Friday, December 13, 2019

Fast noodles or resilience?

Two years ago we visited the village Songai rotan in the Jambi province in Sumatra, Indonesia. The farm families had almost totally converted their farms to palm oil. Patma, who runs a school canteen tells us that basically all food she cooks is made from stuff bought from the closest city, despite the fact that there are good conditions for the cultivation of many fruits and vegetables, tubers, upland rice. Chicken. Pigs or cattle could probably even graze between the palm trees. Farm families tells us that their staple food these days are noodles and canned mackerel. The canned mackerel is probably from the coast off Indonesia and the noodles are made from wheat. Wheat can hardly be grown in Indonesia and still has wheat noodles become a staple in this nation, with the fourth largest population in the world.

In the road we meet several “car plastik”, pickups filled over the top with colorful plastic cans, baskets, buckets and toys. In the houses people sleep on plastic mats and the chairs are also made of plastic.  Meanwhile, the name of the village means “rattan river” indicating that the area was famous for its native rattan and the products thereof. 
Car plastik, Sumatra, photo: Gunnar Rundgren

By specializing in oil palm and shunning rattan and food production the villagers have become totally integrated into the global food system, for the better and the worse. The better, means in this case primarily higher income, less toil, a motorbike and the possibility to send the children to the university (from where they will never come back).  The worse, is lower quality of food, disintegration of village life and families and the simplification of the landscape.

The visit gave a good picture of how the global market integration works. A recent article in Nature, Anatomy and resilience of the global production ecosystem a team summarizes:

“that the simplification and intensification of these systems and their growing connection to international markets has yielded a global production ecosystem that is homogenous, highly connected and  characterized by weakened internal feedbacks. We argue that these features converge to yield high and predictable supplies of biomass in the short term, but create conditions for novel and pervasive risks to emerge and interact in the longer term.”

The high connectivity express itself in many ways. Pork production in China and in the EU use huge quantities of soy which change the landscape and ecology in parts of Latin America. A few actors control the supply chains for the main commodities. An economic, climatic or other shock in one part of the system works its way rapidly across the globe. The African Swine Fever has caused a drop in annual pork production in China by an estimated 20 million tonnes this year. That means that European pork producers enjoy a bonanza. Which in turns means that they will buy more soy from Brazil or the USA. The scale of ecosystem transformation also means that what is done in one place of Earth has ramifications in other places, or everywhere. Global warming, acidification, changing rainfall patterns are all examples of that.

Agriculture, fisheries and forestry have dramatically reduced its variation and diversity. While most landscapes earlier had multiple functions for humans and many more for other species, humans have created a few highly specialized and homogenous production systems where we nurture one species on the expense of almost all others. Through global trade, the affluent can enjoy a rather vast choice of global foods, but within each food category the variation is rapidly shrinking.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the hyperconnectivity in the global food system, important feedback is lost. The effects of consumption is not visible for those who consume. The loss of fertility of soil is not causing a shift in production methodology as farmers can compensate for the loss by using more fertilizers. Depletion of resources is compensated for by imports from elsewhere or the use of a similar resource from another ecosystem. Thereby depletion and loss of resilience is hidden.

The researchers, most of them associated with the Stockholm Resilience Centre, points to the substantial risks and the vulnerability of the system. They suggest that “the limits of the global production ecosystem in satisfying demands for harvested biomass may be set by the potential consequences of these emergent risks, as opposed to hard upper limits to production per se”. 

This is a very important observation. Far too much time and energy has been spent on the question of how will we feed 10 billion people in 2050 without expanding agriculture areas further. Researchers have made models of dietary shifts, use of fertilizers, improvements in seed breeding etc. to calculate how this can be accomplished. In reality, it is much more relevant to look into the resilience of the system, the buffers, the safeguards, the stocks and perhaps most of all the human society which manages the food system. After all, there are 800 million people under-nourished today despite a global crop production system that produces 6000 kcal per capita and day.

Unfortunately, the last part of the article, where the researchers tell us what to do falls short of challenging the basics of the system and merely suggests minor improvements. Those are redirecting finance for sustainability; radical transparency and traceability and keystone actors (i.e. transnational corporations) as global actors of change. This triad is an already well known - and quite well tried - part of a “business as usual sustainability” narrative, mainly relying on the assumed benevolence of big companies.

But it is hard to see that they could make any major change. While it is all commendable to divest from guns, fossil fuels or palm oil, these companies mostly earn enough money to expand organically. Oil and gas companies have huge profits, currently bigger than most sectors. Transparency and traceability has been the talk of the town for decades already, but a quick survey of most food online services show that they have little interest in making more solid information available, than what is required by law. And to expect that transnational companies will take the lead towards a sustainable, just and equitable society is dangerously naïve. If anything we need to reign them in rather than giving them even more power over our destiny.  

A much more profound transition is needed. It goes beyond the scope of this article to elaborate on how such a transition will look like. But it must certainly change or eliminate those drivers that have forced the current development, such as the use of fossil fuels and artificial fertilizers, global trade and the commodification of food, man and nature.

In the village Songai rotan we also meet Gharnamnen and his family. They are one of the few choosing another path. For sure, they also have some oil palm, it is hard to refuse that source of income, but they have also planted garu, an incense, citrus, lychee and even rattan.