Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet


If you reside in the Bay Area:

How to Feed the World without Destroying the Planet: Michael Pollan and Sarah Elton, February 4th at 1 PM

Food for a Finite Planet: Sarah Elton, in conversation with Nigel Walker, on Wednesday, February 5th at 6 PM


From Sarah Elton’s Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet 

How will we feed ourselves in 2050? In the next forty years, the world’s population is expected to surpass nine billion. At the same time, climate change is transforming life on the planet. According to scientists who look at these big-picture issues, in the space of about one generation, a messy combination of climate, population trends, and environmental change will profoundly affect the world as we know it. We need to figure out how to feed the world, dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and cope with climate change.

So how do we best move forward? How do we ensure that everybody has enough to eat as we contend with a new climate? How do we do this without releasing even more greenhouse gases, thereby ruining the environment and further hampering the ability of future generations to feed themselves?

These pressing questions are forcing us to make a choice about how we want to tackle these problems, and a debate rages about which direction we should take. On one side of the debate is the route of sustainable food, with its organic farms and farmers’ markets, seed-saving networks, short food chains, and slow food traditions. On the other side is the path of the industrial food system.

Those who believe that industrial agriculture with its worldwide economy of food will best feed the planet argue that only a global industrial food system can provide the quantity of food we need at a low enough price for people to afford. Advocates tend to conjure up a Malthusian scenario of population outstripping food supply. The image of hungry teeming masses is even used to trump the idea of sustainability—as if we as a species must make a choice between creating sustainable food systems and allowing children to die of hunger in Africa. In Foreign Policy magazine in 2010, Robert Paarlberg, a professor of political science at Wellesley College, slammed the sustainable food movement for what he called its elitist approach to food that excluds the poor. The subtitle summed it up: “Stop obsessing about arugula. Your ‘sustainable’ mantra—organic, local, and slow—is no recipe for saving the world’s hungry millions.” He concluded that only a globalized industrial food system can produce what we need, efficiently and cheaply, so that everyone is fed.

I disagree. I stand firmly on the other side of the debate and argue for sustainable food systems. While industrial food might provide ample quantities of cheap calories, if you want to feed people and protect their livelihoods given the state of the environment, the status quo doesn’t cut it anymore. To feed the planet in a time of climate change, we need to build sustainable food systems. We must dramatically lessen the environmental burden of food production, encourage new economies of food that allow small-scale and family farmers to thrive in their rural communities, and nurture a food culture that connects us to the natural world on which we all depend. We must start to assemble these new, sustainable food systems immediately, because the rice, the bread, all the food we put on our plates, is at stake.

And without enough rice or bread, society starts to crack. Over the course of history, civilizations have fallen because their food systems have failed. In the Middle Ages, the Vikings disappeared from Greenland, where they had been living for several hundred years, because their farming methods eroded the topsoil and the climate changed, making it harder for them to grow food. In Central America, the Maya fled their cities, such as Guatemala’s Tikal, when centuries of dry conditions, followed by drought, undermined their ability to sustain a dense urban population. The Roman Empire teetered into poverty and hunger after they overworked the soil on the plantations that supplied their busy cities. On Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean, as vividly described in Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, the people who lived there cut down every last tree somewhere between the 1400s and the 1600s. Without trees, the Easter Islanders could no longer build the seafaring boats they had used to fish in deep waters; they soon hunted land birds into extinction. And without trees to protect the soil from erosion, farming dwindled. They were left with few food sources other than the flesh of their human neighbours. Archaeologists have found human bones in domestic middens, their ends rounded from being boiled in a pot.

Evan Fraser is a geography professor at the University of Guelph who studies food security as it relates to climate change and economic globalization. He is also co-author of the book Empires of Food, which examines the role that failing food systems played in the collapse of several historical civilizations. “When we look back over ten thousand years as a species bringing food from farms to cities, the good years outweigh the bad,” he explained to me. “Though history definitely reminds us that problems do emerge. History reminds us that changes do happen and happen quickly over a large scale. There are these reversals when societies do collapse very quickly.

“If you were a noble aristocrat, say, born around the year 1290, you would have been born into an affluent, confident society. You wouldn’t have had any clue of what was coming unless you were paying attention to the price of wheat. Yet within two generations, 40 percent of Europe was dead. In 1315, bad rain mid-summer flattened the wheat crop and people starved. Rising demand and falling supply. The fate of society does hang in the balance.”

For us, it is the year 2050 that is a bleak date in our future. That’s the year when all of our environmental debts come knocking at our door, asking us to pay up. By then, the temperature of the planet will likely have risen an average of a little more than 2 degrees Celsius, with more warming at higher latitudes. That’s two times more than it has risen already since 1899, around the early years of the Industrial Revolution. This warming is altering our earth’s climate system. “In agriculture, the warmer it gets, the harder it will be to maintain productivity of the crops we currently consume,” said David Lobell, a professor of environmental earth systems science at Stanford University who studies the impact of climate change on agriculture. There will be other effects too. Frequent droughts will reduce crop yields—as we witnessed in North America when a severe drought during the summer of 2012 limited production over a large area—and an expected increase in heavy rains will lead to floods that could destroy what we do grow. We will be forced to change they way we raise our crops, and where we grow them will be affected. A climate of extremes is bad for farming.

The results from Lewis Ziska’s study in Baltimore, where weeds thrived in the heat and the high carbon dioxide levels, suggest that the way we’ve grown our food in the last decades—planting homogeneous rows of one crop—isn’t going to fare well in a future of climate change. “Modern agriculture tends to be very large monocultures with very little genetic diversity,” said Ziska. But the study demonstrates that species with the greatest genetic diversity—the ones that are the most able to produce seed and that don’t rely on pollination—are the ones most able to adapt to sudden changes in climate. “Modern agriculture is the opposite,” Ziska pointed out. “Is that model of agriculture good for a rapidly changing climate? Not so much.”

The way we produce and consume our food in the industrial system is not only vulnerable to the effects of climate change, it is also worsening the problem. It draws heavily on fresh water (for irrigation) and fossil fuels (used to make fertilizers) and also is draining groundwater aquifers, polluting our oceans, and eroding our soils. Furthermore, the global food system is responsible for just under one-third of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The predicted changes in global demographics worsen the picture. The nine billion humans that the United Nations calculates will populate the earth by 2050 is a number far greater than humanity has ever seen before. (To put it in context, in 1950, the global population was around 2.5 billion.) The majority of these people will live in cities, leaving the smallest ratio ever of farmers to eaters. As cities grow to accommodate industrial development and the rising population, as well as to cater to the housing wishes of the well-to-do who yearn for their own home and a patch of land, if things don’t change we will continue to pave over the earth’s best farmland, leaving ourselves with less soil on which to grow our food. At the same time, more and more people, in countries such as India and China, are embracing a Western diet, which demands more meat, hence more of nature’s resources. We also depend on farmland to grow cotton and biofuels, which adds to the competition for arable land as well as the environmental burden of farming, since each industry has its own ecologically damaging practices. If we don’t change our ways now, by 2050 we will struggle with the consequences of our actions.

To read more about Consumed, click here.