How do we produce more food? How do we consume less food? With an ever-growing world population (estimated to reach 10 billion people by 2050), these are the questions we will be facing, as overconsumption, obesity and food waste become problematic in Western nations while whole populations in less-developed countries struggle with famine. David McWilliams, an economist from Ireland, offered ideas toward solving these problems at a “City Talks” event at the City Recital Hall in early November.
McWilliams doesn’t like using the jargon of economists (“self-indulgent”), and to make sure his ideas are understood, introduced what he calls “Punk Economics”, a way of looking at economics differently, and explaining economics simply with videos and humorous drawings.
Despite the UN maintaining it has a plan, McWilliams said there are reasons to worry, and used a quote from boxing champion Mike Tyson: “Everybody has a plan until you get a punch in the face.” The “punch” can come from peak oil (“We’re at the end of cheap oil”), water scarcity, or the financial markets where hedgefunds speculate on commodities and drive the price of basic food up, making it difficult for billions of people to afford food.
McWilliams said that making a change demands enormous political courage, and that major countries, food suppliers and food importers will need to come together to come up with a plan for the next 20 years. He also highlighted the importance of educating consumers and said that thanks to public information campaigns, mentalities can be changed (as demonstrated for seatbelts, smoking and sun protection).
A debate saw panelists discuss the issues according to their own experiences. Among them was Ronnie Kahn whose food rescue organisation OzHarvest recently rescued 10 tonnes of oranges from a struggling farmer in the Hunter who could not afford picking them up for the price that the market was willing to pay him. She underlined the importance of using our voice as consumers to tell the big supermarkets that “we do not care if our carrots are all straight, we do not care if our potatoes sit perfectly round on the supermarket shelves, because our farmers are struggling!”
Justin Hemmes, Merivale food and drink empire CEO, added that educating people was very important and that everyone should try to grow their own food, in communal gardens, on rooftops and balconies. He tries to encourage his chefs to use seasonal ingredients for his restaurants, and buy whenever possible from local producers, instead of frozen and imported products.
Sally Hill from the Youth Food Movement mentioned that food insecurity can also be felt in Australia, with a rapidly ageing population of farmers and no one to take over, as well as the land being threatened by development. She also believes the solution lies in growing food locally.
On the panel was also artist and restaurateur Joost Bakker who was responsible for sustainable pop-up restaurant Greenhouse last year. Bakker thinks that the need to eat meat is causing most of the world’s problems today, with 70 per cent of the world’s land being used to grow grain and corn to feed livestock. David McWilliam’s Punk Economics video explained that to produce a kilo of meat, it takes 10kg of fertiliser, 30 litres of oil, creates 4 tonnes of greenhouse gas, 15,000-70,000 litres of water “in a world where by 2050, one third of the population will face water shortage”.
McWilliams ended the debate with an example to illustrate the danger that a society risks by giving in to immediate gratification: Easter Islanders, who wanted to create bigger and bigger statues, ended up cutting down all the trees on the island in order to roll the rocks into position and carve them out, and destroyed all their natural resources in the process and ended up eating themselves: “The society destroyed itself by wanton resource vandalism,” McWilliams said.
As Sydney International Food Festival director Joanna Saville put it when she opened the evening, quoting Slow Food movement founder Carlo Petrini: “‘We as consumers are co-producers of food. Our choices as consumers shape the food production of the future’, in other words, we get the future we deserve, so let’s hope it’s a good one for everyone!”