Food System Transformation #7: Loaves don’t grow on trees

The rationale behind writing the last two blogposts, #5: The scale needed for our five-a-day and #6: The fresh produce supply chain was because many (but not all) the nutrients we need come from fruit and vegetables. But nutrients alone won’t keep us going.

All living things require energy to survive as well as a range of nutrients.

Nine meals from anarchy?
It was the journalist Alfred Henry Lewis who coined There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy.

This is, in essence, a statement about the need for food to provide us with calories. Most of us have experienced the weakness we feel when going without any food. Having missed your three-meals-a-day for three days, if you don’t get up and find sustenance, you won’t have the energy to do so after that.

This is why civic unrest happens so alarmingly quickly if a population thinks it will be soon deprived of food. Panic buying can happen if shelves are empty, or there are sudden scarcities of familiar food-stuffs.

Where are calories come from
Half of humanity’s plant-sourced protein and calories come from just three cereal crops, wheat, maize and rice. For us here in the UK, this food source has come mostly from bread — hence the word ‘bread’ being used as a term for money. Think, too, of terms such as ‘breadwinner’ and being ‘above the breadline’.

Loaves don’t grow on trees
Although bread feels so much part of our lives, there’s not a lot ‘natural’ about it. It’s a processed food stuff and always has been. The preparation of the grain and its consumption is, in evolutionary terms, a comparatively recent human innovation (see the section called The barbarians lose out against the grain in this blogpost).

Population growth . . .
Assessing how many people were alive at the time of speciation of homo sapians is far better than guesswork, but still inexact. Researchers estimate  that, some 200,00 years ago, the population was some 120,000 to 325,000 individuals.

This tiny population grew to over 4M people only 12,000 years ago, probably owing to the discovery that we could process calorie-dense seeds; i.e. early agrarian societies. According to this page from the brill website Our World in Data, from this time up until 1700 the average population growth was just 0.04% per year:

Population growth . . . and technology
What is truly remarkable is the steep rise in population from 1700 onwards.

The British Agricultural Revolution of the mid-1700s through to the development of the Haber-Bosch process in the early 20th century and the Green Revolution since World War II have dramatically increased the global production of food, in particular, the production of the cereal crops upon which the global population depends for so much of their calorie intake.

One of the consequences of these technologies and considerable societal innovation has been a remarkable drop in the number of deaths through famine since the 1970s; i.e. within the lifetime of people now in their 40s: see this, another graph from The World in Data:

note: In the today’s world, there is enough food for everyone. In theory, no-one should now starve. But still some 80M people are living in areas with acute food insecurity for many and various reasons.

In his address to the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this month, Henry Dimbleby traced some of these technological developments from 1800 onwards, and the effects they had on global food production. As he says, however, this intensification in agricultural production comes at a cost and that we have to “pivot the system” to deliver differently.

The role of technology in achieving this is the subject of another blogpost.


Added note: The average calorie intake in England from sugar
Public Health England’s Eat Well Guide
 says starchy food should make up just over a third of the food we eat.

  • What should we do when calorie-intake from ‘starchy foods’ is substituted or added to by the zero-nutrition drug-food of sugar?

PHE England recommends that no more that 5% of our calorie intake should come from sugar. Sugar, however, provides on average over 10% of our calorie intake, as this Statistica graph plus my addition of calorie values shows:


It’s likely sugar intake is higher since these statistics were put together in 2018; they’re based on data between 2008 and 2012.

See this blogpost in our series supporting our submission to the National Food Strategy Call for Evidence #15: Drug foods and their specific risks to the UK food supply system.


The title of the next blogpost, #8: The geometry of the box [we need to think out of] is part of a quotation from biologist Jack Cohen. In full it is: you cannot ‘think outside of the box’ unless your know the geometry of it very well indeed. The blogposts is about six aspects of the ‘geometry’ of the existing UK food system, one of which is part of the box called ‘Birmingham’.


The previous blogposts in this series are:

#6: The fresh produce supply chain

#5: The scale needed for our five-a-day

#4: A new corporate order?

#3: The economic burden

#2: Close to the planet’s carrying capacity

#1: Why this blogpost series

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