Food Security: Mission Impossible

This article is a work-in-progress, still being researched and developed.  Feedback is welcome.  Feel free to leave a comment.

To achieve food security for everyone on the planet is an impossible goal, and any efforts in this direction will have the opposite effect, making the situation worse.

A lesson in population dynamics, Ecology 101.  The population of any species will increase as the food available to it increases.  As the food available decreases, the population decreases.  This means that a proportion of individuals in this population experiences a lack of food, and starve to death.

In terms of the current situation of human population and food availability: the more we try to provide enough food for everyone – the more food we make available – the more the population grows, and the more food is required to feed everyone.  Food security is a paradox.  Starvation is inevitable.

I recently read Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick.  It is a true story of living in famine conditions in North Korea in the 1990s.  It includes accounts of people experiencing starvation, and seeing people around them starve to death.

A kindergarten teacher sees her students arrive each day in a weaker state than the last, until they can’t lift their heads from the table.  After a few weeks they stop coming altogether.  She can’t bring herself to ask their parents what has happened.  She knows that they have died.  Her family has access to food through the black market, but to share with her students would be her own death.

A family spends a whole day to get to the countryside where there are pear orchards they might be able to raid, as there is no food available in the city.  So many people have come before them that they find only one pear, partly rotten.  They take it home and divide the edible part between them.

A woman sells what she can on the black market to buy food for her family.  It is not enough for them all, and over the course of a few months she sees her husband, her mother-in-law and her son die in the house.

Between 1994 and 1998, up to 3.5 million died of starvation in North Korea.

During the 1930s Depression, five thousand people died of starvation in Melbourne, Australia.  There are a lot more of us now, and the situation we are facing is a lot larger than an economic downturn.  We’re also a lot less prepared to deal with it.

A few of the issues facing the world food system:

  • Collapse of aquifers.  Once underground water has been extracted to the point that an aquifer is empty, it collapses and can never be restored.  A large percentage of global agriculture is currently dependent on harvesting water from aquifers at a faster rate than can be replenished.
  • Peak oil.
  • Peak nutrients.
  • Land availability.  Land grabs by corporations and governments, meaning farmland is not available to small-scale farmers.
  • Land degradation.  Soil loss and erosion.  Land is becoming less viable for farming.
  • Climate change.
  • Climate chaos: extreme weather events causing crop losses.
  • Decreased pest resistance in crops that are grown in industrial monocultures.
  • Collapse of honeybee populations.  Honeybees are essential to pollinate almost all food plants.
  • Corporate control of food production and distribution systems.
  • Large-scale, centralised food system vulnerable to shocks and interruptions.
  • Loss of diversity of food plants and animals.
  • Loss of skills in food production, preserving and preparation.
  • No new farmers.  Existing farmers are aging, and very few of the next generation are taking up farming as a career.
  • Urban sprawl taking over valuable farmland.
  • Exponential population growth, requiring an ever-increasing amount of food to be produced to feed everyone -> more land to be given over to farmland -> loss of wilderness areas -> climate change, species loss and loss of soil fertility -> existing farmland becomes less viable.
  • Waste.  Around half of all food produced is wasted.
  • Lack of awareness of these issues in the general population.

Any one of these issues on its own can cause a food crisis.  All of them together, and all of them becoming increasingly present, seem unlikely to be understood and overcome in time to prevent a global famine on a massive scale.

I’ve listed 18 separate issues here, all are interconnected.  Most current approaches to these issues address them separately, and actions taken often have disastrous effects elsewhere, leading us further along the path of collapse.

Conclusion:  Enjoy the food you have.  It won’t last long.

Thoughts on being hopeful, positive and in denial:

Any actions taken can only have a tiny impact, given the scale of the situation.

The most general definition of food security is “there is enough for everyone to eat.”  The term food insecurity is occasionally mentioned, but I’ve never heard any acknowledgement that this means “there is not enough for everyone to eat, so some people starve.”

I feel that we are better placed to address these issues if we understand and accept what we are facing.

This article brings together the ideas presented in two books that I am partway through reading: The Coming Famine by Julian Cribb, and If They Give You Lined Paper, Write Sideways, by Daniel Quinn.  And another one that I finished reading, called Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick.

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