Every era has a defining issue: in the twenty-first century, that issue will likely be global food security. A complex intersection of challenges unique to our time is at work – peak oil, climate change, declining water supplies and a burgeoning population. In order to secure our future food supply in the face of these challenges, we must begin by acknowledging their impacts in the here and now.
PEAK OIL Fossil fuels underpin every aspect of the food system. Gas is used to make nitrate fertiliser; oil is needed to produce pesticides, run tractors and transport food around the globe; fossil fuels of all kinds generate the energy required for canning, freezing, pre-cooking and other food processes, as well as for refrigerating food stored in shops and homes.
On average, it takes 7-10 calories of fuel to create one calorie of edible food. Some foods, like meat and dairy, require more – up to 35 calories of fuel for every calorie of beef produced, for example.
In the globalised food system there is also a lot of wasteful import/export traffic. The UK exports nearly twice as much milk as it imports; it imports 240,000 tonnes of pork while at the same time exporting 195,000 tonnes of pork. These transactions all require energy to complete.
CLIMATE CHANGE Climate scientists say we must cut our global emissions of greenhouse gases – such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide – by 80 per cent by 2050 if we are to have any hope of averting the worst impacts of climate change.
These impacts would transform green farmland into deserts, thaw frozen lands, and result in more floods and other extreme weather events that affect our food supply.
This is happening now. Recent drought conditions in Australia’s Murray-Darling basin have reduced a once fertile valley – responsible for 85 per cent of Australia’s irrigation water and 40 per cent of its grain, fruit and vegetables – to desert; the 2006/7 wheat crop fell from 25 to 9.8 million tonnes, bankrupting many local farmers. Meanwhile, among the rice-producing nations of Asia stocks have fallen to their lowest levels for 30 years, due to either prolonged flooding or drought.
LOSS OF BIODIVERSITY The diets of the developed world rely heavily on just four commercial crops – wheat, rice, corn and soya. These vast monocultures destroy not only local biodiversity but also genetic diversity.
Bred to produce higher yields under very specific environmental conditions, monoculture crops are, ironically, more vulnerable to climate change. For example, during the unprecedented heatwave that affected Europe in 2000, crop yields fell by 25-30 per cent across France and Italy.
According to the UN, shortages of staple foods in 2008 plunged an additional 75 million people worldwide below the hunger threshold, triggering food riots in West Africa, Mexico, Uzbekistan, Haiti and Egypt as well as panic buying and consumer protests in Europe and elsewhere.
As crop yields decline and/or become unreliable, farmers are pushed into ‘marginal’ land, which creates further problems: marginal land often plays an active role as a refuge for wildlife and as a carbon sink, and it generally requires more fertilisers and water to produce comparable yields.
PEAK WATER Fresh water supplies, like fossil fuels, are dwindling. The world’s great rivers are drying up. Rainfall can’t be depended upon to replenish aquifers deep in the earth. In many parts of the world meeting the daily needs of a growing population is becoming increasingly difficult.
Conventional agricultural production only exacerbates the problem. It is estimated that the average Briton consumes around 150 litres per day for drinking and household use; but if water ‘embedded’ in the production of consumer goods is included, the figure rises to around 3,400 litres, with food accounting for 65 per cent of that total.
Likewise, turning plants into biofuels requires additional energy and water. In countries like India and China, where fuel crops require irrigation, the process can use an extra 3,500 litres of water for every litre of biofuel. Even in the US, where many crops are rain-fed, it takes an additional 400 litres of groundwater to produce a litre of ethanol.
POPULATION Currently the world population stands at 6.6 billion; by 2050 it is expected to grow to 9.1 billion, placing huge pressure on food prices. A recent report by the International Food Policy Research Institute predicts that even without climate change the price of wheat will rise 39 per cent by 2050. Rice and maize prices will soar by 62 and 63 per cent, respectively. Factor in climate change, however, and the forecasted price rises are even more frightening: wheat by 170 per cent, rice by 113 per cent and maize by 148 per cent.
MAKING CHANGES Clearly our current system of food production isn’t coping, and in fact was never designed to cope, with such pressures. Its goals – to intensify production, increase yields by any means and build a global marketplace in which food is just another commodity – were defined in a very different age. Moreover, the system is falling short: one billion people are currently starving, even though as much as half the food we produce is eventually thrown away.
If we keep producing, buying, wasting and eating food in this way, then our food horizons will narrow considerably. ‘Technofix’ solutions, favouring the status quo, may be preferred by policymakers, but the 2008 International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) recommends a return to basics instead: ‘A holistic, or systems-oriented, approach is preferable because it can address the difficult issues associated with the complexity of food and other production systems in different ecologies, locations and cultures.’ In other words, we should overhaul the whole system, not just tinker round its edges.
The work begins with producing food, not commodities. More than just semantics, a commitment to ‘food’ opens the way for other crucial changes – the relocalisation of food supplies; more vibrant, less wasteful local economies; the chance for developing countries to feed themselves rather than the world market; a shift towards eating healthier, more nutrient-dense foods.
RELOCALISATION Few countries can hope to be completely self-sufficient, but all countries can be vastly more self-sufficient. Consider the recent policy brief by the International Institute for Environment and Development, ‘Towards Food Sovereignty’, which lists the following examples of on-the-ground innovation:
• Collectives of marginalised female farmers in the drylands of India who manage an alternative distribution system based on biodiversity-rich farming and local control over food in order to support vulnerable and excluded locals;
• Eco-villages in Scotland where the integration of food, energy, water and waste management systems reduces environmental impact and enhances human well being;
• Cities in the US where poor, mainly Latino and African-American communities are confronting food poverty and malnutrition by organising and re-connecting with the land to access fresh vegetables, fruit and other farm produce.
STRENGTHENING THE FOODSHED What these examples have in common is strengthening local access to food. But it can be difficult to envision what a local ‘foodshed’ might look like in an increasingly urbanised world. One useful study by ‘Growing Communities’, an urban agriculture project, suggests the following breakdown of food production for a city like London:
• 2.5 per cent grown in the local borough;
• 5 per cent grown in the city itself (salad greens and fruit, with boroughs trading their surpluses city-wide);
• 17.5 per cent from the peri-urban green belt (fruit, vegetables and produce grown on a larger scale such as carrots, lettuces, onions, leeks and brassicas);
• 35 per cent from the rural hinterlands within 100 miles of the city centre (field-scale produce and some arable livestock);
• 20 per cent from elsewhere in the UK (arable livestock and larger field-scale production);
• 20 per cent from the rest of the world (exotic produce, spices, tea, chocolate, etc – foodstuffs which cannot be grown within national borders).
GOVERNMENTS MUST LEAD Each year, the British government spends £1.8 billion on food procurement for hospitals, schools and other public sector institutions; currently only 2 per cent of that food is sourced locally. But by raising this proportion to just 20 per cent the government would make a £320 million investment, every year, in creating a more secure future foodshed.
Likewise, it is time to rethink the subsidies that badly skew food production and distribution, particularly in the developed world. Subsidies artificially lower the cost of production, effectively paying farmers to grow commodity crops even in the absence of domestic demand. This combination of low production costs and oversupply can lead to ‘dumping’ of crops on the global marketplace at prices that cannot be matched by unsubsidised farmers in the developing world.
Crop surpluses have also led to the development of a ‘snack foods’ industry characterised by cheap, high-fat, high-sugar products which have had a knock on effect on human health, with obesity and related disorders such as diabetes and heart disease now rife among the developed world.
CHANGING THE MENU Hopefully, as more of us become food producers, many processed foods – which cost us dearly in terms of energy, water and health – will fall by the wayside. We may also have to rethink our heavy consumption of meat and dairy. According to the FAO, livestock production is responsible for one fifth of man-made greenhouse gases – more than the total emissions produced by transportation. The world can no longer sustain this level of meat production. Nor does a ‘healthy diet’ necessitate current consumption levels – the healthiest populations are those which consume mainly plant foods and about half the average quantity of meat.
The economic implications of a healthier diet are immense. By some estimates, governments will need to spend up to $40 trillion globally on technofixes for climate change. But recent research by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency concluded that simply adopting a low-meat diet could reduce this spend by 54 per cent.
We are all participants in the global market. We reap its benefits, but we are also responsible for the damage it does. Climate change, peak oil and other global challenges are happening right now, and if we want to feed the world in the future, we need to start changing how we eat and how we farm right now. Otherwise, the prospects are grim.