War in the Ukraine – a country which feeds 400 million human beings – is exacerbating an already perilous state of world food insecurity. The Russian blockade has slashed Ukrainian grain exports by two thirds, triggering scarcities and food price rises around the world. Indeed, the cost of food globally is now the highest it has ever been in recorded history.
But war is not the only factor driving the emerging global food crisis. Much of it has been brewing for decades, as the human population outruns the Earth’s ability to supply food for all.
The most destructive implement on the planet, without a doubt, is the human jawbone. Every year, in the course of wolfing down 8.5 trillion meals, our jawbone dislodges 75 billion tonnes of topsoil, wastes 4 trillion tonnes of fresh water, generates 30 per cent of our planet-heating greenhouse emissions and spreads 5 million tonnes of specialised poisons. It clears forests, empties oceans of life, destroys rivers and lakes, sterilises landscapes and blankets the planet in a toxic shroud. It is the main driver of the 6th Extinction of life on Earth.
The current global food insecurity is the result of huge forces, both long- and short-term. Loss of soil and water, extinction, ecosystem collapse, overuse of chemicals and fertilisers and an increasingly turbulent climate for the growing of crops, compounded by soaring oil prices, war, trade and food chain disruption.
Every meal we eat now destroys 10 kg of soil, wastes 800 litres of water, uses 1.6l of fuel and 3g of pesticide and emits 3.5 kg of CO2. We are in the process of devouring the Earth which, if you think about it for even microseconds, is not a good strategy for the survival of our civilisation, or our species.
The first thing which everyone who eats needs to understand is that the present food system, perfectly adequate for the 20th Century and indeed the primary driver of the human population explosion to 8 billion, is not sustainable in the 21st. Apart from its growing vulnerability to climate impacts, modern broadacre farming systems destroy the very soils, waters and ecosystem services they depend on, making major food system failures unavoidable in coming decades. This is already starting with global water crises in the 2020s and beyond, and a 29 per cent increase in drought worldwide since 2000. We love our bronze-age farming system but just because it fed a much smaller population well for 6000 years does not mean it is the best technology to feed 10 billion people in the hot, resource-depleted, ecologically-damaged world of the latter 21st Century.
Humans have fought over food and the means of producing it for 20,000 years, as rock art in Australia shows. Food, water and land scarcity are primary drivers in two thirds of modern conflicts today. Indeed, many people seem to have forgotten that the primary German war aim in World War II was to take farmland from the Soviets and put German farmers on it. It is very likely that controlling the Ukraine’s bountiful and reliable food bowl is among Putin’s main aims also. In the short run this is imposing hunger and even starvation on hundreds of millions of people far beyond Europe.
Spreading hunger in turn snowballs into government failures, civil wars and refugee tsunamis around the world – as it did in 2008 when a shortfall in Ukrainian grain exports led to revolutions in three Arab countries. Already, a third of a billion people – equal to the entire population of Europe – leave their homes each year, either as refugees or economic migrants, to seek better lives in countries which seem more stable and food secure. War will add to the flood.
Thus, in developing a new food system for the world of the 21st Century, we also have to find a way to curb the human appetite for war.
In Food or War, I trace the links between food and conflict through human history, explore the role of food in recent conflicts and examine nine regions of the world which are at high risk of food failure and conflict in the foreseeable future – conflicts ranging from riots and government failure to nuclear war. My aim is to show that the link between food and war is inexorable – but that it can be broken. And that having enough good food is the most under-rated, under-recognised and precious ‘weapon of peace’ in the world today.
So, how do we achieve sufficient food for all people, to take us past the peak in human population in the late 2060s, down to the sustainable level of 2.5 billion that existed when I was born (and towards which the world’s women are now steadily leading us) without laying waste to the entire planet either agriculturally or militarily?
There are basically three pillars to a sustainable global food supply, each supplying roughly one third of our food needs:
- Regenerative farming and grazing, globally, to restore ecosystem function over an area of about half of the planet presently farmed or grazed, using minimal inputs of chemicals or fertiliser and locking up far more carbon.
- Urban food production, in which all urban water and nutrients are recycled in a ‘circular economy’ into climate-proof food, produced by a wide range of techniques such as hydroponic, agritectural, aquaponic and cellular systems.
- Redouble marine aquaculture, especially in the deep oceans, growing algae, seaweeds and fish in ways that are also climate-proof. This will gradually replace our failing wild-harvest fisheries and broadacre cropping on land.
There is a lot more to each of these than I can explain in this short article, but the details are in Food or War. Already many scientists, farmers, companies and innovative technologists all round the world are pioneering these techniques, hammering out the flaws and investing billions of dollars in ‘new food’ ventures aimed at a safe, healthy, sustainable diet for all.
This three-part solution is practical, involves little or no new technology and, what is most important, it is completely affordable. The money to implement it already exists, in the world’s weapons budgets. So do the people and skills. However, as you may imagine, it involves a renewable food revolution greater even than the renewable energy revolution now sweeping the planet. But it is equally promising and feasible.
Furthermore, there is a dramatic opportunity to eat better. So narrow is our present industrial food base that we presently eat fewer than 300 (i.e. less than 1%) of the 30,500 edible plants so far identified on Earth. We have yet to explore our Planet in terms of what is good, safe and sustainable to eat.
In his book ‘Half Earth’, the great biologist E.O.Wilson argues that we need to set aside about half the planet for other life if we are to avoid mass extinction and an ecological collapse that will imperil our own future. In Food or War, I show how this may be achieved – by re-wilding half of the world’s presently farmed and grazed lands, in all continents, under the stewardship of former farmers (whom the industrial food system is evicting anyway) and indigenous peoples – a scheme titled ‘Stewards of the Earth’. Wilson calculated this will spare around 86% of the species presently destined for extinction. It will also dramatically reduce human carbon emissions.
Can we afford it? The funding to make it happen already exists – by diverting just 20 per cent of the global arms budget of $1.8 trillion (ie $340bn/yr), on the grounds that improved global food security is the most effective means of bringing peace to the planet. An even larger defence cut happened between 1990-2005, so we know it is possible.
Rethinking our food not only holds the key to peace and plenty for all, but also to ending the 6th Extinction and regenerating a fairer, greener, healthier Earth.