Food and the collapse of civilizations

Here’s an excerpt from a recent Vancouver Sun story by Randy Shore titled “Local organic food: An answer or a sure path to disaster? — Behind the collapse of past civilizations was the collapse of a food industry — each and every time”

When a rice crop failed a few years ago, six countries closed their borders to exports. When prices spiked, there were riots in Asian cities and a run on rice in Vancouver. Photo: Reuters, Vancouver Sun

“If there is a hotter topic in the publishing industry than local organic food, I don’t know what it is. Two books that recently crossed my desk take decidedly divergent approaches to the problem of commercial agriculture, though both authors agree that commercial agriculture is a problem.

There the similarity ends.

James E. McWilliams argues in Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Eat Responsibly that the locavores have it all wrong and that organic farming is not only NOT the answer, but a path to certain disaster.

He quite rightly points out that the local foodism promoted by Alice Waters is elitist in the extreme and that organic farming as it is practised today provides high-end groceries for the relatively rich.

He is dismissive of the concept of food miles, arguing that transport is only a tiny fraction of the energy inputs that go into food production as though that was the only problem with the globalization of food systems.

The premise of his book is that we have to do something drastic to ensure that we are able to feed a rapidly growing global population, but the author doesn’t properly consider that rapidly expanding food production is exactly the reason that we have so many mouths to feed in the first place. Countless times in human history, advances in agriculture led to population booms. The collapse of those food systems, usually due to soil depletion or climate change, led to the collapse of the population. Each and every time.

If we, as a race, are committed to uncontrolled population growth, then yes, Williams is right to say that genetically engineered crops are the only way to support the nine billion people we will have to feed in a couple of decades. But the bubble will burst, because commercial agriculture devastates the soil’s natural capital, and famine will result, as it has throughout human history. Each and every time.

We can only hope that biotechnology leads to a solution to soil depletion.

Just as informative and less annoyingly pedantic is Empires of Food: Feast Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, by Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas. The professor and his reporter pal take us on a ride through time, noting those moments that changed history. Civilizations arise when the people growing food produce more than they can eat, giving rise to trade and urbanization. All civilizations are built on a foundation of food. Without productive agricultural systems, cities collapse into ruin and, more often than not, revolution results.

We got a tiny taste of the fragility of our own civilization just a few years ago when a single crop of rice faltered and six countries closed their borders to rice exports. When prices spiked, there were riots in many Asian cities and a run on all available supply here in Vancouver.

McWilliams calls locavores “cynically populist, isolationist, and protectionist.” I say if we can produce enough food to feed ourselves — and British Columbia produces only 42 per cent of the food we consume — the world’s problems need not be ours. At least not right away. When push comes to shove, most nations will take care of their own and you can kiss your Chilean grapes and New Zealand apples goodbye. Maybe cynically populist, isolationist and protectionist isn’t such a bad thing….”

Get the whole story from The Vancouver Sun.


Filed under News

2 responses to “Food and the collapse of civilizations

  1. nerd's laptopnerd

    These people don’t seem to realize that GO is actually less efficient in producing food than organic.

  2. You can, with Permaculture and organics produce more food per hectare than ‘conventional’ chemical agriculture, without degrading the land base. This is not opinion, this is fact. You get less of a particular crop, but more food overall, with a greater range of nutrients.

    The only way to eliminate starvation is to make this the dominant form of food production, which unfortunately means we need to say goodbye to the petrochemical industry and food processing industries as they currently stand, and live lives more in tune with nature.

    Chemically driven agriculture and large scale animal production deplete soils of their life and create massive pollution of water tables.

    GM organisms only benefit those who patent them.
    While they appear to be food, our bodies do not process them the same way as food and have been linked to liver and kidney damage, as well as cellular deformation in rats and mice.

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