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Forget Interstellar – when it comes to our food there is no planet B

A family in Niger returns home from their fields.
A family in Niger returns home from their fields. (photo: Rachel Palmer/Save the Children)

Last week I watched Interstellar. It’s a great film… well, at least, I think it is.

To be honest, I started daydreaming long before Matthew McConaughey’s intergalactic space travel.  Instead, what I found captivating were the dust-bowl-esque, ‘meanwhile-back-on-earth’ moments. During these scenes my mind started to wander and I found myself thinking about the prospect of crop failure and food insecurity – a far more frightening and thought-provoking issue for me than the characters’ deep space encounter with frozen clouds, worm holes or [insert another spoiler].

Food insecurity already affects hundreds of millions of people, and this blog really should be about them. But I confess, this wasn’t what I thought about in the cinema. Instead, I indulged in the film’s science fiction to contemplate the resilience of our overall food system.

My sci-fi fears…

The threat to our agriculture is not nearly as fanciful as the rest of the film. To borrow a food metaphor, we currently put way too many eggs in way too few baskets. For example, when you look at food energy intake, our diets rely on just a handful of the world’s 50,000 edible plants. The real giants, the ones ‘far too big to fail’, maize, wheat and rice, account for more than half of all calories consumed by humans worldwide – with soybeans important too, especially for feeding livestock.

When you’re talking about the dinners of over 7 billion people, isn’t it more than just a bit reckless to rely on the successful harvest of these three crops every single year? Especially in a world threatened by climate change, pests, diseases, droughts, floods conflicts, erratic weather patterns and earthquakes.

Take the case of rice. 75% of rice is grown in lowland areas, which doesn’t bode well considering that experts are forecasting 1-metre rise in sea levels this century. Maize, wheat and soy are unlikely to do much better in the face of droughts, floods and rising temperatures brought on by global warming.

… but worse still

There’s no use consoling ourselves with the fact that the film’s total crop failure is far-fetched. The truth is that even far less dramatic food shocks have the capacity to shake our civilization. We don’t need a crystal ball to know this; we already have plenty of evidence.

For example, in 2008, when the price of rice tripled in just six months, we learnt that drought in major grain and cereal producing regions can spark a sequence of political events with dramatic consequences. Indeed, price spikes in 2008, and again in 2011, quickly pushed 44 million people into poverty, and caused widespread food riots around the world. They may have even sparked the Arab Spring.

With a ‘business as usual’ approach, the signs are not good – and the evidence suggests things could get a lot worse. You only need to look at changing consumption patterns (ie, more meat and dairy), the use of arable land for biofuel cultivation, climate change, historically high oil prices, water scarcity, the speculative trading of food commodities and burgeoning population growth to know we’ve got some serious problems.

Rays of hope?

The ray of hope is that since 2008 the global commitment to nutrition and food security is arguably “stronger than it has ever been”. More than 54 countries are working through the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement to improve nutrition,  the Nutrition for Growth initiative rolls on to Rio 2016, and last week the UN’s Second International Conference on Nutrition took place, albeit with mixed results.

At Save the Children we’re working to reduce the number of children dying or being stunted due to malnutrition. For me, in the Policy & Advocacy team, this means working around the world through civil society alliances to progress all three of the above initiatives, and to keep nutrition a political priority for donors and for countries, especially those already with high rates of malnutrition.


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