12 March 2015

Musing on a lesser tomato

Julian Cribb spoke on the future of food for the Australia Institute and the UN Association of Australia. He introduced his talk as having two parts - a first part that is scary and a second part that's an antidote - but it seemed to me, as I walked out, that we have plenty of reasons to worry and little reason to hope. Perhaps solutions are identified if not developed, but the problems were massive and virtually immediate, and, like climate change, threatening some ridiculously large corporates presumably with huge influence.

Firstly, the problems. Population growing to 11 billion (I thought the peak was estimated as 9 billion, but perhaps reconsidered) and increasing wealth demands more food and more environmentally demanding food. Peak oil, for transport, farm machinery and more, even if delayed. Peak water expected by 2030; we are "mining water" now (viz. Indian famer suicides); one coffee requires 140 litres of water to grow beans; we take 100x our body weight in water per day in the foods we eat. Loss of soil: 75b tons of topsoil are lost pa. Mining nutrients: soil is losing nutrient density and so are also our foods (we need to eat 5 tomatoes to gain the nutrients of one tomato for our grandparents!). Cities are growing and they import food; there is talk of emptying San Paolo for lack of water. Peak fertiliser: phosphates are mined from rocks and one country, Morocco, now provides most world phosphorus. Peak fish: catch is now decreasing ~8% pa; 80% of fish sold in Australia is imported. In summary, the average meal takes 10kg topsoil (not sure of this unit), 1.3 litres oil, 800 litres water and 1/3 gram pesticides. And our diets are unhealthy, so 80% of Australians die of a diet-related disease (I had thought this was a new-ager complaint). And our small farms are disappearing to the concentrated market power of ~20 food conglomerates. A climate temp increase of 4degC is estimated to drop US corn and grain production by 60-80%. And wars are associated with food, water and land insecurity.

Now for the good news. There are solutions in urban farming and green cities, intensive systems (up to 10-100x yield), floating greenhouses and desert farms (on trial in Whyalla), fish farms (now booming, ~1/3 of fish worldwide is farmed), algae (to produce food, but alternatively, to feed fish, produce jet fuel and more), novel foods (26,700 edible plants exist although only 300 species are in the biggest markets, and 6,100 edible plants are Australian), synthetic meats from animal stem cells (which can be personalised for health). Different, perhaps, but feasible. I've seen the fish farms and we all eat the salmon.

So how will it happen? Sorry to disappoint, but in this time frame (20/40 years?), I could only see this as risibly unlikely. Educate kids for food awareness; promote peace through food; develop preventative health policies; promote women to power. And water and nutrient recycling; encouragement of urban farming and rewilding. And the middle class voting with its purchasing power. This, after the dismantlement of what climate change action we were belatedly taking? And while urgent matters (terrorism, Ukraine, "lifestyle choices", deregulation) are concerns and while 20 mega-corporations mostly control the market and have lots of lose? I'd gone with little interest or awareness of the food issue (although it's promoted enough) and walked out thinking this is more even immediate than climate change. And cc is no lazy threat.

There were some questions: eating insects and 3D food printing (all feasible); slow food (nice but not particularly germane to this crisis); mining artesian waters and use of dams; genetic modification ("promising tech" but some question exist over it now; but just "one screwdriver in a big toolkit"); the middle class as consumers and La Via Campesina (an international peasant movement) and "food sovereignty" (just what does this mean anyway?); Solyent (apparently a Silicon Valley ground mush; OK for food as fuel , eg for marathons or climbing mountains, but not for social eating); food distribution (costly given travel costs for moving all that food; better to equip local farmers for food independence); population reduction and reduced fertility. But for the likely politics of all this, I just heard vain hope: "I just hope Australians are smarter than the people we elect" (we are not); "current science policy of this government is to shrink the economy", consumer decisions will change all this, need to dispossess 20 mega-corporations from their power in food. But a final comment really told the story in my book. That 51 of the largest 100 economies are now corporations, not states, so "the world is now technically a fascist state". Now, that hints rather more accurately at what is likely for this crisis over the next few decades.

Julian Cribb spoke on the future of food at Politics in the Pub for the Australia Institute and the UN Association of Australia.

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