An alarm­ing take on hu­man­ity’s fu­ture

Ju­lian Cribb of­fers much food for thought but also un­re­al­is­tic so­lu­tions to the world’s great­est threat – its food sup­ply

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOK REVIEWS - Christophe­r Kis­sane

Food or War By Ju­lian Cribb

‘TCam­bridge University Press, 350pp, £9.99

he most de­struc­tive ob­ject on the planet,” writes Ju­lian Cribb in this alarm­ing assess­ment of our food fu­ture, is “the hu­man jaw­bone. It is presently de­vour­ing the Earth – and that is not a wise strat­egy for our long-term sur­vival.” Our ra­pa­cious de­sire to con­sume has caused wars, built em­pires, per­ma­nently changed the Earth’s ecosys­tem, and is now push­ing hu­man­ity to­wards a cliff edge. Cli­mate change, en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, un­sus­tain­able growth, and in­dus­tri­alised agri­cul­ture are part of a toxic cock­tail that means “the world faces the great­est threat to global food sup­ply in all of hu­man his­tory”.

With the Earth’s ecosys­tem creak­ing un­der the weight of ex­ploita­tion, Cribb sees a bleak food fu­ture of forced mi­gra­tion, hunger, and re­source con­flicts. “For thou­sands of years,” he warns, “famine and con­flict have united in the hu­man mind and des­tiny. And they will rule its fu­ture.”

An Aus­tralian sci­ence jour­nal­ist and writer, Cribb’s work has of­ten been apoc­a­lyp­tic, with pre­vi­ous books The Com­ing Famine, Poi­soned Planet, and Sur­viv­ing the 21st Cen­tury of­fer­ing sim­i­larly hor­ri­fy­ing as­sess­ments of the near fu­ture. But as the images of hellish in­ferno ris­ing from Aus­tralia show us, we are past be­ing able to ig­nore warn­ings that seem, at first, alarmist. In­deed, while Cribb’s con­clu­sions are of­ten too ex­treme (and his so­lu­tions un­re­al­is­tic), he high­lights crises be­ing ig­nored, catas­tro­phes go­ing un­ad­dressed, and prob­lems that de­mand our at­ten­tion be­fore it is too late. Here his at­ten­tion is on our most ba­sic need, the very foun­da­tion of so­ci­ety it­self. Our food sys­tem, he ar­gues, “has never been more vul­ner­a­ble or at greater risk of com­pound fail­ure”.

At root is the fact that mod­ern agri­cul­ture has be­come out­dated and de­struc­tive. “The ex­ist­ing in­dus­trial model of the food pro­duc­tion sys­tem,” Cribb writes, “is un­sus­tain­able.” Farm­ing fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties strug­gle fi­nan­cially (“farm­ers de­serve a pay rise”) while global agribusi­ness rakes in prof­its.

Food has be­come “too cheap” for sus­tain­able meth­ods of pro­duc­tion to com­pete, yet be­tween a third and a half of all food pro­duced is wasted, while the world bat­tles crises of both ris­ing obe­sity and ris­ing hunger. In­dus­tri­alised food pro­duc­tion drives cli­mate change – over one-fifth of green­house gas emis­sions are from agri­cul­ture, not least through our prob­lem­atic ad­dic­tion to in­ten­sive live­stock farm­ing for meat – and dam­ages land and wa­ter through pol­lu­tion, waste, and de­for­esta­tion. Our agri­cul­tural sys­tem is sow­ing the seeds of its own col­lapse.

Cli­mate change acts as a “threat mul­ti­plier” for these ex­ist­ing prob­lems, with the grow­ing pop­u­la­tions of de­vel­op­ing coun­tries most ex­posed to ris­ing sea lev­els, ex­treme weather events, drought, and per­ma­nent dam­age to food pro­duc­tion. Cribb ar­gues that we now face a se­ries of “ex­is­ten­tial risks from cli­mate change to nu­clear war, global pan­demics to “un­con­trolled su­pertech­nolo­gies”. These risks in­ter­sect like a set of domi­nos, with the fall of one top­pling the oth­ers. While we know the so­lu­tions to many of these prob­lems, what is miss­ing is the global con­scious­ness and co­or­di­na­tion to “think wisely, not just as in­di­vid­u­als, but as a species”. And so the loom­ing threats go un­ad­dressed as our con­sump­tion and dis­unity throws more fuel on the fires.

These ex­is­ten­tial risks mag­nify the age-old pos­si­bil­ity of con­flicts over in­creas­ingly scarce re­sources, per­haps pre­sent­ing hu­man­ity with “a stark choice: food...or war”. In­deed these two horse­men of the apoc­a­lypse are inex­tri­ca­bly in­ter­twined: “the food sys­tem is... cause, in­stru­ment, and vic­tim of con­flict”. Cribb ex­plores cen­turies of mil­i­tary his­tory to em­pha­sise that “most peo­ple who die in wars per­ish from hunger”, a no­table fea­ture of the on­go­ing con­flicts in Syria and Ye­men.

While some of the food ex­pla­na­tions for past con­flicts are at times ex­ces­sive (with other causes down­played), he per­sua­sively iden­ti­fies a num­ber of fu­ture food con­flicts, from Cen­tral Amer­ica to the Mid­dle East to east Africa. In all three lo­ca­tions, the im­pact of cli­mate change and food in­se­cu­rity has al­ready pro­duced a “hu­man tide” of refugees and mi­grants flee­ing hunger and war to seek se­cu­rity. All over the de­vel­op­ing world peo­ple are on the move, with frag­ile “megac­i­ties” ex­pand­ing by the day, their un­planned growth, toxic pol­lu­tion, and over­stretched in­fra­struc­ture an ur­ban “dis­as­ter in wait­ing”.

Even though Cribb at times veers into the ex­trem­ist con­tention that the world is over-pop­u­lated – his em­pha­sis on it be­ing un­equal and “over-ex­ploited” seems more ac­cu­rate and de­fen­si­ble – he notes that pre­vi­ous crises of food sup­ply have been re­peat­edly over­come by “green rev­o­lu­tions” in agri­cul­ture. Hu­man­ity has con­stantly rein­vented it­self, and such a trans­for­ma­tion is pos­si­ble again. Cribb of­fers six key rec­om­men­da­tions, some of them rea­son­able and real­is­tic (work to­wards a sus­tain­able global food sys­tem; make the next gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren more food-aware), oth­ers sadly un­likely (re­ori­ent de­fence spend­ing to­wards “peace through food” by in­vest­ing in sus­tain­abil­ity).

His call to “put women in charge of busi­ness, pol­i­tics, govern­ment, re­li­gion, and so­ci­ety” – “the world now needs an Age of Women” – is dis­ap­point­ingly stereo­typed and clumsy; “this isn’t an ar­gu­ment about fem­i­nism or gen­der eq­uity”, he grat­ingly in­sists, but about how women “pre­fer to nur­ture, re­pair, pre­serve, heal, pacify, and ed­u­cate”. The two most rad­i­cal rec­om­men­da­tions seem com­pletely un­work­able, re­plan­ning “all of the world’s cities” to make them sus­tain­able and self-suf­fi­cient, and rewil­d­ing half the planet, to be over­seen by “for­mer farm­ers and indige­nous peo­ples”. And while food un­doubt­edly has a key role in fo­ment­ing and fan­ning con­flict, our an­gry age also shows the vi­o­lent pow­ers of ide­ol­ogy, na­tion­al­ism, re­li­gion, and racism, even among those for whom food is plen­ti­ful.

Yet by grap­pling with big ques­tions we too of­ten choose to ig­nore, Cribb’s book does of­fer im­por­tant food for thought. Putting ques­tions about the fu­ture of hu­man­ity on the long fin­ger is no longer a lux­ury we pos­sess, nor is sim­ply dis­miss­ing ideas whose am­bi­tion ex­ceeds their grasp; the pace of cli­mate change alone re­quires us to con­sider (and take) rad­i­cal ac­tion now. Cribb quotes US pres­i­dent and sec­ond World War gen­eral Dwight Eisen­hower’s ob­ser­va­tion that “I have al­ways found that plans are use­less, but plan­ning is in­dis­pens­able”. Even if we don’t have the answers, we now have no choice but to ques­tion, think and plan.

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