Ending Hunger in the Age of Climate Change  

We face two major threats to world stability: world hunger and climate change. Taking on one of these issues as a cause is monumental. Who would choose both of them at the same time? Anthony Warner, for one. He describes his mission in Ending Hunger: The Quest to Feed the World Without Destroying It. If his name sounds familiar, Warner is also known as The Angry Chef.

Decreasing world hunger was a reason I applied for my first IFT scholarship. My dad, a food scientist, thought the application too idealistic. My mom agreed with him, but said if young people couldn’t be idealistic, who could? I won the $500 scholarship and took on food science as a career. I would like to point to all my efforts in fighting world hunger, but I can’t. I was a partner in a grant to improve postharvest handling of fresh items in Rwanda. My contributions to that project were minimal. Ending hunger is still an issue that concerns me. I am active in my local food pantry, but I never met the promise I made on that initial application!

Anyone who has strong opinions on hunger or climate change is sure to be both pleased and offended by parts of this book! Warner sees these two issues intertwined. He takes the combined issues head on, but he avoids binary answers. Throughout the book we come across nuanced approaches. What works in certain locations may not work in others. The author’s skilled writing style presents complex topics in understandable language. In areas familiar to me, he makes strong points. In unfamiliar areas, he provides cogent arguments. This two-pronged approach is a masterpiece. The question is ‘What is the possibility we can solve both existential questions by the year 2050?’ Below is my abridged interpretation of Warner’s vision.

African landscape with musk ox, zebras and antelopes
Can we solve world hunger and global climate change together? Photo of the front of a postcard from water.org

Hunger through the ages. Hunger has been with humankind since the beginning of the species. In a famine, more deaths are due to disease than to hunger. Famine depletes our nutritional reserves and our ability to fight off disease. Warner rejects claims that the beginning of agriculture was a mistake. He sees it as the salvation of the hunter-gatherer. Stored food provided a buffer to overcome shortages of wild food. Much later, the Haber-Bosch process produced fertilizer by fixing nitrogen from the air. Fertilizer allows growers to produce more food on the same area of land. Norman Borlaug started the Green Revolution with advanced selections. These varieties and fertilizers led to improved crop yields. Every technological advance permitted the world to feed more people. With population growth, more people became dependent on the latest technology. The vicious cycle began as more technology begat more food begat more people AND more hunger.

Uneven distribution of food causes a rift between the haves and the have nots. Emission levels in rich nations have devastating consequences in poor nations.  Farm subsidies encourage farmers in wealthy countries to overproduce grains, fat, and sugar. These farms underproduce fruits, vegetables, and plant protein. World trade introduces agricultural technology and improves efficiency. But this trade reduces diversity of food available and increases economic inequality. Central planning owns the food system, but production is not efficient. Capitalism relies on the invisible hand of the market—no one is in charge. It is more unfair, but it feeds people better than planned economies.

Our current situation is dire. Agriculture changes by increments. Its slow movement makes it difficult to adapt to the rapid changes we face. “The production of food has more negative impacts upon the planet than any other human activity.” And yet, we can’t live without food. We can address climate change and let hundreds of millions starve. Or we can produce enough food for all until the earth’s capabilities collapse and we all starve. Neither option appeals to me. Warner states that we must tackle both challenges at the same time. Major problems include increased emissions and loss of topsoil. The expansion of agricultural land encroaches on natural habitat. We must act now rather than setting sail on “the good ship Ambivalence.”  

Encountering future shocks will become more frequent. Not all shocks will be direct effects of climate change. But climate effects will increase the number and intensity of any shock. We find ourselves in a vicious cycle. Population grows faster than agricultural production. Richer people demand more food which requires more resources and produces more emissions. Pesticides and fertilizers improve crop yields at the expense of runoff into sources of water. Poorer populations pay for the extravagance of the wealthy through undernutrition and malnutrition.

The media publicizes dramatic shocks while ignoring underlying ones that have long-term consequences. The need for more potable water is critical, but continuing loss of soil is more serious. We fear use of fertilizers and pesticides. But lower crop yields and the rise of super-pests loom leading to less food available. We lose as much as 35% of what we grow before it makes it to a human stomach. We pit environmentalism against agriculture, while true progress must combine the two approaches. We pretend that there are virtuous natural solutions that feed on each other. We avoid contradictions and conflict. Many solutions lead to tradeoffs that we are unwilling to confront. Ambivalence.        

Meat from plants and animals represents such a conflict. Expansion of farmland into areas of natural habitat is a critical environmental challenge. Meat production is an inefficient use of land required to produce calories. Meat consumption is growing around the world faster than population. How can the wealthy West tell those in the East whose incomes are growing that they can’t eat meat? Factory farms crowd animals leading to increased runoffs. Meat is not a local problem. It is a world problem that needs broad solutions. Not all land is suitable for food production from plant sources. Warner promotes circular systems. On such farms animals and plants grow at the same location to enrich each other and the growers of the foods.

And then there are plant-based and cultured meats, which he calls Meat 2.0. The world is counting on their success. Meat 2.0 promises lower emissions, less land per calorie, and fewer farm animals. Failure of this effort could doom efforts to end hunger and prevent climate disaster. Major limiters of expanding plant proteins in meat-like products are flavor and scale-up. Can we grow enough plants to meet ingredient needs? The most notable plant sources are lentils and chickpeas. Fear of needed but unfamiliar food additives also limit acceptance. Without the additives, plant-based meats will not come through with expected gustatory quality.

Cultured meats promise meat without the animal or need to slaughter. They have a longer timeline than plant-based alternatives. The main obstacles it faces are consumer acceptance, sustainability, and scale up. Can industry culture enough meat to make a significant decrease in livestock? No matter what you call it, cultured, clean, or lab-grown meat doesn’t sound all that appealing. Energy use and mega-processing plants could affect the environmental impact of the venture. The greatest benefit a major switch to cultured meat will be to free up farmland. Would we be able to repurpose that land in a responsible manner? 

Organic agriculture and GMOs occupy different spaces in Warner’s vision. There are things he likes about an organic approach. Organic farming emphasizes soil health and stands as a guard against pesticide resistance. Organic growers view a farm as a unified system that fosters biodiversity. BUT organic is not the answer to either ending hunger or greater sustainability. Remember the book is about achieving both missions. The biggest limitation of organic farming is lower yields. As a result, it needs more land to produce the same amount of food. On a per-calorie basis organic produces more emissions, and leads to more runoffs.

Organic nitrogen will only feed 3-4 billion of the world’s population of 8 billion. Estimates predict a world population of 9-10 billion by 2050. When considering the loss of most pesticides, the picture becomes grimmer. Still there is room for progressive organic growers. They must adopt the recent technological advances while staying true to their philosophy. Too often organic devotees cling to past practices that are not enough to meet today’s needs.

GMOs are a different story. Despite opposition to the technology, GMOs are safe and necessary to feed a hungry planet. In general, they lower pesticide use, not increase it. One potential advance that will transform agriculture is fixing nitrogen by non-legume plants. Strict regulation of the technology has made it difficult for small players to get in the game. Thus, mega-corporations like Monsanto have little to no competition. Warner prefers many small operators over dominance by a few corporate giants. Time is running out, and we need to adopt genetic technology if we are to solve world hunger. His advocacy of GMOs applies to plants only. He is not so sure about using the same technology in animals.

Food loss and waste represent another problem we must solve. We over-emphasize the importance of freshness. We under-emphasize the damage of edible food we throw away. Wasted food wastes all the inputs from seed to home. Plastic packaging presents both opportunities and challenges. Correct use of plastics extends shelf life and decreases food waste. Plastic accumulation in our oceans, waterways, and landfills is a problem needing solutions.

Where do we go from here? I have only glossed over the surface of this book in the areas that most interest me. We all have a role in decreasing world hunger. Likewise, we need to help slow the damages we face from global climate change. Warner recommends breaking down industrialized farms into smaller, more efficient units. These units must adopt the most effective techniques that combine efficiency with responsibility. Governments must develop incentives to combine farm productivity with environmental stewardship. The greatest barriers are sociopolitical. We must not overlook the economic and cultural implications of every policy. The book proposes so many more large and small solutions to combat hunger and environmental calamity. Does it present solutions that I think are great? Yes. Does it present ideas that I deem unrealistic? Yes again. The take-home lesson is to disembark the ship of Ambivalence to board one of Concerted Action.  

There is so much power in Ending Hunger I wish I could harness here. If either or both of these topics interest you, I place this book on your required reading list. Even if opposed to some of Warner’s solutions, rush out to your nearest bookstore or library to get a copy. Read it to understand his rationale for these recommendations. It might alter your perspective. Or, you might hone your arguments based on his discussion. I place Ending Hunger in the same category as Cuisine and Empire and The Wizard and the Prophet. No other books I have read place food and technology into a broader context.

Next week: My perspective on world hunger

 

4 thoughts on “Ending Hunger in the Age of Climate Change  

  1. Excellent review of an excellent book. Anthony Warner is familiar to many of us as The Angry Chef, that opinionated guy from the UK who loves to say outrageous things and who always, well almost always, makes good sense. Shared on LinkedIn.

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