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Can we count on our food supply?

Can we count on our food supply?

Globe and Mail, Monday, June 7, 2004 - Page A19

Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute has once again warned of looming food scarcity: Measured against consumption, there's just 59 days' worth of grain, according to some reports. "The chances of farmers digging their way out of this hole are less than one in 10," he says.

This has been a refrain of environmentalists since the 1972 warning by Club of Rome scientists that finite resources in a growing world will lead to collapse. Does the recent series of poor harvests mean impending disaster?

It's important to be wary of single scary numbers like "59 days of food supply." Harvests in Northern and Southern hemispheres replenish stores at least twice a year, and politics determines who holds stocks.

It may be more sobering to note that only a few days' supply are in cities at any moment. Food is in constant motion across the globe. Any change in transport, such as fuel prices, immediately affects prices. Breakdown would be disastrous.

Panic isn't warranted -- but concern is. Agriculture has fed an increasing population -- so far. Industrial agriculture was pioneered in North America and exported to the world. But in the past 50 years, for the first time since agriculture began, a minority of the world's population works on farms. Big changes have taken place in how humans use the earth and how we eat.

More than half the world's agricultural land suffers moderate to extreme soil degradation. Climate change will certainly make yields unpredictable in future, if not already. Grain supplies may not keep up, even as population growth levels off.

More people in the global South are adopting meat-intensive diets. In Canada, animals eat more than three-quarters of all grain consumed (not counting exports). China feed animals less than one-quarter of its grain. It takes 1,000 times as much water to produce a pound of beef as it does a pound of wheat.

Critics of Mr. Brown's position can argue that apart from war zones, more people have food than ever before. The World Health Organization recently proclaimed obesity to be a global epidemic, not just for rich countries or privileged consumers. Diabetes and coronary heart disease are skyrocketing in parts of the global South, even as the worst deficiencies shrink.

Shouldn't we celebrate a "nutrition transition" that has caused problems of underconsumption to be replaced by problems of overconsumption?

Instead of criticizing or defending Mr. Brown's position, let's take two angles on the complex challenge for the global food system to feed the world.

First is global sourcing and marketing. U.K. food analyst Tim Lang created "food miles" as a unit to measure how far food moves before it reaches the kitchen table. Costs of sea freight have fallen 70 per cent since 1980, and air freight falls 3- to 4-per-cent a year, so it's profitable for many countries to export and import the same product. Canada exports 98,000 tons and imports 54,000 tons of milk, which 50 years ago would all have been local.

It may seem less absurd to import fruits and vegetables to cold countries. Yet one kilogram of asparagus sent from Chile to New York takes 73 kg of fuel energy and contributes 4.7 kg of carbon dioxide to global warming.

FoodShare Toronto, in a study by Stephen Bentley, compared foodmiles travelled by similar items at the Dufferin Grove farmer's market and across the street at the Dufferin Mall No-Frills supermarket. The study compared pears shipped 5,887 kilometres from Washington via Los Angeles to the ones that came 58 km from Milton, Ont., and lamb chops that travelled 72 km from Flamborough to Dufferin Grove Park with those that made a 13,882-km. journey from New Zealand to Dufferin Mall. The foodmiles average of the supermarket items was more than 5,000 times greater than the same items in the farmer's market. The study calculated energy used and greenhouse-gas emissions, depending on how food was transported, and found the imports to be on average almost 400 times greater.

A second novel characteristic of the food system is changing diets. Diseases of overconsumption, such as gout, once afflicted kings who could afford "rich" food -- fatty food from expensive meat and butter -- in huge quantities. Now a 99-cent burger is about the cheapest meal around in Canada because the price doesn't include ecological or health costs.

In the 19th century, farm products passed through the industrial system that created white bread and canned goods. Now, a few corporations invent the tens of thousands of edible commodities on supermarket shelves.

Along with animal products, this is the reason that fats and sugars account for more than one- third of the calories eaten daily in North America, but less than 10 per cent of calories consumed each day in China.

Why should people trade too few calories for diets causing chronic disease?

It is what we have done in rich countries, and now our health systems are suffering from the crushing weight of helping people live with diabetes, heart disease and the rest.

Nutritionists are beginning to argue that low- and middle-income countries can skip this phase if they learn from our mistakes, as well as our successes. If they promote diets high in fresh fruits and vegetables, they'll save a lot of stress on agriculture and health services.

Whether or not food is about to run low for everyone, some changes would increase the quality of life in rich and poor countries alike. Healthy eating is one; eating local foods is another. And to ensure local food is available, let's protect our richest farmland from being used for gravel pits and monster homes.

Harriet Friedmann is a professor of sociology specializing in analysis of food systems, with the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto.