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What Happens When the Food Runs Out?

By the second part of this century wars won’t be fought over land or oil, but rather food. Or more specifically, the lack of it.

Last century gave us some examples of what happens when a city starves. Towards the end of World War II, Eastern Europe faced famines of biblical proportions. The Siege of Leningrad in 1941 alone resulted in up to 1,000 citizens starving to death everyday for three years. Corpses were left in the streets while reports of cannibalism surfaced less than 12 months into the ordeal. Apparently, when survivors had eaten the birds, rats and pets, roving gangs began attacking and eating people. They became such a problem the Leningrad police formed a specialist anti-cannibal task force. Put simply, when a city runs out of food, shit goes bad fast.


Military think tanks are currently ranking the impending global food crisis as one of the largest threats to humanity, potentially sparking off another world war. Last year presidents Obama and Sarkozy agreed to create a US-European military force to deal with the global uprising expected due to continuing food shortages. World Bank president Robert Zoellick emphasised the seriousness of the food crisis, saying that for the first time in living memory our world was “one poor harvest away from chaos.”

Despite these warnings, we continue to watch earth's population explode with little being done to stabilise our food sources into the next century. Here at VICE, we enjoy eating and not fighting in wars over precious grain, so we asked Julian Cribb, science writer and author of The Coming Famine, about how food may shape the future.

VICE: The world faced massive issues with food sustainability in the 70s and 90s. We managed to overcome it then. Why will the next time be so much worse?
Julian Cribb: Back then there were no limits to the amount of farmland you could open, or the water you could use for irrigation and there was plenty of money available for agricultural research. The world wasn’t changing in the dramatic way it is now. Basically, doubling the human food supply has got a whole lot more difficult because of the constraints of major factors such as water and oil coming into play.


Is the food crisis the most immediate threat to humanity?
It’s quite simply the biggest threat to humanity. You can argue what is the most urgent threat, but if we can’t successfully feed 10 billion people we’re all in a lot of trouble, and the GFC and even climate change are going to look very much like secondary issues.
Cities rely entirely on a river of trucks that come in every night to restock the shops. If there is a big fuel crisis or a war, you’re going to see cities of 10 or 20 million people starving.

So what are we talking about? Cities becoming giant, starving prisons?
In the next 20 or 30 years we'll witness one or more of the mega cities actually starving. We’ve all got smart phones, you will actually see this happening on TV. We know what happens when a city starves, because it happened towards the end of World War II in Eastern Europe. I think the world is in for a big shock because we haven’t prepared ourselves. Our cities are not sustainable in terms of their food supply. They’re unready for their food supply to be cut off.

Are you referring to any cities in particular?
No they’re all equally at risk, they're all equally prodigal in their waste of resources. They throw away half their food and all their water. Nearly all cities in the world are extremely dangerously designed. The people who live in them have no idea what a narrow thread their survival actually hangs on. There is bound to be an accident sooner or later and a city, or cities will run short of food. And then people will see some pretty graphic things happening.


Will this be a slow process, or could a single event bring it all to ahead?
Well there was big flood that cut off Bangkok only last year, these events can happen in a matter of days. If there was an Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia the oil could be cut off tomorrow. The world is innocent and unprepared for such things.

If food becomes an even more limited commodity, will farmers be the new oil barons?
Farmers do not control the food supply, the world food supply is dominated by 20 large companies. They control what comes to you. These are supermarkets, a small number of manufactures and a small number of very large grain trading corporations. They basically dictate the price of food worldwide. They have a strangle hold on it and are at the core of the issue. Farmers have almost no say, the reason farmers are leaving the land in droves is because large companies are screwing them.

The government has been slashing funding to agricultural research for over a century. Have we inhibited the next generation’s ability to do anything about this?
Yes, you could say that for Australia our food security policy could be one of shooting ourselves in the head. We have halved the amount of intellectual effort that we are putting into coming up with more sustainable food systems.

How can you expect people to suddenly give a shit about this when all they know is the supermarket shelves are full?
The problem is supermarkets insulate them from reality, when people take a bite of food they have no idea how much soil, water or fuel they’re actually eating. We need a major education program because we’re going to have 8 billion urban citizens in the world by 2050. If they’re ignorant of where their food comes from they’re going to send the wrong market signals and encourage destruction rather than sustainability.


People have suggested solutions, such as vertical farms in cities,algae farms and mass bio-culture production. But they’re massively expensive. Is there a current government who would put their money behind something like that when it’s not a hugely popular issue at the moment?
Well the Chinese government is buying up land all around the world to grow biofuels because they know they’ve got an oil crisis coming, and a food crisis. That’s why they’re investing worldwide and have bought Cubbie Station, the biggest water holder in Australia. But the Australian government is ignorant of the wider consequences. Nobody in Australia really has a realistic idea of the scale of the food security threat.

Are we still within the time frame to turn it around?
I can’t forecast the weather so I can’t really answer that, but there are probably going to be major weather shocks in the next 10 years that will cause food prices to spike massively. Its too late to do anything about current spikes and issues we’re having, but if we start reinvesting in agriculture and food knowledge now, we might be in time to prevent catastrophes in the 20s, 30s and 40s.

What happens if we don’t act in time? What happens if the population is no longer sustainable?
Biology tells us that if you have a boom in the number of any animal, be it rabbits or locusts, there is also a crash. Traditionally when an animal out runs their resources the population comes tumbling down.
A number of scientists are predicting such a crash, they say that there will be 1 billion humans left by the end of the century. There is a real risk of that happening.

Surely there's no way five sixths of the population are going to starve to death.
If you read the scenarios prepared by the American, British and Scandinavian think tanks, they think it will result in a series of famines that then lead into wars, possibly nuclear ones. And massive tidal movements of populations as hundreds of millions of people flee the affected areas. This isn’t just me speaking, this is the defence think tanks of the world thinking realistically about what may happen by the later part of this century.

So maybe there is a way?
I urge people to read those documents because they’re frightening and they do cause you to rethink your behaviour.