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Global crisis on our plate

By Julian Cribb - posted Monday, 5 May 2008

Most people think of farmers as the people "out there" who grow food and, occasionally, gripe about the weather. The farmer of the 21st century, however, may be the person who rescues civilisation.

International agencies, such as the World Bank this month, are belatedly recognising the global food crisis is much closer than the climate change crisis or even the next oil crisis. Witness the recent spate of food riots and disturbances.

Only farmers can get us through this crisis. Australian governments, it is almost redundant to say, have not yet woken up to it.


According to 400 scientific experts who have spent the past four years probing the future on behalf of the World Bank and UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, agriculture is going to mean vastly more to civilisation than merely tucker on the table.

The world's two billion farmers are the guardians of much of what is left of the natural landscape, holding in their hands the fate of thousands of threatened species as well as the world's remaining forests.

Agriculture uses three-quarters of the world's fresh water. Its run-off has degraded Earth's main rivers, estuaries and even seas. It occupies 40 per cent of the world's free land surface. It is responsible for 30 per cent of global greenhouse emissions. And it represents seemingly intractable poverty, disadvantage and suffering. That is the true cost of the cheap food many of us still enjoy. For the time being.

At the back of all this is the inconvenient truth that modern civilisation is unsustainable. To exist, it relies on a continuous drawdown - sometimes amounting to total destruction - of the natural resources on which it depends for its existence. Africa's Sahel region, Russia's Aral Sea and Australia's Murray-Darling Basin illustrate the principle.

We live off our natural capital, rather than the interest it generates. And globalisation of the food trade has accelerated the process, as the country-of-origin labels in your local supermarket proclaim. As a consumer, your footprint now extends across Asia, Africa, India and many other places.

It is this principle of forever drawing down natural capital that has to change, according to the 400 scientists of the World Bank's international assessment of agricultural science and technology for development.


Resolving this issue is the scientific challenge of the age, even more pressing than greenhouse gas emissions, with which it is closely interlinked.

It requires nothing less than the reshaping of the way humanity produces food, feeds itself and manages Earth's natural resources, a system mired in 7,000 years of cultural tradition and contemporary economic and political power. According to the World Bank panel, farmers will not simply have to feed the world - a task requiring a doubling in the already immense global food supply - but also restore its forests, cleanse its waters, protect its wild species, improve its soils and absorb a substantial percentage of the carbon we all emit as we go about our lives.

The IAASTD report has already unleashed a substantial storm, as well as numerous lesser tornadoes. The sheer immensity of the challenge, the unpalatable truths it presents and the controversial answers it proffers have the international commentariat in uproar. But when one drills into the essential facts, it is hard to deny them. In our hearts we have known for some time that humanity has been living a little high on the hog.

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First published in The Australian on April 23, 2008.

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About the Author

Julian Cribb is a science communicator and author of The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. He is a member of On Line Opinion's Editorial Advisory Board.

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