In March 2009, Professor John Beddington, who was at that time the chief scientific adviser to the UK government, forecast a “perfect storm” of food, energy and water shortages by the year 2030. Jonathon Porritt, the then chairman of the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission, was less optimistic than Beddington and predicted that 2020 was more likely. At the time of writing, we are now more than halfway through 2017 so the predicted crunch point is between three and thirteen years away.
Of course, these warnings are only useful if they are able to nudge governments and people into taking co-ordinated action prior to the crunch. Once the crunch point has arrived, no more preparation is possible – crisis prevention then has to give way to crisis management. So far, unless plans are being made in secret in Whitehall, there has been a deafening silence from government. I see no preparation and no awareness – but plenty of signs of crisis.
These signs include climate change and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events; a shrinking land area as the seas rise; and heat, drought and flooding affecting the land that remains. As the oceans acidify, they will less and less be able to provide food or remove carbon. Keystone species such as bees and plankton will continue to die off; and the depletion of the humus and mineral content of our farmland soils will go so far that we will no longer be able to rely on future harvests.
In the face of accelerating disasters such as these, we could begin to see events moving out of the grasp of governments; and if, as seems likely, we are unable to make enough changes to avert the worst environmental effects, this will be followed by economic and social fracture, the breakdown of law and order and large movements of refugees from those parts of the world devastated by climate change and war. Hand in hand with this, much of the infrastructure on which we rely to provide food, water and energy will start to fall apart. Professional skills, such as those needed to prevent disasters in the privatised nuclear industry, may no longer be available.
The ways in which the descent to chaos could develop are so varied that governments seem paralysed by the sheer scale of the problems. As the crisis bites, so will the scale of unemployment; and this in turn will mean that government tax revenues become so reduced that they can no longer support the unemployed, or pay for fundamentals such as education, health and law and order. In the UK, we are seeing early signs of this in the way the government is changing the rules about the state pension, meaning that people will now have to work until they are 68 before they can expect to receive it. As the crisis deepens, the rest of us will also be finding it harder and harder to pay our way, and necessities such as food and even water supplies could be hard to get. The social contract between government and people will eventually be broken.
In an uncomfortable kind of way, all of this may be good news. Communities will have to find out how to provide such things for themselves, or do without. All of us will need to re-discover our locality and local skills, and build a new culture of community to take us through. The power of unfettered capitalism, which now seems so inescapable, may become as irrelevant tomorrow as the divine right of kings seems to us today. The shock of this descent will leave nothing in our lives unchanged. It is probable that we cannot now avoid it, but with determination and courage it can be managed, its worst effects averted, and it can be made survivable. It will be our species’ most difficult challenge ever, but also our greatest opportunity.
Turning now to one aspect of this rapidly approaching crisis, how can we secure our food and farming systems for the future? Conventional industrial agriculture is the short-sighted and short-lived product of abundant cheap energy, which has made it possible for a small number of farmers and landowners and industrial food processors to operate on a very large scale, using industrially-produced fertilisers and pesticides, while also requiring the elimination of natural ecosystems which get in the way. It has brought the whole supply chain, from seed production to supermarket checkout, under the control of a few very large companies.
But glyphosate and genetically modified crops etc have led agri-biz into a technological trap: large-scale monoculture means that the crop is highly vulnerable to pests and diseases, since there is no local ecosystem to support predators or resistance. Agri-biz cannot now do without these chemicals, but continuing to use them brings many other problems, such as the steep decline in soil fertility, the absence of pollinating insects, or the introduction of neuro-toxins into our food. Could the bees be telling us something about the consequences for our own health?
What’s more, concentrating agriculture into just a few giant food production centres removes all our defences against the spread of catastrophic crop failures, as well as any security we may have against famine. The claim that centralised industrial agriculture is the only way of feeding large populations is about as scientific as a belief in the literal truth of the Bible, but rather more damaging. Nor will technological fixes help. Their only effect will be to put off for a time the inevitable consequences, so that the breaking point, when it comes, will be as devastating as possible.
So what options do we have? Where does true food security lie? My own sense is that we need to re-discover localism. Hundreds of small farms and CSA schemes, growing healthy and nutritious food for their local communities, is surely much more sustainable than relying on the toxic, glyphosate-drenched prairie monocultures of conventional industrial agri-business.
Patrick Holden, Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, said at a recent international conference in the USA:
“… at a time when governments are beginning to take action on pollution in transport, with plans for a ban on new diesel and petrol cars by 2040, food producers remain largely financially unaccountable for the terrible damage that current systems are inflicting on the environment and public health.
Mechanisms that could exist to allow future food pricing to be more honest include the introduction of ‘polluter pays’ taxes on chemical fertilisers and pesticides and the redirection of farm subsidies in such a way that producers whose systems of production sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide and improve public health are rewarded for these benefits.”
At the same conference, Tyler Norris of the Institute for Mental Health and Wellness, highlighted how the declining nutritional quality of food has an economic cost. In the US, nearly 18 cents of every dollar is spent on health care services.
Other hidden costs exposed by scientists and economists in the proceedings included:
- the cost of nitrate and pesticide pollution of ground and river water from agro-chemicals, which in some areas of the US is so high that the water industry is struggling to provide drinking water within legal limits;
- air pollution from CAFOs are shown to be increasing respiratory infections and other diseases in people living nearby; (a CAFO is a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, defined by the United States Department of Agriculture, as an animal feeding operation —a farm in which animals are raised in confinement—that has over 1000 “animal units” confined for over 45 days a year)
- the loss of biodiversity, including the decline of farmland birds and pollinating insects,
- soil degradation and erosion from continuous monoculture crop production,
- the human health costs to employees working in stressful conditions in food processing plants.
All these and other costs are ultimately paid for by taxpayers and society in hidden ways, which include general taxation, insurance, water charges and reduced quality of life. Cheap food comes at a high cost to all of us.
As it happens, Patrick Holden is a graduate of Emerson College at Forest Row in the UK, where I currently work. It was Emerson College which, in an astonishing act of public altruism, donated the land now farmed by Tablehurst Farm to St Anthony’s Trust, a local charity whose charitable objectives include the training of biodynamic farmers and growers. This has had the radical effect of removing the Tablehurst farm land from being a tradeable commodity, and allows the farmers to do their work without having huge amounts of mortgage debt around their necks. I also work at Tablehurst, and to my mind it is an inspiring example of a farming model which offers great hope for a sustainable and much happier future.
On behalf of John Swain, a film-maker in the States who is putting together a project around issues of farm ownership, community farms and access to land for young farmers, I recently interviewed several people who were involved with the early days of Tablehurst Farm and the transfer of the land from Emerson College to St Anthony’s Trust. You can hear these interviews, and/or read the transcripts, here. I hope you will enjoy listening to them, as well as finding some food for thought about the future of farming.