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Books: no winners in food wars

Diet and agriculture must be reinvented to meet projected peaks in food demand and human numbers, Julian Cribb argues in The Coming Famine. Jan McGirk found it persuasive, reasoned and well sourced.

The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It
Julian Cribb
University of California Press, 2010


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 geo-engineering 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 prophesises. One of his more controversial suggestions is to divert 10% of all military defence 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, fertiliser supply and the social impact of advanced farming methods. By synthesising 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?


Jan McGirk is a former correspondent for
 The Independent (London) who has reported on environmental issues and disasters in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.     

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jmcgirk

食物世界里的“猪”

作者在twitter上给我发了这样一条私信:
顺便说一下,我的新词“trophosphere”源于我的祖先——一位古希腊的学者。trophos意为“食物”,而sphere为“世界”,因此这个词是指世界中养活我们的那一部分。我猜一个像trough这样有着明显撒克逊词尾特色的词,很可能源于日耳曼语而非希腊语,所以尽管两个词发音相似,但其实关联不大......最重要的是帮助人类意识到,我们全体人类有责任照顾好整个食物世界,而不仅仅是其中的一小部分。
——朱利安·克里布

此评论由张晓菲翻译。

Pigs at the 'Trophosphere'

The author sent me this note:
BTW my neologism ‘trophosphere’ derives from my origins as a scholar of ancient greek – trophos is food and sphere is world, therefore the part of the world that feeds us. I guess a word like trough, with that distinctly Saxon ending, is probably Germanic, rather than Greek in origin, so probably not related despite the similar sound.)...[the] important task is helping humanity realise we have a collective responsibility to look after the whole ‘eatosphere’, not just bits of it.
--Julian Cribb
http://twitter.com/#!/ComingFamine


If you EAT, you should follow: http://twitter.com/#!/ComingFamine

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gerard

临界之点

感谢提出这个重要议题。根据WWF的《生命行星报告2010》
http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/all_publications/living_planet_report/2010_lpr/,
我们现在正使用超过可持续水平50%的能源。

其中一种最浪费的消费形式是食肉。中国的肉制品消耗量(如今已经达到每年人均50kg,并有加速之势)正快速接近美国的水平(每年人均125kg)。我们的过度消耗正在加速,且以上海磁悬浮列车的速度撞向环境之墙。除非我们都立即刹车,不然在不久的将来,我们将亲眼目睹灾难性的饥荒。

我们是否有转向以一个更健康的地球为基础的饮食之觉悟?让我们拭目以待。

感谢Jan的提醒。

A critical point

Thank you for raising this critical issue. According to the WWF's Living Planet Report 2010, http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/all_publications/living_planet_report/2010_lpr/ , we are now using and consuming 50% more than is sustainable.

One of the most wasteful forms of consumption is eating meat, and China's meat consumption (now 50kg per person and accelerating) is fast approaching the USA's (now 125kg per person per year). Our over-consumption is accelerating, and we are about to hit an environmental brick wall at the speed of Shanghai's MagLev train. Unless we all put the brakes on now, we will see a tragic famine within just a few years.

Do we have the sense to switch to a healthier plant based diet? We are about to see.

Thank you Jan for the reminder.