In Depth

Reflections on our place in the food system and beyond

Reflections on our place in the food system and beyond thumbnail
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We’re outside a lot. We grow and forage a decent portion of what we eat, not because we’re chasing the impossible illusion or self-sufficiency, but because of the joys, flavors, health benefits, and education such pursuits bring.

Thus, we get to see a side of things not immediately evident at a grocery store or restaurant where the consumer is several degrees removed from the source of their calories. Things seem comparatively pleasant there, in their tidy aisles or artistically plated pomp and pageantry.

For us animate, carbon-based organisms, every calorie expended is borrowed [1] from something else. The energy required for your brain to read this sentence comes from another organism you ate, which often requires that organism’s death. (Example: Broccoli is the undeveloped genitals of a slaughtered brassica plant.)

Since we’re fortunate enough to be able to intentionally select and tend certain plants, fungi, and animals that we eat, we’re also required to ensure that other organisms don’t get to borrow those calories before we have our turn. This process requires the deterrence, removal, or often wholesale slaughter of other organisms (squash vine borers, Japanese beetles, squirrels, etc).

Every calorie of food in a grocery store had similar costs, although that part of the story goes untold (or willfully unnoticed). The death, destruction, and suffering required to grow a field of soybeans is nearly incalculable.

What are your food beliefs? 

Our spectacularly intelligent and peculiar species finds narrative, mythology, and ritual important; this trinity often comes neatly packaged into singular belief systems, much like brands on a grocery store shelf or diet books. (Vegan is the only way! No – carnivore is the True path!)

However, systems of belief that might prove useful for filtering and categorizing the untidy awe-filled Gordian Knot of living experience, social in-grouping, and soothing of existential dread might also lead us wildly astray when it comes to discerning objective reality or thoughtfully tending/stewarding our calorie sources.

In our daily experience of tending to the death and life of thousands of organisms, a few of the questions that arise for us related to our place in the food system are:

  1. Which food-production philosophies and management approaches best enhance the quality of the ecosystems in which our food is produced?
  2. Which philosophies/systems can scale to 10 billion people [2] without leaving a planet that is rendered functionally uninhabitable?
  3. Which foods best enhance the health of the humans who eat them?
  4. Are the answers to these questions mutually exclusive or synergistic [3]?

These are good questions that are often met with demonstrably bad answers in the public sphere — especially when there are so many degrees of disconnect between consumer and consumed, coupled with perverse financial incentives and externalization of true costs.

We’ve developed strong opinions based on observation, experience, and education, but we try not to let those opinions calcify into full-on belief, which tends to blind. Unfortunately, answers containing ambiguity, complexity, and uncertainty don’t sell well.

If there is a moral here, perhaps it’s this: don’t let your hunger for simple answers starve you of richer searching, engagement, or understanding. Living in a state of ambiguity seems preferable to living with bad answers to good questions. After all, the weird deliciousness of the universe has no obligation to fit into the mind’s candy bar wrapper.

A yellow jacket wasp killing a dangling spider to borrow its nutrients. With rare exception (autotrophs), continuing to live requires the death of other organisms.

A yellow jacket wasp killing a dangling spider to borrow its nutrients. With rare exception (autotrophs), continuing to live requires the death of other organisms.

A deeper dive into prior references: 

[1] “Borrow.”

We use the term “borrow” in this article even though it’s imperfect. Human language often is imperfect when trying to quickly summarize, categorize, or encapsulate complexity. 

In the vernacular sense, “borrow” often implies someone willingly lending something temporarily with the expectation of receiving it back in the future. “Yes, you can borrow my jacket.” 

Here, we’re alluding to nutrient cycling, in which each organism in the system temporarily utilizes a macro or micronutrient before eventually passing it on to the next organism(s) in the web. Hence “borrow.”

You’re not planning to give the tree back the apple you ate at lunch, but the microbes in your digestive system certainly appreciate it, as will the numerous organisms that will utilize nutrients in your immediate excreta or the decomposition of your body upon death (assuming you aren’t eaten by wolves first, in which case they’ll be next in line for those borrowed nutrients). 

[2] Why 10 billion people?

How many people can the world reasonably maintain and why did we choose a future global human population of 10 billion?

Having read a decent amount on the topic of “how many humans can the world sustain” over the years, there is far from any consensus on this number amongst scientists who’ve dedicated their careers to fields of study that might shed insight on the answer. Some scientists have put the number at 2 billion, others far, far higher. If “consensus” is based on a rough average of estimates across published studies addressing this question, the number is closer to 8 billion.

What can be said fairly decisively based on current global population trends, is that we’re very likely to peak at a global population of at least 10 billion people within this century before plateauing then declining in numbers (barring some unknown calamity). Almost all of the expected population growth will happen in developing countries. In developed countries like ours, population growth is already stagnant or declining (barring immigration) thanks to a range of cultural and technological factors like women’s empowerment, family planning, birth control, etc.

Simply put, the richer that a modern human population becomes, the lower their birthrates, which is why global populations are not expected to increase too much beyond the ~10-11 billion level before declining (the world is getting richer at an extraordinary rate).

The downside of lifting so many people out of abject poverty is that people with more money buy more stuff (houses, cars, food, toys, computers, clothes, gadgets, etc) so as to improve their material existence/quality of life and that of their offspring, plus outwardly signal their genetic “fitness” to their peers (lovely peacock feathers).

So even though the total global population may stagnate or decline, more people consuming and throwing out more stuff exacerbates all the problems evident today, from depletion of finite resources to ecological degradation to mass extinctions.

The likelihood of a broad global cultural shift that would lead to a decline in total population numbers back to 2 billion is extraordinarily unlikely, so it seems best to work backwards from the position of what is most likely to happen, not what someone might consider ideal. Hence our arrival at the 10 billion number.

[3] Is human civilization about to collapse?

What if the answers to the questions we pose above are indeed mutually exclusive, e.g. there’s no possible solution set wherein we can produce enough reasonably healthy food for 10 billion people without concurrently ravaging the biosphere to such a degree that it causes a civilizational collapse?  

We’re not “collapsologists,” but experts on the topic of civilization collapse generally agree that the term “collapse” is something of a misnomer. Decline, reorganize, transform… these terms more accurately reflect what’s happened with prior human civilizations throughout history.

After all, the Mayans, Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Chinese, etc are all still here, albeit in different forms than their more primary antecedents (which were themselves different forms of prior human civilizations/groupings). No building is without a foundation.

Today, are we at imminent risk of decline or perhaps even a collapse? Always and forever.

After all, super-volcanoes and asteroids happen. What’s foundationally different about our current civilization is the rate at which our technologies develop and scale, especially new market disruptive innovations (to borrow Clayton Christensen’s term).

This makes it extraordinarily difficult to predict the future, which is why well-meaning doomsday purveyors such as Malthus, Ehrlich, and others in recent memory have become somewhat infamous after their future predictions failed to materialize.

Example from biologist Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 bestselling book, The Population Bomb:  

“The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”

Implications: you can’t know what you can’t know — and the future is one giant “can’t know.”

That doesn’t mean we can’t do our best to predict the future and try to ward off what certainly seems like current, worsening, and ongoing ecological disaster, only in doing so we have to be humble.

Will Boyan Slat unlock the riddle of plastic pollution? Will carbon capture technology, next gen nuclear power, fission, or mind-boggling CERN-discovered energy sources based on new physics catapult us into a clean energy future? How quickly can we start to populate outer space and terraform other planets so as to reduce the pressure on our mother planet? Will future humans predominantly eat flavored, engineered algae grown in massive towers which allows our global agricultural footprint to shrink back to that of the 15th century? We don’t know. Nobody does.

Doomsday purveyors exist across the spectrum of political and religious ideology. In our opinion, such worldviews require a degree of helpless, deterministic pessimism that we’re just not able to buy into — not due to any sort of sunny optimistic delusions, but because we don’t believe them to be true, intellectually or otherwise.

Such belief also drains hope, joy, and agency from the points within linear time over which we have the most control (the present and the future), potentially creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. If all is hopeless and beyond our control, why get out of bed or try to build towards a better future — or away from ecological cataclysm?

Further, if a calamity occurred at a scale necessary to quickly reduce human populations back to 2 billion, the resulting world would likely not be one any human would want to live in (or be easily able to), especially if they’d had prior experience living in this one. Unattended nuclear reactor meltdowns; social disintegration; aligning your clan of nuclear fallout mutants with local warlords for survival; and having to source every bit of food, fiber, and shelter by your own hands…

The best option in such a scenario might be having enough bullets to expeditiously extinguish yourself and any loved ones who also wanted a fast exit from such a hellscape.

The conclusion we’ve reached is to do our best to shape ourselves and the things we have nominal control over so as to help develop a better, more livable present and a better, more livable future. Then share the experiences and knowledge with others who might align so as to help shape broader culture.

If nothing else, the regenerating wildlife in our immediate vicinity appreciates the effort and we enjoy a better existence. If we don’t try to (or believe we can) make the future better, it impoverishes both the present and the future. Delusional? Perhaps. But it’s the best course we can think to plot.

Also, be heartened that humanity enjoys advantages unparalleled by any other species that’s ever existed on earth, and those advantages allow us to have a much greater degree of control over the future. No other species has the capacity and technology necessary to discuss its potential demise and course correction measures using complex written language transmitted across virtual networks while other members of the species plan interplanetary colonization, build particle accelerators, etc.

master-dune-chair-1

An eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly takes shelter from a brief rainstorm on turmeric leaves in our yard. It did not have a weather app on its mobile device that warned it of the impending storm, nor was it able to construct its own shelter, clothing, or umbrella to serve as protection. Due to capacities/features unique to our species, humans have broken free from many of the vicissitudes of nature or even standard population carrying capacity dynamics. However, this reality does not mean we should operate with hubris or consider ourselves impervious to the negative short- and longterm ramifications of our actions.

None of this means we won’t go extinct and/or render our planet uninhabitable for many of its present occupants. However, perhaps we’re on a similar trajectory/pattern that might be observed if we could analyze the trajectories of other more advanced, hyper-intelligent Type 1-3 civilizations/species (Kardashev Scale) that emerged from other habitable planets throughout the universe.       

Collapse, decline, or extinction are always potentially imminent, self-induced or not. Cultural “software” upgrades that help people see and value their connection to the whole combined with novel yet-to-be-invented technologies are the best hopes we see for threading the survival needle while conserving the biosphere.

We’ll do our best to live and act accordingly. We extend that invitation to you as well.   

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Featured image at top of article: Green lynx spider consuming a honeybee on zinnia flowers in our gardens.

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