A Planet Under Pressure

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

From March 25th to March 29th, a “Planet Under Pressure” conference was convened in London as a prelude to the Rio+20 convocation due to take place in June this year. The conference brought together scientists, economists, and policy experts to explore the formidable challenges we face as a global community. These challenges span multiple dimensions—scientific, social, economic, environmental, and educational—but they are intimately interconnected and the hub on which they all converge is the task that engages Buddhist Global Relief. This is the need to produce sufficient food to feed a global population that by mid-century is likely to hit nine billion people, and to do so on a planet going through cataclysmic changes.

Although at present the world produces a surplus of food, close to a billion people, mainly in the global South, struggle daily with the ordeal of chronic hunger and malnutrition. The industrialized North, in contrast, faces a problem of a different sort. Here, millions consume to excess foods loaded with fats, sugars, and salt. The result is high rates of chronic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. These conditions prevail most among the poor, for it is those who cannot afford nutritious food that are compelled to resort to cheap, calorie-laden substitutes detrimental to their health.

The problem we must solve, and solve with utmost urgency, is increasing agricultural productivity while at the same time ensuring greater equity in the distribution of food, especially for those at risk. If, despite a surplus of food production, a billion people still go hungry today, our task will be so much more difficult in 2050, when there are two billion more bellies to feed. Not only will the numbers of people rise, but the planet will also continue to heat up, resulting in diminished agricultural yields. To shift the arc away from crushing malnutrition will require drastic changes in the prevailing food system, which is currently geared more toward profits than toward health and food justice.

In anticipation of the Planet Under Pressure conference, in 2011 the organizers set up The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change to develop an integrated framework for dealing with the threats to the world’s food supply. On the last day of the conference the Commission launched its final report, Achieving Food Security in the Face of Climate Change. The full report is available here, and an executive summary here. The report, the product of the best minds in many disciplines, offers a wide range of proposals for transforming the food system in the direction of greater justice and sustainability.

The conference also issued a short “State of the Planet Declaration,” which summarizes the problems looming ahead and the steps to be taken to arrive at feasible solutions. Significantly, the Declaration recognizes that moral and spiritual values are an important part of the answer: “Technological innovation alone will not be enough. We can transform our values, beliefs and aspirations towards sustainable prosperity.” The kind of values we need are those that prioritize compassion, equity, and respect for all human beings.

To arrive at sustainability we must above all be able to mitigate the tension created by the two major variables at work in the biosphere: an expanding human population and intensified climate change. The intersection of these two factors presents a particularly formidable challenge to our ability to feed the planet. Obviously, the increase in world population leads to an ever-greater demand for food. The demand for food in turn escalates climate change, which then reduces agricultural productivity. To the extent that population growth and global warming converge, our sustainability is put at risk. For humanity to emerge intact these two factors must be curbed and even reversed so that they cannot devastate the fragile safety zone within which human life can flourish.

A six-minute video launched by the Commission illustrates the impending crisis with a simple graph. The graph represents food demand by the vertical axis and climate change by the horizontal axis. The movement of the two vectors across the graph is determined by the passage of time. As time goes by and world population increases, demand for food proportionately rises, creating the need for greater productivity. This spurs on agricultural production, which profoundly alters the climate.

Much of the fault lies with industrial agriculture. Despite its greater yields, giant agriculture has serious drawbacks. It thrives on concentrated energy and thus needs gargantuan quantities of fossil fuel. It relies on chemical fertilizers for mono-crop cultivation which degrades soil fertility. Its use of pesticides spreads poisons across  land, water, and air. It privileges meat production, and thus reserves land to feed cattle that could be used to grow crops for people. The need for more fertile land leads to deforestation, which eliminates one of the planet’s major “sinks” for removing carbon from the atmosphere. A warming climate brings droughts, floods, and heat waves, which all ravage the soil.  Invasive pests arrive and devour crops, thereby bringing food shortages.

A warmer planet also means diminished yields. It’s estimated, for example, that for each 1°C (1.8 °F ) rise in average global temperature rice yields may decline by 10%, and similar reductions in yields can be expected for wheat and corn. Hotter climates increase the need for water, a precious resource already under stress. Not only will climate change propel many parts of the earth beyond the thresholds of food security, but its severest impact will be felt in those regions already suffering most acutely from hunger and malnutrition; foremost among them are South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

The video does not leave us hovering over an abyss of despair. Its projections for the future are not sanguine, but it also offers specific proposals for averting calamity–if we act promptly enough. These include:

  • eliminating waste in the food chain (already about a third of food produced goes to waste)
  • ensuring more equal access to food
  • shifting to a diet rich in vegetables, which demand fewer resources than a meat-based diet
  • investing in agricultural research and development to boost yields and thereby make more food available
  • adopting crops that are better adapted to the hotter climate we’ll face in the future.

The video does not mention the need to invest more in alternative renewable sources of energy, but this is surely of prime importance and is featured in the report. Unfortunately, given the sensitivity of global warming as a political hot potato in the U.S., whether we can act in time remains a big question. Due to concerted campaigns of denial and disinformation, our country has been lagging behind in the pursuit of renewable energy.

While most of the Commission’s proposals concern matters of agricultural and energy policy, several pertain to our personal choices. Chief among them is the need to move away from a meat-based diet. Meat consumption is not only detrimental to health, but it also makes harsher demands on land and water resources and results in higher carbon emissions. It is also wasteful. In a world beset by hunger and malnutrition, it seems irresponsible to allocate 5 kilos of grain to obtain a kilo of beef.

Whenever possible, we should purchase our vegetables and fruits at local markets—thereby reducing the use of fossil fuels to transport foods—and do our utmost to avoid wasting food. As an expression of compassion and conscience, we should also  promote efforts to achieve greater food justice for disadvantaged populations. One way to do this is to write your congressional representatives, asking them not to cut programs that provide food for the poor. Another way is to support organizations like BGR that are dedicated to combating hunger and malnutrition. To feed the hungry is not only a matter of wise social policy, but a spiritual act by which we affirm the essential dignity of every human being.

One response to “A Planet Under Pressure

  1. Thanks, I agree there is a deepening crisis, contributed to also by rising energy prices. I attended the Planet Under Pressure meeting; there was much talk about the Green Economy, but not enough discussion of how we might get there.

    FYI I am also contributing to the IPCC report, on the topic of nutrition (as part of the health chapter.) best wishes, Colin