from a popular North Korean cartoon series showing a cute forest
animal hunched behind a machine gun blasting away at his enemies. Some of the
children's drawings were posted on another wall in the hallway. One showed a
North Korean tank running over enemy soldiers, and another showed a North
Korean jet shooting down enemy planes. Next to them were typical childhood
drawings of balloons, birds, and bunny rabbits. The contrast kind of twisted
your gut. Some other members of our group stumbled on a room devoted to
teaching about American war crimes. The irony, we later found out, is that the
school was partly funded by donations from Korean-Americans.
much are North Koreans able to travel about their own country?
Koreans are not permitted to travel freely; they must have papers. If they are
stopped outside their hometown without appropriate papers, they can be arrested
and imprisoned for a year or more. Work units, however, do organize mandatory
"field trips" to important patriotic sites, like the Korean War museum in
Pyongyang, as part of every citizen's ideological education.
The high point of the pilgrimage circuit is Kim Il Sung's
mausoleum. It's housed in an immense palace on the outskirts of Pyongyang, and
makes even Mao's tomb in Tiananmen Square look like a tiny cottage by
comparison. The visit looks like an incredibly intense experience for most
North Koreans, as they are ushered past a huge white marble statue of the Great
Leader with the dawning sun glowing behind him, and into an antechamber where
they hear how people all over the world wept and tore their hair when they
learned of Kim's death in 1994. Finally they enter the holy of holies, where
Kim's body lies in state. [When I was there in 2008] the room crackled with
emotional energy. All around the body, I saw Koreans -- especially older women
in traditional robes -- sobbing in tears. It was an unnerving and eye-opening
Another important destination is the "International
Friendship Exhibition" carved into Mt. Myohyangsan, about two hours' drive
north of Pyongyang. Essentially, these are two underground museum complexes,
devoted to displaying the thousands of diplomatic gifts received by Kim Il Sung
and his son Kim Jong Il. (The elder Kim, though dead, is still officially the
country's president, so even today he still merits a gift). Highlights include
bulletproof cars from Stalin, a stuffed smiling crocodile from Nicaragua's
Sandinistas, and the basketball autographed by Michael Jordan that Madeleine
Albright brought to Kim Jong Il. But the most interesting rooms displayed
products -- usually out-of-date VCRs, computer monitors, and MP3 players -- sent
by South Korean companies under the "sunshine policy" of engagement with the
North. Absolutely nothing captured the vast chasm between our world and theirs
than the looks on the faces of the North Korean work units as they pressed
their noses against glass to catch a better glimpse of never-before-seen
treasures that, to us, looked like items at a Best Buy clearance sale.
How did people react to seeing your group?
Koreans are a pretty wary bunch -- not just of foreigners, I think, but of each
other as well. In public, at least, they're very guarded. During our visit to
Kim Il Sung's mausoleum, we encountered looks of unmistakable fear and
hostility, probably because they had just gone through a very intense
experience of their own. More often, we either got blank surprised stares or
people pretended not to notice us -- although maybe you'd get a shy smile if
they were particularly amused. The women vendors at the market in Rason
actually smiled, laughed, and waved to us, which was unusual. But, you know,
there were always surprises. One border guard, once he got through checking my
luggage, said "thank you" in heavily accented English and flashed me a big
People often ask me whether we ever got the chance
to talk with regular North Koreans. The answer is no. It's just not allowed. Every
North Korean knows that, so they're not going to initiate any contact. In fact,
going up to a North Korean and trying to talk to them could put them in danger.
And I don't speak Korean anyway, so what's the point? You can talk to the minders,
though, and surprisingly, they end up providing a very revealing window into
the way North Koreans think. Obviously they're atypical, and they're there for
a reason, but even when they're dissembling or hewing to the party line or just
acting weird, if you listen and think, you can learn a lot from the interaction.
The Mass Games are happening this month -- tell us about them.
Mass Games aren't games, in the competitive sense. They're a huge performance
that takes place in an Olympic-size stadium and features a "cast" of over
100,000 participants. Nearly all of the young people in and around Pyongyang
spend a large part of each year practicing and performing. Half of them sit in
the stands opposite the audience, holding up colored cards to form elaborate
mosaic-like pictures extolling the country and its leaders. The rest perform
mass-synchronized dancing, karate, and gymnastics on the field itself. The
resulting spectacle is kind of a cross between Cirque du Soleil and a Nuremberg
rally. It was hard to know whether to stand up and cheer or be totally
appalled. Some have compared North Korea's Mass Games to the opening ceremony
for the Beijing Olympics, but what I saw in Pyongyang easily blew that away. I
mean, they were literally catapulting acrobats clear across the stadium,
somersaulting in mid-air with no wires, and catching them in nets. For better
or worse, there's nothing else like it on Earth.
Any celebrity sightings on either trip?
the body of Kim Il Sung, who North Koreans believe to be the greatest human
being ever to live? Hey, it's hard to top that. But if you're asking whether we
met Kim Jong Il, or the even more mysterious son who is supposed to succeed
him, no, I'm sorry to disappoint.
Seriously, though, there was one rather amazing
coincidence, during my first trip. On the bus down to the DMZ, someone
mentioned that then-U.S. negotiating envoy Christopher Hill was supposed to
arrive in Pyongyang any day now. But I figured he'd fly in. A few hours later,
we're walking up to the North Korean reception pavilion, right on the DMZ, when
out the back door comes this white guy surrounded by several assistants, about
20 feet away from us. It was Chris Hill. I wanted to shout out, "Hey, we're
Americans!" -- but that's not something you do
on the northern side of the DMZ, surrounded by heavily armed border guards. It's
pretty tense up there. So we just watched as he hopped in a van and headed off
to Pyongyang. That was our brush with history.
Another tour group was taken by the North Koreans to
witness them blowing up part of the Yongbyon nuclear facility. So, really, you
never know what you're going to see.
What's the most important thing you learned?
big difference is that now North Korea is a real place to me. For most of us, I
think, North Korea occupies the same imaginary plane of existence as Mordor. But
it is real, and one thing I came to appreciate is that most North Koreans are
normal people living in abnormal conditions. It's the only world they know, and
they try to make sense of it, and cope with it, as best they can. I don't know
how things will play out, but one can only hope they find their way to join the
rest of us intact.
second important thing I learned is gratitude. It sounds corny, but it's not. It
really wasn't all that long ago that a big chunk of mankind lived under systems
like this. We look back now and it seems inevitable -- the fall of the Berlin
Wall, China opening up -- but it wasn't inevitable. I'm grateful to be able to
go home at the end of my trip, and I'm grateful for the people whose
convictions and sacrifices made it so this kind of place is an anomaly in
today's world, and not the rule.