Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute, points out that earlier civilizations often collapsed because of food shortages brought on by unsound agricultural practices. The Sumerian civilization sank because their soil was ruined by rising salt levels, the result of a design flaw in their irrigation system. The Mayan empire fell due to soil erosion, caused by excessive land clearance to feed their population. We now stand in a similar position, facing an acute threat to our own food system, and the immediate danger comes from a changing climate. But there is a major difference between our civilization and earlier ones: we have a clear scientific understanding of the roots of the crisis and are thus in a better position to respond to it. Collapse is not inevitable. The big question we face is not a “why” but a “whether”: whether we will act effectively before it’s too late.

Brown also says, in the same context, that economic and social collapse was almost always preceded by a period of environmental decline. This indicates that there is generally a margin of time in which we can pull back from the brink. We’re now in that phase of decline, and the need to act promptly and decisively to preserve the world’s food system cannot be overemphasized. We’ve already delayed too long. At present close to a billion people suffer from chronic hunger and malnutrition. If the food system fails to produce enough food to feed the planet, millions more, mostly children, will be consigned to a life of perpetual want, even to death by starvation. In countries stricken with food shortages, social chaos will erupt and food riots will break out. Migration will increase from poor countries to more affluent ones, triggering a backlash of resentment. States in the poorest regions will totter and fail, perhaps unleashing more waves of violent terrorism.

Avoiding such a fate requires rapid changes to our energy system, a transition from an economy driven by fossil fuels to a leaner economy powered by benign sources of energy. At the same time, we must promote greater equity between the global North and South in a collaborative effort to end hunger everywhere. Such changes, however, could not be easily implemented on the basis of our present scale of values, which exalts profits and economic expansion even by ripping apart the natural systems on which the economy depends. Our culture will have to change in its fundamentals: from one that celebrates luxury, power, and consumption to one that honors sufficiency, generosity, social justice, and the integrity of the biosphere.

The problem of food security is exacerbated by the projected rise in global population from 7 billion to 9.3 billion people by 2050. A growing population exerts more pressure on the world’s food supply not only because there will be many more mouths to feed, but also because more of those mouths will be eating higher on the food chain. As people in developing economies rise in social status they choose a diet rich in meat and dairy over one based primarily on plants. Since it takes several pounds of grain to produce a pound of meat, grain stocks that would otherwise go to feed hungry people would instead be used to feed livestock in order to provide meat and dairy for the affluent. According to a recent report from the World Resources Institute, unless the affluent restrain their demand for animal products, worldwide food calories will need to increase by about 60 percent from 2006 levels if we’re to feed everyone adequately.

But while agriculture must be empowered to feed a larger population, it will have to employ methods of cultivation that minimize its negative impact on the environment. Modern industrial agriculture harms the environment in at least three ways: (1) by the degradation of ecosystems, particularly through deforestation and loss of biodiversity; (2) by its demands on the world’s sources of fresh water, 80 to 90% of which is used by agriculture; and (3) by emitting massive amounts of greenhouse gases, which aggravate climate change. At present, agriculture accounts for about 25% of greenhouse gas emissions. These include methane from livestock, nitrous oxide from fertilizer use, and carbon dioxide from machinery, transport, and land use change. Meat and dairy production emits far higher amounts of greenhouse gases than crop cultivation, ranging from 16 times more for beef to 4.6 times more for chicken. This provides another strong argument for reducing consumption of meat.

The ecological footprints of six foods
 Source: Oxfam, “Growing a Better Future”

While agriculture contributes to climate change, a changing climate rebounds on agriculture both suddenly and gradually. As the climate warms, such periodic phenomena as long droughts, blistering heat waves, and torrential floods become more common, ravaging land, devastating harvests, and pushing up food prices. In the years ahead, such violent fluctuations in the weather are bound to become still more frequent—“the new normal”—further reducing yields and increasing world hunger. What makes such attacks of nature so scary is that they are erratic. Since the climate is a closed integrated system, abuses in one region can trigger effects anywhere and everywhere, and our ability to predict them is very limited.

Though freak weather events are certainly destructive and costly, incremental climate change, the slow warming of the planet, may be even more insidious. This is particularly the case because the gradual increase in global temperature occurs beneath the threshold of perception and thus tends to escape notice. Yet the plants themselves notice. Agro-ecologists report that for each degree of Celsius rise in temperature above the norm, crop yields decline by 10%. On current projections, in a world where global temperature increases by 3 °C above pre-industrial levels—which is almost inevitable on our current trajectory—virtually all of Africa, Latin America, South and Southeast Asia, and southern China will witness drastic reductions in fecundity. Large chunks of the U.S., including much of the Grain Belt, will also become less fertile. The big winners in agricultural productivity will be Canada and Russian Siberia.

Rising global temperatures also impinge negatively on our water supply. Almost all modern agriculture depends on irrigation systems, many of which draw their water from rivers. In much of the world, the rivers get their water from mountain glaciers, which store snow in the winter and discharge the snowmelt into the rivers in the summer. However, as the climate grows warmer, the glaciers have been losing mass at alarming rates, putting at risk many of the world’s most fertile growing regions. Major glaciers—in the Himalayas, the Kush Mountains, and the Andes—are visibly shrinking, threatening the food security of the huge populations of India, China, Southeast Asia, Pakistan, and the Andean states of South America.

The danger that climate change poses to the world’s food security should move us to action. If we acknowledged the threat with utter seriousness, we would already be doing our utmost to stem the tide of global warming. We would not tolerate the evasive lies and denials passed off on us by servile politicians beholden to their corporate benefactors, nor would we settle for flabby regulations that seldom cut emissions more than minimally. The world’s food system—our food system—is at stake, and that depends on a stable climate, an asset we cannot lose.

On a hotter planet global food security will become a pipe dream. Fertile land will turn barren and harvests will collapse, bringing more hunger, reducing more young bodies to skin and bones, chalking up more deaths from malnutrition and diet-related illness. The future is already in our midst. The Oxfam report “Growing a Better Future” drives home this point when it says that the risk “is not a remote future threat. It is emerging today, will intensify over the next decade, and evolve over the twenty-first century as ecology, demography, and climate change interact to create a vicious circle of vulnerability and hunger in some of the world’s poorest countries.”

If we could accept this fact viscerally, and not just as an object of thought, we would be working at breakneck speed to break our dependence on fossil fuels, replacing them with climate-friendly sources of energy such as wind, solar, and geothermal power. We would also be seeking meaning for our lives elsewhere than in the consumption of empty “goods” that provide little by way of a genuine sense of good. We would instead be recovering other dimensions of meaning driven into the background by the blind imperative of economic growth: the dimensions of human relationships, community service, aesthetic enjoyment, and spiritual cultivation. It is only a life of meaning, not quarterly dividend figures or an assortment of clever gadgets, that can bring deep fulfillment to the human spirit.

The question hangs before us as a clear-cut choice: Will we make the changes called for, and do so in time, or will we instead continue to drift along a track fraught with peril?  A short sutta in the Udāna (§59) sheds light on our current predicament. The Buddha is sitting out in the open on a dark night while oil lamps are burning in front of him. Many moths are flying around the lamps and some fly straight into the flames, where “they meet with misery and destruction.” The Buddha sees this as a simile for how people, “attached to what they see and hear,” head straight for their own destruction.

The danger to the moths was not external but came from their instinctual attraction to the flame. Similarly, the biggest obstacles we face to making the necessary changes to our social and economic systems are rooted in human nature itself. Responding to the imminent danger to global food security should activate two distinctive faculties of human beings. One is the capacity to act rationally, with deference to facts and insight into cause and effect. The other is the capacity to act morally, to guide our choices by consideration of their consequences for others. But too often we are disposed to act from other motives besides rational self-interest or the prodding of moral conscience. And thus we fly straight into our own flames.

Since greed, hatred, and delusion, being dispositions inherited from our primeval past, are deeply ingrained in us, we would often rather remain comfortably settled in the status quo than see the danger lurking beneath our feet. Keen on buying and spending, we balk at the thought that happiness might lie in the opposite direction, in simplicity and contentment. We swallow as fact the misinformation churned out by the fossil fuel propagandists, whose campaigns of deception put blinkers over our eyes and ensure that politicians and policymakers do their bidding.

Time is running out, but if we act with determination to shift away from fossil fuels to clean sources of energy, we can still prevail. Lester Brown finds hope and inspiration in the speed with which, after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. economy changed almost overnight from one designed for peace to one that could sustain war on two major fronts. The point, he says, is that “if we could restructure the U.S. industrial economy in months, then we can restructure the world energy economy during this decade.”

As Buddhists, we might see the task of preserving the world’s food system as entailed by our commitment to the twofold good: to achieving our own good from a pragmatic concern for our own long-term welfare, and to promoting the good of others from a compassionate concern for those whom our actions may affect, whether they be our contemporaries or generations as yet unborn. We might also consider it integral to our efforts to eliminate greed, hatred, and delusion, the roots of suffering. To overcome greed, we must curb our fascination with endless commodities that devour vast quantities of carbon-based energy and leave the earth in shambles. Tackling hatred entails opening our hearts to the suffering of the hundreds of millions of people whose fate would be sealed by our own indifference, by our refusal to renounce our own privileged status in order to preserve their lives. And the task of uprooting delusion demands of us that we lift our heads out from the sand, inquire into the powerful forces that are subverting the world’s food security, and gain insight into the actions we must take to ensure that everyone on this planet might thrive.

Further Reading

A Moral Politics: Nourishing change in US food policy

The Attack at Home: A new bill threatens the food security of millions 

Preserving the Fecundity of the Earth: Climate change poses the single greatest threat to the world’s food supply. But we can stop it.

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