If you've been assuming that 21st century agronomists would be able to fine tune the Green Revolution and stave off world hunger, think again.
The Coming Famine, a sobering book by Julian Cribb, a veteran Australian science writer, warns that global food security will become the overriding concern for all mankind by around 2050, overshadowing financial upheaval and climate catastrophe, unless corrective action is taken soon.
Given the obesity epidemic now plaguing the developed world, the prospect of starvation for our grandchildren seems grotesquely ironic. But according to Cribb, diet and agriculture must be reinvented by mid-century. He outlines how, at our present rate of over-consumption and overpopulation, the global food supply cannot meet the projected peak in human numbers and increased demand.
Cribb cannot be dismissed as a hectoring doom-monger because he goes beyond polemics and outlines steps to help curb mankind's appetite for destruction. These include personal choices, such as having fewer babies or eating less meat, as well as big-picture solutions, such as geoengineering and eco-farming. Balancing local organic methods against advances by the multinationals that supply supermarkets with genetically modified crops and grain-fed Frankenfish is seen as essential.
"In the food wars to come, there will be no victors," Cribb prophesizes. One of his more controversial suggestions is to divert 10 percent of all military defense budgets in order to nourish a hungry planet, thereby preventing armed conflicts sparked by food insecurity or global warming migrants. He argues that doubling investment in research and development would boost new food supply and fund education about sustainability for farmers and consumers. Cutting food subsidies in the developed world is another pragmatic proposal to break down food trade barriers. Cribb also stresses how, in an age of scarcity, it is immoral for corporations, institutions or nations to own or withhold knowledge about food production.
The Coming Famine avoids the alarmist tone of Al Gore's slideshow in the 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth or Paul Ehrlich's 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb. In fact, Cribb writes nearly as persuasively and logically as Rachel Carson did in Silent Spring, the classic 1960s-era environmentalist wake-up call about pesticides in the food chain. His prose is accessible, reasoned and well sourced, backed up with maps and charts on land-use projections, population growth, regional climate change, drought trends, grain yields, fertilizer supply and the social impact of advanced farming methods. By synthesizing current evidence about climate, water, soil, energy, nutrients and demographics, he reaches out to mainstream readers who may be unfamiliar with specialist lingo or green talking points.
"Ordinary people are less confused about food than they are about climate," Cribb asserts. "Plus there are no 'food denialists' arguing we should grow less food. And leaders who do not ensure the people are fed usually end up swinging from lamp posts, so again, politicians are less tempted to inaction on food than they may be on climate."
The forecast is undeniably grim. Cribb notes: "As evaporation and transpiration increase with warming, irrigators may need up to one-fifth more water to grow the same amount of food -- at a time when cities will be taking water away from farmers, and rivers and aquifers everywhere will be drying up."
The continued neglect or abuse of our natural resources inevitably will lead to famine. It's more than a simple distribution problem and Cribb shows how curbing waste is essential. Half the food currently produced in the world gets thrown away. If all earth's citizens adopted the present-day American standard of living, he points out, we would need four planets. And as middle-class Chinese and Indians begin to eat more meat, so goes the rest of this planet. The "increased global mobility of the ravenous consumer" adds a new dimension to the problem, too. In rich countries, such as the United States and Australia, the average pet cat consumes more fish in a year than the average human does. Unrestrained, promiscuous consumption is becoming acceptable.
Cribb is not totally pessimistic, however. He points out that present-day levels of food production can be maintained "by reducing waste, recycling resources, developing alternative methods such as biocultures and algae farming, and reinvigorating research enterprise." Gourmet cookbooks may be viewed as obscenely self-indulgent one day, when dining on a swill of recycled urban nutrients becomes the norm.
But rather than gorging like pigs at the "trophosphere" -- Cribb's neologism for global food production resources, playing on the words "trough" and "troposphere," the lowest level of the earth's atmosphere -- people need to approach food in a way that's "efficient, sustainable and sparing."
The worst-case scenario -- when shortages of everything but people will converge and result in conflicts, waves of refugees, acidic oceans, increased health risks and famine -- is unlikely to be triggered by a single event, Cribb writes. "It will probably be a nonlinear crescendo of events brought on by growing regional scarcities of land, water, nutrients, fuels, technology, fish and skills -- scarcities that are already interacting with and amplifying one another." Cribb prefers to see this as a challenge rather than a reason to despair: "Our success as a species is founded on our ability to foresee danger -- and respond to it before it is too late."
Meatless Mondays, anyone?
The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It, Julian Cribb, University of California Press, 2010.
Jan McGirk has reported on environmental issues and disasters in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. This review was crossposted on the bilingual environmental journal, China Dialogue.