”The Earth We Eat is about the most pressing question of humanity: how can we transform the most important human occupation to contribute to global sustainability and human welfare on a planet under increasing stress,” – Johan Rockström, Executive Director, Stockholm Resilience Centre.
In December 2012, Jorden vi äter was published by the Swedish Society of Nature Conservation (SSNC). In three months it sold 16,000 copies. We can now offer it in an English version – tentatively called “The Earth We Eat”.
Never before in history have we produced so much food in the world, and so cheaply. And yet, almost one billion people go hungry to bed at night.
The authors visited villages in India that are threatened by soil erosion, participated in the gambling at the Chicago Board of Trade, followed the expansion of beef and soy in the Amazonas and travelled across the dying countryside in Illinois. From maize farmers in Zambia with their muscles as the only source of power to intensive greenhouses in the Netherlands, from posh restaurants in Mumbai to the authors’ own refrigerators, the story of how our food is produced has been woven.
The Earth We Eat tells how farming shapes our world and the food we eat and how farming has been shaped by fossil fuel, mechanization and ever increasing global competition. While a supermarket stocks some 50,000 different products and we seem to have endless choices, the reality is that our food is increasingly monotonous—derived from just a handful of crops that are grown in an industrial way.
Agriculture is becoming more and more like any other industry, where different components are produced in different locations, often in different countries, and where the components are put together in huge assembly plants, chicken factories or giant pizza bakeries. But agriculture is not like any other industry, it is the foundation of our health and the health of the planet.
People and images talk to the reader through reports from visits to farms, stock exchanges, nature reserves, research institutes and restaurants in five continents. Linked to each story are facts and an easy flowing narrative. The Earth We Eat has a clear angle without being simplistic or demagogic.
The nine chapters and their main content are:
The introduction sets the stage for the book by, on the one hand, discussing the changing content of our refrigerators, and on the other hand, giving some basic data about the state of global agriculture. What we eat and how we farm influence each other. The enormous diversity in supermarket shelves is contrasted with monocultures in the fields; hunger with obesity; fossil fuel driven farming with hand-hoeing; and green revolution with organic.
The structure of the book is briefly explained and the case studies introduced.
II Travel through roundup ready land
Food and agriculture are being increasingly managed like assembly industries. The United States is a very good showcase for this.
We visit the Chicago Board of Trade to show the enormous influence market conditions have on farms. Contracts worth ten times the global production of maize is bought and sold here every year. We interview a trade developer and a trader and we also engage ourselves in speculation to demonstrate how it works.
Bob Stewart in Illinois grows GM crops, maize and soybeans only, uses fertilizers and pesticides, and sells his crop in bulk for industry, ethanol and feed. His story is the basis for discussion about soil erosion, fertilizer use, GM crops, pesticides and markets. A farmer who has chosen a very different path is Jack Erisman. He has farmed organically for the last 20 years and has a very diverse system of production as well as a diverse marketing strategy.
For a long time, agriculture in the US expanded, but this is now reversed; some lands are taken out of production because of erosion and some are taken out of production to restore nature. In the American Prairie Reserve in Montana, 10,000 bison shall co-habit over a vast area with 490,000 cows in an effort to restore the prairie. We discuss the conflict between nature and farming and also the conflicts arising around this initiative.
Its main discussion is about the expansion of agriculture in Brazil at the expense of the Amazon rainforest; how we convert big common goods of the rainforest into small private gains for farmers and landowners.
We visit the large ranch Sao Marcello, certified by the Rainforest Alliance, and the settlers Maria and Luis Vierawho have an incredibly diverse agroforestry plantation with 86 species. The Wolf’s farm seeks to integrate livestock and crops and trees on a larger scale.
The process of change is still rapid in Brazilian agriculture, and research by the governmental Embrapa institute plays a big role in this transformation. The effect of GM crops and the production of GM free soybeans is discussed with farmers and Embrapa. Weeds are becoming increasingly resistant to herbicides and instead of reducing use, GM crops has led to an increase in their use.
The main limitation for the production of food in Africa is poverty and lack of markets rather than lack of modern technology.
Susan Mkandawire is a very poor farmer in Zambia. She and her family are not starving – this year – but they have no margins and very little opportunity to get out of poverty. Godfrey Boma has more land and has invested money he earned from other businesses into farming and that allows him to make at least double yield per hectare and to grow and sell more.
Sebastian Scott in Zambia and a project in Tigray in Ethiopia demonstrate that organic farming methods have the potential to substantially increase yields, and pineapple growers in Uganda fetch a good price exporting organic products. In Namibia we discuss that cattle breeding is one of the best ways to produce food in large tracts of the world that are too dry or cold for cropping.
We end the Africa chapter with a discussion about the way ahead for African agriculture. Our conclusion is that social and economic factors are a lot more important than the technological factors which often dominate the discussion, e.g. fertilizers or GM crops.
India is largely vegetarian and still has the most cattle in the world. The cow is a classic – and still relevant – focus of our report from India. Through interviews with the National Dairy Development Board and farmers in Gujarat, we describe the choice that India has; the path of brutal industrialization or of a gradual adaptation of its production system to new conditions and diets.
Agriculture in Gujarat is a commercial success; on the other hand it has caused severe soil erosion and loss of biodiversity which we study in the village Khorwad. Even more seriously for farmers in Gujarat as well as in many other parts of the world, water resources are depleted. Rajput Ramjibhai Khodabhai and his neighbours in the village Jaloya have no water left and therefore no future.
We end our journey in India in the fancy restaurant the Table in Mumbai, to discuss how food habits are becoming increasingly global; even beef hamburgers are now found in restaurants.
Our report from Sweden discusses the process of commercialization and mechanization of farming that has substantially reduced the number of farms – as well as the number of shops and people in the country sides. A development which is similar to most parts of Europe.
As agriculture landscapes cover half of the land, its role in maintaining bio-diversity and landscapes can hardly be exaggerated. We discuss the loss of biodiversity both in the farming landscape and in agriculture, that is, the reduction in varieties and breeds. Increasingly farmland is also being lost to “development” in the form of supermarkets, roads and parking lots.
The family Johansson in Värmland shows how 10 farms became one in one generation. The main driver has been competition, but we also show how government policy shaped farms. Stänkdalen, an organic farm with production of rape seed oil and ice cream, is an example of a farm that goes another way, but still feels the pressure from the market.
We sum up the economic and social drivers that shape agriculture, how the forces of global competition affect the decisions of farmers and food industries. We discuss how despite breakneck rationalization, most farmers still have difficulties making ends meet. And as a result of successful rationalization in farming, areas with “competitive farming” are social deserts with almost no people left.
The power of the food chain has moved away from farmers and food producers to huge companies selling inputs and to supermarkets. Fewer actors produce most of our food. They market many different brands but most food is essentially a reformulation of a few ingredients.
External costs caused by farming is not included in the price and the benefits of good farming practices are to a very small extent compensated for – food is simply too cheap. This leads to large scale environmental destruction and cruel systems of keeping animals.
Is it possible to feed 9 or 10 billion people in a sustainable way?
Our visit to Pudu Peppers, a company for intensive green house production in the Netherlands, demonstrates how far intensification can go and that the potential to increase yields is huge. But it comes at high environmental costs.
Food production has almost tripled in 50 years, and a lion’s share of the increased production has come from intensified land use and not from expansion of agriculture area. We expect this to continue. Meanwhile, there are opportunities to expand agriculture in Africa and parts of Latin America. The problem is not yet shortage of land, but that this land is needed to produce essential ecosystem services.
There are opportunities to increase productivity both with conventional and organic methods. We have a choice and that choice must look further than just the yield per hectare; it must take agriculture´s other roles into consideration as well.
While we will hardly go back to national self-sufficiency, it is clear that the global food model has reached the end of the road and has many negative side effects.
The industrial model leads to impoverished bio-diversity and is a high risk gamble; it is both possible and desirable to farm in an organic way. A re-integration of crop production and livestock, and consumption and production is needed. Meanwhile we will develop new production systems for bio energy and perennial crops. Local and regional foods will return or be re-developed.
Changes in diets will continue to shape agriculture, and agriculture development will continue to shape diets. Food will become more expensive, and staple foods such as grain and root crops will also in the future dominate our food systems. Meat will be more expensive and therefore consumption will be reduced. Other sources for food will be developed in the sea and there is a big potential to reduce waste in the whole food chain.
The Swedish version of the book has 176 pages of 240*170 mm, with a total of 250,000 characters, including spaces (excluding the preface and some informational text about the SSNC). It has full colour print with a large number of pictures. The body of the Swedish book is attached. Many more good pictures are available.
Adaptations and variations
The authors are open to discuss adaptations for particular markets, e.g. by making special reports.
If the publisher is interested, we would be very keen to further develop the last chapter with reports from a few show cases for the future.
Ann-Helen Meyer von Bremen has worked as a journalist for 25 years, with specialization in food and agriculture especially its relation to the environment. The interface between the farm and the fork is what interests her the most. She has won a number of journalistic awards and is a popular lecturer and moderator.
Gunnar Rundgren was a farmer and has been one of the pioneers of the organic movement in Sweden since 1977. He served as the president of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements 2000–2005. He has worked as a consultant for the United Nations, The World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and others. He published the book Garden Earth – from hunter and gatherers to global capitalism and thereafter in 2013. He is a member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Forestry and Agriculture.
The authors hold the right to the text and to the pictures.