A future where food is off the menu

A hungry future awaits unless we give up meat, change how we produce food, and legislatively ensure all New Zealanders have a right to food.

The Future of Food Symposium held at the University of Auckland discussed the issues facing future food supply such as a declining amount of fossil fuels and ways we can ensure we can sustainably feed the world’s growing population.

Problems facing the supply of food outnumbered solutions.

Massey University ecologist, Dr Mike Joy, set the scene for the symposium when he was introduced: “Don’t be fooled by my name. I should be called Dr Doom.”

Joy said New Zealand and the world are in dire straits. He believes the decline of fossil-fuel to make nitrogen fertiliser and population rise are on a collision course.

By the time Earth’s population reaches nine billion in 2050 we will be unable to feed ourselves.

Synthetic nitrogen fertiliser has increased agricultural productivity dramatically. Joy said the world has been on an “amazing binge of fossil fuels for a couple of hundred years”.

“Six billion people are fed through artificial nitrogen, you take that fossil fuel part of it away then you can only support two or three percent of the population using the food system we have at the moment.”

“It’s not a choice. We don’t have a choice. We can choose between spinach and kale, but not animals because we will all starve”

He said the only way to change a future without enough food for all is to remove animals from our diets.

“Good land should be put into food for humans, rather than food for animals.”

To produce one gram of protein from beef, one square metre of land is required. To get one gram of protein from rice requires just .02 of a square metre of land.

For one litre of milk, 13,600 litres of water are needed. Joy said this figure represents the total water "footprint" required to nourish cows - and to dilute the nitrogen produced by them in order to have clean aquifers and drinkable water.

Joy believes the era where people have a choice between being a vegetarian or an omnivore is ending.

“It’s not a choice. We don’t have a choice. We can choose between spinach and kale, but not animals because we will all starve,” said Joy.

Other solutions to avoid starvation included growing your own food or accessing community gardens, but these came with their own set of problems.

Large parts of society don’t have access to land or the time required to cultivate it.

However, legislatively ensuring a right to food is one approach to ensure people without a backyard won’t go hungry.

New Zealand is party to various international treaties which include a right to food but does not have domestic legislation explicitly including it.

“The difference between food and money - one will nourish us, one isn’t very palatable.”

University of Auckland senior law lecturer, Anastasia Telesetsky, said countries such as India have a Food Security Act which includes provisions ensuring various groups have access to food.

“There is a variety of things they [India] have done. Some of it is ensuring certain groups get access to certain commodities or other groups get the right to work to be able to have some income. They’re doing this on a national basis.”

Telesetsky said legislating the right to food could spur the creation of a national food strategy.

“It [legislation] would provide a focal point for the conversation about how New Zealand intends to ensure that our population has sufficient, good quality, nutritional, environmentally sound food.”

The possible impact of domestic legislation could flow through to planning decisions such as allowing housing developments on horticultural land.

University of Auckland Māori and Pacific studies senior lecturer, Dr Daniel Hikuroa, saw a conceptual shift to kaitiakitanga as one way to address issues.

Kaitiakitanga is a kinship-based approach between humans and the natural world, and towards managing the environment. It sees the interconnectedness of elements within ecosystems.

Kaitiakitanga broadens the discussion beyond economic factors.

“The difference between food and money - one will nourish us, one isn’t very palatable.”

He said people could tackle the commoditisation of food by growing their own within communities or on maraes.

Community initiatives and activist groups were seen as an important part of raising the issue of food security to the point where it becomes a political issue.

Symposium co-organiser Dr Manuel Vallee closed the discussion saying agitators were needed to make change to ensure food security.

He said people should start asking questions of where their food comes from, what the environmental cost is, and how this could be changed.

“We need to start having those uncomfortable conversations.”

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