When we go back and look at archeological sites of earlier civilizations such as the Sumerians or the Mayans, in most cases it was food shortages that brought those civilizations down. I used to think for our modern technologically advanced society food couldn’t be the weak link. I now think that not only could it be the weak link, but that it is the weak link.

- Lester Brown, Founder of Earth Policy Institute and author of Full Planet, Empty Plates

 

Figure 1: Average energy consumed by US  farm in 2006 – from Energy consumption in US agriculture
(Source: Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable & Secure Food Systems)

24 % of low income families around the world now plan for foodless days

From space, agriculture can be seen as humanities greatest impact on our environment, converting natural ecosystems into vast mono-culture fields whose mathematical and geometric beauty masquerade the damage they do: erode the soil, create nitrogen pollution in our oceans and a source of continuous deforestation and carbon pollution.

And what reason do we offer to justify such disproportionate natural ecosystem damage? – we produce food that is inequitable and leads to obesity in the developed countries as well as poverty and malnutrition in the developing countries. Surely we can do a better job at feeding the world than this! As author and food activist Raj Patel points out in his book Stuffed and Starved, the global multi-national run food cartel actually plays a significant role in creating global food inequity. While a billion people will starve, supermarkets are stocked with an abundance of cheap calories, agri-business products that contribute to record levels of diet-related disease, harming us today and planting a time-bomb in the bodies of children around the world.

Transnational food conglomerates are a major source of the global food problem. They employ monoculture techniques to grow either single crops which are extremely vulnerable to disease or climate and to graze cattle. This results in vast deforestation and destroys the soil. In fact, agriculture is one of the largest carbon emitters in the world. In addition, these same companies are highly dependent on fossil fuels, both for operating machinery and fertilizer as well as use vast amounts of water inefficiently and now are forcing Genetically Modified Food down the throat of farmers who do not want it. They do a lot of this to produce food which is not only lacking in nutrient, but poisonous to our bodies.

Patel cites just one example of the illogic of Transnationals, where capitalism trumps human wellbeing: Mexicans drinking more Coca-Cola than milk. The consequence is that nearly one in 10 Mexicans lives with diabetes. And the cost to Mexico to treat that disease is about $15 billion US a year.

As in other areas, large food multi-nationals now control the global supply of food for billions of people. The behavior of food multi-nationals on both the production and distribution and supply side have proven that concentration of power is harmful to people. The state of California’s Proposition 37 that aims to labelGMO foods is a case in point. Monsanto is working in conjunction with many food retailers to squash the bill and protect their investment. They display classic monopolistic behavior which acts in their interest, not the interest of the public, proving that extreme concentration of power in a handful of food producers and suppliers poses a significant risk to the supply of healthy food to the global community.

The above graph shows how much farmers are dependent on fossil fuels. 43% of the pie is from fertilizers and pesticides, two very fossil-fuel intensive areas. In fact, look at the energy balance of mono-culture food production in the US, we find we are losing energy overall:

 


Figure 2: Energy in the US food system – from the US food system fact sheet,
CSS01-06, Center for Sustainable Systems, U of Michigan, 2011)
(Source: Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable & Secure Food Systems)

How do we begin to migrate away from unsustainable farming practice that transforms  10 units of energy into less than one?