The Declensionist Diet
We continue with the ‘big picture’ of food crises I co-authored with Richard Kock and Robyn Alders. This is the second of three excerpts. The first can be found here.
We argued the causes of our ongoing and oncoming food crises are manifold, rooted in present-day policies as well as humanity’s history, as far back as even our species’ origins.
The past offers us some unlikely lessons. Agriculture, for one, wasn’t so much a bright idea as a damning necessity for populations forced upon overhunting to scavenge for food. Subsequent shifts in food regimes, including those under way today, were likewise defined by such path-dependent contingency.
At the same time, history appears to have produced an illusion of inevitable existence. Humanity was able to repeatedly overcome food and other resource limitations, even as archaeological strata are also littered with dead civilizations. These near-misses, however, can offer no sample sufficiently representative for guaranteeing humanity a future.
Indeed, we now face a complex of problems of another nature entirely.
The rich and poor are struggling over a declining resource base.
Humanity appears to be entering another age of scavenging. In the face of an ingenuity tuned to extracting resources the natural world is nigh on exhausted. The species has at the same time demonstrated a spectacular inability to eat and grow populations sustainably. The results are increasingly, if incrementally, traumatic.
In its latest State of Food and Agriculture report the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates 1.2 billion people the world over suffer from chronic hunger. The report states the challenge that lies ahead is
to secure the food security of these one billion hungry people and also to double food production in order to feed a population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050.
This is the noblest of statements based on an extraordinary faith in science and a perhaps myopic belief in technological solutions, one ignoring basic ecological constraints, under which resources are made acutely finite and ultimately limiting upon production, consumption, and population growth.
FAO claims recognizing these barriers, including “demographic and dietary changes, climate change, threats to agriculture from bioenergy development and natural-resource constraints,” but continues planning policy under the heroic assumption that science and enterprise will somehow find a way.
The FAO report, for instance, outlines the extraordinary changes in the livestock sector over the past few decades under the rubric of the ‘Livestock Revolution,’ in which the breeding, processing and distribution of fast-growth livestock are vertically integrated under a few large agribusiness. The Revolution appears to both service and drive a new demand for meat protein in growing urban populations, particularly in so-called developing countries.
The new food commodity chains, however, are doing little good for poor rural communities or traditional livestock keepers who rarely benefit from these markets. The poor and food insecure stay poor and food insecure, while increasing pressure is exerted on ecosystems and biodiversity, and the natural resources, soils, and fresh water needed to feed the urban masses are put in decline.
Science and agribusiness instead focus on commercial food development, letting subsistence agriculture and livestock suffer contractions in the few services they receive. Comparatively little is being done to sustain their livelihoods. As if without market access these producers and consumers, much of humanity, don’t in reality exist.
Benign neglect represents no limiting case, however. Food insecurity over the next several decades and perceptions thereof serve as cover for a particular capital-securitized science tied directly, intentionally or not, into spreading the Livestock Revolution and its aggressive agribusiness model.
Recent events in Egypt serve to illustrate the ways neoliberalism—bankrolling tech-heavy approaches and farm consolidation—appears incompatible with food security. During the Mubarak regime horticulture and livestock underwent massive consolidation, increasingly deserting millions of smallholders to the periurban margins.
Over the past five years many of the poorest communities were further impoverished by the way authorities chose to intervene into rolling outbreaks of highly pathogenic influenza A (H5N1) (‘bird flu’) and H1N1 2009 (‘swine flu’). Culling destroyed 40 million poultry and the entire swine population, respectively, with the impact greatest on backyard and small-scale operations despite precarious evidence these sectors were driving the disease’s emergence.
Wild birds had already sidestepped primary blame for H5N1, outside a handful of migration events which spread the virus. There is presently no evidence for a H5N1 reservoir amongst their populations despite over a million samples taken in search of the ‘source’.
Much more likely the intensive livestock industry served as the crucible in which these virulent virus strains first evolved and were later introduced into and spread throughout Egypt, at the very least via the sector’s contract farming and the geographic extent of its commodity chains.
At no stage, however, were industrial poultry systems seriously investigated as a possible cause of the Egyptian outbreaks, nor was the destruction of industrial units—in the way smallholder operations were shut down—considered in Egypt or in source countries. Far better for the agro-pharmaceutical industry to spend billions on vaccines and other therapeutics, putting off the virus’s re-emergence to another day.
In short, the sector’s capacity to technically respond to a disease of its own making, at the expense of its smallholding rivals, serves as its own rationale.
Nor predicted or as of yet scientifically accounted for were the effects the technocratic interventions into endemic H5N1 appeared to have had in exasperating Egypt’s deepening povertybeyond anecdotal evidence of increased stunting in children under five.
Poultry loss was perhaps not the only or root cause of the recent revolution, but undoubtedly the resulting impacts on food prices, food availability, and the Egyptian people’s desire to decide their own destiny—including whether they keep chickens—played intrinsic roles.
And yet studies of Egypt’s outbreaks, and those elsewhere, at one and the same time embody the premises of and serve as tautological arguments for the transition into highly-capitalized farming. Under the prevalent model of offshore agriculture, agribusiness effectively dispossesses indigenous farmers, spreading hunger and disease, destroying environments directly and by proxy, disasters all of which are then treated as due cause for expanding dispossession.
Diana Davis describes such a ‘humanitarian’ framework as part and parcel of
a declensionist colonial environmental narrative, appropriated to help justify and implement the neoliberal goals of land privatization and the intensification of agricultural production in the name of environmental protection.
Diet and Disease
With the decline of wild food the majority of humans—in rich and poor countries alike—are increasingly restricted in their choice of diet to a few staples.
Poor societies have always been food-challenged. Much of the Indian population survived the 20th century on an average of two acres of cultivated land per family. But they tilled the land without machines and understood much of its ecological bases. In the face of an advancing industrial food neocolonialism, there was, and remains, little waste.
Improved crop production and pest management helped buffer these subsistence communities from starvation. But seasonal failure of rains and reductions in the volume of melt from the Himalayan water tower, the planet’s ‘third pole’, brought about by climate change remain significant threats to over 500 million people on the northern Indian plain, where per capita availability of freshwater in India is expected to drop by nearly 50% by 2025.
As water becomes scarcer and more costly, both in ecological and increasingly commoditized terms, it will be a critical factor on which we base our food choices. Agriculture accounts for approximately 70% of water use globally. On average, one egg requires 135 liters of water, one kg of chicken 6,000 liters, and one kg of beef 15,000 liters.
In wealthier societies we see the fruition of the kinds of ‘humanitarian’ food interventions nomadic capital has in mind for many of these poor regions.
Cheap food is mass produced and homogenized, enabling centralized control of food from source to fork, and massive profits for a few. Cleverly packaged and marketed, highly processed, calorific and even addictive, but nutritionally deficient foodstuffs have created a new suite of epidemic chronic diseases, from diabetes to obesity.
Infectious diseases meanwhile evolve at increasing speed in these industrialized, genetically limited domestic animal and crop communities.
Agriculture is often managed in comparatively sterile but still pathogen-conducive conditions, requiring continuous applications of pharmaceuticals and vaccines in livestock to reduce now endemic diarrhoeas and respiratory diseases, and of pesticides on crops largely engineered for withstanding still greater petrochemical application.
The resulting waste runoff carries highly evolved cassettes of bacteria and other pathogens with drug resistance genes. Sloughing off too are increasing concentrations of hormone mimics and other ecotoxins poured into local lakes and river systems, or even recycled as fertilizer.
Even pharmaceuticals are becoming detectable in biologically active concentrations in the environment with increasing evidence of ecological, physiological and pathological impacts. The decline of the Gyps vulture has been placed on the diclofenac found in the carcasses the birds ingest.
Pollution and pathogens have become part of the risk frame of the industrialized food system. The science of food safety is daily called upon to mop up spills and outbreaks throughout a global system connected through daily shipments of breeding or neonatal stock and the wide dissemination of potentially contaminated food products.
In turn, a wildlife squeezed tight by encroaching livestock and human populations spills its own pathogen community back into wet markets, bushmeat butcheries, farmland, and urban environments, producing risky natural experiments in disease transmission and pathogen evolution across animal orders.
Peeking Through Our Fingers
Before us lay two options for resolving the present food crises.
Clearly serious problems in our current food system abound. We are naturally compelled to ask what we can do to mitigate them.
There are two schools of thought. One promotes more of the same: increased industrialization; more mass food production, processing and marketing; expanding genetic modification to improve agricultural production, and pest and disease resistance; and raising yields year on year with large inputs of artificial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.
The objective appears to be to sustain the human population and even, alarmingly, sustained growth at a profit, whatever the cost to the environment. That is, proponents believe we must continue the food regime that got us here, including the crises to which we must ostensibly respond.
The other school seeks a future based on a respect for and engagement with the agro-ecological landscape; a system depending on low artificial inputs, sustainable natural resource use, and conservation agriculture, requiring restoration of natural ecological processes and cycles; and a return to more complex food webs based around more wildtype, resilient, naturally disease-resistant and biodiverse plant and animal foods.
The present production system—think antibiotic-fed livestock monocultures in clear-cut confined animal feedlots—removes many of nature’s free and self-renewing ecological services. Ecological resilience, natural selection, and a probiotic ecology, for instance, represent three important services that in an epizoological context would be better reintroduced.
The stakes are high indeed. The option chosen, the food regime to which we transition, matters in the most fundamental way. Evidence for rapid deterioration in the environment and ecological processes, threatening life as we know it, is accumulating. But a belief persists widely across the political spectrum that humanity will find a way out simply by spending more money, or continuing three-percent compound economic growth, neither of which on its face has any ecological value.
Economic systems are underpinned by natural resources and without intervention ultimately, if we bother peeking through our fingers beyond next quarter’s returns, suffer a shared fate.
There are serious risks in the present strategy, if production cannot be increased or even sustained, if emerging health and disease problems cannot be contained, if climate change cannot be managed, if biodiversity is lost…
In the face of such grave likelihoods it is time to consolidate and act upon all the evidence. The dangerous experiments along the lines of our present food regimes, winning out only by virtue of the political power behind them, have been running long enough.
Next: Fork in the Road