Interview with Mauro Balboni, ex-manager in the agro-food industry and author of “Il Pianeta Mangiato” (The eaten Planet)
In your book – Il Pianeta Mangiato (“The Eaten Planet”), published by Dissensi – you examine both the past evolution of our food and its future perspectives. What do we have to expect for the future?
Today, official sources such as the FAO provide us with evidence of how much our current food production is unsustainable: from the loss of fertile soil through degradation and other factors (24 billion tons a year, according to FAO) to water stresses that impact great food producing regions now at risk of desertification, to the problem of food waste; and then the big paradox: agriculture now transformed in a machine for mass production of cheap edible calories, with overweight and obesity affecting 2 billions of us whilst 800 millions still classify as undernourished, and yet more billions suffer of malnutrition in various forms. Today, we don’t seem to have a different model: not one scientifically robust, politically endorsed and having the necessary critical mass for a real planetary impact. Meanwhile, a deregulated food market continues its run: in 2050 we – the urban overeaters – will have reached the astonishing number of 6.5 billions, consuming more and more transformed food and animal proteins, produced with methods which worked successfully for the last 70 years but may not work in future.
Are there simple solutions for a change, or is the matter as complex as it seems to non-experts?
There are no simple solutions. Using the Theory of the Planetary Boundaries, Il Pianeta Mangiato explains how big and interconnected is the footprint of our food production on the planetary cicles, the ecosystems and their services. As Barry Commoner once said: «The first law of Ecology is that everything is related to everything else». Today, we tend to idealize pre-industrial agriculture and food, or monodimensional food choices as “the solution”: but this could be dangerous, not just pointless. As dangerous as are politicians lacking future vision, anchored to successful stories of yesterday. Perhaps even incapable to grasp the real scale of the problems facing humanity.
What are the top 3 priorities areas, in your opinion?
First: food production is a driver of climate change, but is also impacted negatively by climate change. A dangerous relation. Most sources such as FAO and UNEP attribute to food production the 30% of all human GHG emissions: we got to start reducing this impact now; it is a gigantic endeavour, and a difficult one: achieving the targets agreed in principle by nearly 200 countries in Paris, 2015, means that food production and forestry will have to be basically carbon-neutral by 2050.
Second: climate is already changing, and we need to prepare the resilience of our food production to the change.
Third: fight malnutrition in all its forms.
What do you think about insect-derived proteins? Can they help us to feed sustainably a growing population?
Absolutely. Of course, also for these sources we will need to calculate the impact on resources and the environment; however, I believe these have an interesting potential. 2 billion people derive part of their protein intake from insects, already. There are yet more promising developments: according to Prof. Van den Ende of the University of Wageningen, we may obtain from “one hectare of grasshoppers” 150 times the quantity of protein that we obtain today from one hectare of soy (National Geographic, september 2017). Insect-derived protein production could release vast parts of land today used for feed crops or pastures, thus giving back to the ecosystems their original functionality.
Perhaps a trivial question: are we still in time to address today’s problems?
Time is counted.
According to FAO, if we continue to degrade fertile soil at the rate of the last 40 years, in 60 years there won’t be any fertile soil left. Also climate change models do not leave too much to hope, with most predictions agreeing that we are on a + 3.5 °C trajectory (whereas scientists have warned not to pass the + 2°C warming). And the food megatrends that I explore in Il Pianeta Mangiato are all running full steam and won’t be stopped (also because it would be politically unpopular): population growth, a massive shift from rural areas to urbanization that has no precedent in human history, growing consumption of processed food and traditionally-produced animal products). But looking at that future world, lacking soon water and fertile soil, that is exactly where perspectives such as insect-derived proteins gain interest, and must be explored without delay.