Has humanity outgrown its fish tank?
In a recent talk by the Anthropologist Henrietta Moore on ‘The end of Development’, she raised a challenge to orthodox thinking on global development. Is this 60 year experiment still a realistic or even desirable goal based on what we now know?
One facet of her discussion was questioning if monoculture agriculture was the best solution for all people across the planet. Especially in ‘developing nations’, in her words, raises questions about the future: where ‘infinite growth on a finite planet is not an option’.
There were three interesting facts I want to discuss further:
- 15% of the world’s population of 7 billion live in hunger.
- 3 billion live on less than the price of a coffee – and populations are increasing.
- Humans have historically used about 7000 plant species as food but today only 3 plant species of wheat, rice and maize account for 60% of the calories consumed by the 7 billion people that live on this planet.
Is the human species too successful?
One of the biggest challenges of the globe will be how to feed growing world populations, with a scarcity of resources in increasingly humanity is concentrated in urban centres. Mondal, et al. define this scenario as:
The 21st century faces multiple challenges like climate change, population growth, food shortage, poverty, hunger, accelerated land cover change and environmental degradation. World is now filled with more than 7 billion people and the count is increasing at an alarming rate of 1.2% per annum and by 2050 the world population is projected to reach 9.6 billion.
Due to inadequate food supply, about 1 billion people stay hungry every day in the world and the figure will increase to 2 billion by 2050.
This scenario enforces the increasing momentum in agricultural production with more than 70% increase for the developing countries of Asia and Africa in coming decades.
One Planet, many mouths
In the western world, with all the talk of local farming, Farmer’s Markets, it feels like to some extent that the food-supply question has re-orientated back to the smaller landholder. However, the data presents very differently:
Humans have transformed the surface of the planet through agricultural activities, and today, 12% of the land surface is used for cultivation and another 22% is used for pastures and rangelands.
Cereals dominate this space
61% of the total cultivated land. In particular, wheat, maize, barley, rice, and millet are dominant over more than two thirds of the cropland of the World
Our drivers for commercial efficiencies are at the expense of agrobiodiversity.
While Moore identifies 7000 consumed plant species, some suggest that outside of the three main crops there are 50,000 edible plants around the globe. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations) estimates that there are as many as 250-300,000 edible plant species, and only 150 to 200 of these plant-species are grown regularly across the world. That’s not a lot of variety compared to the local potential for diversity and flavour.
Commercialisation has clearly narrowed what we expect in our shopping baskets, e.g. there are around 100 species of apples grown commercially in the United States, with most stores only offering 5 varieties. Approximately 7,500 varieties of apples are grown throughout the world.
Agrobiodiversity is slipping through our fingers
The global impact of the focus on the three big crops is having some profound implications. The FAO observes:
Since the 1900s, some 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost as farmers worldwide have left their multiple local varieties and landraces for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties.
More than 90 percent of crop varieties have disappeared from farmers’ fields; half of the breeds of many domestic animals have been lost. In fisheries, all the world’s 17 main fishing grounds are now being fished at or above their sustainable limits, with many fish populations effectively becoming extinct.
Loss of forest cover, coastal wetlands, other ‘wild’ uncultivated areas, and the destruction of the aquatic environment exacerbate the genetic erosion of agrobiodiversity.
Banking the diversity
There have been some pro-active initiatives over the last decade that are seeking to protect the biodiversity of the world. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is one
Global Crop Diversity Trust, which funds the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, in Norway, Fowler is engaged in the Noah-like task of gathering the seeds of about two million varieties of food plants—both the familiar domesticated crops and many of their wild relatives—in order to create the first global seed bank.
An awesome technology by any measure, the vault is a steely compound tunnelled five hundred feet into an icy mountain in the Norwegian Arctic, just 600 miles from the North Pole. It is designed to last a thousand years, and to withstand a wide range of global disasters, including climate change, nuclear war, and even an asteroid strike. Over the past four years the vault has amassed some
740,000 seed samples and eventually it may house every crop seed ever used by a human being.
Impact of monoculture crops
Henrietta Moore makes the anthropological observation that growing different crops are having a significant socio-cultural impact on the lives of people that have been plugged into the global agro-industrial market. Traditionally, they lived different lives around the seasonality of their local crops.
Additionally, the environmental impact has been profound. While the area of farmed lands has not increased significantly in recent times, the production of the efficiency has been changing with increases in technology and science. The last 50 years of developments are believed to have directly contributed to the annual increase of CO2 cycles. The growth cycles of these crops are impacting the climate with as much as a 25% seasonal increase in Carbon Dioxide.
Crops are like a giant sponge that can absorb and release carbon dioxide into the air and because the production of crops in the Northern Hemisphere has grown by 240 percent since the 1960’s this CO2-absorbing-sponge has gotten bigger. Thus, it can hold and release more gas.
These environmental and climatic changes are having a direct impact on the pollination of wild and cultivated crops. This effects biodiversity as crops need pollination to propagate.
A rapidly increasing human population will reduce the amount of natural habitats through an increasing demand for food-producing areas, urbanization and other land-use practices, putting pressure on the ecosystem service delivered by wild pollinators
Animal pollination of both wild and cultivated plant species is under threat as a result of multiple environmental pressures acting in concert.
There are frequent concerns over the unexplained deaths of honeybees on such a consistent basis
Beekeepers are seeing unusually high numbers of their bees die this year, prompting concerns about the health of crops that depend on the insects, and about the future of the beekeeping industry in America itself.
The focus on the big three crops is also having an impact on soil health, as the natural biome of soil is resulting in a detrimental way. The usual approach of keeping soil healthy is by rotating crops to maintain the ‘nutritional’ content of the soil chemistry.
Impact of Crop Fashion
With the Northern hemisphere creating the demand for crops, there is often an impact from food trends creating an unbalance in the marketplace for the diversity of crops.
A recent example of this is McDonald’s decision to become a late-adopter to the Kale food trend to bolster its relevance:
‘Historically, when McDonald’s adopts a new produce item, it ends up becoming a kingpin in that market. Just two years after adding Apple Dippers to the menu in the early aughts, McDonald’s was buying 54 million pounds of fresh Gala apples each year—more than enough to make it the country’s biggest buyer and seller of the crisp fruit. The burger chain had similar effects at various times on grape tomatoes, edamame, and English cucumbers; it took McDonald’s two years to build a supply chain for cucumbers when it decided to include the crispy veggie to its McWrap. The chain told Bloomberg Businessweek it expected to use about 6 million pounds of cucumber in 2013, its first year selling the item.
Recent agricultural waves have been made by: coconut products, Chia boom: ‘With 239% growth, chia category set to hit $1 bn by 2020’ ; and Quinoa amongst others. Often these crops supplant others in the global market, displacing local produce and changing the environment in ways that are only now becoming apparent.
Eat what’s on your plate
There doesn’t appear to be an easy way out of the spiral. It’s only been around 250 years since Lord Sandwich ‘created’ a food that has been eponymous with western diets from sandwiches, to sliders and burgers. However, this is not a long time from an anthropological perspective in defining how we eat. We haven’t always eaten the way we do.
The popularity of the big three gains also comes from other dimensions I haven’t discussed here such as biofuels, fillers and other derivative products.
The hope is that the local-food trends will continue and more people will identify with being locavores. Additionally, there will be a deeper understanding of the health benefits of eating seasonal food. With a wider consumer understanding of these benefits, this will lead supermarkets to change what they sell to meet this new trend.
Supermarkets though are not the problem here. Increasingly, as part of the foodie trend, we digest food books from a global palate and contribute to the market reality that we want everything, as our latest recipe demands it. The global nature of the internet and the exciting world of cooking is that its demands our outside of nature and seasonal growth.
Consciously eating seasonal foods and cooking from seasonal recipes is a very simple way of contributing to changing the demand and supply of unseasonal produce.