Today I was picking up a few things at a local grocery store when I encountered a polite little sign warning me that the instant gratification of my arugula habit might soon be a thing of the past. A small thing surely, but I felt a little chill go down my spine, as if I had sighted an iceberg on the horizon from the bow of a speeding ship. Because it isn’t just arugula; everywhere I go these days I’m hearing two very ominous words, “peak food”. Are we headed into a period where land is going to be the new gold and food the new oil?
To be clear, the global food system that has emerged out of the green revolution is feeding us well. We eat better food at less cost than almost at any other time in history, and the “we” has gotten a lot bigger; most of the planet is well fed. But there are many signs that the easy years are coming to a close, as a number of unfortunate trends begin to converge. First, and perhaps most importantly, we are losing farmland. About 10% of the globe’s land area is cultivatable, and another 23% or so is suitable for grazing lands; about a third of the Earth’s land can thus be called agricultural. However we are losing land to desertification, erosion, salting, and pollution. We are also losing untold acreage to urban development near every city in the world as cities continue to sprawl. Here in my corner of the world, I can say with certainty we lost about 12% of our farmland near Vancouver in the last 40 years, which isn’t too bad. Without the Agricultural Land Reserve, that number would be closer to 80%. However even 12% loss isn’t sustainable in the long run, and if we want to have spaces for farms we will have to build up, not out.
Other forces are at work. We are confronting a potential shortage of phosphorus, which is mined for fertilizer. As much as 80% of global food production depends on NPK, the miracle fertilizer made of potassium and phosphorus, and nitrogen made through the Haber-Bosch process, which consumes 2% of the global energy supply, mostly in the form of natural gas. Global climate change is punishing farmers world-wide; my little sign warning of arugula shortages hides a drought crisis in California of epic scale that covers nearly 90% of the state. Canadians import two billion tons of produce from California each year, so the fact that farmers aren’t planting due to water shortages will hit us this summer at the supermarket. Many of these California farms won’t come back, as orchards are dying and investments are being lost. Droughts, floods, and other disruptions are also at work in other regions of the globe. Climate change is also upsetting the carbon dioxide balance in the world’s oceans, which could have extremely bad consequences for world fisheries.
So what can we do, as individuals? There are actually a few things. We can control food waste, which is a huge problem throughout the system. We can save money and improve our cooking skills by seeking out the unloved vegetables and fruits that are malformed or dented, but perfectly good otherwise. We can eat lower on the food chain; we can greatly decrease the environmental impact of farming with a few vegetarian meals, and it is a healthy option as well. And we can support local farmers, and urge our local governments to preserve farmland. BC’s Bill 24 needs to be amended to strengthen the Agricultural Land Reserve and tighten the rules for land exclusion. I’m still urging everyone to call their MLA or write them a stern letter asking them to send Bill 24 back to the shop for some retooling. As an example, Kamloops was once the tomato capital of BC, and all of that rich land is being lumped into Zone 2, where economic factors will override agriculture. Losing that land doesn’t seem right. Lastly, we should all think about what we could grow ourselves, even if all that means is a pear tree in the yard, or a few herbs on the deck. Every little bit helps. I’m not going to say we are headed toward certain disaster, as farmers are incredibly resilient and innovative people. But with the UN saying we need to increase food output by 60% by 2050, and all of these challenges coming along at once, I have to wonder what the future will look like. Meanwhile I’d better turn my garden beds and plant some arugula.