Sunday, December 29, 2013

Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet - Sarah Elton

There has been much talk recently about what the world will be like in 2050. Speculation on a future economy in a world of nine billion people, how we will deal with decreasing oil and natural gas reserves, and the effects of climate change top the list for most people. Author Sarah Elton, in her book Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet, combines all of these – along with increased urbanization – to ask the question: how will the world feed itself in 2050?

Today’s industrial food system is affected by everything on this list. Elton argues that in order to best use the finite resources available to us, we need to find alternatives to the industrial food system that are sustainable, based in ethics and human rights, and maintain ecological balance. She outlines a decade by decade set of targets to be met which she believes is the path that will lead us to food security.

Elton travels to India where she meets with organic farmer Chandrakala Bobade, who epitomizes the first decade’s target: ending industrial farming and making agricultural systems sustainable. Many of India’s farmers are in crisis. They are indebted to companies from which they purchase expensive inputs for their crops – fertilizers, seeds – yet the returns are too little to pay for the next round of inputs. Thousands of farmers commit suicide each week as their farms fail. Others, like Bobade, have decided to go organic and cut out the expensive fertilizers and seeds. They have been successful, increased yields, run successful farmers’ markets, and shown that organic farming can feed a country the size of India.

Elton interviews Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, professor of rural studies at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who believes industrial agriculture is “on its death bed” as it does not pay farmers sufficiently to grow food and is environmentally damaging. In his opinion, the small-scale farming model followed by Bobade and others will become the norm. However, Elton argues that this transformation must also include a move away from a farm system based on created cheap, processed food that results in further depressed farm workers’ wages. Instead, says Elton, there need to be localized markets for food so that people have “a real choice about what to eat and the right to choose food grown in a particular way”.

Farmland itself is under pressure as governments and developers snap up whatever acres they can grab – forests, wetlands, farms – to build industrial parks and housing developments, or to plant cash crops for biofuels and the export market. Countries like India are buying up land in Burma, Kenya and Ethiopia to grow the food it needs as it paves over its own farmland. In a world suffering the effects of climate change, Elton states that sustainable agriculture would have farmland near to the urban markets needing the food and governments should be actively protecting it instead of opening it up to speculators waiting for a food crisis.

Elton’s second decade target is to ensure food security through diversity in the seed supply. While in China, she visits a remote Hani village that farms local rice varieties in terraced paddies irrigated by a stream dammed with rocks, the soil worked by animals and birds. Each rice variety is adapted to the local microclimate and is resistant to local pests. At one point centuries ago, this mountainous landscape supported over ten thousand hectares of rice paddies and in the 14th century it was known as the Eastern Grain Barn.

Pressures on farmers even in this corner of China mean they are foregoing planting traditional rice varieties, instead using the high-yielding hybrid rice varieties. These new varieties are not well adapted, requiring fertilizers and pesticides that harm the fish and ducks that help keep the paddies healthy, as well as the wild foods once gathered. Not saving seeds mean that the genetic material within them is lost forever, and the diversity within food crops diminishes. Lower genetic diversity means that crops will be more susceptible to increased levels of carbon dioxide or certain pests because there are fewer genes to recombine to find a vigorous one that will survive.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 75 percent of crop diversity was lost in the 20th century. India in the 1950s could boast thirty thousand wild varieties of rice; by 2015 is it likely that number will have dropped to 50 wild varieties. North America 50 years ago had multitudes of varieties of apples, but today most grocery stores carry only a few varieties year round. Food supply is closely tied to the diversity of the gene pool in the seeds of wheat, rice, corn and other crops.

For Elton, it is in the best interest of human survival that seed banks continue to collect seeds, and publically-supported research continues into development of crop varieties able to survive the conditions predicted in a globally warmed future world. While Elton does not come out fully against genetically modified seeds, she does say that patented seed technologies hinder gains and the free exchange of scientific research into new varieties is necessary.

The third target Elton outlines is more difficult to pin down, but hearkens back to a time when societies were less urbanized and “more connected” to nature. European countries like France still show this trend, though it too is struggling against the “modernization” of food culture. Monsieur Valadier is a 78 year old cattle farmer who never gave up the traditional peasant life of the mountainous Aubrac region, where they kept the cows and continued to make the famous Laguiole cheese used in the traditional dish aligot. Elton writes of the food grown in a certain region as having a terroir – a unique taste created by the air, water and soil. It is these things that connect people to the land around them.

However, “cultures of food are eroding” as urbanites do not experience this same close connection, instead learning the taste of the supermarkets with their pre-roasted chickens and boxes of salad mix. Price and convenience are more important in busy lives than taste and nutrition. The danger, says researcher Harry Balzer, is that food habits learned at a young age are difficult to change later in life. Basically, he says, growing up on a diet of processed foods means it will likely be in your diet as an adult. Reconnecting with the terroir of locally purchased and “home-cooked” foods may be what is needed to raise a generation concerned about the farmland that sustains them and wanting to take part in the process.

To achieve this requires a food production revolution. It may take Elton’s many urban gardens, small organic farms run by peasant farmers, seed banks and culture-awakening terroir. It may take and entire change to the economic system. What is obvious is that tying food and food production into the current system has been a disaster, leading to price fluctuations in staples, increased poverty as farmers are driven off their land by corporations, and environmental degradation. The ideas in this book are good starting point for the changes needed as we move towards 2050.

This review was previously published here: