The supply chain, too, is a futuristic marvel. You can walk into a store in most countries and buy fresh goods from all over the world. These supply chains even proved somewhat resistant to the chaos caused by the pandemic: while covid-19 lockdowns did lead to food shortages in some places, most of the empty shelves were the ones meant to hold toilet paper and cleaning products. Food supplies were more resilient than many expected.
But the mass industrialization of food and our ability to buy it has created an avalanche of unintended consequences. Cheap, bad calories have led to an obesity crisis that disproportionately affects the poor and disadvantaged. Intensive animal farming has increased greenhouse-gas emissions, since meat has a much larger carbon footprint than beans or grains.
The environment has taken a beating, too. Booms in fertilizer and pesticide use have polluted land and waterways, and the easy availability of water has led some dry parts of the world to use up their resources.
They haven’t industrialized, so they don’t grow much food, which means they can’t make much money, so they can’t invest in equipment, which means they can’t grow much food. The cycle continues.
In Perilous Bounty, the journalist Tom Philpott explores California’s agricultural future. The massive water projects drawing supplies into the Central Valley, for example, have helped it become one of the world’s most productive farming regions over the past 90 years, providing around a quarter of America’s food. But those natural aquifers are now under acute pressure, overused and running dry in the face of drought and climate change. Philpott, a reporter for Mother Jones, points to the nearby Imperial Valley in Southern California as an example of this folly. This “bone-dry chunk of the Sonoran desert” is responsible for producing more than half of America’s winter vegetables, and yet “in terms of native aquatic resources, the Imperial Valley makes the Central Valley look like Waterworld.” The valley is home to California’s largest lake, the 15-mile-long Salton Sea—famously so loaded with pollutants and salt that nearly everything in it has been killed off.
This isn’t going to get better anytime soon: what is happening in California is happening elsewhere. Cribb shows in Food or War exactly how the trend lines are pointing the wrong way. Today, he says, food production is already competing for water with urban and industrial uses. More people are moving to urban areas, accelerating the trend. If this continues, he says, the proportion of the world’s fresh water supply available for growing food will drop from 70% to 40%. “This in turn would reduce world food production by as much as one-third by the 2050s—when there will be over 9 billion mouths to feed—instead of increasing it by 60% to meet their demand.”
These are all bleak predictions of future hunger, but they don’t really explain starvation today. For that, we can look at a different unexpected aspect of the 20th-century farming revolution: the fact that it didn’t happen everywhere.
Just as healthy calories are hard to come by for those who are poor, the industrialization of farming is unevenly distributed. First Western farmers were catapulted into hyper-productivity, then the nations touched by the Green Revolution. But progress stopped there. Today, a hectare of farmland in sub-Saharan Africa produces just 1.2 metric tons of grain each year; in the US and Europe the equivalent land yields up to eight metric tons. This is not because farmers in poorer regions lack the natural resources, necessarily (West Africa has long been a producer of cotton), but because they are locked into a cycle of subsistence. They haven’t industrialized, so they don’t grow much food, which means they can’t make much money, so they can’t invest in equipment, which means they can’t grow much food. The cycle continues.
This problem is exacerbated in places where the population is growing faster than the amount of food (nine of the world’s 10 fastest-growing countries are in sub-Saharan Africa). And it can be increased by sudden poverty, economic collapse, or conflict, as in Oxfam’s hot spots. While these are the places where the World Food Program steps in to alleviate immediate pain, it also doesn’t solve the problem. But then, their economic plight is not an accident.
A disaster for farmers worldwide
In September 2003, a South Korean farmer named Lee Kyung Hae attended protests against the World Trade Organization, which was meeting in Mexico. Lee was a former union leader whose own experimental farm had been foreclosed in the late 1990s. In an essay in the collection Bite Back (2020), Raj Patel and Maywa Montenegro de Wit recount what happened next.
As demonstrators clashed with police, they explain, Lee climbed the barricades with a sign reading “WTO! Kills. FARMERS” hanging around his neck. On top of the fence, “he flipped open a rusty Swiss Army knife, stabbed himself in the heart, and died minutes later.”
Lee was protesting the effects of free trade, which has been a disaster for many farmers worldwide. The reason farmers in less industrialized nations can’t make much money isn’t just that they have low crop yields. It’s also that their markets are flooded with cheaper competition from overseas.
Take sugar. After the Second World War, Europe’s sugar-beet growers were subsidized by their national governments to help ravaged countries get back on their feet. That worked, but once industrialization kicked in and production levels reached the stratosphere, they had an excess. The answer was to export that food, but the subsidies had the effect of artificially lowering prices: British sugar farmers could sell their goods in global markets and undercut the competition. This was good news for Europeans, but terrible news for sugar producers like Zambia. Farmers were locked into subsistence, or decided to turn away from the foods that they were naturally able to produce in favor of other products.
Powerful nations continue to subsidize their farmers and distort global markets even as the WTO has forced weaker countries to drop protections. In 2020, the US spent $37 billion on such subsidies, a number that has ballooned under the last two years of the Trump administration. Europe, meanwhile, spends $65 billion each year.
Patel and Montenegro point out that much of the populist political chaos of recent years has been a result of the trade turmoil—industrial jobs lost to outsourcing, and rural protests in the US and Europe by people angry at the prospect of rebalancing a deck that has been stacked in their favor for decades.
We have built systems that don’t just widen the gap between rich and poor but make the distance unassailable.
Donald Trump, they write, “was never honest about ditching free trade,” but “the social power he stirred up in the Heartland was real. Invoking the abominations of outsourced jobs, rural depression, and lost wages, he tapped in to neoliberal dysfunction and hitched the outrage to authoritarian rule.”
All this leaves us with a bleak picture of what’s next. We have built systems that don’t just widen the gap between rich and poor but make the distance unassailable. Climate change, competition for resources, and urbanization will produce more conflict. And economic inequality, both at home and abroad, means the numbers of hungry people are more likely to rise than fall.
A golden age, but not for everyone
So are there any answers? Can starvation ever be ended? Can we head off the approaching food and water wars?
The countless books about the food system over the past few years make it clear: solutions are easy to lay out and extraordinarily complicated to enact.
First steps might include helping farmers in poor countries out of the trap they are in by enabling them to grow more food and sell it at competitive prices. Such a strategy would mean not only providing the tools to modernize—such as better equipment, seed, or stock—but also reducing the tariffs and subsidies that make their hard work so unsustainable (the WTO has attempted to make progress on this front). The World Food Program, for all its plaudits, needs to be part of that kind of answer—not just an org chart plugging hungry mouths with emergency rations, but a force that helps rebalance this off-kilter system.
And food itself needs to be more environmentally sound, employing fewer tricks that increase yields at the expense of the wider ecology. No more farming oases set up in bone-dry deserts; no more Salton Seas.This is difficult, but climate change may force us to do some of it regardless.
All of this means recognizing that the golden age of farming wasn’t a golden age for everybody, and that our future may look different from what we have become used to. If so, that future might be better for those who go hungry today, and maybe for the planet as a whole. It may be hard to reckon with, but our spectacular global food system isn’t what will stop people from starving—it’s exactly why they starve in the first place.