Can We Break the Cycle of War and Famine?

Vandana Shiva, an Indian environmental activist, once described growing one’s own food as “the most revolutionary act.” That idea is clearly echoed in “Food or War,” by Australian climate scholar Julian Cribb, in which he suggests that climate change threatens the very foundations of agriculture and calls for a scientific food revolution. Ignoring the profound global challenges that endanger farming systems, he argues, may lead to extensive warfare and famine in the near future.

BOOK REVIEW — “Food or War,” by Julian Cribb (Cambridge University Press, 350 pages).

“The most destructive object on the planet,” Cribb writes, “is the human jawbone.” Our agricultural ingenuity has enabled us to masterfully exploit our natural resources, Cribb maintains, but looming food insecurity, thanks to desertification, topsoil loss, dead zones in the ocean, and other climatic hazards, will ultimately lead to wars.

“That food wars will happen is totally predictable — on the strength of what has occurred regularly during the past 20,000 years, and what is happening right now in terms of rising food demand from a shrinking resource base,” he writes. Despite his dire prognosis, Cribb later outlines several ways to avoid such wars, mainly through innovative “food for peace” farming techniques that he hopes will “see humanity through the human population peak of the mid-21st century, and down the other side.”

Cribb, a fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, has made a career writing books on existential risks with alarming titles like “Poisoned Planet” or “Surviving the 21st Century.” To build his case in “Food or War,” he draws on numerous historical examples that may seem, on the surface, entirely unrelated to food scarcity, such as the 30 Years’ War, fought in 17th-century Europe. But that conflict and numerous others have been linked to localized fluctuations in climate, such as “The Little Ice Age,” a period of cooling between the 16th and 19th centuries, that resulted in crop failure, starvation, and ultimately war. Similar climatic links have been proposed for the fall of the Roman Empire, the collapse of the Ming dynasty in 17th-century China, and even harsh winters that preceded major crop failures leading to the Russian Revolution of 1905.

War itself, of course, also results in starvation. At least 105 million people have died from famine or forced starvation since 1870, more than half the total killed in combat. And wartime malnourishment can lead to still more conflicts, as in the case of roiling civil wars that have plagued Sudan since 1955. Like Ouroboros, the mythical snake that eats itself, war and famine are deeply interconnected.

Modern hostilities are no exception, Cribb notes, citing examples across the Middle East and Northern Africa. Hunger is now commonly weaponized, as in conflicts like the Yemen civil war, currently the world’s largest food crisis with approximately 56 percent of the population — some 17 million people — facing life-threatening food shortages. The complex cause of the Yemen war traces back in part, Cribb notes, to regional food insecurity, when approximately 40 percent of people lived below the poverty line, most suffering from some form of malnutrition, according to The Guardian. This instability was a stimulating component of the 2010 Arab Spring, a revolt that dissolved into the humanitarian disaster witnessed today.

Cribb underlines similar trends in Syria and South Sudan, warning that similar conflicts are likely to unfold as climate change batters humanity’s ability to grow food. Heat waves, freakishly powerful flood storms, and ecosystem collapse — events that now occur on a weekly basis, according to the United Nations — make farming, and thus global food supply, extremely precarious.

Cribb writes that “there is no country, no matter how food secure it may deem itself, that is immune from this type of conflict once politics, climate, environmental collapse, and military power compound their lethal brew.” This threat is especially dire in Southeast Asia, Cribb warns, as two nuclear-armed nations, Pakistan and India, are beset by water shortages and rampant pollution. Even a relatively small nuclear engagement could lead to global crop failure.

Because “Food and War” is so unsparingly bleak — at least initially — readers may find themselves suffering from “eco-anxiety,” a despairing helplessness about the future. But the book abruptly shifts tone in the final third, projecting optimism about the technology and scientific advancements that can break the cycle of war and famine. Cribb’s proposed solutions highlight ecofriendly trends in science, agriculture, and even the dining scene that might actually ensure human survival, as well as increased efforts to ensure farmers a living wage.

One example he cites is urban farming, using methods like hydroponics, compost, and thorough sewage recycling that enable cities to feed themselves. So far, no city on earth is capable of becoming self-sufficient, Cribb acknowledges, but pursuing ways to bring food sources closer to urbanites would reduce the risk of cities collapsing should climatic disaster or war strike.

He also promotes the idea of investing in food security via education, rewilding, and eco-farming. As one example, he cites the Great Green Wall of Africa, an $8 billion project aimed at pushing back against the encroaching Sahara with a 5,000-mile wall of trees. He quotes Monique Barbut, executive secretary of the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification, who says this rampart of vegetation is “bringing a coordinated and harmonized response to food security and peace.”

Meanwhile, Cribb writes, global military spending swelled to $1.8 trillion in 2018. If a mere 20 percent of military spending was instead invested in ecological restoration, he argues, “we would have a very good chance of ending the Sixth Extinction, warding off ecological collapse, protecting the very ecological services that give us clean air and water, creating a climate-resilient food supply, and reducing significantly the tensions between competing groups that lead to war.”

The cost? Approximately $340 billion per year, he writes, or about $46 per person on earth.

It’s easy for wealthy Western nations to take food for granted, the web of industry that brings us cheap bananas, coffee, and avocados. But as “Food or War” exposes how fragile these threads truly are, it can create dual feelings of apprehension for the future and a deep appreciation for the things we eat. It may be important to hold both viewpoints simultaneously as we edge closer to the middle of the century.

Cribb concludes that we already have the technology and resources — from the rise of “slow food” to aquaponics, meat alternatives, and algae farms that suck up carbon dioxide — to feed the planet and ward off climate devastation, enabling us to gracefully exit the Information Age and enter what he calls the Age of Food.

The question is: Do we have the willpower?

Troy Farah is an independent journalist from Southwest California. His reporting on drug policy and science has appeared in WIRED, The Guardian, Discover Magazine, VICE and more. He co-hosts the drug policy podcast Narcotica. Follow him on Twitter @filth_filler