Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

9 Oct 2013

Can sustainable agriculture feed the world?

Posted by Michael Keating

You can see the modern, industrialized and globalized food system every time you walk into a supermarket. There are stacks of fresh foods stuffed into plastic boxes. Meat, vegetables and fruits come from around the world: lamb from New Zealand, grapes from Chile, apple juice from China, strawberries from California and so on.

What most people do not see is the ecological impact of a food system based on ever-larger farms growing single crops and maintained with huge machines. The system uses lots of fossil fuels and synthetic chemicals. It emits large amounts of greenhouse gases, both in production and transportation. It causes from soil erosion and soil compaction from the heavy machinery, and its monoculture crops are vulnerable to pest attacks.

In the short term it delivers lots of cheap food, but this kind of agriculture is not sustainable in the long term. Like so much in “western” society, it is about short-term profits, with little regard for its long-term viability.

At the same time population increase will increase pressures on our food supplies. We are now more than 7 billion and adding nearly 80 million a year. Countries like India and China, each with more than 1 billion people, are starting to move to a meatier, more resource-intensive diet.

The UN projects a global population of more than 9 billion by 2050. Will we be able to feed ourselves? Can we do it with a sustainable food system based on ecological agriculture?

These are central questions in Consumed: Food for a finite planet, the latest book by my friend Sarah Elton.

Elton says the present system of industrial agriculture must be dismantled and replaced with small-scale local and urban organic agriculture. She says we need sustainable food systems that maintain soil health, conserve water, reduce soil erosion and conserve biodiversity by leaving habitat for other species. She calls for a return to pasture-based farming even though this will mean a sharp reduction in meat supply, but adds that we eat too much meat now.

Elton calls for a “…a good, clean and fair food system.” She says farmers must earn a living wage. “We cannot continue to exploit farmers so the rest of us can eat cheap food.”

A well-established writer and broadcaster on food issues, she tackled food in 2010 with her book Locavore, promoting the local food movement in Canada.

With Consumed she goes for the global scale, asking, “How will we feed ourselves in 2050?” She looked for answers in local food systems on four continents, telling stories of small-scale organic farmers, thriving regional food cultures and resurgent grassroots organizations.

In India, she visits an organic bazaar in Aurangabad and talks to a woman who abandoned fossil fuel-based fertilizers to go organic, becoming self-sufficient and financially secure.

In China’s Yunnan province, she shows us 2000-year-old rice paddy terracing that still works.

In the Aubrac region in south central France, we encounter a thriving rural community that produces the prized Laguiole cheese, using traditional techniques.

In the Charlevoix region on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, Elton finds a herd of Canadiennes, descendants of the cattle brought to North America by French settlers four centuries ago. This is a story of preserving genetic diversity at time when industrial agriculture is focussing on just a few breeds.

Elton is a good storyteller, serving up a dish of both science and human interest stories. She shows people trying to farm in a sustainable way, and make a decent living. Consumed opens the door to a badly needed discussion about how we are going to provide healthy food to more people without running down the planet at the same time.

Comments are closed.