Monday, November 5, 2012

The Coming Famine, by Julian Cribb

Staff Review by Chris Saliba


Australian journalist and science writer Julian Cribb explains the challenges the world faces in feeding nine billion people by the year 2050.


By the year 2050, it is estimated the world’s population will reach nine billion people. That’s an extra two billion on today’s numbers, and all to come only in the next forty years. Can the world successfully feed nine billion people? An even more interesting question: what happens when people in poorer countries manage to raise their standard of living and start demanding more animal protein in their diets? The average American eats 123 kilograms of meat per year. Imagine trying to feed nine billion people that much meat. In short, it’s simply impossible.

The Environmental Impact of Food


In The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do To Avoid It, science writer Julian Cribb examines the complicated world food system. For the lay reader trying to get a good primer on this sprawling and sometimes mind-boggling subject, Cribb does an excellent job of distilling a broad range of information into a neatly organised and accessible book.

Cribb says one of the major problems of the current food system – in the developed world at least – is an increasing ignorance of the means of food production. As more and more people move towards the city centres, the less and less they know about where their food comes from. Most think food simply grows on supermarket shelves, and don’t consider the environmental impacts of food production. Food has many hidden costs: huge volumes of water, energy use in the form of non-renewable fossil fuels, land degradation and depletion of soil quality. Consumers add their own costs by simply throwing away so much food. The figures for food waste in the West are staggering.

To combat this problem of public ignorance about food, Cribb suggests that food should be taught as a subject at school. This would help create a future generation that is better equipped to deal with the world’s coming food challenges.

Writes Cribb:

“Introducing a ‘food year’ into the world’s primary schools would be among the most powerful measures for raising a generation of educated consumers, a healthier generation, a generation of more productive sustainable farmers, a one of better-informed politicians, bankers, TV chefs, magazine editors, and business people with a sounder grasp of the consequences of their actions.”

As it stands, according to Cribb, food faces many tough challenges in the future, requiring careful planning and management. Today the world’s food output depends on artificial fertilizers, fossil fuels and ever increasing amounts of water. These resources are not infinite.

How to Feed the World


Cribb’s answer to the problem of how to feed the world relies on a mixture of science and thrift. New technologies, like GM foods, must be fully explored for their potential to deliver the world extra calories. Those working at the opposite end of the spectrum, in organic farming, must share their knowledge.

“The time has come to put organic farming systems on a scientific footing – to understand how they work so as to get the very best out of them, and to bring together these two strands of agricultural thinking into a new form of ‘environmental agriculture’ so each may benefit from the other.”

Another imperative is to increase the funding for agricultural science, which has been falling by the wayside in recent years.

Eat Your Fruit and Veggies!


The world will also have to stop wasting food and learn how to grow food more cheaply. As water is one of the main inputs into food production, this means favouring foods that use less water. Cribb suggests eating more fruit and vegetables.

“The reason is that they are very efficient converters of water, nutrients, and energy into food – and they take up far less space than other forms of food.”

This is not about mandating vegetarianism – merely eating less meat, and seeing it more as a luxury item. Cribb also suggests eating less oils and sugar, something vegetarians and vegans can also cut down on.
The Coming Famine has a dreary, gloom-and-doom title, and many of the statistics and information it presents are exceedingly worrying, but helpfully Julian Cribb offers many solutions. His recommendations are not always easy, and often call for more thrift and less carelessness. The upside is that reduced waste, more fruit and vegetables in the diet and an overall concern for the sustainability and health of our food supply will make us all healthier and happier. Continuing ignorance can only result in tragedy.

The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do To Avoid It, by Julian Cribb. Published by CSIRO Publishing. ISBN: 9780643100404  RRP: $29.95