What Would Malthus’ Last Supper Be?

Last Supper for MalthusA few days ago I watched the upcoming film Last Supper for Malthus: The Permanent Food Crisis. This film cleverly uses running commentary by the ghosts of Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo to discuss the modern food crisis—where 1 billion people are now chronically undernourished. The film centers around this question: Is the food crisis caused simply because animals (including humans) reproduce beyond the carrying capacity of their environment and thus inevitably some starve (as Malthus states), or is this a systemic failing due to current distortions in trade, priorities, and so on (as Ricardo states)?

The documentary, being quite short and not clearly coming down on one side, leaves it to the viewer to determine whether starvation is natural or stems from systemic failings—which considering the complexity of agriculture today, perhaps wasn’t the best editorial choice. Speculation, agri-business interests, unmeasured externalities, dependence on aquifers that once gone will make many lands unsuitable for agriculture, biofuels’ rapid growth, and distortions from the World Bank and World Trade Organization all have significant and complex impacts on the global food system—too complex for most viewers to clearly understand in a lifetime, let alone 52 minutes (myself included). Thus, it would have been welcome to have more elaboration on the role of powerful interests to clearly show that even if Malthus is right—by nature we do grow beyond our means to survive—the system is at least accelerating this tendency instead of inhibiting it.

But I do want to draw attention to a powerful quotation in the film to draw out consumerism’s role in this crisis. Towards the end of the film, Gary Howe of the International Fund for Agricultural Development says,

“We’re not anywhere near the limits at the moment. That’s nonsense. We are not in that sort of crisis. Humanity is not coming to an end, it’s not the end of the world, and no, you don’t have to go on a diet tomorrow. But it is clear that our systems, which are accelerating consumption, cannot be sustained. Not by agriculture, not by the Earth.”

That is a key point. The global food system won’t crash tomorrow, even if one billion are already starving today. But add a few ill-timed stressors: climate change-driven drought or storms for example, combined with the spread of consumption-accelerating systems in developing countries (such as the intentional stimulation of desire for meat and cars by these industries) and the system “cannot be sustained.” Period.

Let me draw attention to two great bits from the film that reinforce this.

First is a clip of archival footage that describes how chicken, which used to be a very expensive meat in America and only eaten on special occasions, “is now thrifty everyday.” Changes in production—what we know now as confined agricultural feeding operations (CAFOs)—supported by grain subsidies, externalization of pollution and so on, has played a significant role in accelerating consumption. These production techniques will have to be changed, not exported to other countries—as CAFOs have been exported to more and more countries of the world over the last few decades.

The second bit was the discussion of biofuels. As the film notes, ironically, to combat climate change we’re redirecting 5 percent of global grain production into making biofuels. But in the process, we’re raising grain prices and pricing the poor out of the market (hence the total undernourished increasing by 150 million over the past few years). But what was so powerful was a statement by Jean Ziegler, author of Empire of Shame.

“To fill a 50 liter car tank running on ethanol, you need to burn 354 kilos of corn. With 354 kilos of corn, a Mexican or Zambian child lives another year. It is therefore a crime against humanity.”

A bold statement, one that I would agree with (once one understands the linkage, continuing to do this is immoral). But if that is a crime against humanity, so is eating too much meat, or feeding meat or even grain to pets, as this too is food shifted away from starving humans for luxurious living by those that can afford it.

Surely, few will agree with these statements, as it is our culture to not see things in these terms, to see instead that it is our right to eat what we want, to buy whatever we can afford. And even more: we’re used to living these ways and we rarely think about whether a certain habitual act is moral or not—it’s simply the normal way to live. But the beauty of culture (and its danger) is that anything can be made to feel normal. The problem of course is that those things that are now normal cause tremendous suffering and are leading to the destabilization of all of human civilization. Yet as most people—from policymakers to journalists and from advertisers to friends—all tell us that how we live is normal (and even superior) we rebel against those who criticize the current system. But as Malthus says to Ricardo at the end of the movie as they head to dinner before returning to the cemetery, “Rather be right than liked. Ruddy ostriches!”

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