Yesterday was World Food Day, and the media dutifully paid a tiny bit of attention to the 1 billion plus people who suffer from chronic hunger. All the usual problems were trotted out, including multiple quotations in many media from the Australian National Science Director Megan Clark’s observation that to feed a growing population, we will have to produce more food in the next 50 years than we have in all of human history.
“That means in the working life of my children, more grain than ever produced since the Egyptians, more fish than eaten to date, more milk than from all the cows that have ever been milked on every frosty morning humankind has ever known.”
This is a brilliant quote, and stunningly evocative way of making clear how acute the problem is. I hope that it does effectively bring home how large the question of our food security is – because I think most people in the developed world see food as largely trivial. Even movements towards better food tend to work under the assumption that someone (farmers) will take care of providing better, safer food for us, if we simply “create demand.” Thus we set ourselves up as baby birds, mouths wide open, waiting for someone to provide our needs.
I would put the problem a little differently than Clark does, however. Because while the quantities of food needed to sustain our population, even in the best case scenario, where we gradually bring that population down, are astounding, in some ways, that’s a secondary project – the primary one will be the pursuit of justice.
Aaron and I wrote _A Nation of Farmers_ to try and help end the baby-bird view of agriculture. We argued that the days of agriculture as something we are not participants in, except perhaps as “consumers” are now over. And one of the central questions we asked was whether we could in fact, feed a world of nine billion people. The answer was a tentative yes -accepting that such a choice further degrades our ecology and can only exist in the context of a stabilizing population – that is, sooner or later we all starve to death if we don’t do something to continue and enable our demographic transition.
We presently grow enough food to feed 9 billion people. That’s an astonishing realization for most people – that the world produces about double the number of calories we need. That means that even if yields were stabilize, we could feed the coming population and gradually stabilize it (this is a large project obviously, and not my primary topic today, but we discuss it in ANOF), on just what we grow now. The difficulty, of course, is that during the next 50 years, we are expecting radical reductions in our ability to grow food due toc climate change. We can expect to see, for example, more than half of the 17% of the world’s irrigated land that provides 30% of the world’s grain harvest, taken out of production due the loss of water supplies. For every 1 degree of temperature rise, rice yields fall by almost 15%. Facing four degrees represents a disaster. But it was more than just climate change that made us tentative about our ability to feed the world – it was the problem of justice.
Our tentativeness wasn’t due to dependence on technological breakthroughs, or even fear of declining ability to do the work or make fertilizers in a depleted world. Believe it or not, we don’t actually need any major technological breakthroughs to feed the world with minimal use of fossil fuels. A lot of people assume that nitrogen fertilizers won’t have a substitute – but all those nitrogen fertilizers we’ve been using over the years are being recycled over and over, persistantly in human urine – we have all the high nitrogen fertilizer we will need, if we can tap it. The same is true of rising prices for Potash and Phosphorus depletion – these problems have a solution – the fact that our bodies contain these minerals. Humanure, properly and safely composted at high temperatures, is a reasonably complete fertilizer. Human and animal bones can continue to make up the difference. We will have to return to a model of ashes to ashes and dust to dust, and do so with careful attention to the prevention of disease, but it is viable.
Nor do we doubt that human labor can replace fossil fuels – or rather, it can replace them in the appropriate model. What has been found in the former Soviet Union and Cuba and in other places where fossil fuels suddenly become scarce is that small scale, diversified agriculture can match or exceed outputs – that is, the total amount of food, fiber and fertility produced by a small, diversified farm is generally more per acre, even if the yield of a single crop is lower – ie, a small farm might produce less total corn, but more total calories. It won’t be easy to break up our largest industrial farms, or to shift our diets towards a wider range of crops, to develop truly local food systems, and to teach millions of developed world residents that they no longer have the option of acting like baby birds, that they have to take a role in their food system, but it can be done.
We are not organic purists (that is, we both practice organic agriculture, but aren’t dogmatic about saying all farms need to be perfectly organic), but we recognize that the future of agriculture is much lower input than at present – and thus it is important to recognize that organic agriculture has kept pace in both yield and output with Green Revolution agriculture – that is, if we were dependent on fossil fuels for agriculture, we should see that organic yields haven’t risen along with chemical yields, but we haven’t seen that at all. More importantly, there are two values to low input agriculture – where organic food is more expensive in the rich world, because of the high cost of human labor in relationship to cheap fossil fuels, in the poor world, the case is the opposite – one study found that even if yields were lowered overall, organic agriculture would result in less hunger, simply because people could afford more food that way. If we imagine a world where fossil fuel prices eventually rise out of range of many people, we can expect to see this transition occur in the rich world.
Perhaps more importantly for the larger question of whether we can feed the world, organic agriculture, with its close attention to soil, has shown to be more resilient in times of stress – with fewer and fewer “normal” years for growing, and with farmers all over the world facing wild gyrations in weather patterns, it is of the utmost importance to emphasize good soil management and crop resilience – and soil conscious, small scale, low input agriculture generally exceeds the results of conventional agriculture in years of drought or flooding or other weather event. These weather events will be the norm, not the exception as time goes on.
Along with organic agriculture, we have a number of tools that can at least soften the blow of climate change on our agriculture – there’s work to be done on the world’s soils, it is possible to shift crops in drying areas towards more drought tolerant ones, and perennial and woody agriculture offer crop possibilities we haven’t fully explored. Climate change will be an enormous wild-card challenge to our ability to feed ourselves, no doubt – but it isn’t necessarily climate change that creates the deepest doubts.
But if we can manage yields in face of depletion, and if we can adapt our agriculture to climate change, we still face the deep root question of equity – and it is here where our hopes for a world without profound and chronic hunger across the board falter – because last year, when we crossed the 1 billion mark in the world, hungry and added 100 million people to the list of the starving, we had record harvests.
Think about that. Last year, we did, at least for one year, grow more food than we ever have in human history. And hunger still rose and overflowed, and millions died – most of them children.
Why did they die and starve? They died because we didn’t care enough about justice. The UN FAO attributed 40-60% of the rise in hunger to biofuel growth – when cars and people compete for food, the cars win. The rich world found a way to use their food to keep their oil addiction going, and we as a people said “screw the hungry.” There’s simply no other way to read this – we knew that biofuels drove food prices up for the poor, and we burned them anyway.
Why else? High meat consumption of livestock fed on grains – the average poor person eats virtually no meat, the average rich one eats eight times as much grain, mostly in the form of meat. We care about the hungry, at least in principle, but not enough to stop eating factory farmed, grain fed meat and other animal products.
Other reasons include the rich world’s failure to make good on its pledges to help out the world’s poor in the food crisis – we promised money and then we backed out, because we were busy giving money to Goldman Sachs, who obviously needed it more than starving children. There’s also the globalization-induced movement of large portions of the world’s rural population to cities, where they are dependent on grain markets.
There are plenty of other factors – poor management in the countries themselves, political issues, bad agricultural practice, lack of investment in the kind of crop research that would help – a whole host of them. But the majority of the factors simply come down to this – we don’t care enough about justice to actually feed the people we’ve got now, so why do we think we’re going to care later, as it gets harder?
There’s a really good reason to take up the banner of justice here – and that is this – we’ve already proved that most of the richest and most important people in the world don’t mind seeing people go hungry as long as it doesn’t interfere with their accumulation of wealth. Having established that, why on earth would any of us think that they’ll mind seeing *us* go hungry?
Unless we grasp that equity is the central issue here, we will see a world where more and more of “us” and more and more of “them” are hungry, and where the lines between us and them are badly blurred. The good news is that we could decide that we care more about “them” than we do about other things, and focus *now* on justice, and on equity – on making sure that the world’s food goes ’round.
The truth is that in some ways, we’ve got the tools to handle the basic crisis of production – they aren’t easy tools to enact. It isn’t easy to shift from a society where all you have to do is be a consumer to one where you have to be a producer. It isn’t easy to accept that your diet and way of life have no future, and you have to change them. It isn’t easy to learn to eat new foods, or grow them yourself. It isn’t easy to change whole practices and economies around. But in some ways, these projects pale against the giant project of creating a greater degree of human justice.
In the coming 50 years, in my life and my children’s a great number of unfair, unjust things are going to happen to both the world’s poor and world’s “on their way to becoming poor” – we will be forced to flee the coastlines and the dryest parts of the world. We will struggle to live with much less energy and fewer resources. We will face crises we’ve never seen before. We will struggle to keep up food yields, and to feed our world. And nearly all of us, wherever we live in the world, will feel unfairly used – because, after all, none of us meant this to happen, it isn’t fair.
And it isn’t. None of us individually made our situation. But the only hope of having a decent and humane future is this – that we ally with our fellows – next to us and around the world, that we the future poor and the present poor tie our sense of injustice to the project of creating greater equity – of ensuring that food goes first to the hungry, of sheltering those who are most vulnerable, and of mitigating suffering as our central project. Justice, justice shall you pursue. And all the days of your life.