You reap what you sow
As warnings emerge of an impending 250 million-strong COVID-19-induced famine, a moment of reckoning for our global food system is approaching. An inefficient, wasteful and unsustainable system which, according to the experts, verges on collapse, just like our health systems have proved during the pandemic.
It is not a matter of if, but when. And as complicated and political an issue as food security might be, the outcome of a crisis in our food system would actually be very simple: we will go hungry, and within a matter of weeks we risk social collapse, war, and for many of us, extinction. If humans can have such devastating wars over fossil fuel, then we can expect a war of monumental proportions over who gets control of the food production systems of the world. Climate change impacts on food production and the bickering between countries over water resources are just the first signs of a global food system becoming increasingly unstable.
But the impending food crisis would not simply be the result of just one or two things having gone wrong. It would be the cumulative outcome of how we have been managing our food systems since the invention of agriculture, and upon which we have built our entire civilisation. Before the industrial revolution, this planet used to be our thriving vegetable garden. Now this garden is faltering because of our mismanagement. Humans are just really bad “gardeners”, even though they invented agriculture. This is the story of how we ruined the only garden we ever had.
Too many people
There are too many mouths to feed, many more than when we started inhabiting the garden called Earth. We may have added floors to the house to accommodate new members of the family, but the finite limits of our garden cannot produce food fast enough for everyone.
The overpopulation problem is enough by itself to bring about a food crisis. Research institutions around the world are already looking into solutions as dire as eating locusts for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert. While they reassure us that they will be tasty and sustainably raised, I’d rather we simply had fewer people on the planet. This will not only avert the food crisis, but pretty much all crises: pollution, ecological collapse, and possibly even slow down climate change. Not to mention minimise internal conflicts in a house that is getting more and more crowded each day.
Too much ecological destruction
The vegetable garden used to have more than just vegetables. It used to have wild trees and other species such as bees, which are vital to pollinate our garden crops. But we wanted to expand the cultivated part of the garden, so we got rid of the wild plants. We are using a staggering 37% of the planet’s land surface just to grow food, the rest being deserts, mountains and cities. Most ancient natural habitats of the planet have long been destroyed hundreds of years ago, and now comprise only a small fraction of the Earth’s land surface. Non-human life on the planet is disappearing as we enter an accelerating 6th mass extinction, just so that humans can turn every square inch of this planet into a food factory.
Too much meat
In fact a significant part of our garden is now used to grow food not for us, but for our cattle. Rising meat consumption in the household means that we are now in competition with our own cattle for agricultural land and water. Our little garden should never have had so many animals on it. About 97% of mammals on Earth are food slaves to humans. We eat billions of them every year. We have converted Earth into a food conveyor belt that serves just one species, and even this generous garden is not enough anymore for our growing family.
Too much CO2
Our shiny bright vegetables are not as benign and innocent as they look. Food production is a major contributor to climate change. Deforestation, essential to create agricultural land, destroys a major carbon sink. The other major carbon sink destroyed is the soil itself: the degradation of soil through intensive agriculture renders much of the land biologically sterile and decreases its ability to sequester carbon. To make things even worse, the cattle we raise produce enough methane to contribute significantly to the greenhouse effect.
Too much mileage
Our food is constantly on holiday. It travels more than a jet-setting VIP billionaire. Bluberries travel to the UK all the way from Peru. Sugar snap peas board containers in Kenya. Apples are grown in the US, flown to South Africa to get waxed as if they are on some kind of a spa treatment, then back up to Europe to be sold. These fruits and vegetables are not the same as those that we pick from a nearby farm. They are the fruits of the fossil fuel industry. They are poison apples, toxic berries that are bringing down our planet. They are causing climate change, all in the name of global trade agreements. All so that Europe can eat bananas and other exotic fruit that grow in the tropics, thousands of miles away. Instead of being content with trading locally within our communities, we wanted to be more that just self-sustaining gardeners: we wanted to become businessmen.
Too much fragility
If there is anything that we have learned from the COVID-19 crisis, it is how fragile and unprepared health systems around the world are. We realised how dependent we are on PPE, diagnostic chemicals, ventilators, doctors and nurses, all of which depend on each other. Our global food production and trade system is no exception. It is no less than a cirque du soleil performance where unless everything is timed perfectly for the acrobats, unless each rope is checked and piece of equipment inspected, it could all go horribly wrong within a split second. Just like the acrobats, our food production system is balancing itself on a thin rope: the weather has to be the right type of weather at the right season, the fruit picker has to arrive at the right time, the ship container must clear customs asap before the food goes bad so that supermarkets can put it on the shelves. It is a miracle of logistics how all this gets coordinated, but this level of complexity is also indicative of how sensitive this system is to a crisis. The farmer is not just a businessman. He is an acrobat. And climate change is shaking the rope he is balancing on.
Too much food torture
Before it travels around the world, our food goes through hundreds of stages, all of which require additional CO2. When I was studying for my master’s degree in Food Science, I learned all about these methods: Pasteurisation. Baking. Curing. Distillation. Freeze-drying. Boiling. Extrusion. Extraction. UV Irradiation. Pickling. Canning. Vacuum Packing. Fortification. Quality control.
Guess what all of these processes require: electricity. Before it is even packed into fossil-fuel guzzling trucks and planes, our food has already amassed a humongous CO2 footprint just so that it can be sterilised to last the journey around the world.
Too much waste
There is a place in the garden that the gardener doesn’t like to talk about because he is ashamed of it. It is where all the trash goes. It’s where the family dumps all the food it didn’t want to eat. The mishapen carrots they didn’t want to eat because they thought they would catch a disease. The extra crop produced, which needs to be dumped so that the price doesn’t crash. This is also where all the plastic goes. It is where all the by-products of all of these processes go. This corner of the garden is something the gardener considers useless. It is the corner that, if the gardener could just press a button, he would make it disappear. But “trash” is a concept that was invented by humans. In a planet where everything used to be recycled, trash does not exist. The planet didn’t come with bins and waste disposal systems. It didn’t come with black holes. There is no concept of “wanted” and “unwanted” items.
Too much monoculture
Much of our food is actualy going extinct. Extensive breeding and selection of crops over thousands of years means that we have lost huge amounts of genetic variation, which is what keeps plant populations healthy and resistant to disease. Did you know that carrots used to be white, black, purple, orange and pink? We selected only the orange ones just a couple hundred years ago as a celebration for the Queen of Holland, which only have some of the vitamins of the original carrots. Did you know that the original banana died of a fungus? Yes, bananas were wiped out. What you are eating today is a substitute species, which is also under threat. Yes, we could run out of bananas once again.
Crops are being put to the test with climate change. Different species have different temperature tolerance levels. Some will not grow above a certain temperature, while others won’t reproduce. Most however, will become more susceptible to disease, requiring higher and more toxic concentrations of pesticides.
Too many chemicals
The developement of intensive agriculture helped the gardener grow more crops, by pumping them with hormones and spraying them with herbicides and pesticides. Mechanisation, deep plowing and land overuse resulted in the degradation of many soils, rendering the land unusable and in need of even more harmful fertilisers. Huge monoclone plantations increased disease risk, and this increased even more the requirement of even bigger quantities of herbicides and pesticides. RIP bees.
This garden is officially sick. And we are stuck because in order to grow huge amounts of food we need these toxic chemicals.
Too much extinction
It is not only bees that pollinate our crops but many other insects including butterflies. So far, we have been killing insects with pesticides. Now climate change and habitat loss are threatening insects with total extinction, with as much as an 80% decline in populations reported in some habitats. This means about 30% of crop production is immediately in question over the coming years. The massive mysterious decline in insect numbers is still not understood, though it is suspected that insects are much more susceptible to temperature increases and heat waves than we previously thought, and that we are already witnessing the effect of global warming on the insect kingdom.
If this is true, this would destroy not only a big part of agriculture, but also lead to mass extinction across plant and animal kingdoms, as plants depend on insects for reproduction, and animals, especially birds, depend on insects for nutrition.
Too much disruption
The climate crisis has caused a global migration of species, resulting in species-to-species interactions and the exchange of novel viruses like COVID-19 between animals. Ocean warming has created a well-documented wave of “fish refugees”: Greenland is already “cashing-in” on climate change with herring and cod migrating northwards, which has resulted in a huge increase in catches. Guess who followed suit: the tuna, who feed on herring. And then the killer whales, who probably feed on tuna. This global disruption in marine ecosystems and fish distribution is already wreaking havoc on the fishing industry not to mention creating international tensions that are surely set to intensify.
There is of course, one fish that cannot move to cooler waters: the greatest organism on Earth, the Great Barrier Reef. Holding at least 10% of the worlds fish species in a comparatively tiny area, it is already the frontline of the marine impacts of climate change.
Major food-producing regions of the world are suffering from floods, desertification or both at the same time. The fact is that climate change has increased crop failure events across the globe due to drought, hail, extreme rain, locusts and wild unpredictability in the weather. This is precisely what happened last year when Europe, the US and Russia were witnessing a 20% drop in yields simultaneously. We’ve been warned by top sustainability scientists that if this happens 3 years in a row it could lead to mass starvation.
Plants can only grow under stable conditions. They are living things, which I spent years of my life studying for my other masters degree, in Plant Biology. For hundreds of years we have been treating them as lifeless products. The gardener used to wake up and say hello to his vegetables in the morning. Now he doesn’t even see them or acknowledge them.
There is no vaccine for hunger. There is no more Earth left to succumb to heartless greed. There is however a miracle drug cocktail: it is called moderation, compassion, and gratitude.
to be continued…(or not)