We need food to live, but farming generates a third of our carbon emissions, is unsustainable, vulnerable, and uneconomic
Like the aviation, textile, and automobile industries, farming has yet to price in its carbon cost – how are we going to break our fossil fuel addiction that supports our fantasy world of cheap food?
Sustainable food – a real ‘life or death’ issue
We all need food.
However much carbon dioxide we pump into our atmosphere, no matter how unpredictable this makes our future climate, we know that whoever’s still around will still need to eat.
Politicians prefer to talk about sexier ‘life-or-death’ issues. Human rights, democracy, internet access, AI, and space travel are much more appealing topics, but politicians, like the rest of us, need food in order to emit their own brand of hot air.
Let’s not blame politicians though. We allow them to get away with it because we’re all suckers for shiny objects, new gadgets, and the Latest Thing. Most of us, fortunately, have the luxury of not having to think about where our next meal is coming from. Each new technological marvel that attracts our attention shunts the boring need we all share – feeding ourselves – down our list of priorities. Access to broadband can suddenly look like a ‘life-or-death’ matter.
They don’t change what actually determines our ‘life and death’, but they can distract us from remembering.
Consider killer diseases, which literally determine life and death. On the verge of eliminating some of humanity’s biggest killers, we’ve still somehow found a way to grab defeat from the jaws of victory.
It turns out that once a generation or two has enjoyed the unprecedented good fortune of living in a world without measles, polio or smallpox, some of us start taking our current good fortune for granted. The bodies of anti-vaxxers are just as susceptible to these fatal pathogens, but their minds permit conspiracy theory to trump biological reality.
The resurgence of measles in rich countries who’ve forgotten it kills children is trivial, however, compared to a far more pervasive symptom of the same complacency.
Having enough food to feed us.
Red flags in the global food supply
We’ve had a great couple of centuries, but our environmental debts are finally catching up with us. We’re realising, belatedly, how much of post-industrial human progress has come at the cost of the huge gamble we’ve taken with our climate.
The world was once full of hungry people. Now rich countries battle with obesity, and even poorer countries can raise their ambitions beyond the basics of food and shelter.
In what is undoubtedly a good news story, by 2020 we’d nudged the percentage of starving people (or ‘people living in food poverty’ in development-speak) down to single digits.
The bad news is, the trend is now reversing. The worse news is, prospects of reversing this reversal are currently slim. The good news is that we know what it will take. First, here are the facts, as monitored by world development experts.
The causes for the post-2020 bump are, naturally, complex. The coronavirus pandemic and war in Ukraine are obvious triggers, but even if they were responsible for 100% of the increase in starving people (they’re not – the main increase in Africa and the Middle East), even these are not the ‘black swan’ rare events we’d like to think they are. A pathogen caused by humans crowding out wildlife, and a war between an oil-rich country and a grain-rich country, are not coincidences in a world of rising temperatures caused by our fossil-fuel addiction. Like rising migration pressures, they’re symptoms.
No one who’s grown up in an era of cheap energy wants to forgo its immediate short-term benefits. Affordable cars, cheap flights, a globalised economy driving down prices are all fun.
But can we continue to indulge in this kind of fun, denied to all our ancestors until a few decades ago, now we know it’s come at such a terrible cost?
Playing games on smartphone is fun too, but we still pry it from the hands of wailing toddlers at dinner time.
Parent vs Toddler thought experiment
Night-time exterior family home: a car passes. Muffles audio of video game music, kitchen noise, slightly foreboding music.
Mid-shot, Toddler on a sofa: Toddler giggles in delight as it plays on a brightly-coloured smartphone. Goofy video game sound effects are interrupted by a microwave ‘ping’.
Mid-shot, Parent in kitchen: Parent removes a bowl of steaming stew from the microwave, removes plastic spoon from drawer, places both on kitchen table by a high chair.
Wide shot: Parent approaches Toddler.
Who, in this scenario, do you identify with?
The fact that you’re reading this means most of you probably identify with the Parent, but imagine this scene is the basis of a drama class improvisation. What might Parent say to Toddler? How might Toddler respond?
Here’s the problem. When it comes to climate change, we like to think of ourselves as Parents, yet we act like Toddlers.
How smart parents get toddlers to eat
Let’s agree we don’t want Toddler to starve to death on the sofa.
Let’s assume we don’t want the closing scene of the movie to be the smartphone, still chirping away, slipping from dying Toddler’s emaciated hands while Parent, back to the sofa, plunks down an empty vodka bottle next to the stone-cold bowl of stew.
That means we’ve decided to be the grown-ups in the room. Let’s workshop the best way to convince the Toddler to put down the smartphone and eat.
Toddler is easy to role-play. It will be variations on:
- It’s not fair.
- You’re being horrible.
- But I need to finish this game.
- I hate you.
Parent is a more demanding role. Any real-life parent will be familiar with four basic strategies: storytelling, teaching, bribery and coercion. They’re usually deployed in this sequence, the first being the path of least resistance, the last incurring the heaviest cost.
Role play these scenarios as Parent, and you might improvise such dialogue as:
- I’ve just had the yummiest snack in the world. If you’re quick, there might be a tiny bit left, but if you don’t hurry it’s so delicious I might eat it all up myself.
- In the supermarket today there was a huge crowd fighting to buy packs of Superhero Stew. I managed to get the last one, but you only get the superpowers if you eat it hot – come quick!
- I know you’re having a great time, but eating is more important and your food’s ready.
- You know how grumpy you get if you go to bed too late? It’s nearly bed-time, and your dinner’s ready.
- If you come and eat now, you can play your game in bed instead of a bedtime story.
- If you come and eat now, you can have ice cream for pudding.
- Eat right now or someone else will hit you.
- Eat right now or I’ll hit you.
Why do smart parents deploy plan A, inexperienced parents attempt plan B, desperate parents resort to Plan C, and irresponsible parents go straight to Plan D?
The answers to this may be the key to improving our odds in our big climate gamble.
How we revert to Toddlers when it comes to climate change
Think of the smartphone as our addiction to fossil fuel, and all its tempting short-term benefits.
Let’s assume you choose to cast yourself as Parent, rather than acting up in the Toddler role.
You’ve chosen to be a grown-up dealing with inconvenient truths, rather than persisting in a childish denial of a reality you’d rather not acknowledge. In other words, you want to be an effective climate activist.
We’re all mixtures of Parent Human and Toddler Human – it’s a large part of our charm as a species. We like to think our unique ability for abstract thought separates us from ‘the animals’. Unlike ants, fish or deer, we tell ourselves, humans can escape the confines of our evolved behaviour, divert from the path set down by our genes.
When our reason warns us of imminent, inevitable, invisible danger, humans have the capacity to adapt our behaviour accordingly. Uniquely, we can take precautionary or preventative measures now in anticipation of predicted future risks.
This human superpower enables us to invent fridges for future hunger, build shelters for future cold, or pay into pension pots for future retirement. These are all Parent Human behaviours.
Now you’re in Parent Human mode, imagine how you’d go about convincing your Toddler Human to move from self-harming inaction to self-beneficial action.
How can you get Toddler to suspend their enjoyable, but unsustainable fantasy, in order to do something less attractive, but which will guarantee their long-term survival?
The path of least resistance is to get Toddler to voluntarily put down the smartphone straight away and come to eat. Bingo. This style of Gold Star Parenting is emulated by top dog trainers.
Effective climate action as Gold Star Parenting
Now apply the same process to climate action.
- Teaching: We know fact-based lecturing is ineffective – just ask Greta Thunberg.
- Bribery: We know Big Oil has a huge amount of money – just ask anyone.
- Coercion: We know things haven’t yet got urgent enough for enough people to force change – just ask any climate scientist.
- Storytelling: We know we’re suckers for a good story – what stories should we tell, and how?
Storytelling in a bad cause is what the PR experts and advertising agencies hired by Big Oil do. It’s the easy option – all you need do is tell Toddler to keep on playing, see if they can get to the next level, and not mention eating. It is doomed to fail in the long run, but you can pick up some hefty paycheques in the meantime.
Storytelling in a good cause is harder, but uses the same re-framing tricks. You paint the desired outcome (eating dinner/carbon drawdown) as something desirable, interesting, fun, reasonable, urgent, or important. It doesn’t really matter, so long as it motivates that particular Toddler at that particular moment. This is the See Through approach.
We can all choose whether we want to play the part of Parent, or Toddler. We can all choose whether or not we want to obey what Abraham Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature’.
To understand how this relates to food, we need a brief detour to early 19th-century Germany and a bad pun.
There we’ll examine two Engels of our nature, and decide whether they’re better, or worse, before returning to effective climate action.
A Tale of Two Engels
As the Industrial Revolution was going seriously global, two baby boys were born in Germany.
In November 1820, in the industrial town of Barmen, Herr and Frau Engels toasted the arrival of baby Frederick.
Four months later, 500km away in Dresden, Herr and Frau Engel celebrated the arrival of baby Ernst.
Friedrich ended up being the more famous of the two Engels, as part of an influential economic double-act with his Communist Manifesto co-author Karl Marx.
Ernst’s fame is limited to economists, particularly agronomists, who know him as the creator of Engel’s Law, and the Engel Curve. In its simplest form, Engel’s Law, states that:
as family income increases, the percentage spent on food decreases
Even for economists, labelling something as a ‘Law’ requires a considerable and consistent body of evidence. Ever since Ernst proposed his concept in 1857, we’ve provided this evidence in abundance.
Engel’s Law applies to both individuals and countries. As they get richer, individual families as well as collective nation states spend a smaller portion of spending on food.
As a result of Ernst’s more famous almost-namesake Frederick failure to eliminate income equality, there’s income variation within countries (poor Americans pay relatively more to eat than rich Americans) as well as between countries (America spends 6.7% of its money on food, Myanmar 57.7%).
Engel’s Law accounts for it all with impressive accuracy, and predictive power.
Close your eyes and predict where your country lies on a scatter chart showing 2021 annual food expenditure v total consumption. Now check below, and see Engel’s Law in action:
When is a Law not a law?
Useful though Engel’s Law has been in understanding and managing human affairs over the past 166 years, it’s important to remember not all ‘laws’ are the same.
To create a path to a sustainable future, it’s critical to understand the difference between three very different types of things we’ve all lumped under the same name:
- Immutable Law: i.e. physics. These are laws of nature, physical constants that were always true, before they were discovered and named by humans. E.g. the law of gravity or the greenhouse effect.
- Literal Law: i.e. statutes. These are rules proclaimed by particular regimes at particular times, i.e. what lawyers understand by ‘The Law’. E.g. any agricultural policy, scheme, regulation, incentive or tax.
- Perceived Law: i.e. theories. These are hypotheses about human behaviour that have been repeatedly supported of followed over time, space and culture. E.g. The Laws of Cricket, or Engel’s Law.
Mistaking a Perceived Law for an Immutable Law is easily done, but is particularly dangerous when it comes to the actual life-or-death matter of food.
Just because something has been true for a certain period under certain conditions, like food getting relatively cheaper, doesn’t make it a law that’s always true under all conditions, like gravity.
Another famous eponymous ‘law’, Moore’s Law, proves this. In 1965, Gordon Moore, founder of chip-maker Intel, reckoned that:
the number of transistors that can be packed into a given unit of space will double about every two years.
As computing power has followed this exponential trajectory, Moore’s observation has followed the path of a minor miracle being elevated to sainthood. What started out as a shrewd prediction has been promoted through various stages of beatification, from postulation to hypothesis to theory, before becoming sanctified as a ‘law’.
Unlike Engel’s Law, Moore’s Law hasn’t even outlived its creator.
By the time Gordon Moore died in 2023, engineering was already bumping up against the limits of physics. Quantum engineers, tagged as the next member of the relay team bearing the torch of Moore’s Law, are still tying their shoelaces.
But whether we can keep doubling computer power ‘about every two years’ isn’t the point. The point is that both are Perceived laws, not Immutable ones.
The inconvenient truth about cheap food
Ernst Engels was born in a place and time that prospered by burning coal, and died in an era where coal was being overtaken by oil. His eponymous economic theory is cited more than a century after his death in an era where oil may be being overtaken by gas.
Engel’s ‘law’ is a law in the sense that it’s a ‘law’ that it’s not over until the fat lady sings, the Titanic was breaking the trans-Atlantic crossing record until an iceberg intervened, or the Toddler keeps playing video games until it starves. It’s true until it isn’t, and at some point it won’t be. Timing is everything.
We know this because Engel’s Law only applies during the past few hundred years of human history. The price of a loaf of bread remained unchanged, in relative and absolute terms, for centuries before the Industrial Revolution. So did income, but Engel’s Law was created in a world that took growth and eternal consumption of infinite resources for granted, blinding him to the fact that at some point natural resources would run out, and that burning all that fossil fuel might have unintended lethal consequences.
Engel’s Law wasn’t designed to apply to a sustainable world. Most probably, it can’t.
Engel’s Law has ‘worked’ so far because the external costs of cheap food, as measured in the gigatonnes of carbon dioxide we’ve been transferring from the ground to the air since we started burning coal – have not, so far, been included in the price of food.
Engel’s ‘law’ therefore deserves an addendum that no Big Oil beneficiary wants to mention:
as family income increases, the percentage spent on food decreases so long as you don’t price in any external costs
So long as we all pretend Engel’s law is an Immutable one, we’re doomed to suffer the consequences. The wider the gap between what we want to be true and reality, the worse it gets.
Toddler might not realise this until it’s too late, but Parent can do something about it.
Time to wake up, and wake others
Instead, we’re crossing our fingers and hoping Newton’s apple will remain suspended before it hits us on the head.
But the consequences of ignoring the external costs of cheap food are already hitting us on the head.
The recent reversal in the relative costs of food shown in the first graph is already apparent in the poorer Global South countries of Africa and the Middle East. Even the rich Global North is starting o experience its real-world consequences..
Farmers protesting in France, Greece, Poland, Belgium, Germany and elsewhere in Europe are responding to this reality. Newton taught us that what goes up must come down. The Greenhouse Effect teaches us that, when it comes to the cost of food, what has gone down, must at some point go up.
Farmers are being expected to keep producing cheap food, while new regulations, mainly labelled ‘environmental’, add costs to the farmers who feed us. Long taken for granted, farmers around the world are reminding their lawmakers they can’t be squeezed indefinitely just to keep supermarkets in business, support export markets, and allow the rest of us to keep spending on stuff other than food.
The farmers understand the difference between an Immutable Law (atmospheric physics) and a Perceived Law (Engel’s Law). Quite rightly, they’re lobbying the intermediaries we trust to govern us to balance this using Literal Law.
But this is where it gets uncomfortable.
Helping the Inactive Become Active
Instead of sitting back in our armchairs, tutting over images of tractors blocking roads or dumping tomatoes on parliament steps, we need to stop being Toddlers ignoring reality, and start being Parents, and take responsibility for keeping our children alive.
The issues being played out by farmers, governments and consumers appear impossible to resolve. They will be, so long as everyone assumes Engel’s Law is immutable.
To break this self-destructive cycle, we must remove our heads from the sand, and our fingers from our ears. We need to suppress our inner Toddler who just wants to keep playing, and acting like Parent. This means opening our eyes to confront the deeply inconvenient truth that – like the era of cheap clothes and transport – the era of cheap food was fun while it lasted, but is now over.
It’s possible to keep food relatively cheap by subsidising it, of course. That’s a zero-sum political choice, which would means removing subsidies from elsewhere.
Given that the world is subsidising Big Oil to the tune of seven trillion dollars a year, this is mathematically straightforward.
But is it politically possible?
How to get our governments to act like grown-ups
Tractors will keep blocking roads in protest until we face up to this apparently intractable problem.
It’s very much tractor-ble, but only once we start acknowledging the underlying reasons for all the cost pressures that so concern our farmers – our carbon emissions.
‘Greedy governments’, shrinkflating food brands, ‘dominant supermarkets’, ‘profiteering Big Fertiliser’, ‘chiselling energy providers’ and ‘unfair foreign imports’ are all false enemies. They’re just different symptoms of our same collective delusion of trying to maintain Engel’s Law in defiance of economic gravity.
They’re examples of the ‘waterbed effect’ – push down on one of the problems, and it just increases the bulge somewhere else.
Addressing this as Parents, rather than Toddlers, is a much bigger challenge than we might imagine, as we’re all both Parent and Toddler. None of us wants to give up our toys, whether they come in the form of cheap food, cheap flights or cheap clothes.
The solutions, like the blame, are easily passed on to someone else – The Powers That Be, Foreigners, or The Next Generation (the one currently playing video games on the sofa).
So many vested interests simultaneously deflecting blame. So few lonely voices declining to challenge the omertá that our food system is sustainable. And pulling the strings behind it all, the ultimate culprit, Big Oil, paying expert storytellers to spin tales to divide-and-rule tactics, and distract us with dead cat distractions.
Taking responsibility, urgently, effectively
Not easy, then, but the farmers have pointed us toward the right people to fix this – our governments.
Even if politicians act like our masters, they’re supposed to be our servants. If politicians are too timorous to lead, let’s give them a reason to follow, or suffer the consequences. No leader, whether in a democracy or an autocracy, can defy the collective will of the ruled for long.
There’s another law – the Law of the Jungle. There’s a good reason why we confuse Immutable, Literal and Perceived Laws – they’re interlinked, and understanding how they’re linked, and how use them to exert pressure, is critical to effective climate action.
There will, by their nature, always be tension between Immutable Laws and Perceived Laws. That tension is mediated by those issuing the Literal Laws, i.e., governments.
As Galileo discovered, it can take a long time for the Literal Law of Vatican doctrine to resolve the tension between the Immutable Law of astrophysics, and the Perceived Law of the planets revolving around the Earth.
In Galileo’s case, it took 369 years for the Catholic Church to acknowledge heliocentrism, but we can’t afford to wait a day.
So long as we act like Toddlers, we’ll continue to gamble on fantasy magic bullet solutions like nuclear energy, nuclear fission, electric vehicles, direct carbon capture, or spaceships to go and trash another planet.
This is our current gamble, which isn’t really a gamble, but an abdication of responsibility. This is the Toddler approach, hoping we can finish another video game before we’re forced to the dinner table.
Let’s tell better stories better
Choose to act like Parents, and we can take action to pre-empt danger.
We can’t prevent Global Heating – we’ve been la-la-laahing too long for that – but can still stop it getting much worse, and start the process of decarbonisation required to stabilise our climate.
If we choose to act like smart parents, we can do this through smart storytelling. We need to re-frame the debate in terms that are not only understandable, but acceptable, even desirable, to those we can distract from their smartphones long enough to listen.
Persuade enough people, and it will enable governments scared of bearing bad news to change the rules that would create a sustainable food system.
That’s the approach See Through News is taking with its Betting The Farm entertainment format already under development, and shortly to be made public.
Will it work? We’ll find out. Like farmers facing the most unpredictable decades in human history, we’re calculating the odds, working out our best options, rolling the dice and hoping for the best.
But we already know that doing nothing and hoping it will all fix itself is guaranteed to fail.
Until we can persuade our governments that all those angry farmers are symptoms of not including the cost of carbon cost to our food price tags, nothing is likely to change.
[This is the first in a series of articles outlining the big issue behind See Through Together’s Betting The Farm project. The second, on how to address our food crisis, is What Politicians Say About Farming vs. What They Actually Do ]