Our planet is in a bad way. There are those who would have us believe otherwise, but they are not to be trusted, for either their judgement is impaired or they have a personal interest in subverting the truth. Evidence accumulates daily that all is not well with this ‘pale blue dot’ that is our only home. Much hand-wringing takes place in conferences, homes, offices, in the media and in the streets as to what we can do to fix things. Yet it seems that our view to a solution is obscured by the elephant in the room.
Experts appear to be agreed that the planet is under threat from what has become known as climate change. The more free-thinking amongst them will concede that it is human activity that is driving this change, accelerating it beyond its normal pace. We, the general public, are now having to get to grips with new phrases in the language – ‘carbon emissions,’ ‘parts per million,’ ‘greenhouse gases’ – that had no real relevance before the closing decades of the 20th Century. It has taken a while to understand the implications of these phrases, and a bit of a panic has ensued amongst the more enlightened as to what to do about it all. The trouble is, however, that too few people comprehend the true nature of the problem.
Some blame the banks. Others blame consumerism, economics, profligate use of resources or industrialisation. They are right – these are all part of the problem. Yet there is something else, something that literally goes to the root of what’s wrong. The root of it all is the way we feed ourselves, the global industrialised food system – the devil child of agriculture. This is the real elephant in the room, but no one wants to talk about it, because food is deemed sacrosanct. But talk about it we must. It is too big to ignore.
Not far away from where I live is a permaculture smallholding that produces a huge bounty of nutritious organic food practically year-round, with virtually no inputs other than the fuel required to take this produce to the local Farmers’ Market every week. In Herefordshire as a whole, there are a number of such places, where the owners quietly get on with producing real food in the right way. Drive through Herefordshire (or any other county of England for that matter), however, and this is not what you will see. What is obvious to the casual observer, particularly in the summer months, is the ‘fields of waving corn’ that epitomise the English rural scene. Next time you have a chance to see these fields for yourself, I want you to think about what is growing in them and what its purpose is. To start you off, here are few of my own observations.
Mostly, these fields are growing monoculture cash crops like wheat, barley, oilseed rape, sugar beet or potatoes (yes, potatoes – another cash crop; most of the potatoes from our part of the world go straight to the food factories). In other parts of the world, wild land is aggressively cleared for maize, soya or palm oil. Though wrapped up in the urban myths of feeding the world, the truth is these crops simply feed the food processing industry, which in turn feeds its processed foodstuffs to the global retail system which, through very clever and expensive marketing, then palms them off onto an unsuspecting public who believe that all these packets, tins and jars contain healthy nutritious food. They could not be more wrong, and the main consequence of consuming nutritionally depleted imitation food is that we have made ourselves very ill, and a huge pharmaceutical industry has been created from nothing, an industry growing fat on our poor health.
Let’s face it, whichever way you look at it, food is the business to be in. It’s a businessman’s dream to find something that everyone needs every day and turn it into a commercial venture. It’s like printing your own money. Put it like this: what’s the true difference between a home made loaf of bread and a supermarket loaf? The profit. There is no profit for the food industry in your home made loaf. That’s why they will fall over themselves to persuade you that the commercial model is what you really need to buy.
Worse than that though, is what this global food industry is doing to our planet. Take a look at the soil in which a typical monoculture crop is grown. It’s either dying or dead already, bludgeoned into submission by an endless chemical onslaught designed to kill everything except the crop in question. Multiply this by the acreage under cultivation around the world and the result is profoundly disturbing. We are successfully flaying the skin off the planet and killing the ecosystems that are contained on the soil and beneath it, all in the name of ‘food production,’ in this case a carefully chosen euphemism for ‘making money out of food.’ The production of real food, however, is localised, based on small-scale organic polyculture systems, sensitive to ecological biodiversity and concerned with the paramount and fundamental need to maintain soil fertility. Another utopian dream? No, I don’t think so. It’s a long way from where we are at the moment, but that does not make the concept futile. The food industry will lobby incessantly for more of what they are doing, but the current system has failed us and set us on the road to destruction. In a world of seven billion people, roughly half of them are hungry (some to the point of malnourishment and famine) and half are overfed (and subject to an increasing rate of obesity and the other diseases of industrialisation). The time for change is here, and change is not only desirable, it is essential.
So, let’s look at what is on offer with the global industrialised food system. I’ll leave you to fill in the other part of the picture, i.e. what we might gain from investing in a global localised polyculture system. You might pick up some clues if you have a look at what happened in Cuba in the years following the loss of their oil supply – an inspiring story for the future.
The industrial food system involves the following:
- manufacture of tractors and other machinery
- extraction of raw materials and factory processing to make machine parts
- high percentage of plastics used in the construction of machines
- fuel to run those machines
- manufacture of chemical fertilisers and pesticides
- transportation of cash crops from around the world to food factories around the world
- processing of raw materials (wheat, maize, soy, palm oil, sugar beet, oilseed rape, etc) into imitation foodstuffs
- packaging of factory products for transportation and retail display
- transportation of factory foods around the globe via land, sea and air to warehousing operations
- transportation (again) of those products from warehouse to the retailers
- heating, lighting and air-conditioning of corporate HQs and other ancillary buildings around the globe
- heating, lighting and air-conditioning of warehouses and big box retailers around the globe
- waste (mostly plastic, much of it non-recyclable) generated in the retail sale of factory products via big box outlets
- supply and maintenance of tens of thousands of junk food outlets around the globe relying on chemically supported monocultures and intensive animal feedlot production
All of the above make direct use of diminishing fossil fuels and other scarce resources. But it doesn’t stop there. Other ‘carbon’ issues and ecological concerns include the following:
- monoculture destroys wildlife habitat and loses soil carbon at a frightening rate
- monoculture irrigation steals water from rivers as well as mining irreplaceable aquifers – we face worldwide water shortages
- pesticides kill life on a massive scale
- pesticide run-off pollutes and poisons groundwater and aquifers, and kills streams, rivers, deltas and seas
- intensive meat production (for beef, pork, poultry, eggs and milk) uses cash crops such as maize and soy
- intensive meat production produces toxic waste slurry instead of healthy manure
- rainforest is destroyed to create land for more meat production to feed the processors and fast food industry
- indigenous peoples are displaced as land is grabbed
- industrial farming degrades soils through loss of organic matter, salination, chemical contamination
- degraded soils blow away or are washed away
- degraded soils cannot hold carbon deposits and eventually turn to desert
- industry demand (not consumer demand) for the unholy trinity of cheap ingredients, maize, soy and palm oil, is destroying rainforest and biodiversity
- ecosystems are breaking down on a local, regional and planetary scale
- factory trawlers are emptying our seas and destroying the sea bed
- fish farming contributes to over-fishing and dying oceans, as important sectors of marine ecology are removed from the food chain to use as fish meal
- factory fishing is contributing to turning the oceans acidic, killing off other parts of the marine food chain, particularly the plankton and algae upon which all marine life ultimately depends
- acidifying oceans are contributing to the carbon burden in the atmosphere
- excessive, short-term-use packaging is creating waste mountains of plastic and other toxic rubbish
- waste management is an increasingly expensive worldwide problem that also consumes huge amounts of energy
- human health is failing as the ‘diseases of civilisation’ proliferate
As if this list is not frightening enough, in terms of carbon emissions alone, this failed system of food production is the biggest culprit. Statistics are difficult to find, but they are there if you look hard enough. If you do the sums, you will easily arrive at a figure around 60% contribution to carbon emissions, to which you could add the emissions from all the machinery in use in industrial farming, as well as those from all the cars driven to all the big box retailers around the globe. As Homer Simpson has been heard to say, “It just gets worse and worse!”
To end on a brighter note, the alternative to all of this is not impossible, but we need to admit that a new way of feeding ourselves is essential, and we need to understand that it can be done. It is not an overnight job, but the lessons fromCuba illustrate that change can happen. Granted, in Cuba, change was relatively easy to ‘administer’ through a Communist government faced with mass starvation as the only available alternative, but it was interesting to see how involved the community became in the process of localising their food production and turning their backs on industrial food. Cuba now has an oil supply again, but their new food system remains in place, as does the community spirit it engenders. Clearly, there are major benefits, not least of which is the way the Cuban example created employment for large numbers of disenchanted and disenfranchised jobless youngsters.
Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that as soon as I had made a commitment to sourcing my food in a truly ethical way, it created a domino effect of behavioural changes. Just because I was applying my mind to how food is produced and sold, I had to confront the spectre of flawed capitalism and the myopic pursuit of profit that defines it. That made me unwilling to be a passive supporter of unbridled consumerism in general. I stopped buying stuff just for the sake of it, restricting my purchases to needs rather than wants. Beyond that, I quickly began to understand that real food is the foundation to human wellbeing, in spiritual as well as physical ways. From that I began to see the possibilities of using food as the basic toolkit of social repair, an idea that is too big to explore within the context of this brief dissertation, but which merits further discussion at some point.
So, let’s believe it can happen, but let’s also understand that each of us can help to make it happen. Next time you go shopping, think about what you are buying. Is it industrial food? If it is, can you find a non-industrial alternative? You might have to think about modifying the way you eat but, if it helps towards creating a more planet-friendly way of producing food, is it worth the effort? Even if you feel you can’t change the way you eat, at least consider the effect that our global industrial food system is having on the planet, and perhaps you will come up with some innovative way of contributing to the solution. When you are having a beer with your friends, and putting the world to rights, try a locally brewed pint instead of that dreadful, bland, ubiquitous industrial lager that is peddled by frauds such as Heineken, Carlsberg et al. At least that way you will be drinking something tasty, and helping the local economy, and it may even persuade you not to turn your back on that pachydermic quadruped that’s blocking out the light.