Uncertain Harvest: The Future of Food on a Warming Planet

By Evan Osenton

by Ian Mosby, Sarah Rotz and Evan D.G. Fraser University of Regina Press 2020/$27.95/256 pp.

By 2050 somehow we’ll need to feed 10 billion humans while also having reduced the vast harms of food production, not least its water pollution, deforestation and contributions to climate change. It’s a daunting prospect—or, if you like, a worthy challenge. Uncertain Harvest critiques various ways we might get there, from “precision” industrial agriculture done by self-driving, data-harvesting tractors, to one- to two-acre organic farming, to lab-grown meat, photosynthesis-hacked rice and powdered crickets.

In lively writing, academics Ian Mosby (Ryerson), Sarah Rotz (York) and Evan D.G. Fraser (Guelph) explore food production across the world but use many Canadian examples. They lay out the global situation and near-term environmental projections, then set context in a short “history of the future of food.” This includes Thomas Malthus’s “unrelentingly grim” 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population; Haber, Bosch and Borlaug’s Green Revolution; utopian visions of a humanity fed by yeast and algae; Rachel Carson’s sobering Silent Spring.

Contemporary issues are framed by foods that lend each chapter its title. “Caribou” shows northern Indigenous people in Canada grappling with the loss of their traditional diets even as southerners “promote the warming Arctic as an agricultural and energy frontier.” The chapter “Millet” asks what role technology will play in parts of the world where subsistence farming dominates. In “Tuna” we learn how relentless deregulation by corporate-friendly governments makes food production less transparent and food contamination more common (e.g., one in five Canadian sausages contain a meat not listed among the ingredients).

“Kale” explores the sustainability of farming in Canada, where startup costs, debt, acreage and farmers’ ages creep ever upward, while consolidation, chemical-use and dependence on foreign workers expand. The authors’ analysis of small organic farming shows lower profits but better margins, less debt and more appeal to young farmers. If billions of dollars in public subsidies to industrial farming were ended and externalities better priced in, they argue, food would cost more but the drift to “corporate, concentrated and exploitative” farming would reverse. (Higher prices would also cut Canadians’ shocking rate of food waste.)

“Crickets” covers alternatives to CO2-intensive beef and to fish (whose wild stocks are collapsing), including bug-protein, test-tube meat and plant-based burgers. The authors largely dismiss these; too expensive, too weird, beans already exist, we’ll learn to eat less meat. But the scarcely believable claims being made about these products’ minuscule water, CO2 and land footprints warranted a more critical and thorough analysis.

Other questions aren’t addressed. What does science say about the nutritional worth of organic vs. conventional vs. GMOs? How does “lab meat” compare nutritionally to lentils or grass-finished beef? The aim of food production can’t only be to maximize calories or shrink land use; a book on the future of food should be as curious about the quality of what we eat.

Uncertain Harvest sees much modern technology (especially GMOs) as overrated or irrelevant to humanity’s urgent needs. The authors argue strongly for a renewed role for government—tougher carbon pricing, strict food safety regulations and changes to intellectual property laws that now enrich corporations and help keep farmers deep in debt. But in late chapters “Milk” and “Rice” they’re bullish on the use of robots in dairy farming and on the potential widespread adoption both of gene-edited rice—which uses far less water and fertilizer—and Sierra Mixe corn, native to Mexico, which fixes its own nitrogen from the air, no chemicals or gene-splicing required. An existential crisis requires critical faculties and an open mind.

Evan Osenton is the editor of Alberta Views.

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