Book Review: Consumed

National Post, April 26, 2013

Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet
By Sarah Elton
HarperCollins
272 pp; $29.99

Remember when sodas were a nickel? I don’t, but I can certainly remember the time when wheat was $3 a bushel; it was just 15 years ago. By 2008, however, a bushel cost $10 — a rise of historic proportions. It wasn’t only wheat that broke records that year; from 2006 to 2008, the prices of corn and soybeans doubled. Rice tripled.

For folks in rich countries, grocery bills might have inched up; elsewhere, roughly a quarter billion people joined the ranks of the world’s hungry. There were riots: From Bangladesh to Burkina Faso, Senegal to Somalia — places where people often spend more than half their income to feed themselves — thousands protested unaffordable food.

Five years on, we’re still not sure what caused the crisis. Certainly biofuels were a factor: The U.S., among others, turn too many good-eatin’ crops like corn and sugarcane into fuel. Population growth may have played a role, too. (Take a planet from 2.5 billion people to 6.8 in 60 years, and growing pains seem inevitable.) So too did rising wealth in places like India and China, where the rapidly-growing middle-class wants its piece of the Western diet’s meaty, resource-intensive pie.

Also contributing to the crisis were extreme weather events (Australian droughts, Indian floods); dwindling food stockpiles, which fell to levels not seen since just after the Second World War; and a spike in the cost of synthetic fertilizers, some of which tripled in price in the first half of 2008. Finally, no great global crisis could occur without the help of our friendly finance community. After mortgage-backed securities lost their lustre, speculative investors poured hundreds of billions into food-focused financial products, like Goldman Sachs’ Commodity Index, creating a good, old-fashioned bubble.

While calm has (somewhat) returned, another crisis surely looms, though its severity and timing is hard to predict. Perhaps, as Sarah Elton argues in her new book, Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet, the date to fear is 2050. It’s a reasonable guess: By then, the global population is projected to blow past nine billion people, and the planet’s temperature may have risen by more than two degrees Celsius. If we can last that long, then Elton’s grim prediction may be true, that 2050 “is the year when all our environmental debts come knocking at our door, asking us to pay up.”

Elton, whose first book was Locavore: From Farmers’ Fields to Rooftop Gardens — How Canadians are Changing the Way We Eat, frames Consumed around a deceptively simple question. She asks, “How will we feed ourselves in 2050?” To find the answer, Elton travels across three continents, filling her book with heartening tales of small-scale organic farmers, thriving regional food cultures and burgeoning grassroots organizations. Rather than untangle the Gordian knot of what Olivier de Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, calls “the intertwining of food, finance and energy,” Elton takes an indirect approach, offering parables for an organic, sustainable, utopian future.

Our journey begins in Bidkin, a village in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, where we meet Chandrakala Bobade, a rare good news story in a country in which a farmer commits suicide every 30 seconds. In the 1990s, Bobade, like millions of Indian farmers, was hooked on fossil fuel-based fertilizers and genetically modified seeds, enriching Big Agriculture while barely scraping by. Eventually, she went organic, becoming self-sufficient and financially secure. Business at her local farmers’ market is booming.

In Yuanyang, in China’s Yunnan province, we see millennium-old rice paddy terracing that still works pretty darn well, thanks to the natural resiliency of biodiversity. In the Aubrac Mountains, in southwest France, we encounter the thriving rural community that produces the prized Laguiol cheese. There, Monsieur André Valadier, the co-op’s patriarch, shares some wisdom, which his parents imparted on him for wintertime journeys across mountain plateaus: “If, suddenly, you find yourself stuck and you can’t move forward, all you need to do is turn around and go back. Retrace your footsteps in the snow before they disappear. If you follow your footsteps, you will find your path.”

It’s a piece of advice that Elton eagerly embraces. She is justifiably discouraged by the mixed legacy of the Green Revolution; the scientific community’s failure to propose ecologically and financially sustainable solutions for farmers; and the enduring nefariousness of Big AG. Going backwards can seem like the only way forward.

But even Elton’s most hopeful anecdotes often end with question marks. Bidkin, we learn, will lose massive swaths of farmland to the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor, which also includes six airports. In China, the family farm that Elton extols as a triumph of sustainability becomes a bleak metaphor, ultimately switching to genetically-modified seeds.

In one of the book’s most hopeful moments, Elton goes beyond the anecdotal and into the laboratory. There, she learns about the C4 Rice Project, which is a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded endeavour aimed at “supercharging photosynthesis.” It could increase rice yields by 50%. Granted, C4 “could take 50 years and up to a billion dollars” — about a decade behind Elton’s schedule — but with the world short on farmland, and organic crops still yielding about a quarter less than conventional crops, it’s worth a shot.

The reality, of course, is that we have no idea what 2050 will look like. To fix the world’s food problems, will farmers’ markets, sustainable agriculture and robust food cultures suffice? Or do we also need to stop climate change, revolutionize energy policies and reform the global financial system? Are we even going to make it to 2050? Perhaps a giant meteor or a tiny dictator will end things long before then. (Or another food bubble, after which writer Frederick Kaufman says, “the Arab spring will look like a pep rally.”) Until that day of reckoning comes, Elton’s world — where Monsanto is a bad memory, small farmers are thriving and meals are prepared with love — seems like a wonderful place to pass the time.

Read it at NationalPost.com here.