The fate of civilization in the mid-21st Century turns critically on food. Success in overcoming the intersecting challenges of climate and resource scarcity will bring peace, plenty and a chance to repair the planet. Failure will bring war.
Worldwide, compelling evidence is amassing that we must urgently re-think the present global food system – or face the risk of spreading conflict and mass-migration triggered by disputes over food, land and water. In short, we have a choice before us – between food or war.
Humans have been fighting over food and the resources to produce it for over 17,000 years. Famine accompanied most of the major conflicts of recent history, as cause, effect or both.
Today up to a dozen conflicts are being fought out worldwide – mainly in Africa, but increasingly in the Middle East, Asia and Latin America – in which food, land and water insecurity has fuelled the confrontation. There are now seven ‘powderkeg regions’ of the Earth, places which harbour most of the human population, where water and soil are running out and food supplies increasingly stressed in the face of insatiable demands.
More than a third of a billion people now leave their homes each year, either as refugees or ‘economic migrants’, seeking a safer future elsewhere. If food continues to be neglected, this could rise to a billion or more by the mid-century, overwhelming national borders and toppling governments.
The same global food system that fed 2.5 billion humans in the mid-20th Century, one based largely on broadacre farming pumped up with technology and fossil fuels, cannot meet the needs of 10 billion people living on a hot planet in the mid-21st. It is unsustainable.
Every meal you eat devours ten kilos of topsoil, 800 litres of water, 1.3 litres of fuel, 0.3g of pesticide and emits 3.5 kilos of CO2. Like most people, you do that three times a day. In total humanity does it 20 billion times a year. We are consuming the Earth in order to feed ourselves – an act that is both unwise and bound to end badly.
These present an irrefutable argument to change our old food system in favour of one that can withstand climate change, which uses vastly less land, water or chemicals and which constantly recycles all nutrients.
A global food system capable of achieving a safe human future will have three main pillars:
- Regenerative farming, replacing current systems, which repairs soil and water, provides clean healthy food, locks up carbon and re-wilds almost a third of our present farmed area to end the sixth extinction.
- Climate-proof urban food production, based on intensive systems that recapture and recycle all urban water and nutrients, currently lost, back into sustainable, healthy food.
- Deep ocean aquaculture to replace the failing wild harvest of sea fish. Algae culture to provide basic feedstock for both aquatic and land-based livestock, using recycled nutrients.
Though much of the world is complacent and supermarkets appear to bulge with food, it is neither healthy nor sustainable. It could vanish in days, if its just-in-time system were to be disrupted by war, energy crisis or climate. No megacity on Earth can feed itself. We are far closer to hunger than most of us imagine.
Just as a clean, green energy revolution is sweeping the Planet, we now need a clean, sustainable food revolution. The ideas, technology and resources to achieve it already exist. We must now apprehend the urgency – and set to work, together, to build it.
Julian Cribb is the author of ‘Food or War’, Cambridge University Press 2019.