An urgent call to rescue world's food supplies

By Julian Cribb
Published by the University of California Press, $24.95

Opened in 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located on the remote Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, just a thousand kilometers from the North Pole. The vault is intended to rescue the world’s food system from catastrophe by preserving seeds of our essential crops so they can be multiplied for re-sowing in the aftermath of any big disaster. Within deep tunnels burrowed into the permafrost is a collection that already shelters half a million seeds, ranging from staples like corn, rice, wheat and lentils to eggplant, tomato, banana and potato.

Cary Fowler, a renowned crop scientist and one of the advisors on this project, speaks of the gathering of a perfect storm of events that menace the world’s food supplies: the dwindling of the world’s rivers and groundwater, the vast demands for increasingly scarce energy, the growth in human need for food and the shrinking of grain reserves, the underinvestment in science, and, above all, the devastating changes in climate that are already starting to be felt but with the worst yet to come.

“Our agricultural systems have been adapted to climates which are about to become extinct,” Fowler says.

In The Coming Famine, Australian journalist Julian Cribb presents a smart and compelling description of the challenges our children will likely face as the world’s growing population and our shrinking resources collide. The author cites credible research and finds a measured path between sounding a dire warning and offering hope, yet there is urgency behind every word.

The Svalbard Vault is part of an array of evidence Cribb assembles to show both the deepening and widening concern over global food security and the positive steps being taken to deal with that concern.

The book does a good job of clearing our vision and loosening up our rigid preconceptions. If you’re inclined perhaps to feel that science together with agriculture will solve any problems coming along, his chapters on agriculture research and development are sobering. Most places in the United States have abundant water, making it harder to pay close attention to the water woes of China and Africa. We also fail to appreciate the connection between famine and ethnic strife.

Cribb says one of the major problems of the current food system -- in the developed world at least -- is an increasing ignorance of the means of food production. As more people move to city centers, the less they know about where their food comes from. Most think food simply grows on supermarket shelves, and don’t consider the environmental impacts of food production. Food has many hidden costs: huge volumes of water, energy use in the form of nonrenewable fossil fuels, land degradation, depletion of soil quality. Consumers add their own costs by simply throwing away so much food. The figures for food waste in the West are staggering.

Midpoint in the book the author presents a scenario from the future. A child living at the end of this century is taken into a museum that commemorates the severe depredations and environmental catastrophes that have been the mainstay of the news for decades by then. The exhibit features the single most influential culprit -- an early 21st-century cookbook.

Cribbs gives details on how our current ways of eating have far-reaching, destructive consequences.

His book urges readers to take a better look at the source of our larders, to view our green, sprinkler-watered lawns with an eye toward permaculture and food plants, and to become thriftier with water and less wasteful generally. There are action plans here at the macro and micro levels that might just save the planet.

Cribb describes it as the most urgent issue facing humanity in the 21st century, perhaps in all of history: the planetary emergency over whether or not we can sustain our food supply through the midcentury peak in human numbers, demand and needs, focusing attention on the demand pressures of population growth and increased human appetites -- the twin “elephants in the kitchen.”

Cribb offers practical suggestions in every chapter that encourage the reader to commit to positive actions. For example, in his chapter on climate change, Cribb suggests rebalancing our diets toward foods with a smaller carbon footprint; reducing consumption of meat, oils and dairy products; selecting seasonal, locally grown foods.

Getting discouraged? Plant a garden or, at least, visit your nearby farmers’ markets.

[Rich Heffern is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is]

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here