Waste: Uncovering the global food scandal by Tristram Stuart
Published by: Penguin
EVERY minute, 17 people die of hunger, 10 of them children. For years that number had been going down. Then, two years ago, it started rising again. We live in a world of record harvests, a world in which obesity is the main food-related health problem for many. Yet hunger is again on the march.
Compared to swine flu or the credit crunch, famine seems an old-fashioned, even Biblical worry - or worse, something from the 1980s. Surely those whopredicted worldwide famine in the recent past were wrong. So won't today's warnings of catastrophic food shortages prove equally unfounded?
Unfortunately not. We produce our record harvests by harnessing fossil-fuel energy for farming. Thermodynamics rules: you can't get something for nothing. Oil prices have begun to climb, and will keep climbing as oil sources diminish. Meanwhile, demand for food grows. So food prices are on the rise, boosted further by climate change, demand for biofuel, and limits on soil and water. Higher food prices mean that the impoverished eat less nutritiously - or simply less.
Last year, high prices sparked food riots around the world, and global attention briefly turned to the crisis. It has since looked elsewhere, but the crisis continues, and now it has spawned a crop of books analysing what causes hunger and what we might do to stave it off.
Food is our biggest and most complex industry, and faced with such an elephant, different authors understandably focus on different bits. For a general wrap-up of how we got into this mess and what we need to do about it, you can't do better than Enough by Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman. This very readable book argues that the agricultural science and technology of the green revolution, which ended famine in much of the world last century, was on the whole a good thing, and that we need more of it.
Not everyone agrees. Historically two camps have battled it out in the famine wars. One side argues that we already grow enough food for everyone, and that we merely fail to distribute it fairly; the other says we need to grow more. The title of Enough suggests that the authors belong firmly in the first camp, but the book is crammed with moving descriptions of why the second is often right. For instance, the authors talk with African farmers who want to grow more food, not be given it.
Some argue that we already grow enough food for everyone, but fail to distribute it fairly
In reality, both sides are right. But some of those in the second camp have sown bitterness by painting famine as a "natural and inevitable brake on human population". This warped view is admirably corrected by Cormac Ó Gráda inFamine, a scholarly but approachable history of famine through the ages.
Ó Gráda finds that famine may never have been the main regulator of human populations, and is now largely relegated to history. Thanks to our huge harvests, we have never had it so good. Sure, there are occasional harrowing pictures of famine in Africa, but at the sight of them the world rushes to feed its victims. It hasn't always, as Irish history shows.
Ó Gráda believes that only war and blockade will cause a renewed upsurge in famine in the future, but he fails to connect all the dots. For instance, he sees last year's price crisis as a temporary blip, while many agricultural economists do not. Ultimately, this book tracks where famine has been, and less where it is going.
So what of the issue of distribution? In Waste, Tristram Stuart shows how we could have much more food overnight simply by not tossing away so much of it. This simple concept ingeniously unites many food scandals that often do not get the attention they deserve: the mould that destroys a third or more of Third World harvests; the fish caught by accident that must be thrown back, dead, under rules intended to conserve stocks; the millions of tonnes of edible food wasted by modern food processing and "sell-by" dates; even western squeamishness about eating "every part of the pig but the squeal".
We waste a stupendous amount of food for a planet with so many starving people. Usefully, Stuart offers examples of what we could be doing better, from processing technologies to offal sausages.
Finally, in Let Them Eat Junk, Robert Albritton speaks a language that has gone unheard for too long. Karl Marx felt that capitalism's focus on short-term profit was a recipe for disaster when it came to agriculture. Now Albritton shows that, in many ways, the old man was right.
Albritton's hard science is iffy - for instance, he says one study shows that organic farms produce three times as much as standard ones, which it didn't. Still, the book is well worth a read for its Marxist analysis of the capitalist problem Marx may have understood best. These days, we need all the insights we can get.
Debora MacKenzie is a New Scientist correspondent based in Brussels