Feeding Frenzy

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Paul McMahon

Feeding Frenzy asks whether we can feed the ten billion people projected to be alive in 2100 or will the environment collapse and kill us all? The good thing about the book is that it is essentially optimistic. It doesn't fall prey to the racist arguments of the new Malthusians who start from the idea that poor, usually brown, people have too many children.

McMahon also has faith in people's ability to create new technology and is advocating regenerative, ecological farming systems. He points out that across the world current crop yields are only 55 percent of what's attainable. Therefore the future in a well ordered system would be intensification - making cultivated land more productive rather than clearing forests.

The limitations of the book come from McMahon's position as co-founder of a company that acquires and manages agricultural land on behalf of institutional investors. The company aims to "deliver financial returns and environmental benefits". This means that when discussing food crises he can accept that there is already plenty of food in the world, but he seriously understates the role of speculators in generating them. Instead he blames governments who hoarded grain or refused to export their own harvests.

He also blames ordinary Americans for being "seduced by cheap meat, processed foods and more sedentary lifestyles". This is odd because he cites Raj Patel's seminal book from 2008, Stuffed and Starved, which sought to genuinely understand why obesity is killing millions in the developed world. So McMahon should also understand that it is supermarkets that waste billions of tonnes of food, not customers. My forgetting to eat the salad I bought three times in a month is not equivalent.

The book goes on to argue that a major pressure on food stocks will be the mushrooming middle class. This overlooks the mass immiseration of neoliberalism in the developing world. Now followed by the financial crisis the reality is not the problems of wealth. In Greece teachers report children fainting from hunger in school. In Britain, with the seventh largest economy in the world, most children will live in poverty by 2015.

McMahon is also fairly sanguine about biofuels, burning maize for ethanol. He does quote the UN official who called burning food a crime against humanity. But he says biofuels help to keep food prices high which encourages farmers to grow more. It could also have done with tighter editing to reduce repetition and the occasional inaccuracy. For instance I'd be surprise if any cow has ever produced 10,000 litres of milk a day. The new politics of food that McMahon advocates is liberal middle class self-interest. I think we can do better.

Feeding Frenzy is published by Profile Books, £12.99