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”
“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….”