The most striking element of the second Swiss Re Regional Day, this time in London, was the way in which agriculture was singled out by two of our Firestarters--Johan Rockstrom and Allan Savory--as being at the front and centre of our global problems. Of course, it is at the centre of the issue of food security (Duh, as Bart Simpson would say). That makes us think we want more of it. But from the point of view of climate change, and wider issues of environmental degradation, agriculture is villain number one. There, according to Allan Savory, we don't want more of it, per se, but we want a different sort of agriculture: more livestock farming.
More livestock farming? Surely we are all worrying about the pressure that will be put on the planet when billions of people in the emerging economies start to be able to afford to eat meat? Well, yes and no. Yes, there's a question of how to satisfy that demand. But the point Allan Savory emphasised was the role that livestock farming can play in stopping desertification, by making soil more efficient at absorbing rain and by promoting the very process of photosynthesis that the planet depends upon if it is to carry on sustaining life.
The point of telling this story is not just to focus on farming nor on livestock (what about all that methane emitted by cows? some asked). It is to focus our thoughts on unintended consequences and trade-offs. We have to think not just about direct solutions, but about the consequences of our solutions, in the extraordinarily complex system that is our planet.
If, as many sometimes argue, high carbon taxes were to be imposed worldwide on fossil fuels, one effect would be to raise the cost of food, potentially pushing millions over the edge into starvation. If, as a few argued during the food security discussions in London, "urban farming" were to be encouraged, with more people in cities growing their own vegetables and even keeping chickens in their homes, one potential risk could be of encouraging pandemics, the risk of which is highest when humans live closely together with animals, permitting viruses to jump species and to mutate. And so on: with all sorts of solutions chosen to meet specific objectives, there are other consequences--not just "side-effects", which make them sound minor--that we need to take into account.
Perhaps, in the light of such warnings and provocations, I should be surprised at the general level of optimism and positive thinking that was present in London. But I'm not. There we were, on the site of the hugely successful and complex London Olympics, so we were bound to feel positive. Yet also the attitude of those who took part seemed, to me at least, to be a largely positive one: of seeing the need to take responsibility, both at personal and professional levels, and of seeing the opportunities presented by 2050, by longer lives, by technological change, and above all by the globalisation of economic and social development. We may have problems to solve, was the prevailing feeling, but they are problems of success. Unintended consequences, you might say.
Category: Food security: Farming, Climate/natural disasters, Sustainable energy, Other
Location: London, United Kingdom