To Reform Our Destructive Global Food System, We’ll Need to Tackle Inequality

We are producing more food than at any other time in human history, yet millions of people around the world are starving. The global food system is broken.

Women at work transplanting seedlings in a rice field on the Malabar Coast in the southwest of India, circa 1960. (Three Lions / Getty Images)

The question of how we can guarantee that the world’s population is able to feed itself in the present and the future is among the most urgent challenges human beings face. Given how we are currently performing, there is plenty of reason to be concerned about the fate of the world’s poorest people.

Right now, 345 million people, or 4 percent of the world’s population, are facing starvation — the possibility of death because of not having enough to eat. The core problem is our broken food system, which has led to a situation where, despite food production being more than enough to feed everyone, millions of people are facing starvation.

It is likely that climate change will only worsen this situation. It has already led to substantial reductions in yields of major crops. Droughts, storms, floods, pests, and diseases will threaten food security around the world.

The food systems problem is made even more complex and difficult to address by the fact that they are themselves among the biggest causes of climate change. A third of total global greenhouse gas emissions come from our food system. In the not-so-distant future, we will have to produce more food and do it in a way that is more sustainable.

This is the theme of a vital new book, Regenesis, by the British journalist and environmental activist George Monbiot. He has taken an enormously complex subject, conducted painstaking research, and written a highly readable book.

Beneath Our Feet

In the first few chapters of his book, Monbiot describes what is wrong with the way food is produced — the loss of forests, the very long-term damage to soil, the greenhouse gas emissions and the fragility of the food systems. He then sets out to propose some solutions to the complex problems while recognizing that there is perhaps no single silver bullet. The central idea of the book is that unless we can make our food systems far more efficient than they are, the future is bleak.

The first chapter describes in forensic detail the many wonders of soil, which most of us, to his displeasure, “treat like dirt.” Even though human beings have come to believe that we are the center of the universe, Monbiot is quick to remind us that we aren’t. Soil, like most things in the universe, doesn’t exist for our benefit.

“It is not trying to help us grow food. Like all complex, self-organized systems, it seeks its own equilibrium.” And we need to stop destroying that equilibrium, as we do in modern industrial agriculture, even if only for our benefit.

It is hard to disagree with Monbiot on this point. Soil erosion and degradation are some of the key challenges we face as a civilization even if we hear remarkably little about them. About 40 percent of our planet’s land is already degraded. The United Nations has warned that if we continue on our current path, 90 percent of soil could be degraded by 2050.

Making a Just Transition

“Farming,” Monbiot tells us, “is the world’s greatest cause of habitat destruction, the greatest cause of the global loss of wildlife, and the greatest cause of the global extinction crisis.” He outlines how farming has contributed to deforestation, the decline in the population of animals, and the increasing risk of extinction for thousands of species. Farming, Monbiot argues, uses too much water, too much land, too much fertilizer, and too many pesticides.

He details how “agricultural sprawl” threatens forests, habitats, and wildlife. He is particularly critical of livestock farming, which, he says, is one of the biggest reasons that farming occupies too much land — including what were once forests and rich biodiverse ecosystems.

While the concerns he raises about livestock farming are important to address, pastoralism simply cannot be wished away, especially not in the Global South. That is one of the issues that Jyoti Fernandes of the UK-based Landworkers’ Alliance has raised in an open letter to Monbiot that takes issue with some of Regenesis’s key arguments. She argues that the book does not adequately recognize how vital livestock is for millions in the developing world. Lives, livelihoods, and food security are inextricably linked to livestock.

I find myself agreeing with Fernandes. Even if pastoralism is terrible for the planet, those engaged in it need to be able to find alternative forms of employment, much like those involved in coal mining, for instance. And like most of the people doing the actual coal mining, pastoralists are also some of the poorest people in the world. The transition away from coal or away from meat has to be just and cannot make the poorest worse off.

In the second half of the book, Monbiot offers his solutions to the problems he has laid out in the first. Recognizing the scale of the challenges we face he shies away from neat, simple, one-size-fits-all solutions because they simply does not exist, as yet.

Along the way Monbiot does some vital myth busting. “Eating local,” he clarifies, does not necessarily lead to a lower carbon footprint. If your choice of meal is a locally sourced steak, as opposed to a bowl of greens and beans sourced from even a thousand of miles away, then you are not really going green.

Similarly, the idea that the “grazing revolution” — which will be familiar to anyone who has watched the Netflix documentary Kiss the Ground — will somehow undo soil erosion, restore lush green lands, and even reverse climate change is another myth getting in the way of serious responses to the environmental crisis. Scientists have long pointed out that these ideas have no scientific basis and that research, in fact, points in the opposite direction.

Monbiot does bring up organic farming but treads carefully. He notes that while there are several benefits of organic farming, there are also many pitfalls — the most glaring being a reduction in yields.

The most striking illustration of this problem came last year when Sri Lanka’s government implemented a hurried plan to make all of their farming organic almost overnight. The results were disastrous for the country’s farmers, who saw their livelihoods destroyed. It also massively reduced yields of crops that the country had previously been a net exporter of. What this experiment made clear, however, was that proponents of organic farming must be yield conscious.

Furthermore, Monbiot explains that organic farming at scale would mean that we use more land to grow the same amount of food. This would entail a move in the wrong direction, because the conundrum that we have to solve is how to grow more food on less land.

And if we were to go organic, it would need “most of us to abandon cities, resettle villages, dismantle central animal feeding operations, and bring all animals back to farms to use them for labor and as sources of manure,” as the veteran scientist Vaclav Smil notes in his recent book, How the World Really Works.

Clearly, organic farming isn’t going to cut it. Its carbon footprint isn’t even necessarily lower than conventional farming, Monbiot points out. Here is once again where he has received some criticism from Fernandes. She argues that Monbiot has gone overboard in dismissing organic farming and agroecology and that his techno-optimism — his faith in plant-based and lab-grown meats, for instance — is misplaced.

Although it is clear that Monbiot shouldn’t entirely dismiss organic farming (and I didn’t get the impression that he does), Fernandes should also not entirely dismiss the possibilities that cheap plant-based meat could open up. To deal with the crisis that we’re facing, we will need all the solutions that we can get.

In the next section of his book, Monbiot meets some maverick farmers who are attempting different ways of producing food while maintaining the yields of conventional farming and doing so in ways that are less ecologically damaging.

This is the weakest part of the book. The methods discussed in this chapter do not appear to be very convincing or scalable. They are perhaps privileges that only a few farmers in the Global North can afford. To his credit, Monbiot recognizes this and tells his reader, “If you are looking for easy answers, you’ve come to the wrong place.”

There is one solution that you will find laced throughout the book — veganism. Monbiot is a vegan himself. He says that if everyone in the world switched entirely to plant-based diets, that would reduce the amount of land needed for farming by 76 percent while also greatly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But, again, Monbiot is careful, as he has to be. He recognizes that while the number of vegans has been increasing in the developed world, as incomes rise the number of meat eaters is increasing far more rapidly in the developing world. From the point of view of climate justice, one can’t simply demand that people in the Global South give up meat.

These issues will become more and more critical as time passes and climate change worsens. But, even today, a key challenge that faces much of the developing world is malnutrition, which is in large part an outcome of how the global food system is organized.

Despite the fact that global production of food is enough to feed 1.5 times the current world population, millions cannot afford enough. As the economist Amartya Sen has shown, famines in the modern world don’t happen because there isn’t enough food; they happen because people cannot afford the food. A large part of the reason why people go hungry is the price of food and the unequal distribution of wealth and incomes.

For instance, look at what has happened with the price of wheat — a crop that is among the most important for global food security. Just this year, between January and May, its price shot up by more than 60 percent. While a part of the reason was uncertainties thrown up by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that wasn’t all.

An investigation that I was a part of revealed that a large part of the reason was excessive speculation by investors in the commodities derivatives market. In the Paris wheat market in April, seven out of ten wheat contracts were held by those who had no interest in the commodity itself. These included investment funds that had bought the contract with the idea of selling it in the future for a higher price. In other words, they were betting on hunger.

Another part of the problem is what foods our food system produces. The handful of massive corporations that control it ensure that the system produces not what is best for our diets but what is best for their bottom lines.

A 2018 paper, for example, took a balanced diet recommended by the Harvard School of Public Health and asked what would need to change for the world’s food production to be based on that diet. It found that we produce far too much sugar, whole grains, and fats than we need, while not producing nearly enough vegetables and fruits.

That is why a balanced and healthy diet is more expensive than an unbalanced and unhealthy diet. Malnutrition, as a paper focusing on India found, is more closely related to the quality of food than quantity. That has given rise to, as Monbiot also points out, the paradoxical situation where in developing countries obesity is growing together with malnutrition.

There is yet another paradox here. The food that is better for our diets — millets and pules rather than wheat and rice — is generally better for our planet too. Yet these foods are more expensive because of the way our food system is organized. For example, food companies charge a premium for certain millets by packaging them as “superfoods,” as if news of their nutritional benefits has only just been discovered.

In reality, these foods have been part of the traditional diets of many cultures around the world for centuries. Given that a balanced diet is also better for the planet, modern agriculture should have its hands on a potential win-win situation.

The problem is that our food system is so invested in the status quo that we continue to produce far too much of foods that are not good for our bodies — and our planet — and far too little that is. This problem is worsened by how unequally wealth and income are distributed around the world and the fact that inequality is only increasing.

The result is that billions around the world cannot afford a nutritious diet and millions cannot afford an adequate intake of food. Food systems, then, need a radical overhaul. The governing focus of this overhaul needs to be ensuring that everyone in the world can afford to eat regularly and healthily and that this is done in a way that is sustainable. The great strength of Monbiot’s book is that he has made clear the urgency of this task. For solutions that directly address the unequal distribution of wealth, we will have to look elsewhere.

This work has been made possible by the support of the Puffin Foundation.

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Kabir Agarwal is an independent journalist from India who writes about political economy, climate change, livelihoods, and food security. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Washington Post, and South China Morning Post. He writes the Unequal newsletter and hosts the Unequal podcast.

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