PRI Review

Lester Brown's "Grain Reserves" Shell Game

For the past 25 years agricultural economist Lester R. Brown, founder and president of the Worldwatch Institute, has been issuing global “report cards” on the Earth's physical and environmental health. The planet always flunks.

The present article will examine Mr. Brown's dire claims regarding the world's ability to feed itself. Future issues of this Review will address other concerns of Brown and his Worldwatch Institute.

Brown joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1959, after obtaining a BS in Agricultural Science from Rutgers University, and an MA in Agricultural Economics from the University of Maryland. In 1963 Mr. Brown attained fame with his study Man, Land and Food,1 which spelled out the world's growing dependence on North American food production. Shortly thereafter Brown was taken under Secretary Orville Freeman's wing, a favor Brown would later return,2 and moved onto Freeman's staff as an advisor on foreign agricultural policy.

Brown left Agriculture in 1969 and became head of the research staff at the Overseas Development Council, a new nonprofit organization specializing in Third World development policies.3 In 1974, with funding provided by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund,4 Brown founded the Worldwatch Institute,5 an environmental and population control “think tank” which he still heads.

With his strong background in agriculture, Brown has been looked to as an expert on world food production. Brown's many utterances and writings in this area have been enthusiastically received and widely disseminated by an uncritical media, especially when Brown's pessimism about the world's ability to feed itself has been accompanied by neat little numbers and charts which supposedly prove his point.

Brown's contribution to the food vs. population debate has been threefold: (a) the advancement of yearly world grain reserves as the major, indeed the sole, indicator of world food supplies; (b) the concept of the grain “reserves” equivalent of idled U.S. cropland, and (c) the number of days of world consumption represented by global grain reserves, This latter item, the alleged days of food supply on hand in the world, quickly became Brown's trademark.

World Grain Reserves

The use of world grain reserves as the indicator of “food security” has proven inadequate for several reasons. First of all, although grains provide about half of mankind's food needs, it makes little sense to ignore all the other foods commonly utilized by man. Thus legumes (soybeans, peas and peanuts), nuts, roots and tubers (carrots, sweet potatoes and cassava), underground stems (the white potato), vegetables, fruits, meat, dairy products, poultry and eggs, fish and shellfish, etc., are all excluded from Brown's calculations of world food supplies.

However, Brown has often pointed to the large quantities of grain needed to produce meat and animal foods.6 In effect, Brown is totaling up the grain reserves necessary for such food production while simultaneously excluding the animal products produced by that grain. This is especially unreasonable as the world over the past 20-odd years has literally been awash in supplies of milk, butter and cheese.

Secondly, various grains historically have been excluded from some of the yearly USDA figures Brown cites, only to be included in later years' tabulations. Thus, sorghum was not included in the USDA's world grain stocks totals until October 1973, and the world's most important grain,7 rice, was first included in February 1977. Such exclusions had the effect of reducing the actual amounts of the world's grain stockpiles, and conversely when later included, major upward revisions had to be made in previously reported stockpile figures.

Thirdly, there is no “set in cement” grain reserves total for any year or even any specific moment in time. Not only are the reserves totals constantly shifting as harvests come in and supplies on hand are consumed or sold, but the reserves totals themselves are actually a composite, fabricated number. The USDA cautions that the world reserve figures it reports, and which Brown uses in his calculations, are “an aggregate of differing local marketing years and should not be construed as representing world stock levels at a fixed point in time.” 8

Reserve figures are thus based on varying harvest times for each grain — in the United States the big wheat harvest is in June while corn is harvested in October — and the seasonal differences between the northern and southern hemispheres. World reserve figures are thereby a composite of dozens of harvest times: U.S. June wheat totals are lumped in with October corn figures and added to Australian December wheat stocks and South Africa's May corn stocks, etc.

Finally, the world's alleged grain reserves have never included data from all the world's nations. In the 1960s, for instance, the reserves were based on just “4 principal exporting countries”: the United States, Canada, Argentina and Australia. In the early 1970s the reserves of the “European community” were first added in. In 1972 Brown noted that the Philippines, West Pakistan, Mexico, Kenya, Brazil, and Thailand were all exporters of grain from their stockpiles,9 yet none of these countries' reserves appeared in that year's “world” totals.

Throughout the years the USDA cautioned that grain “Stock data are not available for all countries and exclude parts of Eastern Europe and parts of Asia.”10 The USSR and China have never been included in world grain reserve totals.

Brown's “Idled Cropland Reserves”

The grain “reserves” equivalent of idled U.S. cropland was devised by Brown some 20-odd years ago. Essentially, Brown takes the idled U.S. cropland acreage and multiplies it by an average grain yield per acre, coming up with a “reserve” tonnage which could be produced on that acreage within a year if the acreage were returned to production. Brown then adds that “reserves” figure to the actual stocks on hand, producing a new total reserves number. Though Brown claims that “The sum of global reserve stocks and the potential grain production of idle cropland gives a good indication of the total reserve capability in the world food economy in any given year,”11 his method has been criticized by researchers who say “[actual] food stocks alone are the more meaningful measure.”12

Nonetheless, Brown clung to his idled cropland “reserves” until he recently found it expedient to do so no longer (below).

Brown's “Days of Consumption” Figures

Brown's “days of world consumption” figures, a simple calculation relating world reserve stocks to the year's total grain usage, and expressing that ratio in terms of the alleged days supply on hand, is thus based on several doubtful premises: (a) a food supply figure which excludes many major food sources, (b) a reserve stocks figure which is an aggregate statistic the compiler of which, the USDA, warns not to take as gospel, and (c) a U.S. idle cropland figure which actually has little relevancy to the immediate situation.

The “days of consumption” figures proved to be immensely popular with the media, however, and Brown milked it accordingly to score propaganda points. Although grossly misleading, it was a simple concept, tailor-made for great publicity and screaming headlines such as “Expert Says World Has 27 Days' Food.”13

Brown's Data Inconsistent, Conflicting

For years Brown has published widely inconsistent numbers of both the world's yearly grain reserves and the “days of world consumption” that such reserves allegedly represent. (See Tables 1 and 2, below, for Brown's yearly figures). Which Lester R. Brown should one believe? The one who wolf-cried in 1974 that world grain supplies were at just 26 days of consumption,14 or the one who reported in 1988 that the real 1974 figure was 61 days?15 Should one have believed Brown in 1975 when he claimed that preliminary estimates for 1976 “reserves as days of world consumption” was just 31 days,16 or rather trusted him in 1988 when the “number of days” figure had ballooned to 79?17 What about Brown's claim in 1981 that the world had a precarious 40 day food supply on hand in 1980,18 while a few years later he said it had actually been 71 days?19

And what is one to make of the following “days of consumption” figures for the year 1974, all of which Brown issued at various times over a 14 year period: 26 or 27 days (1974); 33 days (1975); 40 days (1981); 43 days (1987); and 61 days (1988).20 Pick a number, anyone!

Brown Dumps “Idled Cropland Reserves”

In 1988 Brown abandoned one of his favorite devices of the previous twenty-odd years: the grain equivalent of idled U.S. cropland.21 Brown's “days of consumption” figures would now be based solely on actual grain carryover stocks, resulting in lower “days” numbers for years of high idle cropland acreage, which would no longer be considered. Thus for the year 1965, previously listed as having 81 “days of consumption” in a Worldwatch book issued in 1987,22 the new “days” figure was recalculated just one year later as 61 days.23

Similar declines occurred in Brown's 1988 recalculation of the 1961, 1970 and 1972 “days of consumption” figures.

Apparently, Brown made this change so that he could continue his scare-mongering tactics. For the year 1988, e.g., Brown claimed that the world's grain stocks had fallen to just “54 days of consumption.”24 This figure, he noted with alarm, was “less than the 57-day supply at the end of 1972 when world grain prices doubled.”25

But, if Brown had continued to include the “grain equivalent” of idled cropland in his calculation, the “days” figure would have been some 75 “days of consumption.”26 Obviously, such a figure left little room for Brown's “wolf-crying” scares, and so it had to be adjusted. The deletion of the “grain equivalent reserves” neatly solved the problem.

Incidentally, at the same time Brown was warning of an alleged “54-day supply” of grain, the USDA estimated the figure as a “64-day supply.”27 The discrepancy was due to the fact that Brown, ever the pessimist, predicted world grain stocks would fall to a level of 250 mmt, while the USDA estimated the stocks total at some 288 mmt, excluding rice supplies.28 The actual figure turned out to be some 311 mmt,29 or about a 69 day supply. Thus, for the year 1988, if Brown had continued to add his “idled cropland reserves” to the actual reserve carryover stocks, the number of “days of consumption” would have been 90 days, and not the 54 days Brown decried.

Brown Changes Supply “Danger Point”

In 1989 Brown suddenly changed the “danger point” below which the world's alleged “days of consumption” should not fall, so that adequate food supplies and price stability could be maintained. Prior to 1989, Brown had consistently held that 50 days was the magic number.30 In 1985, e.g., he noted that 1984's “level of grain and cropland reserves equaled 56 days of world food consumption, more than enough to maintain relatively stable prices in world grain markets .”31

But now Brown claimed that “Historically, world carryover stocks of grain equivalent to 65 days of consumption have been sufficient to maintain a reasonable degree of price stability, but … prudence argues for a carryover stock of 80 days or more .”32

Prudence also argues for Brown to be more familiar with what he has previously written. In 1987, for instance, Brown warned that “… when [world grain stocks] exceed 80 days — the situation in 1985 and 1986 — world grain prices are severely depressed and government treasuries suffer as they try to support farm prices and maintain farm income…competition for markets intensifies and trade wars develop. The cost of carrying unnecessarily large stocks becomes burdensome .”33

In 1991 Brown reiterated his new “days” danger level, and wrote “When stocks drop below 60 days of consumption … prices become highly volatile .… In 1990, stocks fell precariously close to this trigger point.”34 According to Brown, the 1990 world “carryover stocks had dropped to [a level sufficient] for just 62 days [of consumption].”35

But Brown was again excluding the grain reserves equivalent of idled U.S. cropland in making his calculation. If Brown had included such “reserves,” as he had always done prior to 1988, the 1990 figure would have been some 77 “days” of supply on hand.36

Whatever the world's grain supplies might be, Brown has manipulated the data for twenty-five years to advance his overpopulation vs. food production claims. When supplies have temporarily fallen — whether by government design or drought-induced shortfalls — Brown has seized upon the situation to proclaim impending disaster. Recently when supplies have proven to be adequate, if not burdensome, Brown has stooped to redefining his grain reserves criteria and discarding his own method of calculating such reserves to better advance his agenda.

As former Secretary of Agriculture John R. Block stated, in a reply to Lester Brown's pessimistic views on the world food supply, “This scare talk about a world food shortage … must be challenged head-on with the facts.”37


1 Lester R. Brown, Man, Land and Food Foreign Agricultural Economic Report No. 11, United States Department of Agriculture, Nov. 1963.

2 Brown made Orville Freeman the Chairman of Worldwatch's Board of Directors, a position Mr. Freeman has held ever since Worldwatch's inception in 1974.

3 According to The New York Times, March 1, 1969, p. 15, the Overseas Development Council was formed by Eugene P. Black, former president of the World Bank. The Council's directors were said to 'read like a 'who's who' of United States business, banking and industry.”

4 “… Brown founded the [Worldwatch] institute with a $500,000 grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.” Newsweek, April 28, 1986, p. 70.

5 Worldwatch Institute, 1776 Mass. Avenue, N. W., Washington, D.C. 20036.

6 Lester R. Brown, In the Human Interest: A Strategy to Stabilize World Population, W. W. Norton 8. Co., text p. 29; in Table 3, p. 30, see column “Grain Consumed Indirectly as Meet, Milk and Eggs.” Also see Alan Durning, 'Fat of the Land,' World Watch, May-June 1991, pp. 11-17, which reports (p. 12] that “Animal terms use mountains of grain. Nearly 40 percent of the world's total, and more than 70 percent of U.S. production, is fed to livestock .… Last year, [in the U.S.] 162 million tons of grain, mostly corn … were consumed by livestock.”

7 Lester P. Brown with Erik P. Eckholm, By Bread Alone, Praeger Publishers. New York, 1974, p. 24. According to Brown, rice is the leading cereal grain, accounting for some 21 percent of 'man's food energy.”

8 This sentence has appeared in every USDA grain report for the past 15 years, at least. See USDA Foreign Agriculture circular — Grains, FG 3-75, Feb. 4, 1975, note, 8, p. 2, and note 1, p. 22, and USDA World Grain Situation and Outlook, FG 1- 91. Jan. 1991, note 7, p. 34.

9 Lester Fi. Brown with Gail Finsterbusch, Man and His Environment: Food, Harper and Row, New York, 1972, p.144.

10 USDA, Foreign Agr. Service, Grains, FG 2-91, Feb. 1991, note 7, p. 33.

11 Lester H. Brown, By Bread Alone, p. 59.

12 Julian L. Simon 8. William J. Hudson, 'Global Food Prospects: Good News,” Challenge, Nov.-Dec. 1982, pp. 40-47, at 45. This article is an excellent answer to Browns pessimistic claims and misrepresentations regarding world food production.

13 The New York Times, August 21, 1974, p. 2

14 The New York Times, Sept. 15, 1974, p. E6. Also Lester Ft. Brown with Erik P. Eckholm, “To Avoid A Global Food Crisis-The Changing Face of Food Security,” Current, Nov. 1974, pp. 25-36, at 25; and By Bread Alone, pp. 3 and 60.

15 Lester Ft. Brown, 'The Changing World Food Prospect The Nineties and Beyond,” Worldwatch Paper 85, October 1988, Worldwatch Institute, Table 8, p. 45.

16 Lester Ft. Brown, “The World Food Prospect,” Science, December 12, 1975, pp. 1053-59, Table 1, p. 1054.

17 Worldwatch Paper 85, p. 45.

18 Lester R. Brown, “World Population Growth, Soil Erosion, and Food Security,” Science, November 27,1981, pp.995-1002, Table 2 at 997.

19 Worldwatch Paper 85, p. 45.

20 See Table 2, this article.

21 Worldwatch Paper 85, Table 8, p. 45, and text, p. 5 and pp. 42-44.

22 State of the World 1987, Worldwatch Institute, W.W. Norton 8 Co., Table 7-7, “Index of World Food Security, 1990-86,” p. 134.

23 Worldwatch Paper 85, p. 45.

24 Ibid. See also “89 Drought Feared as a World Catastrophe,” The New York Times, October 2, 1988, p.33, and Brown's article 'Reversing the Decline in Food Security,' World Watch, Jan.-Feb. 1989, pp. 15-17, at 15.

25 Worldwatch Paper 85, p. 44.

26 77 million acres were idled in 1988 {Brenda Chewning, USDA Agricultural, Stabilization and Conservation Service, private communication, March 27, 1991), or about 24 million hectares. Using Brown's own figure of 3.1 metric tons per hectare (State of the World 1987, Table 7-7, p. 134] yields an additional 21 'days' to be added to Brown's original 54 days.

27 USDA, World Grain Situation and Outlook, FG 8-88, August 1988, p. 1.

28 Ibid., p. 30.

29 USDA, World Grain Situation and Outlook, FG 1-91, January 1991, p. 31.

30 Lester Ft. Brown, 'Sustaining World Agriculture,” State of the World 1987, Worldwatch Institute, pp. 122-138, at 133 and 'Securing Food Supplies' State of the World 1984, Worldwatch Institute, pp. 175193, at 187-8. Also see The New York Times, August 21, 1974, p. 2: 'Mr. [Lester R.] Brown asserted that if world food reserves tall significantly below a 50-day supply prices begin to rise .…”

31 Lester R. Brown, “Food Security Trends,” State of the World 1985, Worldwatch Institute, pp. 38-9, at 37, emphasis added. This article, with its tell-tale sentence, was 'submitted [by Brown] as testimony before the [U.S.] House [of Representatives] Select Committee on Hunger, Washington, D.C., June 6, 1985

32 Lester Ft. Brown et al., 'Reversing the Decline in Food Security,” World Watch, Jan.-Feb. 1989, pp. 15-17, at 16, emphasis added.

33 Lester Ft. Brown, 'Sustaining World Agriculture,” at 133-4, emphasis added.

34 Lester Ft. Brown. 'What Food Indicators Say,' State of the World 1991, Worldwatch Institute, pp. 11-15, at 15.

35 Ibid.

36 58.8 million acres were idled in 1990 [Brenda Chewning, Endnote 28, etc.) which translates into 15 additional “days” to be added to Brown's original 62.

37 The Washington Post, July 16, 1988, p. A23.

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