Fifty years ago, a billion people were undernourished or starving; the number is about the same today. That’s actually progress, since a billion represented a third of the human race then, and “only” a sixth now.
Today we have another worry: roughly the same number of people eat too much. But, says Julian Cribb, a veteran science journalist from Australia, “The era of cheap, abundant food is over.”
Like many other experts, he argues that we have passed the peak of oil production, and it’s all downhill from now on. He then presents evidence that we have passed the peaks for water, fertilizer and land, and that we will all soon be made painfully aware that we have passed it for food, as wealthy nations experience shortages and rising prices, and poorer ones starve.
Much of “The Coming Famine” builds an argument that we’ve jumped off a cliff and that global chaos — a tidal wave of people fleeing their own countries for wherever they can find food — is all but guaranteed. The rest of the book concentrates on catching an outcropping of rock with a finger and scrambling back up. The writing is neither personality-filled nor especially fluid, but the sheer number of terrifying facts makes the book gripping.
Arguments that overpopulation will lead to famine or worse are nothing new, of course; in the early 19th century the Rev. Thomas Malthus contended that the human march toward progress would be derailed by a cycle of overpopulation that led to shortages and misery. And of the many who’ve followed in the Malthusian tradition, none have been correct: overpopulation has caused problems, but, as noted above, the percentage of people starving has actually declined.
Mr. Cribb is reporting on the fate of a planet whose resources have, in the last 200 years, been carelessly, even ruthlessly exploited for the benefit of the minority. Now that the majority is beginning to demand — or at least crave — the same kind of existence, it’s clear that, population boom or not, there simply isn’t enough of the Euro-American way of life to go around.
And while there is a sky-is-falling tone to his relatively brief (just over 200 pages) thesis — if it doesn’t make you restock your survivalist shelter with another hundred pounds of rice and beans — the book does offer sensible ways to help alleviate the “global feeding frenzy.”
Climate change, of course, is an important piece of Mr. Cribb’s puzzle, as are overexploitation of the sea and natural resources, overuse of chemical fertilizer, reliance on fossil fuels, protectionism, subsidies, biofuels, waste and other factors.
Most important are what he calls “the two elephants in the kitchen”: population growth and overconsumption. A projected 33 percent growth in population in the next 20 years, combined with increased consumption of meat as the global middle class grows larger, means that food production must grow by at least 50 percent in that same period.
Livestock is a major problem: the grain fed to American animals alone is enough to feed those billion hungry people. But what about the next couple of billion? Production, says Mr. Cribb, is headed in the wrong direction. Grain stockpiles shrank in the last decade, and the amount of available water for each human is plummeting. Yet to produce more food, we need more water; to produce more meat, we need much more water.
We also need more land, as much as “two more North Americas” to produce the fodder needed to meet projected demand. Yet existing land is being degraded by a variety of factors. (Mr. Cribb provides a nicely horrifying quote from some older Chinese farmers: “When we were young, we had trouble seeing the cattle in the grassland. Now we can see the mice.”)
In the decades following World War II, new technologies helped to increase sharply the worldwide agricultural yield. Mr. Cribb contends that were research adequately financed, a second such Green Revolution, with its own amazing discoveries, might be right around the corner. But the current meager financing picture diminishes that likelihood.
One of the book’s more interesting discussions is a comparison of organic and industrial farming. Mr. Cribb sees this as “a philosophical divide the world, in its present state, can ill afford,” and suggests that each camp draw lessons from the other to form a new kind of agriculture. Yet for the most part he comes down on the side of organic, or at least small-share farming, pointing out that entire countries support themselves without resorting to industrial farming.
If there is a way out of the morass, rationality and fairness will be its basis, and here Mr. Cribb is impassioned, even inspiring. He would have society mandate food and waste composting (waste should not be wasted); eliminate subsidies to the biggest agriculture companies; and finance research for new technology. (Big Food, he believes, should be compelled to contribute to this. Bravo.)
He proposes subsidizing small farms for their stewardship of the earth, and paying them fairer prices for production; taxing food to reflect its true costs to the environment; regulating practices that counter sustainability and rewarding those that promote it; and educating the public about the true costs of food. “An entire year of primary schooling” should be devoted to the importance of growing and eating food, he suggests.
Few experts without vested interests in corporate agriculture would disagree with any of this, though little progress is being made. Individuals, however, can make helpful changes more quickly. Dietary change is primary, and can be as simple as eating a salad instead of a cheeseburger and an apple instead of a bag of chips. Waste less food. Compost. Garden, even if (or especially if) you live in a city. Choose sustainable food, including fish. And so on.
None of these practices will matter much unless they’re adopted worldwide. “Even if North Americans and Europeans halved their meat and dairy consumption,” Mr. Cribb writes, “the saving could be completely swamped by the demand from six hundred million newly affluent Indian and Chinese consumers.”
Yet Mr. Cribb is not hopeless; he predicts that we’ll eventually “unlock new insights capable of making profound gains in food production and sustainability on a par with those of the Green Revolution.”
But finding a sustainable farming system is “perhaps the greatest challenge ever faced in the ten thousand years since agriculture began,” he writes. If the challenge is not met, we’re going to be reading scarier books than this one.
Mark Bittman, who writes “The Minimalist” column for The Times, is the author of the forthcoming “Food Matters Cookbook.”