Industrialized food production is 'a very foolish system', says author

Science journalist and author Julian Cribb has been writing about climate change and agriculture for decades. With the ongoing rise of water and social scarcity, he envisions a more sustainable future through the creation of a circular food economy. He says urban farming is key to bringing this vision to life.

Urban farming key to a future of sustainable food production and less waste.

There's enough food produced right now to feed the world, but fully a third of that food is wasted and people go hungry every day. How can we rethink food distribution? (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Issues of food access are unfortunately nothing new. In Canada alone, produce prices have been steadily increasing every year though according to experts, it doesn't have to be this way.

About a third of what farmers produce globally ends up wasted on the farm and along the supply chain. "The purpose of the food industry worldwide is not to supply food, it is to make money," says science journalist and author Julian Cribb. 

Our current food system spans the globe, with fruits and vegetables transported across oceans and continents. And with the rise of soil and water scarcity, agriculture experts and scientists have been looking for less resource-intensive ways to produce food locally.

In his 2019 book Food or War, Cribb explores how we approach global food production and its ecological toll. He proposes a new food system, one capable of meeting our needs on a planet ravaged by climate change.

Cribb spoke with Spark host Nora Young about the impact of our current food system and how it can be improved.

Here is part of their conversation.

One of the things we're looking at in this week's show is centralization versus distribution and decentralization. So just how centralized is the system of food distribution, that gives us most of our food now?

I've been writing about food and agriculture since the early 1970s—so nearly half a century. Back then there were thousands and thousands of small companies handling the world's food, buying and selling it and processing it. Today, there are 20 gigantic corporations who basically handle the lion's share of world trade in food. 

It's like the car industry, the pharmaceutical industry or any other big industry you could name. It's become highly concentrated, it's fallen into fewer and fewer hands. And that probably means that if you count up the number of the boards on each of those companies, a few of them with 200 or 300 individuals, pretty much control the world's food supply, and they're not doing it for our benefit, they're doing it for their own. So the issue is that this centralization is producing a bad diet, it's producing very vulnerable food chains that stretch for thousands of kilometres around the planet. 

And it's destroying the agricultural base, by paying farmers so badly for what they produce. It forces farmers to overcrop, overgraze, damage the soil, damage the water, damage the wildlife that surrounds their farms. Farmers don't like doing that, but they're driven by economics to turn their farms into factories or into mines effectively. And that's what's wrong with the system. It doesn't understand that agriculture and food production is a biological process. It's not an industrial process, like making cars.

Can we talk about food waste in all this in the urban context, where is most food wasted?

It's wasted all along the chain. So, there is food wasted in the transport system between farms and factories. There's a great deal of food lost in the actual food chain between the factory and the shop. Supermarkets waste a colossal amount of food because they've got those little date stamps. 

They're throwing out truckloads of bread every single night and other edible produce all bagged in plastic, so you can't use it again and you can't compost it. Then we get to our restaurants, and they throw a lot of their food away at the end of the night, the uneaten food because they serve such big helpings, and people can't eat them. 

Then, we're wasting food in the sense that we're over nourishing people, we're feeding people probably two to three times more food than they actually need to maintain their bodies. And we've got this huge marketing industry that is driving us all to eat more and more and more, have bigger hamburgers, hamburgers, the size of your face. A hamburger used to be something that fit into your hand. Now you can't fit it in the hands of two or three people. So there's this colossal emphasis on wasting. In your own home, people are throwing pizza in the bin because they can't eat the whole pizza. 

In most cities, the sewage system takes all those valuable nutrients, which could be used to grow more food, and it dumps them in the river or the ocean. So typically worldwide, we're wasting all of the micronutrients and the minerals that go through our bodies and pass out again, they're going to the bottom of the ocean, and we will never see them again. So this entire process is one of waste. We are mining the planet of nutrients, and then destroying those nutrients or putting them where we can never get them again. And that is a very foolish system.

Julian Cribb, author of the book Food or War. (Julian Cribb)

In your book, Food or War, you say there are various schools of thought when it comes to what sustainable agriculture should look like. What exactly does the future sustainable food system that you envision look like? 

My ideal future food system has three pillars. First of all, regenerative farming, now, that is farming that actually restores and repairs the agricultural environment. It repairs and replenishes the soils with carbon and moisture, it locks up a lot more carbon, so it's drawing carbon down from the atmosphere. Because it's got deep rooted plants on board, it uses minimal amounts of artificial chemicals and fertilizers. It integrates livestock and crops together in a natural harmony. And basically, it's a form of farming that is self-sustaining. There are thousands of farmers worldwide, who are now exploring this form of agriculture. But what they don't have is the scientific support, and they certainly don't have the financial support to adopt it at the rates that are necessary. 

Pillar number two is getting cities to produce their own food, using hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics, biocultures, which is like the lab grown meat and things like that, that everyone's talking about. Using such methods, every city is capable of supplying at least half its own food. And these could be little tiny farms, ranging from something on your balcony if you live in a highrise apartment to colossal corporate operations called sky farms, costing $50 million or more. And these are going up around the world as we speak. 

There's one in Dubai, which is going to produce 250,000 airline meals a day, for example. Dubai is not a place that's renowned for farming. So these huge new industrial food systems are quite capable of providing an awful lot of fresh food to people living locally, as well as to the world. So in other words, we can address the problem of starvation and hunger on the spot by producing food by these methods. So that's a highly prospective development that really needs to happen in every city on Earth. Every city needs to learn to recycle its nutrients and water back into food.

But how difficult would these systems of more sustainable agriculture be to introduce in the developing world or the global south, which is dealing with food scarcity issues?

Well, actually, they're coming in everywhere. Every country you look at has got regenerative farmers, it's got small scale urban food production. And it's got fish farming, if it's got a coast, or even a lake. 

What we need to do is put a lot of capital in there, and a lot of research and development, so that people have the best and the latest technologies. And they're not just following mumbo jumbo-type advice, they're following scientifically based advice. This can all happen quite quickly. I think the urban food revolution is going to really skyrocket in the next 10 to 20 years, especially as the world runs out of water. 

If you recycle all the water that's in your city and you use a tenth of it to grow food and use the rest of it for drinking or washing your car, that's gonna feed half that city. That means that that food doesn't have to come from an irrigation farm. You can actually close that farm and halve the area of land agriculture by farming the oceans and farming the cities. We can actually halve the area of arable and grazing agriculture worldwide, we can send it back to nature. And that means we can end the sixth extinction.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Written and produced by Samraweet Yohannes.