While today’s global food chain is well organized, we’re still only a few weeks away from critical food shortages at any time. The threat of hostilities breaking out in volatile areas such as the Middle East, Africa and Asia remains. And that’s especially true when shortage of food is the issue.
Science writer Julian Cribb has written his fourth book on the threats facing humanity. This time he’s framed the topic with a terrifying choice: food or war.
Cribb: “If you had a major crop failure in one of the world’s great grain bowls, food prices would go through the roof for everybody. When we don’t have enough food, or we fear we may run out of it, then we tend to fight with other people over the resources for producing it. That’s been a constant throughout human history. It is a major driver of war—both in the past, in the present and in the future, I believe. There’s wars going on right now at this moment—maybe half a dozen around the world—that are being fought essentially over those basic resources of food, land and water.”
A few years ago, the idea was circulating that the human race is evolving to become less violent and more empathetic. Authors suggested that we’re progressively moving into an era of more cooperation and harmony—that “the better angels of our nature” are becoming dominant. But more recent developments seem to contradict that, with daily reports of domestic and international tensions that continue to escalate.
Cribb: “We’ve become much more fiercely competitive. We’ve maintained standing armies, for example. We’ve delineated borders to protect our food resources, and we’ve defended those borders with ferocity. So I think we are more inclined to fight nowadays than we have been in the past—and particularly now that the ownership of nuclear weapons is becoming fairly unconstrained in the world; you know, you’ve got seven countries—nine countries, actually—that are capable of taking out civilization at the moment. So we need to address that. We need to take away the causes of war, which will avoid nuclear conflict.”
If you’re thinking that this all sounds too alarmist, that the good guys always win in the end, perhaps it’s time to think again. We’re heading for a peak global population in this century of around 11 billion. That’s never happened before. How can we possibly cope with the food demands of that many people?
Cribb: “Agriculture takes place outdoors. And if the climate goes haywire, then the food supply is likely to go haywire as well. If we run out of water, then you’re not going to be able to do agriculture. If we run out of topsoil, you’re not going to be able to do agriculture.”
“What it means is if we want to avoid famine, we have to reinvent the whole system by which we produce food.”
One of the looming problems is the carrying capacity of certain highly populated countries. Take China: Cribb notes that a few years ago they thought they would be able to support about 645 million people. But they’ve already passed that figure and may soon be in view of nearly three times that number.
Cribb: “They are running out of water on the North China Plain, their main grain-growing region. Their government is buying up farms in Africa, in Australasia, in Asia, in Central Asia, and things like that. China is hoping to feed China from other countries—from overseas.”
It’s part of our nature not to want to believe that the worst can happen. The fly in the ointment is human nature’s selfish side. When it comes to fixing our approach to the environment or the attitudes that drive us to war, we’re up against the wall. Overfishing, deforestation, soil degradation, soil erosion—these are driven primarily by our desire for short-term benefits. Aggression, violence and war spring from unrestrained self-interest. Blind optimism doesn’t help solve these problems.
Cribb: “I like optimism to be founded on reality, not founded on some kind of fantasy imagination. But there is a risk of total human extinction. It depends upon how many nuclear weapons we fire off as a result of the wars that are liable to break out in the mid century and beyond over food, land and water. That is just not predictable. All you can say is that there is a risk, and we’d better take heed of it. Much more likely, in my view, is that some proportion of humanity will suffer and die in the major catastrophes that I and many others foresee happening if we do not get these things under control.
“The question is, how many of us will survive? Will it be 9 billion? Will it be five billion? Whatever, it’s going to involve an enormous amount of human suffering and death.”
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse picture a world coming to its end through wrong ideas, war, famine and disease. This is an image taken from the book of Revelation. Alongside the rider with scales, measuring out scarcity, is a swordsman on the red horse of war. Food, or war? I asked Julian Cribb why he’d chosen to use this religious reference to get attention in a secular world.
Cribb: “I believe we’re talking here about morality as much as science in addressing these issues. I think we need to have stronger moral feelings towards one another than we do. I mean, morality, at the end of the day, is about survival more than any other factor. Morality consists of rules that societies adopt in order to procure their own survival. So that’s why I think the religious element and the involvement, the engagement, of religious people of all faiths and persuasions is absolutely essential in this one.”
Cribb also chose a biblical image to conclude his book. It’s the analogy of turning swords into plowshares, that weapons of war should become implements of food production.
Cribb: “In 2000 to 2005, weapons budgets—including in the United States, China, Russia, etc.—all went down. And we still had heaps of weapons, far more than we needed to kill everybody. So I’m arguing that we should cut again, at least 20 percent, and that we should spend that money on securing the world food supply.”
In the original prophecy, turning swords into plowshares refers to a yet-future time when God will intervene in world affairs to prevent total destruction and then build a new civilization: “He shall judge between the nations, and rebuke many people; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).
It’s interesting that this ancient book, the Bible, contains both the images that inform us about the dangers of present world conditions, and also show what the solutions will eventually be when human beings come to the end of their rope.
In the meantime, are there solutions for today? Julian Cribb believes we should farm in a way that doesn’t waste or damage soil. We need to develop aquaculture, where the seas become growing grounds for edible plants. And we need to recycle water and the waste products of urban life to grow food in urban areas.
These ideas are all possibilities in today’s world. They will take great commitment and effort. But beyond them is a world where war will be eradicated—its principles not even taught.