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Food or War: Alarming take on future of humanity

Book review: Julian Cribb offers some unrealistic solutions to world’s greatest threat

Food or War
Food or War
Author: Julian Cribb
ISBN-13: 978-1108712903
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Guideline Price: £9.99

“The most destructive object on the planet,” writes Julian Cribb in this alarming assessment of our food future, is “the human jawbone. It is presently devouring the Earth – and that is not a wise strategy for our long-term survival”. Our rapacious desire to consume has caused wars, built empires, permanently changed the Earth’s ecosystem, and is now pushing humanity towards a cliff edge. Climate change, environmental degradation, unsustainable growth, and industrialised agriculture are part of a toxic cocktail that means “the world faces the greatest threat to global food supply in all of human history”. With the Earth’s ecosystem creaking under the weight of exploitation, Cribb sees a bleak food future of forced migration, hunger, and resource conflicts. “For thousands of years,” he warns, “famine and conflict have united in the human mind and destiny. And they will rule its future.”

An Australian science journalist and writer, Cribb’s work has often been apocalyptic, with previous books The Coming Famine, Poisoned Planet, and Surviving the 21st Century offering similarly horrifying assessments of the near future. But as the images of hellish inferno rising from Australia show us, we are past being able to ignore warnings that seem, at first, alarmist. Indeed, while Cribb’s conclusions are often too extreme (and his solutions unrealistic), he highlights crises being ignored, catastrophes going unaddressed, and problems that demand our attention before it is too late. Here his attention is on our most basic need, the very foundation of society itself. Our food system, he argues, “has never been more vulnerable or at greater risk of compound failure”.

At root is the fact that modern agriculture has become outdated and destructive. “The existing industrial model of the food production system,” Cribb writes, “is unsustainable”. Farming families and communities struggle financially (“farmers deserve a pay rise”) while global agribusiness rakes in profits.

Food has become “too cheap” for sustainable methods of production to compete, yet between a third and a half of all food produced is wasted, while the world battles crises of both rising obesity and rising hunger. Industrialised food production drives climate change – over one fifth of greenhouse gas emissions are from agriculture, not least through our problematic addiction to intensive livestock farming for meat – and damages land and water through pollution, waste, and deforestation. Our agricultural system is sowing the seeds of its own collapse.


‘Threat multiplier’

Climate change acts as a “threat multiplier” for these existing problems, with the growing populations of developing countries most exposed to rising sea levels, extreme weather events, drought, and permanent damage to food production. Cribb argues that we now face a series of “existential risks from climate change to nuclear war, global pandemics to “uncontrolled supertechnologies”. These risks intersect like a set of dominos, with the fall of one toppling the others. While we know the solutions to many of these problems, what is missing is the global consciousness and coordination to “think wisely, not just as individuals, but as a species”. And so the looming threats go unaddressed as our consumption and disunity throws more fuel on the fires.

These existential risks magnify the age-old possibility of conflicts over increasingly scarce resources, perhaps presenting humanity with “a stark choice: food...or war”. Indeed these two horsemen of the apocalypse are inextricably intertwined: “the food system is... cause, instrument, and victim of conflict”. Cribb explores centuries of military history to emphasise that “most people who die in wars perish from hunger”, a notable feature of the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen. While some of the food explanations for past conflicts are at times excessive (with other causes downplayed), he persuasively identifies a number of future food conflicts, from Central America to the Middle East to East Africa. In all three locations, the impact of climate change and food insecurity has already produced a “human tide” of refugees and migrants fleeing hunger and war to seek security. All over the developing world people are on the move, with fragile “megacities” expanding by the day, their unplanned growth, toxic pollution, and overstretched infrastructure an urban “disaster in waiting”.

Green revolutions

Even though Cribb at times veers into the extremist contention that the world is over-populated – his emphasis on it being unequal and “over-exploited” seems more accurate and defensible – he notes that previous crises of food supply have been repeatedly overcome by “green revolutions” in agriculture. Humanity has constantly reinvented itself, and such a transformation is possible again. Cribb offers six key recommendations, some of them reasonable and realistic (work towards a sustainable global food system; make the next generation of children more food-aware), others sadly unlikely (reorient defence spending towards “peace through food” by investing in sustainability).

His call to “put women in charge of business, politics, government, religion, and society” – “the world now needs an Age of Women” – is disappointingly stereotyped and clumsy; “this isn’t an argument about feminism or gender equity”, he gratingly insists, but about how women “prefer to nurture, repair, preserve, heal, pacify, and educate”). The two most radical recommendations seem completely unworkable, replanning “all of the world’s cities” to make them sustainable and self-sufficient, and rewilding half the planet, to be overseen by “former farmers and indigenous peoples”. And while food undoubtedly has a key role in fomenting and fanning conflict, our angry age also shows the violent powers of ideology, nationalism, religion, and racism, even amongst those for whom food is plentiful.

Yet by grappling with big questions we too often choose to ignore, Cribb’s book does offer important food for thought. Putting questions about the future of humanity on the long finger is no longer a luxury we possess, nor is simply dismissing ideas whose ambition exceeds their grasp; the pace of climate change alone requires us to consider (and take) radical action now. Cribb quotes US president and second World War general Dwight Eisenhower’s observation that “I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”. Even if we don’t have the answers, we now have no choice but to question, think and plan.

Dr Christopher Kissane is the author of Food, Communities and Religion in Early Modern Europe (Bloomsbury, 2018)

Christopher Kissane

Dr Christopher Kissane, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a historian, writer and presenter of the Ireland's Edge podcast