Food production crisis.
Your food: you just go to the supermarket and pick it up, right? Maybe you’re having to be careful with your budget so you have to forego a few items you’d otherwise love to buy. Or maybe you’re concerned about what’s healthy or ethical, so you take care in choosing products: free range eggs, as few additives as possible? But food is just there isn’t it?
Most of us take it for granted that it will always be there.
Around 40% of the world’s population are farmers and fishermen. But most of them are just feeding themselves and their own families. Only a tiny percentage are providing the food for others, like you, to buy. What do those (let’s call it agribusiness) who produce food for you to buy today need to continue doing so tomorrow?
Because meat and fish too are ultimately derived from plants, the answer comes down to what plants and algae need. Both plants and algae need sunshine; in addition plants need fresh water and soil to grow in and provide a few essential nutrients, while algae in the ocean need to live within a narrow range of temperatures and acidity to which they are adapted.
Sunshine: you’re right, there’s no shortage of that even in the cloudiest places. Water: well, maybe you did read something about water shortages in various parts of the world, but it was all about somewhere else, wasn’t it? Soil: but the Dustbowl in the US midwest was a long time ago; surely all that’s history now, isn’t it? And the oceans are big enough to go on as they always have, right?
In fact food producers worldwide are facing a perfect storm of combinations that means that you shouldn’t be taking tomorrow’s food supply for granted at all.
*Water: the sort of high intensity agriculture that provides the bulk of the world’s food depends on depleting underground aquifers faster than they can be replenished. In other words agribusiness is mining fossil water in an unsustainable way.
*Soil: the massive inputs of phosphate and nitrogen fertilizers that have to be provided to keep soil fertile, as well as the diesel to drive the machines to cultivate it, are derived from oil –another non renewable fossil resource. Plus huge areas of once productive farmland like the US cornbelt and China’s Yellow River basin are rapidly losing soil to wind and water erosion through overuse.
*The oceans: our industrial civilization’s carbon emissions to the atmosphere (through burning oil, coal and gas) over the past two centuries have risen exponentially. Some of this extra atmospheric carbon is dissolving in the oceans, turning them more acid and making them increasingly inhospitable for algae, corals and fish.
The perfect storm also includes: climate change (also due to our carbon emissions) which is resulting in more frequent extreme weather events –drought, floods, storms; forest destruction, a big factor in soil loss (because trees soften the impact of erosion by rain); overfishing, with a diminishing fish catch worldwide; pollution, with pesticides and fertilizers washing off into streams and estuaries, killing fish.
It all sounds alarming, but very complicated, doesn’t it? Who’s got the time to try to understand it all. And after all, there’s food on the shelves now, isn’t there?
Let’s have a look at one example, a typical fight over land use occurring on every continent: the sugar you add to your coffee (if you’re a no-sugar healthy-type, we could use honey as an example, and consider the crisis in bee-keeping instead). In the past ten years, at least 400,000 Cambodians, mostly poor farmers, have seen nearly 2.2m hectares taken from them and given to private firms as long-term economic land concessions to grow sugar for export. These victims have rarely, if ever, been paid appropriate compensation, and can no longer produce food for themselves. They are now having to be fed by agribusiness, mostly by import of rice from Thailand. For Thailand to produce more rice, it needs more intensive cultivation: more irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides, more mechanisation and power. To provide water and electricity, large dams are having to be built on rivers, such as the Mekong, flooding land, ruining fisheries, and throwing more people out of food production. That’s your sugar: a short term gain in production keeping it on your shelf at an affordable price for now, at the expense of a long term loss in food production paid for by the poor in a faraway country.
It doesn’t take much to see that the ethics of this are poor, nor that in the long-term it is simply unsustainable. It requires the brutal use of force by the police and military in Cambodia to evict these people. Can we expect them to put up with this forever? Damming the Mekong will provide water and hydropower for a while, but as the dams silt up with the river’s massive load of sediment, they gradually become less and less effective. The destruction of forests, to make way for dams and to create more farmable land, leads to soil erosion, flooding and an irreplaceable loss of biodiversity.
Enough! It is complicated! Apart from worrying, what can we do? As consumers we do have the power to let our decisions effect production.
5 Ways you can help with the food crisis:
1.Eat less animal products. It takes roughly ten kilos of grain and soy to produce one kilo of beef. Much of the destruction of tropical rainforests is driven by the need to produce animal feed and provide grazing for meat on the hoof.
2.Eat locally produced food wherever possible, even if it means a small reduction in the variety of foods you regularly eat. Transporting food around the world is wasteful in terms of energy use. And it is easier to be aware of the human and environmental consequences of your food’s production when it is being done near you.
3. Support farmers and fishermen, especially small-scale and organic producers. Choose their products over those of agribusiness whenever possible, even if you may not be able to afford the organic premium on all your food.
4. Reject GM (GE) solutions. Sadly, while the science of GM might well be able to solve several of the problems of food production, in today’s world it’s economics is firmly in the hands of huge corporations, interested in short term profits, patents and monopolies rather than ethical and environmentally sustainable long term solutions.
5. Don’t take the future for granted. It will require awareness and action now to ensure tomorrow’s food.
Chinmaya Dunster, composer, musician, record producer, film maker and sarod player. His work can be explored at Chinmaya Dunster.com. Chinmaya is also involved with environmental / social justice issues in his adopted homeland, India, which takes him around India with the Green Ragas Band. He also creates awareness-raising films on these issues.