Book Review: Full Planet, Empty Plates by Lester Brown

Posted by OmarTarakiNiodeFoundation
01 February 2013 | blogpost

With the world currently undergoing an exponential growth of population, the issue of food scarcity is beginning to pose a great threat to humanity. Though a relatively important matter, many people are not aware of the extent of food scarcity- what causes it, and its effects.

In Full Planet, Empty Plates. The New Geopolitics of Food, the award winning writer, Lester Brown, investigates the issue, explaining how it is affecting the world as a community, with the aim of making his readers realize that time is running out. 

Brown has authored or coauthored over 50 books translated in about 40 languages. I will review his most recent and highly praised book by respectively going through 1) what the book is all about 2) its purpose and whether it is successfully achieved, 3) how interesting or useful the book may be for readers.

The Book

Principally, the book underlines how the world is currently entering a time of an increasingly uncertain food situation, one that is leading to intense competition for control of land and water resources in order to produce and supply food— succinctly creating a new geopolitics of food. Alongside a description of the world’s exponential growth of population, the book begins with a timeline of the world’s food condition, essentially how it transitioned from a state of security to that of scarcity. It then continues with a thorough examination of the impacts brought by food scarcity i.e. hunger, famine, and even deaths in some parts of the world, thus highlighting the issue’s significance.

Using various case studies, Brown then introduces the different scales in which the world attempts to decipher food scarcity, consequently giving the readers a more positive outlook on the subject. After a hint of positivity however, Brown started illustrating how the mitigation methods implemented to achieve food security in some countries may be a disadvantage to others causing a condition of scarcity, leading to political unrest, such as those in Thailand, but more importantly, causing intense geopolitical relationships.

The Purpose

As a highly acclaimed writer, Brown directed the book to “make people realize that time is running out. With extensive highlights on the negative impacts food scarcity such as creating global unrest and hunger leading to deaths, in my opinion, this aim has been successfully achieved. Though I was already equipped with the knowledge of food scarcity beforehand, reading the book made me more aware of its severity.

Additionally, Brown’s writing style will also help develop people’s sense of sympathy regarding the subject. Rather than only using statistics, he uses examples which readers will connect in order to illustrate his points, e.g.: “even families with both parents working often cannot afford to eat everyday… selecting days when they will not eat is a weekly routine” (pg. 8). In terms of readers, Brown aimed the book to be of use to any reader. Though heavily packed with statistical information and evidences compiled from the work of hundreds of scientists, this book is an approachable resource for those who are interested in understanding food scarcity, regardless of their educational background.

Full planet, Empty Plates is divided into 11 chapters, with each of them focusing on different aspects of food scarcity, providing a holistic approach to the issue and its geopolitical implications. These chapters are: 1) Food: The Weak Link; 2) The Ecology of Population Growth; 3) Moving Up the Food Chain; 4) Food or Fuel?; 5) Eroding Soils Darkening Our Future; 6) Peak Water and Food Scarcity; 7 Grain Yields Starting to Plateau; 8) Rising Temperatures, Rising Food Prices; 9) China and the Soybean Challenge; 10) The Global Land Rush; and 11) Can We Prevent a Food Breakdown?

The Depth

The absence of a concluding chapter in my opinion will make it relatively tricky for readers to draw a conclusion on the topic. Additionally, even though the book does have an extensive scope regarding the different aspects of food scarcity, it gives very little depth about each of its aspect.

A sequel will perhaps give readers a more profound understanding on the matter. Nevertheless, agreeing with most critics, in my opinion Full planet, Empty plates is very absorbing.

What I will remember most about it is how it kept me reading on. Brown illustrated his ideas and information exceptionally well using various graphs, riddles, quotes and analogies, successfully keeping me entertained throughout.

My favorite is a riddle used to explain exponential population growth: “a single leaf, each day the number of leaves doubles: two leaves the second day, four the third and so on. Q: If the pond is full on the thirtieth day, at what point is it half full? A: the twenty-ninth” pg. 16.

Published in 2012 by W.W.Norton, Full Planet, Empty Plates is very concise, 144 pages in length and 13.7 x 1.1 x 21 cm in size; yet still interestingly creative and easy to understand. This book can potentially act as a food scarcity ‘wake up call’ to readers.

Maira Niode

Images: W.W. Norton, Earth Policy Institute, Omar Niode Foundation.