‘Those of us who study food for a living know things have the potential to get really, really bad,” reads the joint statement issued by a trio of Canadian food scientists in their preface to this eerily prescient investigation into our world’s food supply, bolstered by an even more sinister quote from a U.K. colleague: “Most cities have something like a three day supply of food on hand at any given time.”
Each contributor to this timely analysis of global food production brings a learned awareness of the delicate balance that exists between food supply, population growth and climate change.
Ian Mosby teaches at Ryerson University in Toronto and is the author of Food Will Win the War (2014); fellow Torontonian Sarah Rotz studies political ecologies of land and food systems and teaches at York University; Evan Fraser is the author of Empires of Food (2010) and holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security.
Their often-similar but sometimes-dissenting views were assembled in 2019, well before the arrival of the current global pandemic, but with typical science-driven caution the authors acknowledge how variables such as natural disasters, epidemics and inept governance can drastically alter food-producing capacities of entire regions.
Concerns voiced by this trio of scientists may be unsettling for readers as they learn that even these experts fail to definitively answer two fundamental questions driving the book’s theme: “What will we be eating in the future? And how are we going to produce it?”
Unlike glossy photo-laden cookbooks currently weighing down kitchen shelves throughout the well-fed western world, this food book makes no promise of a satisfying meal in the not-too-distant future.
Almost one third of its length consists of end notes and references, signifying a scholarly look at how different foods have sustained us in the past while revealing new foods we may consume as climate change forces growers and producers to adapt to different realities.
Readers will learn about a complex, existential problem likely to confront us by the middle of this century when our planet, already overheated by the burning of fossil fuels, is inhabited by a projected 10 billion people — at the same time as arable land acreage declines and melting sea ice alters ocean environments already stressed by overfishing.
Featuring an abundance of anecdotes supplementing fact-based, data-driven analyses, the book is conveniently divided into eight sections, each bearing the name of a particular food currently produced and consumed, or one that’s often been touted as a life-saver, like algae currently flourishing in lakes polluted by the overuse of chemical fertilizers.
Fortunately, given the unsavoury optics posed by a slimy, green mass, we’re told that edible algae remains “vastly more expensive to produce than soybeans” and isn’t likely to rival the veggie burgers currently in vogue in fast-food franchises.
Seven other sections, symbolically titled and suggesting other foods similar in nutritional value and environmental impacts, offer the writers opportunities to assess them as viable future food sources within the context of global warming.
For example, sections titled “Caribou” and “Millet” compare the benefits of encouraging traditional, pre-colonial food production among Indigenous people everywhere, while sections titled “Milk” and “Rice” address the positive and negative effects of technology on food production.
Genetically modified cereal crops promise ever-increasing yields, while artificial intelligence operated robotic milking machines on experimental dairy farms suggests a future with happier animals and a surplus of cheese.
Yet data provided from Canadian and American farms prove what we already know: Fewer farms are being operated by increasingly older farmers and food processing and distribution is consolidated in fewer and fewer hands, a process the writers feel is “not sustainable in the long run.”
With whispers of food supply chain disruptions now commonplace, Uncertain Harvest is a must-read.
Joseph Hnatiuk is a retired teacher still hesitant about trying a veggie burger.