The world’s intensive food production and the resulting resource depletion may quickly lead us into serious crises. Something must be done about it.

The earth’s population is growing, and the increase of wealth means that more and more people desire a better diet. As a result, the world needs more and more food, a challenge we have been able to meet so far because technological advances have provided increasingly more effective ways of exploiting natural resources. Today there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone, we’re just not very good at distributing it. Below this calm surface of intensive food production, however, the looming threat of resource depletion and changes to the natural environment threatens to plunge us into serious food crises. The critical question is: What do we do about it?

Resilience and adaptation

The question forms the starting point for Lisa Palmer’s book Hot, Hungry Planet. The Fight to Stop a Global Food Crisis in the Face of Climate Change. In Palmer’s book, the solution is to be found neither in monocultural industrial production nor in a one-dimensional drive towards small-scale local food production. Instead she assumes that the challenges are both varied and complex, and that the required solutions will be equally complex. The overarching goal must be to develop a global food system that is resilient – that is to say, robust and elastic, and therefore resistant in times of crisis – and ecologically sustainable.

All food production relies on human intervention in nature and our exploitation of its resources. In addition to this, we need to take into account that the food system as a whole is not solely about producing food, but also about its processing, distribution and consumption. All these aspects must be considered, and for every sequence we include must be added whole a range of new factors which contribute to further complexity. To meet this complexity, we need different forms of knowledge, both within every field and across different disciplines.

Optimistic angle

Palmer is a journalist, and the book is structured around stories about people, organizations and states that are all looking for better solutions. We are presented to young African women who via educational programmes have taught themselves to exploit limited resources better, and who as a result have become resourceful leaders for a positive trend in society. We encounter agriculturalists in South Africa who have developed new and better ways of exploiting the soil, so that yields increase while the natural environment is improved.

We’re introduced to climate-smart villages in India and are told about the determined work underway there to find solutions that can meet the rising demand for palm oil without devastating even more of the rainforest. We are led into a complex field where new and more robust types of food and food production are being developed, with or without the use of GMO. We learn more about the complex interplay between the destruction of the natural environment, decreasing fish stocks and unfortunate social mechanisms, and about ongoing efforts to see demographics, health and environment in context.

All these stories share a common theme. On the one hand, it’s about a global climate and natural environment that is clearly out of balance, and therefore about the danger posed by both local and global food crises. On the other, we encounter a socially liberal development optimism, anchored in the interplay between individuals with the power to shape new solutions, the political will to lead the development in a right direction and the existence of economic incentives stimulating the choice of solutions that will yield the greatest returns over time.

The role of water

One of the book’s chapters is devoted to water scarcity. California and Syria serve as examples; they are both reliant on the pumping of groundwater, which in turn has created a ticking time bomb undermining their agriculture. Syria is seen as an illustration of how water scarcity can create shock effects, spark conflicts and potentially lead to the collapse of entire societies. The problem is not only drought, but also the lack of capacity (or will) to regulate water usage. The critical question is whether the same will happen to California or other places. Are we underestimating the explosive dangers that come with climate change? The global food system is subjected to an increasing pressure of drought, flooding, extreme heat and forest fires.

In today’s world, an ever more comprehensive global trade in food is taking place; a virtue of necessity, but at the same time a source of new challenges. How often do we consider the fact that countries exporting a lot of food, by doing so, are simultaneously sending away enormous amounts of water? Linda Palmer sheds light on this, too – but a bigger problem is that the intensive trade entices local producers to increase yields further through the use of monocultural farming, pesticides, artificial watering and manipulated seeds. The combination of such practices tends to increase production in the short term while undermining sustainability in the long term.

Multifaceted – and one-sided

The future needs different strategies. These can revolve around increasing consciousness of the value of diversity over uniformity and establishing better practices aimed at leading the development towards a sustainable direction. More integrated approaches, in which different factors are contextualised and food production and nature are harmoniously interlinked is what is needed to secure a balanced, sustainable food system.

Hot, Hungry Planet contains a wide spectre of themes. For good and bad, the book is characterised by the fact that Palmer is a journalist, not a scientist. The stories are often presented somewhat uncritically, suggesting that the interpretations and opinions promoted by Palmer are incontestably correct. For example, she states that GMO should neither be met with blind resistance nor enthusiastic approval. We should consider every variant of genetical manipulation and pragmatically consider the pros and cons. It is tempting to agree to this argument, but Palmer would have lent it greater force if she had elaborated more on what those opposed to her views actually think.

This one-sidedness is similarly apparent in the book’s examples of individuals or organizations that have achieved success. Is it really a given that the measures they have taken are entirely beneficial, both in the past, present and future? How can we know that the cases examined by Palmer are representative? Could it be that she only introduces us to the exceptions, whereas the overall pattern suggests something different? It’s worth keeping these questions in the back of your mind as you read along, although the book as a whole is undoubtedly well worth reading both for its own merits and as a starting point for further debate.

Syria is seen as an illustration of how water scarcity can create shock effects, spark conflicts and potentially lead to the collapse of entire societies.