Cost of Food as Catalyst for Change Cannot Be Ignored
In 18th century Paris the first thing the lieutenant of police did every morning upon reaching his desk was to inquire as to the price of a loaf of bread in the bakers’ shops of Paris. The price of the loaf would tell him whether he could expect a quiet day or should prepare for a day of unrest and violence in the streets. By the time the Bastille was stormed on July 14th, 1789, a loaf of bread cost the average laborer an entire month’s wages. From the French Revolution, via the Russian Revolution to our own American Revolution, the cost of food as a catalyst for change cannot be ignored. Indeed, the International Food Policy Research Institute believes the destruction of Russiaâs wheat harvest in 2010 and the subsequent food price spikes in Egypt helped to trigger the events now known as the Arab Spring.
In a report published last year by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, The State of Food Insecurity in the World, the overriding conclusion is that international price volatility and high food prices are expected to continue in the years ahead. Comfortably seated on a sofa in front of the TV in the developed world, the term “food insecurity” tends to conjure tragic images of starving children on distant continents. Well, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee while we can still afford it. The compelling report, The Future of Food and Farming: challenges and choices for global sustainability, published in January 2011 by the Foresight group, the research arm of the UKâs Government Office for Science, makes for some fascinating reading. Here are some of the bald facts:
—Â To feed the projected 9.2 billion population by mid-century food production will have to increase between 70 and 100 per cent.
—Â The area of agricultural land will remain static at best. At worst it will decrease as a result of land degradation and climate change.
—Â Up to 40% of food bought in developed countries is thrown away.
—Â Current agricultural production consumes 70% of the worldâs water supply. Most estimates agree that by 2030 farmers will need 45% more water â they wonât get it.
—Â Since 1990 Chinaâs fertilizer use has risen by roughly 40% – but their grain production has remained stable.
It is not my intent to write another scaremongering piece that has us all rushing online to buy apocalypse-proof survival shelters where we can live out our final days. I am, in fact, tremendously intrigued by the great opportunity we have to solve one of the worldâs most complex problems using what we already know.
One of the elements often overlooked is the heavy reliance on both energy and water in the production and availability of food. Food production is largely agriculture â which requires land, energy, water, and chemicals for fertilizer. Food availability, on the other hand, encompasses ports and shipping, rail systems, trucking, refrigeration, warehousing, storage, supermarkets, packaging (more chemicals), transporting consumers to and from markets, home refrigeration and, particularly in developed countries, a huge amount of waste disposal.
The movement of food from farm to market to shopper is a major consumer of energy but those energy costs are not captured in the price of the food on our shelves. As we run out of arable land this will change, prices will rise and cities must become part of the solution.
Cities are huge consumers of water and energy and generate 80 percent of the worldâs carbon emissions â much of this is attributable to the transport of goods and necessities to the city. By 2030, 60 percent of the worldâs population will live in cities. Finding a more efficient way to nourish our urban populations can not only address the concerns of food security but also reduce carbon consequences, decrease water consumption, mitigate the impact of harmful chemical use, reduce energy consumption, improve health and promote equity among our citizens.
I believe that over the next 20 to 30 years urban farming will become a significant public policy initiative. Sound urban farming policies will not only reduce the greenhouse gas consequences of moving food over long distances but also ensure greater supply security in the face of natural or manmade disasters that disrupt logistics and supply lines.
There are already some great examples to draw upon. Toronto, London, New York, Minneapolis, and Portland, Oregon have developed comprehensive food system plans, San Francisco amended the zoning code to allow agricultural activities throughout the city. Seattle is developing a 7-acre urban food forest where the neighborhood can forage fruit.
Existing initiatives such as green roofs, sidewalks could easily be adapted for food production.
From the times of the medieval common agriculture has always had a place in the city â but as our cities grow, we need to take a more robust approach.
On such approach is high-rise farming. Dickson Despommierâs Vertical Farm concept is an idea whose time has come. It is tremendously exciting to think that we can not only feed our cities securely but do so in a way that protects our environment, preserves our water, and provides healthy nutrition for everyone, right on their doorstep.
As we think about our future, and what we need to do as governments, corporations, planners, designers, builders and citizens to protect and sustain our communities, we must recognize that we are, in fact, all in the agriculture business. If the climate models are accurate there will be a tipping point around 2030 when our agricultural land begins to fail at a very high rate.
So tonight perhaps the question is not âWhatâs for dinner?â but rather âWhereâs dinner?â And if the answer is âon its way from Chinaâ â enjoy it while it lasts! Bon Appetit.
Gary Lawrence is chief sustainability officer and vice president of AECOM Technology Corp. You can follow Gary on Twitter @CSO_AECOM.
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