Some alternative visions for a sustainable future

In 1976 I attended a fair on the University of Massachusetts campus that warned us of dire consequences associated with global warming and the environment. I did not believe. Many of the dangers to the environment that the doomsayers were saying back then are now becoming evident, just not nearly as fast as they predicted. If we had heeded them then, we probably would not be in the mess we are now.

The nutrition majors in our joint graduate classes at UMASS were wearing buttons to end hunger by 2000. If we just believed it, we could force it to happen. I did not believe that either, and it didn’t happen. Population has expanded rapidly around the world and is predicted to continue to grow at least until 2050. Strangely enough, we still have world hunger almost 20 years after we should have eliminated it, but the World Health Organization is now more concerned about obesity than about hunger. Part of the reason is that we have become better at feeding those with food insecurity. So, I guess that my classmates were also at least partially right.

Cowpea measure

Photo provided by Dick Phillips

Just how serious a threat do we face from global climate change? Do we have enough food to continue to decrease hunger and feed those people who need it? My blog has painted a bleak picture of our current situation. In the United States of Excess we see a nation out of control in its consumption of food and fuel with not much hope of changing its ways. In Nourished Planet the New Food Movement tells us that the world is in bad shape, but we can turn things around if we make major changes now. Sounds like those doomsayers back in Amherst. This time I am not as skeptical of the problem as I was in my youth 43 years ago. I am not convinced, however, that the solutions proposed in the New Food Movement are likely to be effective. This week I provide some alternative perspectives.

Putting our faith in more technology is the answer we get from Brian Gardner in Global Food Futures. The basic assumption here is that technology has made rapid population growth possible, but it has also made it easier to cope. Gardner claims that it is too late to go back to the “good old days.” Among his suggestions are increased funding for agricultural research, greater international trade in food to stabilize prices, and bringing marginal lands into production while increasing crop yields. To achieve a sustainable future to adequately feed the world will require an expansion of food production by 70% by 2050.

We’ll solve it case-by-case when we have to is the overarching premise of Jorgen Randers in 2052. We, particularly those of us in the United States, will only develop solutions on a case-by-case basis when in full crisis mode. Those solutions will be more adaptation to the consequences of environmental destruction than mitigation to prevent further damage. Failure to act in a timely fashion could result in the collapse of capitalism, democracy, economic growth, generational harmony and a stable climate. Although Randers published these thoughts in 2012, it seems prescient with respect to the recent release of the Green New Deal.

We are no longer sustainable suggests the website World Population Balance. It claims that our current food supply can feed sustainably only 2 billion people on a Western European lifestyle (60% of a typical American). We currently have a world population of 7+ billion headed to 9-10 billion in 2050 where it is expected to level off. The site describes a rapid depletion of non-renewable resources and proposes a dramatic decrease in birthrate to stem the tide. That sounds much like the admonitions of my graduate- school classmates who recommended one child per person as a solution. Most “technologically-advanced” countries are below this level, but those nations facing significant hunger are above replacement and show no signs of leveling off anytime soon.

Combining technology with an aggressive green movement attempts to bring together the best of both worlds. Unfortunately, there is so much cultural disparity between the New Food Movement and agricultural scientists who believe that technology is the answer and not necessarily the problem. Such a marriage appears unlikely. National Geographic suggests a much more aggressive approach than suggested by the New Food Movement in Nourished Planet. The plan calls for five critical steps

  1. Freezing the agricultural footprint as it currently stands,
  2. Increasing yields on current farms,
  3. Improving efficiency in use of resources,
  4. Shifting diets away from meat-intensive to more plant-based, and
  5. Reducing food waste.

Rather than bringing more marginal land into agricultural production, high-yield agriculture shows promise in contrast with recommendations in Global Food Futures as described above.

My view of sustainability was outlined In Defense of Processed Food and shown in a figure elsewhere on this blogsite. I envision incorporation of intermediate and appropriate technology within the goals of the New Food Movement. An emergent perspective from the clash between the industrialized food system and the New Food Movement calls for

  1. Growing crops that are both economically viable and environmentally sustainable,
  2. Producing nutritionally sound products preserved to prevent waste and distributed safely,
  3. Enacting a living wage for workers within the food system,
  4. Incorporating clean labels with a more enlightened understanding of food composition, and
  5. Providing less variety of processed products available at reasonable prices.

Where do we go from here? It is no coincidence that countries with advanced technological capabilities have been more able to feed their population than those with access only to primitive technology. Unfortunately, most technologically advanced nations are also overconsumers of energy and other natural resources. Robert Paarlberg has narrowed the appeal of the New Food Movement to ORGANIC, LOCAL and SLOW. While the principles of health, social justice and sustainability from the Movement provide important guides, going back to subsistence farming and inadequate distribution will not be sufficient to face the challenges that lie ahead.

Adaptation strategies will be necessary to make up for environmental damage incurred from past practices, but adaptation in itself will not be sufficient. Policies to mitigate future damage must be developed and implemented or adaptation will become increasingly difficult. Other nations are doing better at mitigation than the United States which seems to be impotent to act and willing to adapt only when absolutely necessary. The New Food Movement seems to have captured the public’s attention, but I find many of their solutions to be unworkable and scientifically unsound. The longer, however, we delay in developing and implementing policies based on sound science and appropriate technology, the more likely we will be forced into solutions that look like the nightmare scenarios described above in 2052. The time to act is now.

Next week: Where does processed food fit into the Green New Deal?

FYI: I will be defending processed food at the Food Science Seminar of the University of Florida in Gainesville at 3:30 in Room G001  McCarty D. You should also be able to Join Zoom Meeting at



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