The coming food crisis and how to respond to it

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The food system is beginning to enter a major crisis. And, it seems, it has only just begun. A 180-degree turnaround is needed for the food system to adapt to the critical situations we are already experiencing, and some that are yet to come and are already in sight for anyone who dares to look.

A few days ago, India banned wheat exports, and the price immediately shot up. Indonesia, by far the largest producer and exporter of palm oil, has also done the same with its flagship product for more than a month. In total, 23 countries have already introduced protectionist measures for the food sector, and just as many have done the same for fertilizers. This is a trend that has every chance of increasing in the post-war world of Ukraine, which will not be the same world.

Nor can we count much anymore on two of the major grain and fertilizer producers, namely Ukraine and Russia, at least as long as the ongoing conflict continues. And these are just some of the most flagrant cases, but there are many more. But let no one be deceived, the situation had been brewing since long before the Russian invasion and the main reasons are neither warlike nor circumstantial.

They are mainly energetic and permanent. Systemic.

In fact, the food system is a complex system, and the dynamics of these systems make them susceptible to disruptions that spread throughout the chain. A butterfly effect collapse cannot be ruled out in the medium term throughout the food chain.

We eat fossil fuels.

And not only because they are needed to transport or refrigerate both food and the materials needed in the stressed supply chain, but also because, directly, part of the fossil fuels we extract are also used in the production of pesticides and, above all, fertilizers for "modern agriculture". About one third of all the energy used in the agricultural sector is used for the manufacture of inorganic fertilizers.

If the price of energy goes up, so does the price of fertilizers, transportation and almost all production processes. Ergothe escalation of food prices is inevitable, and that is why the FAO anticipates a global food crisis worse than that of 2011 this year. All this without taking into account the speculation of the financial markets, always as intelligent and opportune in the allocation of resources as they have been to date.

The world's granaries are drying up.

We have become completely dependent on substances that have greatly increased agricultural yields, but which in turn degrade farmland and rely on a continuous and ever-increasing injection of energy - increasingly scarce - that is literally thrown and scattered on the ground. The misnamed "green revolution," which was actually black - raw color - led us to believe that we could leave the specter of hunger behind forever, a dream from which we may awaken abruptly with real nightmares.

The intoxication that the energy abundance of the fossil era has produced has led us to alter the metabolism of the Earth system. We changed the trophic balance of our planet, we took over the essential biogeochemical cycles (of nitrogen, phosphorus, water) so that the Earth could serve us, perched on immense mountains of energy. It did not matter that we broke the balance, it did not matter that we poisoned its metabolism.

We did not see that agriculture had become dependent on mining and other extractive activities. In other words, that the world's food supply depends in turn on a hyper-complex chain and the supply of other, even more limited resources. And that it had therefore become totally vulnerable to scarcity and depletion. We have turned something as intimate and sacred as farming into an activity of mining, extraction and destruction.

All this leads us to a critical situation, in which the price increase is practically inevitable, and is caused by several factors. The stupidest and easiest to solve is to put a stop to speculation with something as sacred as food. The others, energy, thermodynamic, due to the consequences of the war, are much more difficult to avoid.

We are heading towards a situation in which many countries in North Africa, which were dependent on cereal crops from Eastern Europe, will suffer more than other countries, which will be able to endure better simply with high inflation. But in others we will be talking about deaths and famine. Maybe this very winter it could get out of control, it will depend on how we get there.

It is important to introduce a crucial nuance here: although the recipes vary according to the different contexts, there is something that is very obvious and that should be applied in all countries, on a different scale. A maxim: civilizational triage obliges us to support what is essential and abandon what is superfluous.

Agri-food systems must mutate to agroecology without delay, but not overnight. Recently in Sri Lanka - a country that was relatively comfortable a short time ago and is experiencing a collapse - it has been proven that this can be a bad idea.

The recipes of permaculture are essential, of proximity agriculture, of kilometer 0. These ideas are the basis to make the right triage towards a better society that can really sustain itself. Water, food, health, education, all these goods and services are essential and must be maintained at all costs. There are many other goods and services that are not so essential and clearly need to see their consumption and impact reduced.

And this cannot be done without planning. In fact, one of the reasons why the system is so rotten is because it has been left to the "free market" to run it. That, in addition to other contradictions, is not very free when the most powerful hands set the pace. It is necessary to look for planning recipes to address this crossroads in which more and more problems come to remind us that our planet has limits. And hunger is the limit, the definitive frontier, between chaos and order.

About the Author

Juan Bordera

Journalist and content creator.

May 24, 2022 — Juan Bordera

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