What if there weren’t seven billion people on our planet but nine and a half billion by the year 2050? And it wasn’t just humans we needed to feed, but also livestock, and cars running on biofuels? Then, add in the following: floods, droughts and other types of severe weather, depleted soils and a diminishing supply of land available for food production. It may sound like the setup for a paperback thriller, but this is our situation in real life, right now, as described by author Joel Bourne in his book, “The End of Plenty.” We caught up with Joel, who will be speaking at the World Affairs Council on June 23, to find out more about the global food crisis and how it’s affecting our health already.
LEO: What was the impetus for you to write the book?
Joel Bourne: I’d been interested in agriculture since I was a child, and, as I transferred into journalism, it was always in the back of my mind. Then when the food crisis of 2007-2008 hit, I realized this is the environmental issue of my generation, and will be for the next 50 years. It will affect water, forests and other species, as well as human health and nutrition.
LEO: What does “the end of plenty” mean?
JB: We’re so used to plenty in the United States, but part of it is that farmers grow what makes them money, and grows best on their fields. Most of our subsidies go to the yellow stuff, meaning corn and soy. We’re the Saudi Arabia of corn –— we even burn it in our cars, and the rest either goes to feed cows, or make corn syrup. One consequence is the high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt Western diet that we’re addicted to, and is the main cause of this diabetes epidemic we’re undergoing. It will shave five years off the average American lifespan.
The other consequence is that, during the green revolution [the heyday of chemical fertilizers and pesticides], when we were producing an enormous oversupply of grains, the government decided we didn’t need to invest in the basic agricultural research anymore that had brought us our bounty. But then you get something like Ug99, a variety of wheat rust that has appeared in Africa and now threatens up to 95 percent of the world wheat supply, but the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] only has two people working on wheat rust. We shot ourselves in the foot.
LEO: How else does the food system impact community health?
JB: We are still seeing dramatic potential rates in diabetes coming that we’ll all have to deal with, both in terms of billions of dollars in healthcare costs, as well as reduced lifespan. These are very serious issues directly related to our diet. A less obvious example is soil. In the book I tell the story of one president of the Soil Science Association in the 1940s saying that healthy soils are the basis for healthy crops, healthy animals and healthy people. At the time he was laughed at, but now we are confirming everything he said.
LEO: What can we do to help as individuals?
JB: As consumers start to pay more attention to food — largely due to health concerns — big food manufacturers and farmers follow suit. Now General Mills says they won’t use [genetically modified organisms]. Walmart is trying to put more organics on the shelf: That’s the megaphone of the consumer dollar. And every mom, dad and kid has that power over global agriculture.
LEO: With so many factors threatening our food system while more people are added to the world population at the same time, what options do we have in the bigger picture?
JB: To me, the solution is not to try to double the amount of food we grow, but to double the number of women we educate, especially in places where they’re second-class citizens. If we can just educate girls to secondary school, and give women equal access to property rights, education and technology, study after study shows that educated women have fewer children, and are greater contributors to their societies. If we can kick-start a pink revolution, we may not need another green one. It’s the most important thing we can do for our planet and our people. •