If terrorism recedes as the central defining question of contemporary international relations, will "natural security" rise to take its place? Thom Shanker sees natural security emerging "not just by competitive economic growth, but also by potentially disruptive scarcities -- depletion of minerals; desertification of land; pollution or overuse of water; weather changes that kill fish and farms."
Natural security, and its potential to fuel new conflicts between states, is becoming an issue because of the rapid growth of a truly global middle class -- projected to encompass some 5 billion people by 2030. Two of the drivers of a middle-class lifestyle are increased consumption of meat and access to private transportation, but both of these factors help to drive up grain consumption and with it food costs. In the former case, the shift to obtaining more food from animal protein quadruples consumption of grains, because more grain is diverted to animal feed. In the latter, the impact on prices is due to the massive diversion of grains into producing fuel additives. Lester Brown observes that in 2010, of a total U.S. grain harvest of 400 million tons, 126 million went to ethanol distilleries. Ten years earlier, the figure was only 16 million tons.
Weather disruptions are also playing a role. Russia's massive wildfires in 2010 reduced the country's grain harvest by 40 percent. Just this week, with traders already nervous about the slow pace of planting due to the harsher-than-expected winter and spring, the floods crippling the U.S. Midwest temporarily closed the Mississippi river to cargo traffic, causing crop prices to spike.