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Of food, war and ecology: how we can end the 6th Extinction

By Julian Cribb

The most destructive implement on the Planet, without a doubt, is the human jawbone.

Every year, in the course of wolfing through 8.5 trillion meals, it dislodges more than 75 billion tonnes of topsoil, swallows seven billion tonnes of fresh water, generates 30 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions and distributes five million tonnes of concentrated biocides.

That same human jawbone fells forests, empties oceans of life, destroys rivers and lakes, sterilises landscapes and blankets the planet in a toxic plastic shroud. It is the main driver of the present grotesque imbalance in terrestrial vertebrate biomass: 32 percent human, 66 percent domestic livestock, 3 percent wildlife.

Food revolution

From these figures alone – and many others – it is clear that there can be no solution to the global ecological crisis or the sixth extinction without a solution to the issue of how humans produce and consume food.

Bluntly, we are in the process of devouring a planet which, if one considers the matter even for microseconds, is not a good outlook for the survival of our own species, either.

Take heart. There is a solution. It is practical, involves little or no new technology and, what is most important, it is completely affordable and the money to implement it already exists. So do the people and skills.

However, as you may imagine, it involves a food revolution an order of magnitude or so greater even than the green energy revolution now sweeping the planet. But it is equally promising and feasible.

Appetite for war

The first thing which everyone who eats needs to understand is that the present food system, perfectly adequate for the twentieth century, is not sustainable in the twenty first.

Apart from a growing vulnerability to climatic impacts, modern broadacre farming systems are destroying the very soils, waters and ecosystem services they depend on at such a rate that major food system failures will be unavoidable in coming decades, starting with water crises in the 2020s and beyond.

Just because our bronze-age food system has served us well for 6000 years does not mean it will work for 10 billion people in the hot, resource-depleted, ecologically-impaired world of the latter C21st.

Food failures, we know from history, nearly always lead to wars and mass refugee upheavals. Only this time they are liable to be global in impact. And war is almost as bad for ecology as food production.

This process is already under way, with one third of a billion people – equal to the US population – leaving home each year in search of new lives in countries which appear to them more stable and food secure. Therefore, in developing a new food system, we also have to find a way to curb the human appetite for war…

Food or war

In Food or War, I trace the nexus between food and conflict through human history, explore the food driver in recent and existing conflicts and identify nine regions of the world which are at high risk of conflict in the foreseeable future – conflicts which range on a scale from riots and government failures to thermonuclear war.

My aim is to show that the link between food and war is inexorable – but that it can be broken. And that a sufficiency of food is the most under-rated, under-recognised ‘weapon of peace’ in the world today.

So, how do we achieve sufficient food for all of humanity, to take us past the peak in human population in the late 2060s, down to the sustainable level of 2.5 billion that existed when I was born (and towards which the world’s women are now steadily leading us) without laying waste to the entire planet either agriculturally or militarily?

There are basically three pillars to a sustainable global food supply, each supplying roughly one third of our food needs:

  1. Regenerative farming and grazing, globally, to restore ecosystem function over an area of about half of the planet presently farmed or grazed, using minimal inputs of chemicals or fertiliser and locking up far more carbon.
  2. Urban food production, in which all urban water and nutrientsare recycled in a ‘circular economy’ into climate-proof food, produced by a wide range of techniques from hydroponic, agritectural and aquaponic to ‘cellular agriculture’ systems.
  3. Redouble marine aquaculture, especially into deepwater ocean culture and algae farming or water-cropping. This will replace wild-harvest fisheries and substitute for some broadacre cropping on land.

Stewards of the earth

There is a lot more to each of these than I can explain in this short article, so please bear with the argument.

Suffice to say there are scientists, farmers, companies and innovative technologists all round the world already pioneering these techniques, hammering out the flaws and investing billions of dollars in ‘new food’ ventures aimed at a safe, healthy, sustainable diet for all.

Furthermore, there is a dramatic opportunity to eat better. So narrow is our present industrial food base that we presently eat fewer than 300 (i.e. less than 1 percent) of the 30,500 edible plants so far identified on Earth. We have yet to explore our Planet in terms of what is good, safe and sustainable to eat.

In his book ‘Half Earth’, the great biologist E.O. Wilson argues that we need to set aside about half the planet for other life if we are to avoid mass extinction and an ecological collapse that will imperil our own future.

Insatiable power ​​​​​​​

In Food or War, I show how this may be achieved – by re-wilding half of the world’s presently farmed and grazed lands, in all continents, under the stewardship of former farmers (whom the industrial food system is evicting anyway) and indigenous peoples – a scheme titled ‘Stewards of the Earth’. On Wilson’s calculus, this should spare around 86 percent of the species presently destined for anthropogenic midnight.

Is this affordable? The funding to make it happen already exists – by diverting just 20 per cent of the global arms budget of $1.8 trillion (ie $340bn/yr), on the grounds that improved global food security is the most effective means of bringing peace to the planet since food scarcity is, nearly always, a fundamental propellant of the tensions that lead to war. An even larger cut happened between 1990-2005, so we know it is possible.

Such is the insatiable power of the human jawbone that rethinking food not only holds the key to peace and plenty for all, but also to ending the 6thExtinction and regenerating a fairer, greener Earth.

This article was originally published on Surviving C21.

Julian Cribb is an Australian author and science communicator. He is a fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Science and Engineering (ATSE) and a member of the Australian National University Emeritus Faculty.

His career includes appointments as newspaper editor, scientific editor for The Australian daily newspaper, director of national awareness for CSIRO, member of numerous scientific boards and advisory panels, and president of national professional bodies for agricultural journalism and science communication.

His published work includes over 9000 articles, 3000 science media releases and eight books. He has received 32 awards for journalism. His internationally-acclaimed book, The Coming Famine (2010) explored the question of how we can feed 10 billion humans this century. His book, Poisoned Planet (2014) examines the contamination of the Earth system and humanity by anthropogenic chemicals and how to prevent it. His latest book Surviving the 21st Century (Springer 2016) deals with the existential crisis facing humanity in our time – and what we can do about it.

Twitter: @JulianCribb

Personal website:

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  1. New England Cocky

    Julian Cribb has overlooked the most important fact that uncontrolled human population growth is the underlying cause of the food shortage problem, as predicted by Barry Commoner in about 1979. Then add the maldistribution of economic opportunities like jobs that creates a maldistribution of wealth which in turn creates a distortion of political policies to maintain these maldistributions to continue benefitting the present recipients at all levels.

    There is little doubt that an egalitarian society creates a better life style of community for the people than either wage slavery or a class system based on accumulated wealth obtained by exploitation of a work force.

    But the sad fact is that capitalism is an ideology supported by the privileged few at the expense of the many striving to give their families a life in a competitive world based on a biological system of deliberate waste.

  2. Andrew J Smith

    One wouldn’t be so pessimistic, although environmental concerns are valid, but since Malthus the Anglos and Europeans have raised fears of lower orders and other types breeding like rabbits, exhausting resources, replacing white people etc. but incorrect:

    No surprise to smell fossil fuels etc. (Ehrlich et al. had support from ‘old fossils’, one lot sponsoring article via link above) creating confusion by conflating environmental issues with fertility, population, immigration etc.

    Research has shown that global population is expected to age, while fertility rates decline, further, peak mid century, then decline; back to where we came from.

  3. David Bruce

    Recently I observed programs in the South Pacific Islands for integrated farming, along the lines you suggest. Livestock waste products are used to create fish food and their waste and algae are used to fertilize crops and gardens. On a relatively small scale, this provides enough food to feed a village.

    On the other side of the coin, there is too much money involved in Guns Oil and Drugs to expect any reasonable short term change in human nature. I was wondering, for example if the missing MH370 was a perfect cover for exploring the southern Indian Ocean for oil and gas. After all, Petronas did supply two autonomous remote control underwater survey “vessels” to help with the search.

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