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Davis, California

Friday, April 12, 2024

Feeding the beast

So apparently there’s a food crisis. The increased prices of staple foods such as corn (up 49 percent globally over 12 months), rice (up 75 percent) and wheat (up 130 percent)are wreaking havoc across the globe.

But, being a rich American capable of offsetting those increases, they don’t scare me. What does scare me is the global system of food production which underlies them.

The fact that this issue is being framed as a “food” crisis indicates the depth of the cultural problem we face: Biblical Dominionism. Dominionism is rarely invoked outright, but our culture’s resource gathering methods are rooted deep in that whole “subdue the earth,” “be fruitful and multiply” thing. What comes out of this is the notion that man and the environment are at odds with one another, and that the environment stifles human progress

One consequence of this paradigm is that it has long been assumed that the human population increases on its own, and that we need to produce more food to feed this growing population. Not quite.

Without food, people simply don’t exist; we literally are what we eat. So in our quest to produce ever more food to keep up with population growth, we have actually caused that population growth by increasing global food availability.

This is a problem. It’s a problem because our current system of agriculture runs a caloric deficit. That is, the energy used to fertilize, maintain, harvest, process, transport and sell food is more than the energy contained in the food itself. Two experts on the topic, DoctorsPimentel and Giampietro, have concluded that for every calorie we consume, ten calories were used to produce it. And the energy input per food calorie has been growing steadily since the ’40s, indicating a reduction in efficiency despite advances in technology.

At the base of this whole system is the Haber-process, which basically turnsnitrogengas into fertilizer. This fertilizer supports 40 percent of the world’s population. It’s also highly energy intensive, consuming four percent of the world’s natural gas production. And the price of fertilizer, which increased 200 percent in 2007, is tied inextricably to the cost of that gas.

Funny thing is, 64 percent of the world’s natural gas reserves are in the Middle East and Russia; Europe and North America hold only 8 percent. But Europe and especially North America feed most of the world, which means that the most unstable and unfriendly regions on earth control the basis of world food supplies. Awesome.

That said, we could get by on this kind of inefficiency and conflict of interest if the world population wasn’t so huge. But because we’ve applied industrialized capitalism to agriculture, we’ve fucked ourselves five ways from Sunday. The eternal expansion necessary for capitalism’s self-perpetuation will inevitably result in the complete resource depletion; in terms of raw materials, this really is a zero sum game.

Because of this, the profit motive in agriculture is the single most destructive force in the world today. It leads to ever increasing food supplies, which in turn create ever increasing demand, which creates ever increasing supplies, and so on. Each cycle in this positive feedback loop further degrades the environment and will eventually destroy earth’s ability to support civilization. That we have combined capitalism’s expansionist zeal with the one process that has the power to drive the human population to the point of complete resource exhaustion is suicidal.

The planet simply cannot support 6.6 billion people indefinitely, and at some point, we’re going to start running out of stuff. That’s already happening with oil, timber, fish, metals and other minerals. We need to remove the profit motive from agriculture as a means of decreasing the global population over the next few generations. Otherwise, we’re going to continue to see increasing commodity prices and resource scarcity fuel violent tribalism in poor countries, increasingly devastating resource wars between nations and global attrition on an apocalyptic scale.

If this scares you, it should.

And I haven’t even started talking about water.


K.C. CODY really, truly believes that a world population of 300 million (reached in six generations of single child families or one generation of continuous Bush foreign policy) would be about right. Disagree with him at kccody@ucdavis.edu.


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