Food System Transformation #2: Close to the planet’s carrying capacity

We argue in this blogpost that the need for transformation in the food system is desperately urgent.

We are fast approaching the carrying capacity of the planet. The resources (land, soils, water and energy) needed to grow enough food for everyone are being depleted and the population is still growing, albeit at a lower pace than before.

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To set the scene, I’ve turned to Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive. In this best-seller, he assessed the processes that have driven societal collapse in the past, and gave a view on the possibilities of such a collapse in the modern world.

The book was published in 2005, so for him, the ‘modern world’ was fifteen years ago.

This was before the IPCC 4th Assessment Report in March, 2006. This was the seminal Assessment Report that stated “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and that “most of the observed increase in global average temperature since the mid-20th century is very likely [i.e. experts judged it over 90% likely] due to the observed increased in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.”

It was three years before the Committee on Climate Change was set up to provide independent advice to the UK Government in November 2008. Before, too, the full-blown international banking crisis with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.

Before any notion of Brexit. Or Donald Trump in the White House.

So a different world from now.

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Jared Diamond’s List of 12
Yet fifteen years ago, Jared Diamond’s list of processes which had driven societal collapse in previous societies is familiar to us today. He said:

The processes through which past societies have undermined themselves by damaging their environments fall into eight categories, whose relative importance differs from case to case:

  1. Deforestation and habitat destruction
  2. Soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses)
  3. Water management problems
  4. Overhunting
  5. Overfishing
  6. Effects of introduced species on native species
  7. Human population growth
  8. Increased per capita impact of people

He added four new processes affecting the possibilities of societal collapse in 2005:

The environmental problems facing us today include the same eight that undermined past societies, plus four new ones:

9. Human-caused climate change

10. Build-up of toxic chemicals in the environment

11. Energy shortages

12. Full human-utilization of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity

(For clarity’s sake, I’ve numbered the two lists he gave.)

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Fifteen years later . . .
Is there any better news? Yes and no. Mostly no. (For more detailed info, see our report, Global Risks to UK food supplies.)

Population
In the last fifteen years, the population has increased from 6.46 billion to 7.7 billion, an increase of 1.2 billion — that increase alone is equivalent to roughly half the global population in 1945. Sure, the rate of increase has slowed; it peaked in 1968 when the annual growth rate was 2.1%, it’s now just over 1%.

Increased knowledge
On the plus side, humanity in the modern world has greater knowledge about and so can learn from past societies, and from modern societies geographically far away who live differently from ourselves.

Poor understanding of our food system
Our greater knowledge is, however, side-by-side with poor understanding of how our food system works.

Evidence for this is perhaps nowhere more remarkable than the serious pursuit of a hard Brexit by so many of our politicians and people.

Here in the UK, we depend on others for 40% of our food supplies, more when harvests here are poor. A significant proportion of our nutritious foodstuffs, fruit’n’veg, is imported; 70% of our veg and over 40% of our fruit and nuts from the EU  — all threatened by a hard Brexit.

Globalisation & the competition for food
There’s global competition for sufficient supplies of safe nutritious food. EU exporters have other, easier markets and, in the event of a hard Brexit, we will have acute and chronic shortages of nutritious food stuffs.

See this video interview when Parveen Mehta, Operations Director of one of the largest UK fresh produce wholesalers and growers talks of the global competition for food. (It was made as part of our horizon scanning project in 2017-18):

Globalisation should mean we can depend on others for our sustenance when our harvests are poor. Poor political judgement at Westminster and/or our inability to influence others means we are vulnerable to crises outside our control, whether natural or man-made.

Powerful technologies
Also we have powerful technologies that can bring about great benefits — think of the increase in crop yields in the UK alone since World War II. But they can also wreak huge damage — and when it comes to the food system, the increase in production has come at an environmental cost.

Awareness of the urgency
It’s good news the general public is much more aware of the threats to our societies through all of the above. The IPCC 6th Assessment Report, with its expressions of urgency had wide coverage when it was published in May 2019.

The urgency has driven social action. Witness, for example, the demonstrations organised by Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg’s impact at, for example, the US Congress last September:


Will such social action drive political action?

It hasn’t yet. It needs to. Soon.

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Adding to Jared Diamond’s list: It’s now a List of 15 . . .
We add another three to Jared Diamond’s List of processes, starting with the seemingly stuck political situation:

13. Politicians, locally, nationally and internationally aren’t (yet) driving change. Arguably, until they do, not much will happen.

14. Anti-microbial resistance of crop pathogens has increased. It is now on the radar of some government officials, but it’s not reported widely (for more on this matter, see page 9 of our Global Risks report).

15. Evidence of the accelerating pace of both climate change and of mass extinctions

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Urgency: We’re close if not past the carrying capacity of the planet
In this blogpost (#19 of the National Food Strategy series), I wrote:

“In the screengrab (right) Dan Crossley, the CEO of the Food Ethics Council, asked this question for the day on twitter: Complete the sentence “A food system that restores the environment and tackles the climate change emergency is . . .”

To which we replied, caustically many might say:  . . . unlikely to feed 7.5bn people.

It’s all well and good for us to give Dan such a reply. But it’s hardly helpful to merely state the elephant in the room.

That is, we’re approaching, if not past the carrying capacity of Planet A.

Sometimes people ask me do you believe in Malthus? Nope, I don’t. The Malthus model ain’t a belief system. It’s a description, nowadays calculations in a branch of mathematical biology called population dynamics about the rock’n’hard place of reality.

Malthusian reality is looming at us. An unintended, truly epic Anthropocene tragedy of the commons.

We have to find a practical answer.”

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A practical answer to this Malthusian reality looming at us is indeed  urgent. And it demands collaborations between disparate actors with disparate, almost certainly conflicting kinds of thinking.  We need to invent new ways of harnessing human ingenuity.

Before turning attention to how that might happen here in Birmingham and the UK, the next blogpost puts forward another suite of arguments as to why food system transformation is urgent. (As though we need them, eh.)

Its title is Food System Transformation #3: The economic burden.

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