Reforming the Food System

Eating, hunting and foraging for food and water are the primary activities of a wild animals life and at the end of the day, homo sapien is an animal species, albeit it an upright and dressed-up one. We have the same basic needs and priorities as our animal kin.  When it comes down to bare necessities, we can do without technology, shelter, energy or money but take away food or water and the human body won’t survive very long. For this reason, food security is probably one of the most important and basic need of humanity.

As investment Guru Jeremy Grantham warns, our species has a real challenge on our hands. In his quarterly newsletter Grantham places Soil Erosion as humanities greatest threat about global warming, mineral depletion and many other global concerns. Grantham cites history’s lessons of fallen empires who also failed to pay heed to detoriorating soil conditions. He echos Lester Brown’s sentiments on food as probably being the weak link in our entire global economic system.

In Brown’s Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization he notes the following points:

  • For every 1˚C rise in temperature above the norm, yields of wheat, rice, and corn drop 10 percent.
  • The glaciers feeding rivers like the Yellow, Yangtze, Ganges, and Indus, which provide critical irrigation water, are disappearing at accelerating rates.
  • The United States has been converting more and more corn into fuel for cars; yet the grain needed to fill an SUV’s 25 gallon tank once with ethanol could feed one person for an entire year.
  • World grain and soybean prices tripled from mid-2006 to mid-2008, causing riots and unrest in dozens of countries.
  • More than 1 billion people in the world are suffering from hunger.
  • In an effort to ensure their own food security, some affluent food importing countries, such as Saudi Arabia, China, and South Korea, have begun buying or leasing land abroad to grow their own food.
  • It was food shortages that led to the collapse of several ancient civilizations.

With Global Warming looming above us to further exasperate the problem, we have to somehow deal with a 30 to 40% increase in population growth. Are we capable of feeding 10 billion people by 2040? If not, we are going to be faced with grim and unprecedented starvation scenarios.

The logical consequences of a capitalist system which industrializes farming to global scale and puts power in the hands of a few are:

  • an inequitable system which takes away the significant opportunity for community self-sufficiency through local agricultural production
  • significant use of  fossil fuel resources as well as significant carbon emissions from global shipping of food commodities
  • fossil fuel and chemical ingredients for raw material in monoculture value-chain ingredients like fertilizers and pesticides
  • an unstable food production system prone to many vulnerabilities such as food shocks due to monoculture crop disease or increasingly unpredictable weather

In fact, this the monoculture food system associated with the Green Revolution is now considered to be the single largest contributor to Greenhouse Gas emissions globally as well as the largest consumer of land and water.

 

As shown in the map below, humanity currently uses 16 million km2 of land for crops (green) and 30 million Km2 of land as pastures for animal grazing. We have used up all the best land on the planet for agriculture already, a chunk that represents is 40% of the earth’s land surface.

 

Centralized vs Decentralized Food Production

Since the Green Revolution of the 1970’s, agribusinesses and governments have been convinced that the monoculture crops and a centralized, industrialized agri-business approach is the best way to feed the world. Permaculturalists have strong arguments to the opposite effect. In fact, permaculture is considered a form of horticulture (gardening) rather than agriculture.

Scientists such as Jonathan Foley of the Minnesota Institute of the Environment talks about the need for an integrated approach that combines all techniques in order to find a sustainable pathway to feeding a planet of 10 billion people.

Food reformists such as Helena Norberg-Hodge and Steven Gorelick from the International Society for Ecology and Culture however, disagree. They feel that the current global food system is a quite a harmful system and the system must be systematically be replaced by a predominantly local food system. Go here to read more. Local Food Economy advocates such as Michael Shuman agree and has performed studies to show how local food production solves multiple problems at once:

  • carbon mitigation due to plant absorption of CO2 and reduced food miles
  • food security making  healthy, nutritionous food available
  • local economic development: each local food  economy job creates 2.5 other jobs, far more than corporate job statistics

For more on food cooperatives and import substitution, go here and for  local economic strategies, go here