Famine and conflict over food have been driving forces for as long as humans have lived on the planet. A new book called Food or War, by Julian Cribb, chronicles thousands of years of human history surrounding the quest for food and its violent consequences. Yet such tales aren’t restricted to the past.
Indeed, the 21st century has set the proverbial stage where imminent starvation is likely to lead to war. Three main issues bind food and conflict almost inseparably in the contemporary world:
- famine/ food insecurity, from any combination of natural or human-made causes (including deliberate and unintentional acts), leading to conflict
- food deprivation as an overt weapon of politics or conflict
- food insecurity/ famine resulting from conflict but potentially spawning further confrontations
Food is a trigger for war today because emerging scarcities of fresh water, topsoil, and fertilizer, combined with the increasing impacts of climate change on resource availability and regional food production, pose the greatest threat to our food supply — in all of history. Cribbs argues, “There has never been a situation faced by the entire human population at one time to compare with today’s.”
Cribbs may not be alone in the thesis that grounds Food or War. In 2016 the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that to feed the human population in the 2050s will require a 60% increase in food production — and supplying demand will entail an expansion of 20% in global water use. Part of the reason why is that the world’s lakes and inland seas are drying up from damming their feeder rivers, over-extraction of their water, climate change, industrial and agricultural pollution, overfishing, deforestation, feral pests, and acidification due to air pollution. Satellite studies by NASA have revealed that 1/3 of the world’s major groundwater basins are now rated ‘in distress.’
To add to the earth’s water problem is the planet’s land degradation. Fertile soil is being lost at the rate of 24-40 billion tons per year. Land degradation takes the form of erosion by wind and floodwater, destruction and over-cleaning of forests, nutrient depletion from year of over-cropping and poor fertilizer practices, the spread of acid soils, loss of soil structure by heavy machinery, poor irrigation practices, contamination by agricultural and industrial chemicals and plastics, poorly designed urban development, local extinctions of animals and plants that leads to a breakdown in the biotic systems that support life on earth — the list is quite long. How much time do you/ we have?
The Future of Agriculture: Lower Vulnerability & Greater Benefits
A 2019 report, “Food in the Anthropocene: Healthy Diets From Sustainable Food Systems,” considered current food production and consumption trends in terms of not only planet-warming emissions but also cropland and freshwater use, nitrogen and phosphorus cycling, and species extinction. Without action such as is indicated in the report, the world risks failing to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement, and today’s children will inherit a planet that has been severely degraded and where much of the population will increasingly suffer from malnutrition and preventable disease.
“The food we eat and how we produce it determines the health of people and the planet, and we are currently getting this seriously wrong,” declared Tim Lang, a co-author of the EAT-Lancet Commission and professor at City, University of London. “We need a significant overhaul, changing the global food system on a scale not seen before in ways appropriate to each country’s circumstances.”
Food or War author Cribbs outlines how the modern industrial food system is a major contributor to this universal web of toxicity that “will entrap and poison the human species, our descendants, and the environment they live in for centuries to come.” This web hardly existed 3 generations ago and didn’t exist at all prior to the age of fossil fuels and industrial chemistry.
Think of it. in 1900 there were 13 million tons of carbon in human form, and, by 2000, there were 55 million tons. Add to that the vast quantities of domestic animals on which humans depend for diet, and their combined tonnage rises to more that twice that of humanity. If we change the direction of the statistical analysis to encompass the percentage shares of all vertebrates on the planet by weight, 2/3 are livestock, 1/3 are human, and the smallest of percentages — only 3% — are wildlife.
We have subsumed the planet’s biodiversity and now are destroying the very habitat on which we depend to survive.
Our pattern of replacing traditional varieties and indigenous species with genetically uniform, high-yielding, modern cultivars puts the focus on quantity, not farming sustainability or nutritional quality. The narrowing of the genetic base of the modern food supply, Cribbs contends, solely to meet the profit-driven needs of industrial food companies, is “escalating the risk of harvest failures and livestock plagues, especially in unsettled climatic times.”
Reading Food or War outside a Classroom
Chapter 1 of Food or War discusses historic events surrounding food acquisition. Informative, dry like a college textbook, the chapter lacks the teaser necessary to draw in a 21st century audience. We learn about China’s military patterns 2500 years ago to “steal food from the enemy so you have enough food to eat as well.” We wake up a bit to hear that, since the 1850s, of the 200 million people who have perished in wars between nation-states, over half have died of hunger.
The narrative shift to a bit of science about starvation starts to reel in the reader. Starvation, it seems, has 2 components. The first is a lack of energy needed by the body to perform its normal tasks. The second is a lack of nutrients essential in a balanced diet, so that a person can eat food containing enough energy but still starve due to a lack of vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients. The physical and psychological components of starvation lead to conflict and unnecessary deaths.
Chapter 2 offers a spark to the reader to engage in self-awareness thinking strategies. It outlines the broad categories into which food wars fall.
- Mass starvation as a result of the depredation of armies of the civilian population
- Mass starvation as a causative factor in civil war and regime change
- Mass starvation as a result of the destruction and displacement of farming populations, usually for ideological or religious reasons
- Mass starvation as a result of the denial of food sources to civilians by military action
- Deliberate weaponization of food as a bludgeon of military strategy
The rest of the book settles into an easy and appealing rhetorical pattern that has a very different flow than the first couple of date-and-data-laden chapters.
Want to know why current agricultural practices aren’t sustainable? Or reasons why we shouldn’t eat meat? Look at Chapter 4. Want to know the hotspots for food conflict upcoming in our century? That’s Chapter 5. Chapter 6 zooms in on food as an existential risk, while Chapter 7 takes the opposite approach, chronicling ways that food can become a mechanism for peace. Chapter 8 moves from urban dreams to nightmares, discussing opposites like nutrient crises and urban permaculture.
The age of good — ecological farming, aquafoods, biocultures — reaches a peak in Chapter 9, and the final Chapter 10 offers 6 key recommendations.
- Develop a sustainable, nourishing, and resilient global food system suited to conditions in the 21st century.
- Replan all cities so they recycle; have a sustainable, climate-proof, year-round source of food; and, are truly green.
- Reallocate 20% of world defense to peace through food.
- Rewild half the planet in a movement led by small farmers, former farmers, and indigenous peoples.
- Raise a new generation of food-aware children who understand how to eat healthily and sustainably.
- Put women in charge of business, politics, government, religion, and society for the sake of human civilization and its survival in this century of its greatest peril.
Occasionally a tough slog, Food or War offers us the context we need to consider the food we eat, the approach we use to raise food, and the manner we treat others’ resources across the globe in new, revealing, and common sense ways.