Review: The End of Plenty

The End of PlentyNational Geographic writer Joel K Bourne Jr studied something MEGO—short for ‘my eyes glaze over—at university. For agronomy, a combination of soil and plant science, doesn’t exactly inspire intrigue.

Or even understanding of what it is for that matter. (I’ll confess I had no idea what an agronomist was prior to reading this book—I’d have hazily guessed it was something agriculture-related.)

But it’s also proved one of those areas of research whose time has come. With climate change and its effects on food production snowballing, an in-depth understanding of how food is produced and the effects of various chemicals, soil types, and more have on it, is invaluable.

Especially when combined with the ability to convey that information to others. Bourne, who marries his agronomy knowledge with writing prowess, has written The End of Plenty to explore and convey complex issues in engaging, accessible terms.

At its crux, the issue is that we’re fast approaching a point where, through a combination of factors such as climate change and skyrocketing population growth, we won’t be able to produce plentiful enough food to feed everybody.

A four-degree temperature increase, which is highly possible and even likely, would render half the world’s farmland unfarmable. Which means dire things for humanity. (Bourne cites one of his university lecturers’ favourite sayings: there can be no culture without agriculture.)

Currently, farmers produce enough calories to feed nine billion people nutritious, 2700-calorie vegetarian meals. But most of that food is concentrated in first-world nations and doesn’t make it to the people who most need it. That gap is only likely to widen as climate change effects exacerbate.

Agricultural researcher Norman Borlaug famously said (and Bourne quotes him on page 55) that: ‘If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace.’

The world is far from a good place now; it’s almost unimaginable how terrible it will be once food shortages kick in vehemently. Which is why The End of Plenty is timely read and one that’s attempting to get us to head off the issues before they come to pass.

This book contains much I hadn’t known. There are, for example, some 50,000 edible plants in the world, but just three—corn, wheat, and rice—directly or indirectly (through livestock feed) make up 90 per cent of the calories we consume. And who’d have guessed Egyptian people ingest more wheat per capita than any other people in the world?

We’re also feeding most of the grain we produce to livestock—a kind of double handling, if you’d like. For it actually takes five times more grain to get the equivalent amount of calories from pork as it does from eating the grain itself. Lots of grain grown also goes not to food but to (the misleadingly named) biofuel production in the form of ethanol.

Frighteningly, a 2013 of 27,000 UK primary children survey showed one in three thought cheese was a vegetable and one in five thought pasta came from animals. Australian students weren’t exempt: a quarter of Year 6 students thought yoghurt grew on trees.

All of which makes me think: blergh, depressing stuff.

Embedded among these facts are some meaty discussions of some of the theories around these issues, the most famous being that of Thomas Malthus. Though his theories of population growth being ruthlessly reigned in by food scarcity are contested by some theorists for various reasons, Malthus outlined a plan that includes the following remarkably common sense steps:

  • cease farmland expansion (especially into rainforests)
  • shift diets away from meat consumption
  • wean cars off biofuels
  • reduce the amount of food wastage.

As in the kind of steps we really should be taking if we want to have any hope of keeping global temperature increases to the wishful two degrees.

We all tend to switch off when it comes to wicked problems—they’re too vast, too overwhelming, and we feel too helpless to have any hope of tackling them. But understanding them and arming ourselves with some key guidance is a first step. Bourne’s The End of Plenty gives us this, and in very readable, digestible terms. Something tells me agronomy is no longer—or soon won’t be—MEGO.