Eating and Surviving

The case for more government support of sustainable food—and less meat in our diets

Climate change is poised to have a profound impact on the world’s agricultural systems in the coming decades. Already, scientists are documenting more robust weeds and drier soils that threaten crop yields. This scenario looms against a worrying backdrop that features ongoing food price volatility, more than 860 million people on the planet without enough to eat on a daily basis and world population growth that is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. If humans are to thrive on this planet well into the future, our food system must not only be productive in the face of rising temperatures, but must also be sustainable on a long-term basis. The dominant food system today, based on industrial food production that is distributed on a global scale, is not on course to meet these requirements. But how can we fix it? This is the key question that Sarah Elton sets out to answer in Consumed: Sustainable Food for a Finite Planet.

Elton reveals her position early on by taking a strong stand in the broader debate about food system sustainability. She disagrees with those who say that only large-scale industrial food production and distribution systems have the efficiency to meet future needs while doing the least environmental damage to the planet. Instead, she argues, we need to reorient our food system toward a more human scale and focus on agro-ecological farming methods and shorter distribution chains between producers and consumers. Elton is clear about why she takes this stance. Although she acknowledges some benefits such as year-round fruits and vegetables, she points out that the current industrial food system that has risen to dominance in the past half century has also brought profound problems. It is not only responsible for just under a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, but has also contributed to chemical overload in soils and waterways, poor returns for farmers working within the system and nutritionally dubious processed foods that threaten our health, to name just a few.

If it took just 50 years for the globalized industrial food system to become as entrenched as it has today, Elton asserts, it should not take any more time than that to dig our way out of it. And we could get there faster if we put our minds to it. If we retrace our footsteps, so to speak, we should be able to return to smaller-scale and more localized food systems, which would enable us to break free from today’s dominant system. To get us there, Elton maps out the key steps needed in each of the next three decades that will bring us closer to a more sustainable way to feed ourselves. These steps form the three main sections of the book and revolve around the broad themes of soil, seeds and culture. Soil entails more environmentally attuned food production systems that embrace agro-ecological farming methods that give nutrients back to the soil and help to regulate the climate. Seeds refer to the need to maintain diversity in what we grow if we want to protect ourselves from genetic erosion that can wipe out crop and animal varieties. And culture focuses on place-based food systems that provide a close link between farmers and eaters. If we focus on these components, she argues, we can build a more sustainable food system.

Elton travelled across three continents and talked at length with leaders in alternative food movements and others who are deeply engaged in food issues to glean lessons. Her conversations with these fascinating individuals in India, China, France, Canada and the United States reveal that the seeds of alternative systems for food and agriculture have found fertile ground and are already taking root. The examples she highlights are just a small sample of the many extraordinary people around the world who are devoting their lives to building sustainable food alternatives.

Elton introduces us to a successful organic farmer and community organizer from India named Chandrakalabai, whose story is revisited throughout the book. Formerly a subsistence farmer who had adopted the “modern” agricultural methods of the green revolution that included hybrid seeds and chemicals, she had difficulty making ends meet. Finding the resources to purchase the necessary inputs to farm in this way was an ongoing challenge, and the chemicals bothered her skin. By the 1990s, Chandrakalabai had had enough and switched to organic farming methods that she learned about from a local non-governmental organization. The results were transformative. Her farm became a resounding success, and improved her income, the quality of her soil and her health.

Elton also spent time with an elderly artisanal cheese producer in the Aubrac mountain region of France, who has worked tirelessly to protect local farming and food production traditions. She visited with rare cattle breed advocates in the Charlevoix region of Quebec who aim to enhance genetic diversity by reviving the threatened Canadienne dairy cows that produce a special kind of milk used in local cheese production. Elton met with a local woman who explained the challenges of preserving seed diversity in the rice terraces of Yunnan in China, and visited with an Ontario couple who dramatically transformed their industrial tobacco farm into a successful grass-fed organic cattle ranch.

In highlighting these and other inspiring examples, the thrust of Elton’s book is to call for a commitment to a new approach to food and agriculture. She shows that producers who have opted out of the dominant system to create local alternatives for eaters can be highly successful. And she makes the case that others should follow them. She stresses: “We need farmers. Particularly family farmers, who provide ecological goods and services to society as stewards of the land. And these small farmers don’t need to be poor.”

Bottom-up initiatives to build a new food system that Elton calls for are of course important, but on their own they are unlikely to be sufficient to effect the kind of systemic change needed before it is game over for agriculture due to climate change. The dominant food system is deeply entrenched. It is enmeshed in our economic and social systems in complex ways. Action is required on multiple fronts at the same time if we are to make profound and widely accessible change that goes beyond serving niche markets. Here are two further areas for action that will be vital for building sustainable food systems: the very macro scale of governance systems and the very micro scale of personal choice of diet.

First, a major overhaul of the rules and norms that govern the dominant global food system is urgently needed if we want the bottom-up alternatives Elton calls for to thrive and grow. The laws, agreements and regulations that guide practice provide the base upon which food systems are built and shape how they operate. The current rules encourage and reinforce a global-scale industrial food system, making broad-based and widely accessible alternatives particularly challenging to foster. Even if some producers and consumers choose to break free from the dominant system, they are still affected by it. The environmental impact of the system as a whole, including its contribution to climate change, is hard to escape. And those producing for alternative markets still operate within a broader context in which large supermarket chains offer comparatively lower prices and capture the lion’s share of the food dollars spent by average consumers.

It is important to remember that the global industrial food system rose to dominance in the first place because the rules and regulations governing it rewarded “efficient” production and consumption on a large scale. Governments have long been heavily involved in shaping the sector in this direction. As Elton notes, they supported public investment in the development and promotion of the new seeds and inputs of the green revolution in order to increase production. Governments played a big role in expanding global markets for grain through food aid, subsidies and other export promotion policies. At the same time, there has been a distinct lack of government rules to prevent excessive corporate concentration, which has encouraged transnational agrifood companies to grow enormously in size. Governments also relaxed the rules so that financial investors were able to pour billions of speculative dollars into agricultural commodity futures markets in recent decades.

Given this governance framework, it is not surprising that the global industrial food system dominates. If we want to fully support the development of smaller-scale, environmentally sensitive food systems, we need to go beyond just encouraging producers and consumers to opt out of the existing system. We need to convince governments to build a new framework of rules and practices that promotes food production and consumption on a more human scale. Such a framework should prioritize a shift in government support from industrial to ecologically sensitive agricultural farming methods, so that farmers can more easily switch to organic production. Also needed are stronger regulations on financial markets to curtail speculation in agricultural commodities as well as fairer international trade rules to ensure that developing country farmers are not outcompeted by a flood of cheap grains from industrialized countries. Stronger rules are needed to limit corporate concentration in the agrifood sector and to enforce standards in global value chains that ensure fairness to farmers and environmental protection. Localized production and distribution could also be better supported with reduced subsidies for fossil fuels. And rules to ensure that productive farmland is apportioned to farmers in a fair and equitable manner are sorely needed.

A number of voluntary initiatives have emerged in recent decades that go some of the way toward creating parallel rule structures for alternative food markets, but these remain small in scale compared to the global picture. Fair trade and organic certification systems, for example, have become popular among those wanting more sustainable options. But certified alternative food products, while important and growing in both size and scope, still only make up a tiny share of global food markets. The fair trade coffee market accounts for just 1 percent of the global coffee trade. And less than 5 percent of global food sales are certified organic. Scholars have also raised important questions about the quality of the standards and accountability systems associated with various food certification systems. Voluntary initiatives like these, while an important step, are limited in the face of the policy and governance changes required. We need government buy-in for a sustainable food system and strong state-backed rules to support it. No doubt the political process involved in this effort will be difficult, messy and mired in debate. But it is worth the effort if we are serious about long-term sustainability within the food system.

Second, diet at an individual level also deserves a bigger role in the sustainability makeover plan for our food system. The global industrial food system serves up some dubious processed “food” products, from brightly coloured breakfast cereals to the notorious “pink slime” (centrifuge-extracted beef particles used as meat filler). We should think twice about consuming such foods, especially because they rely heavily on fossil fuels in their processing, packaging and transport, not to mention the dangers these products can pose to our health and well-being. But we also need to be much more aware of the environmental consequences of all the foods we eat. The environmental impact of meat consumption in particular and animal products more broadly is not discussed by Elton, despite the book’s focus on the power of individual action as a major transformative force. Organic meat and dairy production are in fact featured in the book as examples of sustainable food initiatives. But an individual choice to eat an entirely or at least mostly plant-based diet would make an enormous contribution to both food security and sustainability on a global scale.

Around 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are linked directly to the livestock sector. The emissions specifically tied to livestock—methane, nitrous oxide and ammonia—also contribute to other environmental problems such as acidification of ecosystems. Toxins from animal wastes, clear-cutting of forests to make way for grazing land, and high levels of water use are also associated with meat production. Moreover, most of the world’s corn and soy crop actually feeds animals destined for supermarket meat sections rather than being directly consumed by humans. And the meat sector’s use of energy is highly inefficient compared to the plant-based food sector. On average, the fossil energy input to output ratio of the livestock sector is a whopping 25 to one compared to grains at just over two to one.

Organic meat and dairy production, as promoted by Elton, typically has a lower environmental footprint than large-scale confined animal feeding operations typical of the industrial food system. The difference, however, is not particularly stark. For example, a recent survey of research on this topic in Europe shows that while energy use and greenhouse gas emissions are lower per product unit for organic compared to conventionally produced beef, emissions are actually higher per product unit for some organic dairy products and for pork. Organic meat production still uses vast quantities of water and requires large areas of land for grazing.

Determining which method of meat and dairy production is more environmentally friendly is not really the issue. Rather, it is the amount of meat and animal products that humans consume and its overall impact on the planet that we should be concerned about. Meat consumption has increased sharply over the past 50 years in most countries around the world, increasing from an annual average of 23 kilograms to 42 kilograms between 1961 and 2009. Canadians eat on average around 95 kilograms of meat per person per year, nearly 25 kilograms per person more than they did 50 years ago. In the United States over that same period, meat consumption increased from 89 kilograms to more than 120 kilograms per person. If individuals would take the step of eliminating or drastically reducing their consumption of animal products, it would go a long way toward building sustainability into the food system.

Overall, Elton’s book provides an excellent entry point into the broader debate about how we can sustainably feed the planet in a hostile and changing climate. Her focus on bottom-up, producer-centred initiatives is an important ingredient to building a lasting ecologically and socially sensitive food system. Such initiatives, however, require strong governance systems to support them. And if these measures are combined with a major shift toward a more plant-based diet, we will be much more likely to achieve the kind of sustainable food system that Elton envisions.