Seven Threats to a Sustainable ‘Food Future’

In a hugely captivating and comprehensive look at the food supply chain in Britain, Jeremy Harding provides a look at “the future of food and its supply”–including food ethics, food security and the dire need for a sustainable future.

Harding’s case is the most cogent I’ve read and it offers much more than a condemnation of our current, unsustainable habits: the article focuses on what Harding dubs the “seven big stories”–the seven fundamental “looming threats” we must keep in mind when planning for a sustainable, efficient and secure ‘food future’.

  1. Population growth: The expected large-scale urbanisation of the future “poses big questions about land use (housing v. farming) and the production of food by a minority for a majority as the gap between the two gets wider”.
  2. ‘The nutrition transition’: As we move further away from a diet based on grains, pulses and legumes and toward one of meat and dairy (the transition from maize feeding us to maize feeding the animals) means that “global production of food – all food – will have to increase by 50 per cent over the next 20 years to cater for two billion extra people and cope with the rising demand for meat”.
  3. Energy: “The industrial production of food is sure to become more expensive as fuel costs rise. It takes 160 litres of oil to produce a tonne of maize in the US; natural gas accounts for at least three-quarters of the cost of making nitrogen fertiliser; freight, too, depends on fuel”.
  4. Land: “The amount of the world’s land given over to agriculture continues to grow, but in per capita terms it’s shrinking. As with oil, it’s possible to envisage ‘peak food’ (the point of maximum production, followed by decline), ‘peak phosphorus’ [and] ‘peak land’: the point at which the total area of the world’s most productive land begins to diminish (soil exhaustion, climate change) and marginal land comes up for reassessment”.
  5. Water: “Worldwide, one in three people face water shortages and by 2030 the ratio will have narrowed. […] Much of our fruit and veg comes from water-scarce countries and […] lack of water closes down food production and livelihoods”.
  6. Climate change: “Extreme weather events will […] jeopardise agriculture and the movement of food from one place to another”.
  7. Agricultural workers: More than half of the world’s 1.1 billion agricultural workers” own neither land nor machinery and live in a state of semi-slavery. The conditions of this new global underclass are at last a matter of concern: worldwide food production is set on a downturn as their wretchedness weakens their capacity to produce and earn, driving more people inexorably towards the cities.

I suppose you could call these the food equivalent of Jared Diamond’s twelve problems of societal sustainability.