Consumed: Food For a Finite Planet by Sarah Elton
Published 2013 by The University of Chicago Press 348 pages
‘The food system as we know it was assembled in a few decades- and if it can be built that quickly, it can be reassembled and improved in the same amount of time.’
The Australian Bureau of Statistics website has a Population Clock that at the time of writing shows an overall population increase in Australia of one person every one minute and 18 seconds. United Nations data estimates that by 2050 the population of Australia will be over 34 million and the world population will be more than 9 billion. The Economist just released a data visualisation about urbanisation and the rise of the megacity.
The predicted explosion in world population is one reason I’m reading Consumed: Food For a Finite Planet. A less apocalyptic reason is that it is a joy to read. Elton, who wrote Locavore: From Farmer’s Fields to Rooftop Gardens, writes brilliantly. Consumed is engaging, bloody interesting and drenched in scientific fact. The book asks the question, ‘How will we feed ourselves in 2050?’ and answers it by exploring topics such as population, industrial agriculture, loss of farmland, greenhouse gases, seed sovereignty and organic systems across France, India, China, Canada, Australia, Lebanon, Cambodia, Norway and more.
Consumed is divided into 3 parts Soil, Seeds, and Culture. ‘Soil’ opens in India where Elton observes ‘[T]hese farmers are proving that small-scale organic farming can feed a country… Chandrakalabai’s story shows us that small farmers in the developing world can lessen their input costs and grow organically, which increases their yields…It’s a simple story that has big implications for the rest of the world…’ India is a country that has suffered terribly at the hands of industrial agriculture. Elton explains, ‘Between 1997 and 2005, in Maharashta alone, nearly twenty nine thousand farmers killed themselves in despair, often by drinking the pesticides that helped to put them in debt.’ She writes about the effects industrial food has wreaked across India and summarises, ‘If industrial food remains the status quo, we will continue to lose farmland, we will continue to drain freshwater aquifers and emit tonnes and tonnes of greenhouse gases’ and quotes the Rodale Institute study who ‘compared the soil health of organic farms and conventional farms in a thirty year long side-by-side farming systems trial’ and ‘found that conventional agriculture produces 45 percent more greenhouse gases than organic.’
‘Seeds’ opens in China, in the Yuanyang rice terraces or ‘Eastern Grain Barn.’ Reading the ancient methods of rice farming reads like the permaculture principles being taught today, ‘By harnessing nature’s systems, the Hani created what is called an agroecological landscape…Every aspect of the landscape was planned by these ancient architects…they positioned the rice terraces further down the hillside because that’s where the temperature heats up…’ Elton examines the shift in the Chinese rice fields away from old seed lines to high yielding hybrid rice varieties that require pesticides and make the old sustainable system of growing rice, ducks and fish in one ecosystem impossible. The new hybrids signal an end to biodiversity across the world’s food crops and increased risks from concentration of ownership.
‘Lab Rice: A Better Seed For A Hotter Planet’ is the chapter where you get a sense of how brilliant Elton’s writing is when Elton tackles the loaded issue of genetically modified foods with finesse. ‘Far away from the rice terraces of China…’ Elton talks to plant scientists who are trying to create a rice seed suited to global warming. ‘Rice is a tropical plant, one that thrives in the warm, humid climate. But it doesn’t like it too hot.’ As temperatures rise the production of rice is predicted to fall so scientists all over the world are collaborating on the C4 Rice Project to try to genetically engineer rice for efficiency at higher temperatures. ‘If C4 rice were to be released today it would most likely be met with outrage and controversy.’ Elton’s conclusion echoes what many people in the Australian food sovereignty movement are saying, ‘[T]he biggest problem with biotechnology isn’t the science. The problem is the business and the way the seed industry uses the science.’ Patenting of seed is the most devastating example of where biotech has gone wrong. Elton explains the famous case where a Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser was sued by biotech company Monsanto because they found their patented canola growing on his farm. (You can’t read this chapter without thinking about organic Western Australian farmer Steve Marsh who last year attempted to sue his neighbour for contaminating his farm with GM canola.) When people defend biotech they usually say something like ‘They are going to feed the world,’ when in fact the main two things biotech has focussed on thus far are insect and herbicide resistance. Where Dr Vandana Shiva suggests abandoning GM altogether, Elton is more middle of the road, ‘perhaps there is a way to rescue the science and innovation from this morass.’ The chapter looks at the innovative work of a scientist, Richard Jefferson, who is working to democratise biotech and make the science open source.
‘Culture’ kicks off in the Aubrac mountains of France, in a subsistence farming cooperative that made the choice about 30 years ago to walk away from industrial farming. Elton is witnessing ‘transhumance’, the annual migration of cows to the green pastures and spending time with the cheesemakers who produce Laguiole cheese. ‘The concept of food culture is possibly best expressed by the word terroir. This word is commonly used in the context of wine to describe external factors, such as soil, climate, and geography, that influence the way a grape grows so that is has a particular terroir, an almost intangible essence that defines its flavour and body and makes it what it is. Other foods have terroir too- cheese, chocolate…a taste of place.’ Elton interviews Monsiuer Valadier, ‘over his lifetime, he has led a movement to save the Aubrac’s farming traditions from evisceration.’ This section is timely for Australian readers as it looks at the time in 1995 when the cheesemakers had a bacteria scare and the media put pressure on them to abandon the raw milk that is the basis of their product. The cooperative investigated and it turned out the source of the contamination was what the cows were eating, and not the absence of pasteurisation, ‘They learned that on dairy farms where cows eat silage, there’s ten times the risk of pathogens entering the milk supply than there is on farms where cows are fed grass and dry fodder.’
Elton examines how food culture has eroded; the rise of the supermarket and readymade meals, ‘We are at a turning point- or perhaps we’ve made the turn already. We’ve broken from the historical narrative of food preparation and have outsourced cooking to food services corporations.’ ‘[T]he future of sustainability of our food system is dependent on our food culture.’ France has this thing called appellation d’origine controlee AOC which is certification that promotes terroir based foods. It is a classification system that acknowledges regenerative farming, biodiversity and place of origin. This section profiles work being done to protect agricultural heritage through Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHs). Elton talks to a biologist in Quebec who is breeding a heritage variety of cattle. She writes of food culture programs in Morocco, Lebanon, Cambodia and Ethiopia and the book ends with a look at urban agriculture in Detroit. ‘Food might be complicated, but it is possible to distil a basic set of criteria we can use to measure a future system and guide us toward creating something better than we have today.’
Consumed is a clarion call for an end to industrial agriculture and its attendant miseries of artificial pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers; the mono-cropping of biodiverse land; factory farms and eating out of season. The book offers the steps we need to take: support farming that preserves soil and water, preserve genetic heritage, pay farmers a living wage, build alternative food structures and foster a cultural reawakening. This book ranks up there with food sovereignty classics like Omnivore’s Dilemma, One Straw Revolution and The Fatal Harvest Reader. It offers an insightful introduction to what sustainable agriculture is for readers new to the topic, and offers enough new insights that experts could read this too. The twin strengths of this book are its global scope and its meticulous research. Please read it.
Sarah Coles is a Beacon Reader journalist who has published reviews for Spinach 7 and Vibewire and is writing a book Rooted: Adventures in Antipodean Food Politics.