What we eat is in constant flux, changing from decade to decade and century to century. If you were raised in Europe during the post-war period of rationing most of the meat you ate was probably offal. But in the late 1960s and 70s, as farming became industrialised and food cheaper, offal dropped off household menus to be replaced by prime cuts such as chicken breasts, pork chops and steak. Meanwhile, our fruit, vegetables and grains have fallen in and out of favour over the years, as trends in cooking and health fads have promoted and despaired of them in equal measure. Kale, for example, once considered horse feed, is now a ‘superfood’ whereas swede and turnip are more and more disdained.
In 2013, Alex Renton wrote an article in The Guardian that described two British meals being served up in 2035 – one in a poor family and one in a rich one. His imagined dishes are fantastical in some ways, but largely they correspond with current research into the future of our food. He envisages Britain’s food security as having become significantly compromised and the country heavily dependent on imports; food costs have risen to comprise 50% of the household budget, so most people are growing what food they can, and potatoes are a key staple; genetic engineering is a major food production method used in everything including the production of synthetic meat; there is almost no livestock farming in the country, except for small communal dairy herds, which provide the bulk of the country’s protein; and coffee, tea, chocolate and rice are all luxuries that are too expensive to import due to increasing water shortages and drought in their places of production, where climate change has hit hardest. It’s a pretty grim picture.
The impact of climate change
Whether or not we reach that reality, it’s probably wise to start preparing for a future that will undoubtedly deliver us some significant challenges in how and what we eat. At the forefront of this, as you would expect, is climate change. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reminds us in its round up of climate change’s impact on agriculture that “Agriculture and fisheries are highly dependent on specific climate conditions.” As these change, so will ecosystems – in ways that are likely to be largely damaging. This does, of course, depend on how much the world warms but at present the barely sustainable projection of 2°C is looking like a pipe dream.
Crops all have optimum growing temperatures, above or below which their yields decline. With global warming, some crops in some areas may flourish – Canada, for example, is now growing peaches and soy – but in other areas drought and rising temperatures are likely to decimate agriculture. This will likely be the case in some of the world’s major agricultural regions – it is already happening in California’s Central Valley. In Europe, the main impact of climate change will be decreasing seasonal rainfall and increasing extreme weather: drought and heat waves along with storms and flooding will all become more frequent. Across the globe, a warming world will lead to more virulent diseases and more pests damaging crops.
But sadly, climate change is just one challenge facing our food production. Soil degradation has been another creeping, but very serious, issue affecting agriculture. The UN has declared 2015 the International Year of Soil to draw attention to its decline as one of our most important resources. The European Commission notes that:
The interface between the earth, the air and the water, soil performs many vital functions: food and other biomass production, storage, filtration and transformation of many substances including water, carbon, nitrogen. Soil has a role as a habitat and gene pool, serves as a platform for human activities, landscape and heritage and acts as a provider of raw materials.
But despite this recognition of soil’s significance, the EU failed to ratify the Soil Framework Directive in 2014, which would have protected soil as a natural non-renewable resource. This was a major failure for the preservation of healthy soils in Europe and will have far-reaching ramifications. Soil health is still under the purview of individual EU member states, and while the Common Agricultural Policy has introduced ‘greening’ measures to protect European soils and wider biodiversity, it is far from an effective regulatory framework.
The importance of soil health is brought to the fore when it comes face to face with population growth. By the end of this century, the world could hold more than 11 billion people and feeding everyone will be no mean feat. With declining soil health added to the litany of woes wrought by climate change, yields are predicted to drop significantly in major agricultural regions across the globe. Africa and South America will be especially hard hit: Africa’s major crops – maize and sorghum – could decline as much as 22% in some parts of the continent and South American production of soy – the largest in the world – could drop by 20%. The picture for the rest of the world is equally concerning – the Middle East, for example, could see its maize production cut nearly in half. Given the interconnectedness of global food production, price shocks could become more regular and intense causing levels of food insecurity that may generate widespread social unrest.
An ecology of eating
This bleak scenario for food consumption points to an imperative need to rethink our eating, an exercise explored in some depth by the chef Dan Barber. His book The Third Plate (2014) takes the future of our food as its starting point. He asks how we can reconceptualise our eating in ways that work with nature rather than against it, as is the case in so much farming today. His treatise is an interrogation of what this means in practice and for Barber cooking is always connected to the ecosystem of its products. When nurtured, these ecosystems give us the bounty that sustains us. But this is the golden rule that we have broken: in destroying so many of these ecosystems and natural resources, we are laying the groundwork for our own destruction.
The change we need, in Barber’s eyes, is to build an ecology of eating. We need to rediscover the specificity of our ecosystems, and see ourselves as an integral part of a unified system on which we our dependent. He proposes a scenario that is “rooted in the natural world […] a blueprint for one big farm”. This ecology of eating is not revolutionary: in a not-too-distant past it was just something we did.
Without a global transit system to ship food around the world we used to eat whatever was available and what we could grow ourselves. There was no monocropping because the scale of our growing was necessarily small and localised, which demanded diversity and variety in our crops. We ate fermented foods, which are immensely good for us, because the seasons required us to ferment, pickle and preserve produce to make it last throughout the year. ‘Nose-to-tail eating’ was a necessity not a trend and waste was not a global issue. These are all things that underpin a sustainable ecology of eating – one that we need to return to in our changing world.
So, when the coffee, tea, chocolate and rice become luxuries that we can no longer afford it will be back to basics for most of us. We’ll need to remember how to grow food on our window sills and in our backyards, eat the crops that grow best where we live, use every part of our food, and eat more widely, rediscovering tastes that have been pushed off our menus. For the planet, this will be a good thing, and for us, it could mean healthier eating and a deeper connection with our food that will make us take more care with what and how we eat.