Friday, March 4, 2011

Feeding People Is Easy review

Recently finished reading Colin Tudge's book Feeding People is Easy, a book about food security that offers a couple of focused ideas for reforming the world food system.

Feeding People is Easy is a bit different than most of the food security library I'm reading my way through. First off, it doesn't spend all its time on discussing what's wrong with the current food system. And that's good, because Raj Patel, Eric Schlosser, and Michael Pollan have really covered that aspect, and covered it well. Colin Tudge takes the approach that:
The world's most powerful governments, industries,and their attendant experts and intellectuals have their minds set on quite different goals, and are pulling in quite different directions--to a large extent completely opposite to what is really required. To be sure, the title of this book [Feeding People is Easy] is a little hyperbolic: the human population will reach nine billion by 2050 and it won't exactly be easy to feed everybody to the highest standards. Yet it should be well within our grasp. Indeed this goal is so obviously achievable that it would surely be extraordinarily remiss not to give it a try. In this book I will explain how. But the harder task by far is to by-pass the powers-that-be. To do what needs doing we have to re-invent democracy, or rather to make it work almost for the first time in the history of civilization, for the chief rule of democracy--that we should be able to get rid of our "leaders" when they cease to function on our behalf--has gone missing. "They" do not know how to run the world, but they do know how to hang on to power. In the last chapter, I will be addressing this, too. Revolution is not required. Renaissance is what's needed--and that is very achievable.
(page 13)
Tudge argues that our current inability to feed the world (according to Raj Patel, "There are 75 million people more undernourished now than in 2008") has nothing to do with the inhospitality of the earth, or some basic flaw in humankind, but that it has "everything to do with policy." That we do not feed everyone is a matter of decisions we have made--maybe not individually, but certainly in our political centres. These decisions are things like deciding to treat food as a commodity, and driving people off the land in order to "modernize" agriculture. "Real agriculture," argues Tudge, involves having people on the land growing crops.
The cause of all our troubles has almost nothing to do with the difficulties that nature presents us with. The fault lies almost entirely with policy and strategy: ideas and courses of action dreamed up by human beings. If we, humanity, analyzed our own problems more astutely and from first principles, and if we did things differently, then even at this late hour we could create a world that was good for everyone, and for all our fellow creatures, forever. We should certainly be thinking of the next 10,000 years, or indeed of the next million. There is no good biological reason why our species should not last at least that long. That we should be seriously doubting our ability to make the world safe even for our grandchildren is ludicrous.
(page 18)

Tudge argues, and argues quite convincingly, that the tools to deal with our problems lie in our ten-thousand-year agricultural history rather than solely in our modern <100-year-old industrial agriculture model. "Craft, too, is a vital and related concept. Crafts evolve: they represent the collective skills and knowledge of entire societies. They are by their nature democratic. Agriculture as practiced [sic] through all but the last few decades of the past 10,000 years has been a craft industry. Modern commercial scientists and the companies that employ them like to give the impression and perhaps believe that the world's farming was in a dreadful mess until they came along, beginning in the late nineteenth century but particularly in the mid twentieth, and rescued us. Again, the truth is quite opposite. Modern agricultural science has succeeded insofar as it seems to have done only because it had thousands of years of traditional craft to work with. By the time modern science came on the scene, wild plants and animals had already been tamed and re-fashioned and the fields made ready--not by university departments and teams of corporate scientists but by ordinary farmers, tackling life's problems; and before them by hunters and gatherers, who had worked out what is edible and compliant and what is downright dangerous." (page 32) But, more importantly, agriculture needs a strong democratic society to function properly. "If most people are as nice, and sensible, as I believe is demonstrably (and theoretically) the case, then it seems to follow that if only the will of the people at large could prevail, then the world should be a much better place. It boils down to democracy: a central task, indeed the sine qua non, is to make democracy work." (page 31) If we, as citizens, can decide on what makes sense, rather than the decisions being made only on the basis of what makes money, we would certainly have access to better quality food. After all, people have never asked that animals be tortured in order that we can have cheap burgers on call 24 hours a day, or that industrial food production facilities (still anachronistically called "farms) should become so large that they pollute rivers, damage the land, and, in the case of feedlotting, spawn fecal dust storms that we and our children then breathe. Colin Tudge offers up a possible solution to the impossible situation we find ourselves in. For the farmer and would-be farmers, he suggests a College of Enlightened Agriculture; an international conversation between farmers, environmental scientists, cooks, chefs, and people which pursues an evolving set of best practices in scaled-back agriculture. He then proposes a series of questions, the answers to which should be pursued. Not the least of these is the question "to what extent can all the various countries in the world truly become self-reliant in food?" It should be noted that Tudge says "self-reliant" rather than "self-sufficient." His feeling is that countries should pursue the ability to fed themselves, but that trade should remain in foods that cannot be grown everywhere (his example is bananas in Britain--which might be able to be grown, but only at absurd expense). Tudge also suggests that, rather than try and win a straight-ahead fight with the industrial food system, people should simply ignore it. There's nothing to be gained from a fight. Rather, we (pretty much everyone who eats) should begin forming cells in a Worldwide Food Club.

The Worldwide Food Club is conceived as a cooperative of people at large who really care about food--truly informed consumers--and of food providers who truly desire to supply it: producers--farmers and growers; and preparers--cooks, brewers, bakers, butchers, charcutiers, picklers, caterers, restaurateurs. The emphasis is on "cooperative". The club is not conceived simply as a consumer movement, putting pressure on providers to bring their prices down. It is not a cartel of providers, controlling what can be bought and gulling people into paying more, which is the modern supermarket way. It is a pact. The providers undertake to do what they do to the highest possible standard (which is what, in my experience, many truly desire to do); and the consumers who give a damn, undertake to supply them with a steady market, through thick and thin (which is what all providers in all fields need). [...] Anyone can join. The only requirement is a dedication to excellence--not simply in the food itself, but in the underlying morality: it matters how the food has been grown, and where, and by whom, and who profits by it.
(page 138)
Details are a little thin on the ground--something Tudge himself admits. But at the same time, many details are things that need to be worked out at a local level anyway. All in all, Colin Tudge has written a very accessible book which offers some real hope for those of us actually looking at the international food system.


  1. 9 billion people? Shouldn't we work on preventing that first of all? Our natural resources are insufficient as it is, given our current rates of consumption. Nor can we continue to feed that many people without the use of chemical fertilizers. I agree with his proposed changes in general, but aiming to feed 9 billion people is ludicrous. We need fewer people to make his model practical. Sorry, Bernie, I think this guy's an idealistic idiot.

  2. Well, we can already feed that many people without any real problem right now. We just can't afford to feed them like the developed world currently eats. Just like we can't afford to all consume at Canadian rates.
    The best thing we can do is to shrink the size of farms and put more people back to work. George Monbiot wrote about the inverse size-yield relationship on 10 June 2008:
    Though the rich world’s governments won’t hear it, the issue of whether or not the world will be fed is partly a function of ownership. This reflects an unexpected discovery. It was first made in 1962 by the Nobel economist Amartya Sen, and has since been confirmed by dozens of further studies. There is an inverse relationship between the size of farms and the amount of crops they produce per hectare. The smaller they are, the greater the yield.
    In some cases, the difference is enormous. A recent study of farming in Turkey, for example, found that farms of less than one hectare are twenty times as productive as farms of over ten hectares. Sen’s observation has been tested in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Malaysia, Thailand, Java, the Phillippines, Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay. It appears to hold almost everywhere.

    The solution seems to be land reform, more people working (instead of being pushed into the slums around the world), and a return to more traditional forms of agriculture. All of which are achievable--just not under the current political structures.

  3. I agree that we need land reform, more people working, and a return to more traditional forms of agriculture. I absolutely do not believe that we can feed six billion people without fossil fuel. I also think that the process of converting to alternative forms of energy is likely to be a bloody one, given that first world nations are incredibly wasteful of their natural resources but tend to see it as their right.

    However, I am thinking about a solution to this, and obviously you are too, which is fabulous. Governments won't stop their shortsighted ways of energy management till they are forced to.