The image above, of pears grown in Argentina and packed in Thailand, did the rounds on twitter yesterday. Chris Packham tweeted this:
It’s broken isn’t it ? We’ve broken what we do with food . Pears grow in the U.K. They could grow in our gardens . We could walk out and pick them , wipe them and eat them . No chemicals , no processing , no plastic , no planes , no sell by dates . Just fresh fruit . God help us https://t.co/5WV0ETiROU
— Chris Packham (@ChrisGPackham) June 28, 2021
Saying the ‘food system is broken’ is a familiar trope. But it’s not. Indeed, this image is testament to that it isn’t broken.
The food system achieves the truly remarkable feat of providing food for billions of people. The global population has got from 2.5 billion in the mid-1950s, to nearly 8 billion today. Famines were once frequent — in my life-time too. Not now. The global supply of food has tripled since the 1970s, and in the same period, the number of people without enough to eat has dropped from 36% to 11%.
Sure, it not all great with the system, and this image is testament to that, too. Embedded in pears grown in Argentina and packed in Thailand and sold wherever takes a heck of a lot of energy. Plus, and this is a personal take, I don’t like the texture or taste of pears processed like this. But, a big BUT:
(1) It is fruit, and in an edible state (not so for pears on the pear tree in your garden now).
(2) Unlike the pears in your garden when they do ripen, these aren’t perishable. And they’re easily transported.
(3) I’ll wager, too, that most pears off the tree in your garden go to waste. They all ripen at the same time, so in a good year, you’ll have, say, 500 or so pears within a couple of weeks, max. Most of them will rot.
(4) And your harvest might fail, too. Pears are like plums in that they tend to bear lots of fruit in alternate years. What happens, too, if a frost gets the blossom? Or there’s a flood at exactly the wrong time? (Orchards can be ruined overnight by flooding, and it can take a decade or more from planting to fruiting.)
(5) Many people underestimate the skill and experience it takes to produce fruits such as pears for a population; here’s a quick read on the topic.
As for Chris Packham’s proposed solution, grow-your-own (GYO) pear trees in your garden:
(6) Subsistence survival leads to famine. Self-sufficiency drives by nation states will lead to malnutrition and famine. We’re all in this together — and there a lot of us. And most of us live in urban areas, 83% of us in the UK.
(7) Scale is impossible for humans to compute. An apple a day for the 68 million people who live in the UK is, well, 68m apples/a day. That’s 24,820,000,000 a year. Just one-a-day. Millions, billions? This, from the wonderful @Rainmaker1973:
The magnitude of difference between 1 million and 1 billion is not that intuitive and can be illustrated with this example of the time scale:
– A million seconds is 12 days.
– A billion seconds is 31 years.
– A trillion seconds is 31,688 yearshttps://t.co/8AUKjwuxy9 pic.twitter.com/BiuA6jY1L4
— Massimo (@Rainmaker1973) November 25, 2018
(8) Plus we need processing and packaging, transport and logistics, and regulations like sell-by dates to ensure the food we eat is safe, and is what it says on the label; see this brief report.
— and yes, the @Rainmaker1973 image is there too, along with a useful info-graphic of everything the food system does to get produce from where it’s grown to thee and me.
If I wanted to show an image of part of the food system that needs breaking up, it’d be an image of a chocolate bar.
Read its ingredients. Yup, from all over the world. And think of the damage drug-foods like that do to human and planetary health, as this BMJ Rapid Response explains. A choc bar should not be categorised as ‘food’ any more than tobacco is. (Remarkably, the Forbes List of the largest food and beverage companies includes tobacco companies.)