Complexity and the Global Food System

Usually, our papers are written from the premise that in an era of limits, in the Anthropocene, the arc of complexification is unsustainable and thus humanity is presented with a wicked dilemma, namely:

What is the smallest metabolic scale (i.e. the flows of energy and materials sustaining society) and ecological footprint necessary to support a globally integrated, cosmopolitan, liberal-democratic, science-based and technologically progressive civilization?

We use this question repeatedly to explore the implications that our environmental choices have in relation to political economy, culture, and personality structures. If there are indeed limits to complexity (and thus growth), where should we concentrate our efforts and in what areas might we be willing to (or be forced to) change, relinquishing orders of complexity. This raises very difficult questions with regard to many cherished norms and systems in our society such as social cohesion, distribution of wealth, healthcare systems, and personal freedoms.

From a limits perspective the growth in the scale and complexity of human activities is as astonishing as it is unsustainable. At the dawn of the human Odyssey, the human brain itself was possibly the most complex entity in the universe (Chaisson 2001:139). Using a measure of ‘free energy rate density’ measured in ERGS per gramme per second, Chaisson contrasts the complexity of a galaxy (0.5), a planet (75), a typical plant (900), an animal body (20,000), a human brain (150,000) and modern society (500,000). ‘Not surprisingly a group of brainy organisms working collectively is even more complex than the totality of its individual components’ (Chaisson 2001:139). With language and culture the network of connected brains engendered a step change in complexity, in turn accelerated by writing and the integration of human societies across the planet. The connectivity of the Internet represents yet another order of magnitude increase in complexity (McNeill and McNeill 2003, Christian 2005).

What we suggest is that our capacity to manage global life support systems depends upon limiting (see: Peter Victor and Tim Jackson‘s work on ecological economics) or even reversing (see: DeGrowth movement) economic growth, either of which would require limiting the scale of human complexity. The global food system provides some useful examples of what a ‘degrowth’ economy, might involve:

Food systems have always been a significant focus for complexification during the course of human development. At each stage – from hunter-gathering, through simple horticulture, agrarianzation, the development of food markets and food processing, right through to the global agribusiness and food commodity markets – the system-wide embedded energy or ‘transformity’ (Odum 2013) associated with average food items has been rising steadily (Transformity is a measure of energy of one kind needed to make one unit of energy of another kind. It provides a way to conceive the unit energy embedded and transformed across multiple biological and cultural systems and scales in (re)production of a given order of complexity.). This is very clear if one considers the entropic cost associated with rising number of processes involved in production, processing, packaging storage, transportation and consumption of food i.e. the number of people, the quantity of materials, the complexity of the logistics – all of which have to be sustained by flows of energy. Reducing the entropy-cost of food, would in principle, increase the ecological space available for the biosphere and/or other societal functions (perhaps sustaining an Internet). At least conceptually, reducing the cost of complexity in the food system is not difficult to imagine. Such a process might involve variously:

·         reversing the globalization and even the regionalization of production and supply chains

·         a concerted re-localization of not only of food production but of the culture of consumption (including recipes, social contexts, cultural meaning etc)

·         reducing or eliminating secondary processing and packaging

·         changing the mix of vegetable, cereals and meat towards the former

·         changing the types and quantities of meat consumed as well as the manner of consumption

·         reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilizers and the recovery or organic, rotational and permacultural production systems.

·         eliminating the use of processed sugar

·         the ‘re-embedding’ of food supply into cultural, social and spiritual/religious life i.e. a reduction in the role of both state and market in food production and a recovery of household/community production systems rooted in the principle of reciprocity (in the sense of Karl Polanyi 1944, 1968; Quilley 2012).

The social and economic impacts of a degrowth food systems would be diverse. There would be a number of benefits (public health, community engagement) but also problematic consequences (more time devoted to food production, job loss in the food sector). These changes would amount to a system wide loss of complexity and a decline in global productivity. Extending this to the Greens’ idea of ‘trivial consumption’, from a systems perspective there is no ‘trivial consumption’, it all contributes to the overall function of the global system. Simplification of whole sectors of the economy would have unintended and difficult to predict feedback effects on all other areas of economy and society.

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