Food or War? A look at feast and famine in our quest for peace and sustainability

Food or War
By Julian Cribb
Cambridge University Press, 350 pages | Buy on Amazon

The world is 9 meals away from anarchy, American journalist Alfred Henry Lewis noted in 1906, an idea which has been reiterated by numerous scientists and writers since then.

That still stands true today, though we might not think it. In a thought-provoking new book, science writer Julian Cribb discusses how important food is for mankind, and how the availability we often take for granted is much more vulnerable (and much more vulnerable) than we think.

Julian Cribb is what you might call an extinctologist. As a science author, he has focussed on some of mankind’s biggest challenges: climate change, pollution, and food security.

We don’t think about it too much because we take it for granted nowadays, but food availability has been a constant issue over mankind’s evolution — even today, billions of people live in food insecurity. Meanwhile, our supermarkets are brimming with choices but we’re overexploiting resources at an unprecedented pace — and we can’t keep this up for much longer. Our eating habits are not sustainable, and the check might be larger than we can afford to pay.

Famine in the past

Communist regimes and lack of food go hand in hand. It’s hard to imagine today, but people used to line up for hours at food shops, trying to get their “allocated ratios” of meat or milk — without any guarantee that there is enough.

Communist regimes also brought in widespread hunger, resulting in the starvation of millions. In Soviet USSR, the traditional kulak peasants were wiped off by Lenin’s regime leaving the country’s agriculture in the hands of an incompetent and unprepared (but servile) part of the population. Stalin’s regime only made things worse, ironically completing the destruction of the food supply that he promised to rebuild. Meanwhile, in Cambodia, Pol Pot’s bloodthirsty regime managed to completely destroy the seed of native rice — fortunately, the Rice Research Institute in the Philippines had stored some varieties.

But nowhere has famine struck with such severity as China. The fact that there’s a Wikipedia page called ‘List of famines in China‘ is telling, and in the 20th century alone, famines killed in the tens of millions.

Cribb does an excellent jobs at explaining the causes associated with these famines, and how they are often tied with bad governance and recklessness. It’s not just agricultural know-how and seeds — the entire infrastructure was destroyed by reckless regimes — and, as Cribb warns, we’re not out of the woods yet. If anything, modern famines could be more devastating than ever.

Modern hunger

Our modern society relies upon complex, modern supply chains for food — but this also makes them more vulnerable. How would we cope if they were to suddenly collapse?

To many people in the western world, the idea of a conflict based on food seems ludicrous — but food and war are often intertwined. Even in 1990s Europe, when Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital Sarajevo was suddenly besieged, the food disappeared almost instantly.

It doesn’t take a catastrophic event to lead to famine. Even without war or any unforeseen disaster hitting our food production systems, the rate at which we are using resources is unsustainable, Cribb emphasizes — backed by a mountain of science.

We’re doing a pretty lousy job when it comes to managing our resources sustainably.

Even something we almost never think about (soil) is threatened by our unsustainable consumption. For every meal we consume in the developed world, between 5 and 10 kilograms of soil are lost, in addition to 800 liters of freshwater — and that applies to every person and every meal. This, Cribb writes, makes the human jawbone one of the most destructive forces on the face of the Earth.

Soil erosion is a naturally occurring process that affects all landforms, but current agricultural practices mean soil is eroded at a faster rate than new soil is produced. A rough calculation, we have around 60 years of topsoil left before we start coming across major problems, Cribb writes.

Water shortage is also an issue. Water scarcity is even a bigger trigger for war than food scarcity, and most of not all groundwater aquifers (which are the largest reserve of freshwater on our planet) are being used unsustainably — which means that they could run out. Farmers are increasing their water usage more and more, which they can’t truly be faulted for, but without careful water conservation policies, many parts of the world could face major water shortage within decades or even years. We are already seeing these effects in major cities in India and Brazil, for instance.

Pollution and fertilizer usage (which is threatening pollinators and other vital parts of ecosystems) are two other major issues that must be approached and improved.

Business-as-usual emissions (including those from agriculture) are sufficient to raise temperatures by 4-5 °C by 2100 — a temperature at which many crops will fall globally.

“As we race towards a population of nine billion, business as usual for farming is no longer a viable option. We must take a more ecological approach,” argue two agrucultural experts, Nina Moeller and Michel Pimbert.

A book for a starved planet

Food or War is definitely an enticing book, and one that poses some crucial and very dark questions. The story invariably ventures into doomsday scenarios, but as any writing of this type should, it also ends with some proposals for solutions.

However, some of these solutions are even more depressing than the rest of the book.

It’s not that the solutions aren’t good, on the contrary. Cribb offers a very pragmatic and very cynical analysis — one that is almost certainly correct. But the fact that we don’t know if it’s feasible is outright depressing.

Cutting down global military expenditure by 20% and generating a whopping $340bn annually sounds like a great idea. Using that money for eco-agriculture, environmental projects, education, and novel farming techniques (particularly in the urban areas) also sounds great. But is this realistic? Hard to believe. Will politicians allocate this money from other sources? That’s also questionable.

In many ways, the global food problem — even without the ‘war’ component — seems impossible to solve under the current social and political context.

We know it is problematic, we know what must be done, but action is slow or non-existent. We are starving the planet for resources and as a result, we might eventually starve ourselves.

Transitioning to a sustainable model will be costly no matter how we look at it. Like many works before, Food or War concludes that we need to make sustainable changes or we pay the price.

I’d recommend the book to anyone, regardless of whether or not they have an interest in agriculture, history, or sustainability. It’s a book about all of us, written in a time when we are increasingly decoupled from our food sources and the environmental cost of our meals.

This is not a book that’s easy to read — neither intellectually or morally. It is complex, and at points, it is very dark. But it is a book that’s important to read, perhaps now more than ever.

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