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Book Review: The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do To Avoid It by Julian Cribb

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Back in 2006, it was in part concern about world food supplies – and particularly the condition of the soils and water that produce them – that led me to join the Green Party. I did an agricultural science degree, a long time ago, and I never “practiced” as a scientist, but an interest in soils, and comprehension that their complexity is something that is terribly important and terribly poorly understood, has stayed with me. And being an Australian, particularly one who spent some time in the bush, an awareness of water scarcity is part of my DNA. Since then, I’ve had to ration my reading on the subject. It’s too depressing to confront it too often.

But it seemed when I came across The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do To Avoid It by Julian Cribb, from the University of Technology Sydney, published last year, it was time to update with the words of a specialist.

We’re already in a bad place. As Cribb notes, in the Soviet grain emergency of 1972-5, world food prices rose by 78%, while between 2005 and 2008, they rose on average by 80%. In the intervening period, it is very clear, global governments and NGOs took their eye off the ball. They thought food was fixed, sorted, and would keep on getting cheaper. And it is set to get a lot worse:

The challenge facing the world’s 1.8 billion women and men who grow our food is to double their output of food – suing far less water, less land, less energy, and less fertilizer. They must accomplish this on low and uncertain returns, with less new technology available, amid more red tape, economic disincentives, and corrupted markets, and in the teeth of spreading drought.”

On soil loss, Cribb is bigger than others I’ve read on the spread of cities, noting that adding all of the world’s urban areas together they are estimated to occupy 4.75 million square kilometres, about half the size of the US or China, and making the, good, point, that not only do they consume land for housing, but also for leisure facilities around them – golf courses, playing fields etc, plus off course in the West anyway commuter belts. Because cities are usually located on the best agricultural land, they’re also pushing farming into more marginal territory, where soil degradation, saliniation etc are likely to be more of a problem.

Cribb follows one of my favourite issues in stressing how much cities once did and could again supply a significant proportion of their own food, but current planning policies actively work to prevent this. (This madness being just a small example.) And he’s big on the need for cities to preserve nutrients (yes, I’m a big fan of composting toilets for this reason) – “humanity is thought to produce around 3 billion tonnes of phosporus in its sewage, so, in theory at least, the world’s cities concentrate around 1.5 billion tonnes- an immense resource that is largely wasted by flushing it into the oceans”. Particularly telling since peak phosphorus (produced from rock) was around 1989 – and “there’ are no substitutes for phosphorus. It is fundamental to the chemistry that supports all forms of life”.

Cribb’s got the latest, terrifying, figures on general soil loss. In Asia, Africa and South America, soil loss due to erosion averages 30-40 tonnes a year per hectare (30 to 40 times greater than the rate of formation). And in India, Australia, South Africa and South America, soil formation rates are close to zero, so no loss can be replaced. And there’s industrial pollution – more of a problem than I’d realised. In 1990 figures it affected 1% of the world’s farmland, and up to 8% in industrialised societies. More recent Chinese figures suggest 10% of its cultivated land has been contaminated, “mostly in economically developed areas” (also of course the richest farmland).

He makes the point that “peak land” is long passed – in the 1960s. The area for food production per person has declined from 0.45ha (1.1 acres) to 0.23ha (about the traditional average size of an Australian suburban house block, I note), falling to about 0.18ha in 2050.

He’s also solid on the meat argument: “Every American ‘consumes’ an average of 753kg of corn a year, which is mainly used to nourish the livestock that produce meat, eff and dairy products. Imagine how it will affect world grain supplies were Chinese consumers (who outnumber Americans four to one) to increase their feedgrain intake sevenfold to achieve a similar meat-rich diet, and what would occur should equally numerous Indian consumers abandon centuries of vegetarianism…. In case this should be though improbable on cultural grounds, it is worth bearing in mind that, in the 1930s, 97% of the diet of the average Chinese was composed of grain and vegetables; today it is just 67%.”

He also notes that the average well-off consumer “gobbles up” 2,000 tonnes of water and 66 barrels of oil in the form of food “along with hundred of tonnes of soil and tons of wasted nutrients”.

He’s generally very good on the science, an excellent source for the latest stats, but rather less good, and coherent, on the sociological and political issues. On the “philosophical divide” between proponents of low-input smallholder agriculture and the giant agri-business model, he’s keen to “take the best ideas from each and cross-fertilize them”. And yet he also argues, after John Williams, that we need a “whole systems” approach that completely recycles water and nutrients within effectively closed systems – not something that agri-business is even capable of countenancing. He says Americans, Europeans and Asians are unlikely to abandon their supermarkets, even though that’s clearly an ecologically bankrupt model of food distribution. He seems to think it is possible to change farming practice, but not social. (And he’s weirdly and blindly pro-total free trade, in contrast to all of the logic of everything else he says.)

Yet he’s not entirely blind to politics, noting “under climate change, Canada, Russia and Siberia will emerge as the world’s grain superpowers by the end of the present century. Scientists have calculated that by 2080 Russia/Siberia could gain an extra 40-70 percent of new farming land, while North America ya gain 20-50 percent. Such increases would in theory go a long way towards counterbalancing heavy losses in food production in the tropics and subtropics – but unless the food produced iin the North is somehow transported and affordably distributed in the deficit regions, the risk of large-scale local famines triggered by climate impacts will be acute. In all of history to date, the existence of vast food surplus in the North has failed to prevent starvation in the South”. (And he rather doubts that the 1.3 billion people who now depend on the great rivers of the Indian subcontinent, in large part fed by Himalayan glaciers, will be given the chance to resettled in water-rich regions.)

And he does see the need to at least make some of the profiteers pay something back. He says food manufacturers and supermarkets “should volunteer, ot be required” to fund agricultural science and communication of the results. “Just as mining companies are now asked to clean up the sites they mine and repair their environmental damage, so should the food industry be required to repair the environmental damage it causes through its pricing policies.” And he’s clear that privatised research, with the results used for further profit-generation, is not the way to proceed – all research results should be available to all.

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US .

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
  • http://www.lunch.com/DrJosephSMaresca Dr Joseph S Maresca

    Food First by Lappe’ discusses how to promote farming throughout the world to produce more and lower commodity prices. The Victory Gardens of the 40s sought to involve the general public in home gardens in order to make more food available and ultimately lower the price.

  • Paul Felix Schott

    Lord i Pray that we stay One Nation Under GOD, and United that all should be Free. May we always have Patriots like Paul Revere. To tell us the wicked are coming to dig in our pocketbook.

    Our Government needs to Lower all taxes while we still have a United States of America.

    When this Old World starts getting you down. From Pollution the cost of OIL, Heating Fuel,The Fuel you put in your Vehicles, You Electric Bills from
    cooling air conditioners and lights not to speak of the Evil. The TAX that all Governments Federal, State, County and City put on everything they can thing of.

    They are supposed to serve us. Not put a burden on its people. That they are elected to serve all the people you, not their own Pocket Books.

    The Wicked keep putting higher taxes on everything. Making it a Heavy Burden on many that are already struggling just to put food on the table.

    Too many Americans have lost their home to the tax collector or to foreclosures from the unjust bankers greed. More are out of work and lost their homes then in the GREAT DEPRESSION, in the last ten years. All Americans and many Nations need good jobs and more of them. Not more TAXES AND WARS.

    All Taxes need to be lowered now while there is still time to save America.

    There is a Industry that will employ workers and is growing by more then 50% every year. There is a clear way for all up on the roof the Sun Light is free fuel from GOD. Some wicked in Government have been backing Coal, Oil, Gas and the Nuclear industries for too many years.

    These kickbacks to them were called Subsidizing Industry Technology. Most all Wise Men and smart Economist and Environmentalists call this padding their pockets and subsidizing back to the
    Stone Age.

    The best deal would be to lower Taxes for all this is not the Roman Empire or the Persian Empire.

    The Chinese Know Renewable Energy is a good thing. Most of the rest of the World is still a slave to Oil, Coal and Nuclear Power. All the Governments of the World now know it is wise to use Renewable Energy it is the Local Governments that are a little slow to learn what is best for all not just there pocket book.

    They fear people going off the grid all that tax money they will no longer be able to take from you. Wind and Solar Farms are growing all over the Earth. This could have happened years ago if the greedy wicked were stopped by the Real Good.

    The Freedom to get your own Power from the Wind and Sun, Solar Energy has been there for years. Are Libraries and Schools should have been the first to have gone Solar and Renewable Energy. And why are they not? Churches are all over the Planet. They are going to Solar Energy.

    Thank GOD for the Pioneers like John Schaeffer that Started Real Goods The first and Best catalog for Renewable Energy and Scientist Bill Young at the FSEC Florida Solar Energy Center and Monica D. Key Lindbergh for many years wrote to our legislators promoting Solar and Renewable Energy and many others.

    These Pioneers helped put Wind, Solar And Renewable Energy in the Spotlight for all the World to see.
    The Great Scientist Albert Einstein Stared it with a Dream that the day would come that all the World would use Solar Energy. His many years of work with the law of the Photoelectric Effect, and showing this to the World won him the Nobel Prize in Physics. We still do not teach this to our young.

    GOD Bless all that help tell this to the World

    All Taxes need to be lowered cut in half or there will be a lot more Poor and needy and not in just other countries. This 2012 year the World will see hunger like never before. More then 100 million will be sick from malnutrition going with out food. Taxing the poor and taking there Land away from them is Wicked. Very soon the Rich will become the Poor.

    If your Legislature will not lower Taxes vote them out of office and VOTE in someone that will Lower your Taxes. If your Son or Daughter was raised in a christian Home we need them in our Government as Leaders.

    United We Will Always Stand
    In GOD We Trust
    True Patriots

    GOD Bless
    and May HE Guide you all.

    The Lord’s Little Helper
    Paul Felix Schott

    P.S.
    Many a Nation have fallen from taxing their people to Death. You want Prosperity and for thing to Flourish and grow lower all taxes. You want thriving, success, or good fortune for only a few, keep over taxing all.
    Solar, Wind and Renewable Energy Freedom from OIL. The Humanitarian thing to do. Solar Energy.
    Why let the Wicked in office in our Nation if they do not believe in GOD and the Bible vote them out of office.
    United We Will Always Stand in GOD We Trust George Washington and Johann Paul Schott 12/24/1776. 3:45AM
    In GOD We Trust
    The United States of America’s Motto July 30, 1956.
    King David’s Motto 3,000 years ago.
    Soon all the World will Pray to Our Lord GOD and Savior Jesus Christ.