Profile Books, £12.99
Review: Stephen Cadogan
This is the most readable explanation that I have come across, of one of the world’s most pressing problems.
It takes only a few well chosen sentences for McMahon to sum up the story of food, and how it has transformed in the past 70 years.
He has written major reports on sustainable food, as an adviser to the Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Now, it’s our turn to benefit from his wisdom, and we learn that the world has only 41 net food exporter countries.
Agricultural progress has been built on cheap energy and lack of care for the environment, and has been very unequally shared out.
McMahon describes a typical American farmer, driving a 300-horsepower tractor, guided by global positioning satellites, planting genetically modified seeds on hundreds of hectares.
The sub-Saharan African farmer still uses hand tools, plants low yielding seeds, and depends heavily on slash and burn to restore soil fertility on his two hectare farm.
The typical African farm would not look out of place in mediaeval Europe — but we will depend heavily on Africa to feed a world of nine billion 37 years from now.
As it stands, the global food system has evolved into rich countries like the US, where just 3% work in farming, exporting food to poor countries where three out of four work in agriculture.
African farmers can triple their continent’s food output without putting any new land under the plough — and that kind of progress is imperative now, after myriad factors have brought the food system to a crisis point.
These factors are examined here in revealing detail — but suffice to say that a supply and demand mismatch was the fundamental trigger for food riots worldwide in 2008, and aftershocks since then which have amounted more or less to a permanent food crisis.
With 219,000 new mouths to feed every day, McMahon poses the difficult question: not should we be scared, but how scared should we be?
We’ll be OK if we use resources wisely, according to the top scientists — but when did that ever happen?
The author expects winners and losers. Some will go hungry. How many and where will depend on food-for-biofuel, the weaponisation and financialisation of food, the apparent willingness which some nations have already shown to starve their neighbours, and many other trends.
If things go bad, look out for repeats in Africa of Ireland’s 19th Century famine situation of starvation in the midst of food exports.
Look out for more “Arab springs” where fast growing young populations and food riots help to trigger regime change.
But hopefully, enough policy makers will read this book and keep going to the last chapter, and Paul McMahon’s list of routes to a more just and sustainable food system.
Because he knows what he is talking about, and how to put it across.
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