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Four billion new reasons why food will become a local government issue

Citywatch: Whether it’s action or traction in the food world, cities are stepping up to the plate. The world is fast going urban, as are challenges of social, economic and environmental well-being. Citywatch is crucial to Worldwatch. Wayne Roberts, retired manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council, has his eye out for the future of food in the city.

Last week, the flashbulb explosion met the population explosion, as news cameras clicked at several newborns identified as the seventh billion humans in the world. Now that the global birthday party is over, it’s time for new thinking about preparing food for a party of seven billion.

As our population continues to grow, improving urban policies are key to ensure food security in cities. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)As our population continues to grow, improving urban policies are key to ensure food security in cities. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)Any amount of food multiplied by seven billion is going to be a big number. Resources required will be almost seven times higher than when Thomas Malthus wrote his famous essay on human population, with its doomsday prediction that food production could never expand as rapidly as population growth, thereby condemning large numbers to hunger and want. And there’s little doubt the number will get larger, likely nine billion by 2050.

Human numbers have climbed from about 200 million in Christ’s time, to about a billion at the time of the American and French Revolutions, to some 3.5 billion during the 1960s era of birth control pills and “sexual revolution”—the term “population bomb” was coined in that decade—and then started hitting new growth plateaus every decade, not every other century or millennia. Nine billion people are expected for the birthday party in 2050.

Many see that pace of population growth as a forerunner to doomsday scenarios of some kind, especially if there’s a “perfect storm” of overpopulation, resource depletion (fossil fuels in particular), collapse of bio-diversity and climate chaos. How now brown cow, many prominent scientists and food analysts ask. Be afraid, be very afraid.

But food and population numbers may be one more example that size isn’t everything. While recognizing the need for deep-seated changes, there’s good reason to suspect fear-mongering about some of the food estimates. First, the predicted scale of demand for food production increases could well be way off. Equally important, the assumed location of the disaster and the presumed key actors in avoiding disaster may be different than commonly assumed.

My counter-scenario has two elements: first, that we can nourish as many as nine billion people without breakthroughs in food production technology; and second that cities and not some impersonal “world” have the tools at hand to address the challenges. Development of human agency and civic capacity will tell the tale, not technology.

Vanessa Baird, author of The No Nonsense Guide to World Population, argues in the November 2011 New Internationalist that the “population frenzy” is whipped up by biotech, high-input agriculture and nuclear interest groups that stand to benefit if people are numbed by numbers into accepting that there’s no alternative to high-risk technologies.

Likewise, the United Kingdom’s Soil Association, highly respected among organic advocates, matches solid investigative reporting with a far-out title in its publication Telling porkies: The big fat lie about doubling food production. Double or nothing scenarios presented by well-positioned British scientists, as well as by the United Nations’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are based on assumptions that will likely be proven dead wrong, it’s argued. The scare scenario, for example, assumes consumption of meat and milk products will continue to rise to Western norms and be raised on Western animal feeds (grains and soybeans instead of grass), without anyone taking action to prevent the epidemic levels of chronic disease or wholesale expansion of grain and soy crops associated with diets delivering so much animal fat.

The doubling scenario also assumes no-one will bring food waste—estimated by authorities such as University of Manitoba geographer Vaclav Smil to be half the food that’s produced—under control by conserving food instead of producing more waste.

In other words, the mind-numbing numbers rely on an assumption of zero human agency capable of managing problems.

Neglect of cities as both locations of need and places of agency is also notable in the doomsday scenarios. This reflects the conventional biases of an impersonal and placeless globalized food system, which treats one face to feed somewhere the same as one face anywhere.

Cities, where people are now almost totally dependent on food that’s brought to them from outside, have many reasons to take this challenge up, albeit with less resources and coordination than nation states and international organizations command. But since nation states and international organizations don’t use their power, city residents may well conclude that a tool in the hand is better than two in the imaginary bushes.

Making do with the power at hand is likely, given the vulnerability of city residents to the new kid on the block of food security—speculators—a more threatening kid than increases in human population, and one that’s not offset by increases in agricultural productivity.

Speculation in food is similar to that long associated with penny stocks, land, housing bubbles, dot com crazes and currencies.

Short-term speculative trades in food-related commodities, quite distinct from both long-term investment and short-term rises and falls in food supply, came to $376 billion in 2010—a 50-fold increase over ten years—according to Hazel Healey, writing in this November’s issue of New Internationalist. In 2011, spending on food derivatives, one speculative device made infamous by the wreckage of the punctured housing bubble in 2008, came to $126 billion, Healey says.

Speculation in food staples was initiated by investment bankers Goldman Sachs in 1991, according to Food First executive director Eric Holt Gimenez in the Huffington Post, and deregulated by US president Bill Clinton nine years later. Several analysts, most notably Peter Wahl of the German NGO, WEED (World Economy, Ecology and Development) blame speculation for the food price crisis of 2008, the first instance of runaway food prices in over 50 years.

To protect their citizens from such predation in the future, cities will likely revert to their role prior to the late 1800s, when their historic role as protectors of local food access came to an end.

Historian Carolyn Steel, author of The Hungry City, says today’s city planners (the same could be said for public health professionals) came on the scene just as fast ships on the ocean and extensive railways on the land ensured, for the first time in history, ready supplies of urban food—without deliberate planning by local governments. The invisible hand of the market morphed with the invisible land of food production, the punful food historian shows.

Planning without regard to local food supply may have worked a century ago, when the world’s population was three billion, mostly rural people, and when cities of a million were considered huge. But in today’s world, there are almost 4 billion urban people’s worth of reasons to classify such thinking as stale, well beyond its best-before date.

Although municipal food planning capacity has, with few exceptions, become scarcer than hen’s teeth, organizations such as the American Planning Association are now stepping up to the plate and food policy councils, such as the one I staffed for Toronto over the past decade, are growing quickly – with about 150 such organizations across North America now.

Greenbelts, such as the relatively new one surrounding the Greater Toronto Area (now the world’s largest) will become the norm, as will other devices such as land trusts and covenants in deeds preventing future sale of farm land for non-farm purposes . Since farmer protection is as essential as farmland protection, there will also be more efforts to support local farmers, such as the farmers markets that have exploded in the food retail scene faster than any other retail trend in the industry. City government purchases of local and sustainable food – perhaps best practiced by Markham, Ontario – will also ensure farmers can make a living on land near to cities.

As city populations without direct access to food face speculators controlling food staples from afar, expect some four billion pressure points on city planners and others to find nearby and loyal sources of food.

It’s not speculation to say that is the big food trend to watch for, as the world moves from seven to nine billion people.

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