Apocalyptic blockbusters are scary, but reports that our Earth will need to sustain a population of nine billion people by 2050 is sobering. This comes as climate change threatens our food supply, while rising sea levels morph our agricultural landscape. But, we find it’s not all bad news, as Sarah Elton, an award-winning author, investigates the threat to our food in her book Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet (HarperCollins Canada). The CBC journalist traverses farmers’ fields on four continents from Beijing to Toronto, to recount the tales of those sustaining our food supply through science and nature. Here she discusses her inspiration, her findings and her analysis.
In your book, you talk about how small farms have been known to yield more crops than big farms. Can you explain how that’s possible?
Many studies have shown small farms can be more efficient at transforming water, sunlight and fertilizer into food than a big operation. That’s if you consider their total food output, rather than their yield from only one crop. So, while a large industrial farm will specialize in one commodity, a smaller, diversified farm will typically grow all sorts of crops and even raise livestock. If you total the edible output from the small farm, that produces a bunch of different food, it will exceed the amount of food grown per unit of land on a large farm.
What was your most valuable insight while writing Consumed?
I was standing in a seed bank in a small village in India and had this feeling I’d been there before. Of course, I hadn’t been to that particular seed bank, but I’d seen so many other similar sustainable agriculture projects that were improving people’s lives in such profound and dramatic ways and that resembled that place that I started to make connections between them and see the similarities. I realized that this global sustainable food movement is truly a global movement. Wherever you look, you’ll find someone doing something to make their food system more sustainable and more just and all round better. This was exciting, because this grassroots social movement can be invisible unless you know where to look. But, once you see its global reach, you can see how change is happening really quickly.
What do you hope readers glean from this book?
I would like readers to enjoy a trip around the world to see this global social movement first-hand — smell the rice cooking in a pot in a small Chinese village, taste the cheese up in the mountains of France, see the Indian lentils growing from the soil. I’d also like them to be buoyed by the good news that I report.