Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg

How an American With a Knack for Math Saved India From Famine

Lester Brown has spent his career making shrewd projections about the food, water, and energy people need to survive, and pushing governments to respond. None of this math brings tears to his eyes except the time in 1965 he made some calculations and risked his career advising the president of the United States to save India from starving. 

Brown's eyes misted over as the 81-year-old resource economist recalled the reaction of a U.S. agriculture attache in New Delhi to his discovery that famine was imminent in India that autumn. Few saw it coming, he warned the attache, and the U.S. would have to take extraordinary measures, transporting millions of tons of grain, to prevent mass suffering and death. 

"If you're right, it's the biggest shipment ever," the man told Brown, then 31, in New Delhi. "But if you're wrong, you're going to be a statistical clerk the rest of your life."

Brown, a soft-spoken walking encyclopedia of global natural resources in sports jacket, slacks, and New Balance 785's, isn't prone to displays of emotion. Perhaps, responding to an interview question about his most meaningful accomplishment, he was moved by the audacity of the young man who told Lyndon Johnson to send a nation's worth of food halfway around the world — or just by the impossibly swift passage of half a century.

His newest book, The Great Transition, is a counterpunch to the typical environmental gloom and doom, telling of how market forces, often despite policy, are championing renewable energy over the dirtiest fossil fuels.

But the near-disaster in India, 50 years ago this fall, shows how a crumbling pyramid of natural resources can suddenly become an avalanche. Here is Brown’s account of what happened when science and policy met in a crisis, and actually talked to each other.

Clues to a nightmare

Brown, who grew up on a tomato farm in southern New Jersey, would go on to serve as a foreign policy aid to the secretary of agriculture, Orville Freeman. His breakthrough as a prognosticator came in 1963, when, as a staffer in the department, he wrote a report combining population and food production projections that U.S. News & World Report featured in a cover story. "The conclusion: in most of the world, creeping hunger looms," the magazine wrote.

Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute
Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

When the department received a request from the U.S. Agency for International Development in New Delhi, someone needed to fly over to evaluate a draft of India's five-year economic plan for agriculture. The country’s grain production had been failing, with the U.S. sending some of its surplus east to help. 

Brown describes that 1965 trip to India as if he had walked into a nation-size jigsaw puzzle and started collecting pieces. 

He’d begin his days reading newspapers from around the country, each of which seemed to carry isolated accounts of local droughts. That was one puzzle piece. The head of Esso (now ExxonMobil) in India, whom he met at a diplomatic reception, glowed about business: Indian farmers had doubled their diesel purchases over the previous year to power irrigation pumps running full throttle to water dying crops. One more piece of the puzzle. An embassy official Brown knew showed up at work unexpectedly one day when he had said he'd be in the north duck-hunting. The man had canceled his annual trip because the lake had run dry. Another piece.

The anecdotal evidence piled up and pointed to one conclusion. The country's farmers would fall dramatically short of the grain needed by Indians, then numbering 480 million. Famine was imminent.

From whatever data he could assemble, Brown projected a deficit of at least 10 million tons of grain below the Indian government’s official demand estimate of 95 million tons. Previously India had never imported more than 4 million tons a year. If Brown's calculations were correct, feeding the nation would require a huge mobilization.

Working against him, and the clock, was a villain common enough in action movies: bureaucracy. With critical days ticking by, diplomats would not dispatch the message to Washington until they received official permission to do so from their embassy superiors. At last they got it, and Brown's estimate found receptive ears back in Washington. President Lyndon Johnson would say that India’s food problem “ought to be attacked as if we were at war,” according to India and the United States: Estranged Democracies, 1941-1991, by Dennis Kux, who is now a senior policy scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington. 

Johnson had an “intense, obsessive personal involvement” with India's over-reliance on food aid, particularly from the U.S. “The India food question went right to where he lived,” Walt Rostow, a National Security Council member, told Kux. “It was part of Johnson’s fundamental concern for human beings and his hatred of poverty.”

Yet, fighting an actual war in Vietnam, Johnson was probably also conscious that if bread prices started rising because of Indian food aid, it wouldn't help boost his popularity.

The president's gamble

President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965.
President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965.
Photographer: PhotoQuest/Getty Images

If mobilization was to happen, it needed to happen fast. It was October, the monsoon was nowhere to be seen, and inventories of grain were running low. 

The president charged Freeman, and Freeman charged Brown, with drawing up a bilateral agreement that would cover both his short- and long-term concerns. Johnson wanted a policy to solve two problems: avoid the coming disaster, but also set India on a path to independent and stable agriculture. If necessary, he wanted to use the former as a tool to extract the latter. 

The stakes, in politics and people's lives, were high. Johnson didn’t want to be seen as pressuring India to change its agriculture policies by withholding food aid, even though that's what he was doing. He instructed Freeman to negotiate in secret.

“If anybody finds out about this, your ass will be hanging from a yardarm,” Johnson told Freeman, according to Kux’s book. 

India in 1965 was not yet 20 years old. In the 1950s and 1960s, the government prioritized industrialization over agricultural development. It capped food prices so that people in the cities needn't fear emptying their pockets to eat. But the same price cap kept farmers from earning enough to modernize their equipment and practices.

They needed the reverse, a price floor. They also needed the state to deregulate fertilizer production. Government-backed plants took a decade to build. Private companies could do it in a tenth of that time, Brown said.

Brown wrote those points into a three-page draft policy for the president, which Johnson immediately adopted and which would eventually be called the Treaty of Rome. 

A 10,000-mile bucket brigade

The USDA tapped logistics specialists who had served in the Army Quartermaster Corps in World War II. They leased an Esso supertanker longer than a football field, the Manhattan, and anchored it in the Bay of Bengal to act as a floating harbor, because India's ports were insufficient to handle so vast a scale of imports.

Trains delivered U.S. Midwestern wheat to ships awaiting them in Galveston, Texas, and New Orleans. About two ships a day left for India, more than 600 in all, according to Brown’s 2013 memoir, Breaking New Ground. They docked to the Manhattan and emptied their grain into it. Thirty-foot boats called dhows then filled up with grain and carried it up the Ganges. About one-fifth of the U.S. wheat harvest in 1965 was shipped to South Asia. India produced only 77 million tons of grain, 18 million tons below the official demand projections.

"It was the largest movement of grain between two countries in history," Brown said. "We managed to get the grain in there and avoid the famine, but time became everything in that effort."

Diplomacy didn't stop when the first ships left. The new agreement, and Johnson himself, made clear that emergency food aid would be contingent on the Indian agricultural reforms price floors, instead of ceilings, and deregulation of fertilizer plants. To ensure the changes went through, the president personally managed the release of grain ships to India.

The reforms took hold, and the “green revolution” in Indian food production was under way. "India doubled its wheat harvest in seven years," Brown said. 

Brown left government in the late 1960s to begin a career in research and advocacy. He founded the Worldwatch Institute in 1974. A recipient of the MacArthur "genius grant" in 1987 for his research on "global economics and the natural systems that support it," Brown launched his current research group, the Earth Policy Institute.

A cliche is born 

The word "sustainability" has gained wide currency among governments, civil society groups, and, intriguingly, large companies over the past decade or so. Lester Brown has done as much as anybody else to put it there. The notion comes out of concerns in the 1960s and 1970s about the earth’s “carrying capacity” for humans. The first reference to environmental and societal sustainability in the New York Times, for example, is a May 1978 article about a Worldwatch study by Brown. "As human needs outstrip the carrying capacity of biological systems and as oil reserves shrink, the emphasis in economic thinking must shift from growth to sustainability," he said at the time.

But Brown's successes as a resource economist stand out against a harsher truth. If environmentalists had a perfect prediction record, the earth would already have been destroyed several times over. Brown himself has taken his share of direct hits to the jaw. "Never right but never in doubt," Reason wrote in 2009.

In the half-century since Brown began his career, scientists and economists have continuously monitored both the global economy and the natural systems it runs on, with increasing, and eternally insufficient, precision. Resource problems are rolling problems. They are often difficult to see, difficult to project, and difficult to respond to.

If there's one thing that's focusing minds at this point, it's this. Three billion more people are coming by the 2050's, and a couple billion will be middle-class consumers before then. Everybody is going to want everything — food, water, fuel — so it's best to make sure now that there'll be enough. 

Just as India was wholly unprepared for the failed monsoon of 1965, it and other nations today may be leaving themselves wide open to drought and famine. 

India in particular is draining its aquifers and rivers. More than half of the nation today faces "high to extremely high water stress," according to the World Resources Institute, which has worked with companies and other groups to develop a water-stress mapping tool for India.

This map shows the severity of water stress throughout India.
This map shows the severity of water stress throughout India.
World Resources Institute;

But in Iran, poor water management has helped turn rich agricultural land in the country's central region, around Isfahan, to dust. Farmers in March smashed a pipeline carrying water away from their province and clashed with police over local access to water. 

And California continues to overpump its aquifers to make up for its desperately scant rainfall. "Water shortages are going to emerge as a threat to food security before climate change," Brown says.

That makes it all the more surprising that Congress may slash NASA's Earth observation budget. The program that runs satellites such as the SMAP soil monitor could see a decline of more than $300 million from its current budget level of $1.9 billion.

SMAP will monitor soil moisture and help predict droughts and floods. The NASA budget that pays for this and other such programs is at risk of major cuts.
SMAP will monitor soil moisture and help predict droughts and floods. The NASA budget that pays for this and other such programs is at risk of major cuts.

Half a century later, Brown's research and writing continue, with an upbeat twist. "Now, for the first time since the Industrial Revolution began," he and three Earth Policy Institute co-authors write, "we are investing in sources of energy that can last as long as the earth itself."

Brown, who started his career probing the vagaries of global population and food production statistics, has a local hobby, the annual Cherry Blossom 10-mile race in Washington, DC. Studying the results of previous races, he noticed a gradual drop-off in the population of racers between 55 and 75 years old. From there, the running population drops precipitously for competitors 75 to 80. There's typically one participant in the 80-and-over category.

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