Every so often something happens that punctures our sense of what’s normal. In the UK one of those events was empty shelves that used to display fruit and veg. Then supermarkets began rationing some food items. The reasons for this situation are being reported as including a reliance on fossil-fuel-heated greenhouses that have become too expensive, and the impacts of ever-stranger weather on suppliers in warmer countries. These two situations might seem unusual but they’ve been widely predicted. Worse, they relate to just two of six hard trends that are threatening the breakdown of global food systems, including those that most of us depend on. That’s according to a new research paper that integrates analysis from the range of scholarship relevant to understanding our complex food system.
The study is from the Initiative for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) at the University of Cumbria and explains that these are ‘hard trends’ because they’re very difficult to change, they make each other’s impact worse, and are driving us towards global famine. For years, I’ve been seeking to promote awareness of the looming food crisis, and the need to diversify and localise food production as a sensible response. But this new paper updates us on the true scale and urgency of the problem so much so that I think it’s worth paraphrasing its key arguments, to clarify the situation, so that you can take action in whatever way you’re able.
- We’re hitting the biophysical limits of food production and could hit ‘peak food’ within one generation. The available farm land and yields are no longer able to increase in line with demand. Also, fish populations aren’t coping with intensive harvesting, changing ocean conditions and plastic and heavy metal pollution. It’s true that apparent biophysical limits have been overcome many times before with technological breakthroughs, and there could be more breakthroughs in the pipeline, but that shouldn’t make it a basis for policy!
- Our current food production systems are actively destroying the very resource base upon which they rely, so that the Earth’s capacity to produce food is going down, not up; Capitalist-led agriculture embodies capitalist values in maximising this year’s yield at the expense of future yields. This is mainly about things like exhausting the soil and replacing bacteria with industrial chemicals, but it could also include the wider destruction of biodiversity and indeed, the unhealthy food which results, shortening the lives of its consumers!
- The majority of our food production and all its storage and distribution is critically dependent upon fossil fuels, not only making our food supply vulnerable to price and supply instability, but also presenting us with an impossible choice between food security and reducing greenhouse gas emissions; The food system uses fossil fuels for fertilisers, irrigation (via pumps), tractors, transport to market, refrigeration and packaging. If you’ve heard of the ‘energy cliff’, be aware that it’s also a food cliff.
- Climate change is already negatively impacting our food supply and will do so with increasing intensity as the Earth continues to warm and weather destabilise, further eroding our ability to produce food; the demand for food is not very elastic, which means that even small changes in supply can have large effects on price, and political stability is threatened with high food prices, as we saw in the Arab Spring.
- Despite these limits, we’re locked into a trajectory of increasing food demand that can’t easily be reversed; Food demand depends on population but also on wealth. The rise of middle classes around the world has changed the food demands, with more meat, in particular, being consumed.
- The prioritisation of economic efficiency and profit in world trade has undermined food sovereignty and the resilience of food production at multiple scales, making both production and distribution highly vulnerable to disruptive shocks. Corporations are of course interested in money before meals! As farming is increasingly framed as a debt-financed enterprise, food policy is being controlled by technocrats and profiteers. The more food is transacted through a single global market, the more speculators can do violence to prices.
For years, through LowImpact.org I’ve been highlighting practical ways we can reduce our personal footprints on this rapidly-degrading planet. The issue is not just ethical but also practical, since low-impact also means reducing reliance on a fragile globalised economy for our most basic needs. The Post Carbon Institute has been promoting similar thinking, and sharing some practical examples on resilence.org. However, we’ve not seen any significant changes in mainstream discussion or government policy. Sadly, some of the scholarship on the situation seems captured within a growthist delusion. For example, one large consortium of researchers argued that production of fish and seafood could increase by up to 74% by the year 2050. But the IFLAS paper explains that their study took no account of the impacts from ocean warming, acidification, de-oxygenation and pollution, nor how the energy crisis will hit feedstocks for aquaculture.
Of course IFLAS isn’t the only group of researchers doing integrative analysis of relevant research to conclude that humanity is in a bad predicament with our food supply. Back in 2015 one of the top models on food systems projected that “society will collapse by 2040 due to catastrophic food shortages” – unless everything important to that outcome changed. Yet the IFLAS paper shows that it’s important to realise that this situation is not elsewhere and ‘in the future’. Temporarily empty shelves in the UK and other parts of Europe are the least of our worries. In unstable and poor countries, bad harvests already mean hunger, and people are hungrier now than before the pandemic.
The author of the IFLAS paper, Professor Bendell, concludes by saying
“I no longer anticipate that publishing such findings will help to influence any policies but hope that more people will take action in their own lives and communities as a result. That may sound defeatist, but I believe there are new victories to be won in transforming food systems locally, while resisting the ongoing destruction.”
I have to say that it doesn’t sound defeatist to me. Expecting corporate-friendly states to solve food and environmental problems after 27 years of COP meetings has led to record carbon emissions sounds like the epitome of defeatism, if not futility.
Word has it that Bendell has started a farm with friends. For most of us that’s still an unusual idea, and out of reach. But we need to start considering food production as normal as housework. We could start with our gardens, but better is to club together in networks and press for participation and support from organisations with resources and power, including local authorities. Waiting for governments to get their act together is beginning to seem like waiting to be their victim.
NB: I think that only a relatively small percentage of people will grow a significant amount of their own fruit and veg – more so as young people live more of their lives online than in nature or in gardens (and this is from someone who’s spent the last 20 years persuading / helping people provide things for themselves – energy, water, housing, household goods, clothes etc, not just food). I think the way to approach this is by bringing more land into common ownership, via new commons ideas that are emerging (such as use-credit obligations), that will allow more people to be smallholders and market gardeners, producing for local markets.