The supply chain is also a futuristic wonder. You can walk into a store in most countries and buy fresh produce from all over the world. These supply chains have even proven somewhat resilient to the chaos caused by the pandemic: While covid-19 lockdowns have led to food shortages in some places, most of the empty shelves were intended to hold toilet paper and toilet paper. cleaners. The food supply has been more resilient than many thought.
But the massive industrialization of food and our ability to buy it has created an avalanche of unintended consequences. The bad cheap calories have led to an obesity crisis that disproportionately affects the poor and disadvantaged. Intensive animal husbandry has increased greenhouse gas emissions because meat has a much larger carbon footprint than beans or grains.
The environment has also been beaten. The boom in the use of fertilizers and pesticides has polluted land and waterways, and easy access to water has led some dry parts of the world to deplete their resources.
They haven’t industrialized so they don’t grow a lot of food which means they can’t make a lot of money so they can’t invest in equipment which means they can’t not grow a lot of food. The cycle continues.
In Perilous premium, journalist Tom Philpott explores California’s agricultural future. Huge water supply projects in the Central Valley, for example, have helped it become one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world for the past 90 years, providing about a quarter of America’s food. But these natural aquifers are now under acute pressure, over-exploited and drying up in the face of drought and climate change. Philpott, a Mother Jones reporter, cites the nearby Imperial Valley in Southern California as an example of this madness. This “dry piece of the Sonoran Desert” is responsible for the production of more than half of America’s winter vegetables, and yet “in terms of native aquatic resources, the Imperial Valley makes the Central Valley look like Waterworld.” The valley is home to California’s largest lake, the 15-mile (15-mile) Salton Sea, said to be so loaded with pollutants and salt that almost everything in it has been killed.
It’s not going to get better anytime soon: What’s happening in California is happening elsewhere. Cribb shows in Food or war exactly how trendlines point the wrong way. Today, he says, food production already competes for water with urban and industrial uses. More and more people are moving to urban areas, accelerating the trend. If this continues, he says, the proportion of the world’s freshwater supply available for food cultivation will drop from 70% to 40%. “This in turn would reduce global food production by up to a third by the 2050s – when there will be more than 9 billion mouths to feed – instead of increasing it by 60% to meet their needs. request.”
These are all grim predictions of future hunger, but they don’t really explain the famine today. For this we can look at another unexpected aspect of the agricultural revolution of the twentieth century: the fact that it did not happen everywhere.
Just as healthy calories are hard to come by for those who are poor, the industrialization of agriculture is unevenly distributed. First Western farmers were catapulted into hyper-productivity, then nations affected by the Green Revolution. But the progress stopped there. Today, one hectare of farmland in sub-Saharan Africa produces only 1.2 metric tons of grain per year; in the United States and Europe, the equivalent of the earth gives up to eight metric tons. This is not because farmers in the poorest regions necessarily lack natural resources (West Africa has long been a cotton producer), but because they are locked into a cycle of subsistence. They haven’t industrialized so they don’t grow a lot of food which means they can’t make a lot of money so they can’t invest in equipment which means they can’t not grow a lot of food. The cycle continues.
This problem is exacerbated in areas where the population grows faster than the quantity of food (nine of the 10 fastest growing countries in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa). And it can be made worse by sudden poverty, economic collapse or conflict, as in Oxfam hot spots. While these are where the World Food Program steps in for immediate pain relief, it also doesn’t solve the problem. But then, their economic situation is not an accident.
A disaster for farmers around the world
In September 2003, a South Korean farmer named Lee Kyung Hae participated in protests against the World Trade Organization, which was meeting in Mexico. Lee was a former union leader whose own experimental farm was seized in the late 1990s. In an essay in the collection Bite back (2020), Raj Patel and Maywa Montenegro de Wit recount what happened next.
As the protesters clashed with the police, they explained, Lee scaled the barricades with a sign reading “WTO!” Kill. FARMERS ”around his neck. At the top of the fence, “he opened a rusty Swiss army knife, stabbed himself in the heart and died a few minutes later.
Lee was protesting the effects of free trade, which has been a disaster for many farmers around the world. The reason why farmers in less industrialized countries cannot earn a lot of money is not just because they have low agricultural yields. It is also that their markets are flooded with cheaper competition from abroad.
Take some sugar. After World War II, European sugar beet growers were subsidized by their national governments to help devastated countries get back on their feet. It worked, but once industrialization kicked in and production levels hit the stratosphere, they got in excess. The answer was to export this food, but the subsidies had the effect of artificially lowering prices: British sugar producers could sell their products on world markets and reduce competition. It was good news for Europeans, but terrible news for sugar producers like Zambia. Farmers were locked into subsistence or decided to shift away from foods they were naturally capable of producing in favor of other products.
Powerful nations continue to subsidize their farmers and distort world markets even as the WTO has forced weaker countries to abandon protections. In 2020, the United States spent $ 37 billion on these subsidies, a number that has skyrocketed in the last two years of the Trump administration. Europe, on the other hand, spends $ 65 billion annually.
Patel and Montenegro point out that much of the populist political chaos of recent years has been the result of the commercial turmoil – industrial jobs lost through outsourcing and rural protests in the United States and Europe by people angry at the prospect of rebalancing have been stacked in their favor for decades.
We have built systems that not only widen the gap between rich and poor, but make the distance unassailable.
Donald Trump, they write, “was never honest about giving up free trade,” but “the social power he created in the Heartland was real. Citing the abominations of outsourced jobs, rural depression and lost wages, he tapped into neoliberal dysfunction and harnessed outrage to an authoritarian regime.
All of this leaves us with a grim picture of the sequel. We have built systems that not only widen the gap between rich and poor, but make the distance unassailable. Climate change, competition for resources and urbanization will lead to more conflicts. And economic inequalities, both at home and abroad, mean that the number of hungry people is more likely to rise than fall.
A golden age, but not for everyone
So are there any answers? Can we end famine? Can we avoid the wars for food and water?
The countless books on the food system in recent years make it clear: the solutions are easy to implement and extremely complicated to implement.
The first steps could be to help farmers in poor countries get out of the trap they find themselves in by enabling them to produce more food and sell it at competitive prices. Such a strategy would mean not only providing the tools for modernization – like better equipment, seeds or stocks – but also reducing the tariffs and subsidies that make their hard work so unsustainable (the WTO has tried to make progress on this front). The World Food Program, for all its praise, must be part of that kind of response – not just a flowchart that scrambles hungry mouths with emergency rations, but a force that helps rebalance this quirky system.
And the food itself needs to be more environmentally friendly, using less of the stuff that increases yields at the expense of wider ecology. Gone are the agricultural oases installed in dry deserts; more Salton Seas. It’s difficult, but climate change may force us to be a part of it anyway.
All of this means recognizing that the golden age of farming was not a golden age for everyone and that our future may be different from what we are used to. If so, that future could be brighter for those who are hungry today, and perhaps for the planet as a whole. It might be hard to count, but our spectacular global food system isn’t what will keep people from starving – that’s exactly why they starve in the first place.