It has taken me all my life to understand the true meaning of sustainability. I thought it was something to do with chopping down fewer trees, driving smaller cars and reducing our meat intake. Someone once described it as “making things last forever”. But what does it really mean?
It was only since I arrived here in Malaysia nearly five years ago that I realised sustainability is both complex, and at the same time, very simple. It is about our lives, our health, and our wealth. And if we don’t embrace it, it could be what threatens our ultimate existence.
Population vs food availability
Scientists predict that the global population will increase by 30% by the year 2050. This means that, while today there are 7.3 billion people to feed, by 2050 there will be 9.7 billion in need of food. The United Nations warns this will result in a 60% increase in demand for food production. Where will we get this food from? In many parts of the world, already vital resources like water and soil nutrients are under threat.
Many experts are already trying to help solve this problem. They suggest that in order to produce higher yields, farming practices should modernise and become more efficient. This means replacing human labour with machinery, chemicals, robots and smart technologies. When I learned that over 65% of “poor working adults” globally make their living through agriculture, I saw the dilemma. And I asked myself, which one of these should have highest priority? Job security or food production? There is no clear answer. But if we are to set the scene for the generations to come, we need to start finding solutions that are sustainable from every angle. I don’t have the answer to this, but I do know that we need to understand that by finding a solution to one problem, we may be making another worse. Sustainability asks that we try to find the best balance.
In 30 years, the population will reach 9.7 billion people (an extra 2.4 billion).
• Where will they live, and what jobs will they have?
• What impact will this have on those of us close to retirement in 20 to 30 years?
• Who will pay for our pensions?
• Will the elderly have to support the younger generations rather than the other way around?
I’m not saying that we should not progress. Inevitably, new jobs will be created in new sectors and technology will play an increasingly important role. But at what cost? What impact will a technology-driven economy have on society and migration? Will people need to leave Malaysia in search of jobs elsewhere? Will there be more people coming to Malaysia in search of work? Whatever happens, it is clear that society is likely to become more volatile. Around the world, an increased population will only add to the strain on our limited resources, which could create more geopolitical instability.
Add to this the impact of climate change. Many scientists predict that water levels will rise and the world will continue to become warmer, potentially causing more catastrophic natural disasters. No one can forget the horror of the 2004 tsunami on our doorstep.
So who will find the answer to all the sustainability conundrums? In the movies, it seems so simple: a superhero comes and saves the day. But in real life, things are not so simple. Business leaders and politicians benefit from short-term rewards; we cannot rely on them for long-term solutions. Bonuses are linked to share prices, and politicians need popular votes to win elections. Today, being a champion of sustainability will not win an election – because it might involve people making sacrifices. However, we as individuals need to take responsibility, and as a society we need to be smart enough to take the long-term view. And we do not need to look far to find ways that you can play our part. Reducing food waste is one of the most effective and simple ways that you can be part of the solution.
The food waste solution
• Over 33% of food produced is discarded along the supply chain.
• Research shows over 50% of new agricultural land in the tropics was a result of deforestation.
• 25% of greenhouse gases are caused directly by food production. If food waste were a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.
There are always compromises and strategic decisions to be made if we really do want to provide the same standard of living for future generations. Maybe we will one day have to accept our standard of living cannot keep increasing. It is vital we consider potential long-term effects now – to alleviate big problems. We need to have our radar switched on and contingency plans at the ready. So who should be pushing for change? The answer is you and I, your friends, family, neighbours. All of us as individuals.
Here is an example you can use to describe the dilemma of sustainability to your friends, colleagues and children. It is provided by one of the world’s most famous naturalists, Sir David Attenborough.
Humans use vast amounts of pesticides to grow crops more efficiently, reducing food waste. However, in the last 10 years some bee populations have declined by as much as 35%. There are different reasons for this, but many studies have shown one of the primary causes is the use of pesticides (particularly neonicotinoids).
This might not seem like a big problem but in many regions of the world bees are key pollinators. Bees and other pollinating insects are responsible for pollinating over 33% of all food we grow. Without bees, many foods would no longer be produced. At risk would be fruit, nuts, vegetables. Hand pollination is too labour-intensive and would cost hundreds of billions of euros per year.
A world without bees would clearly be a disaster in terms of food production – so the European Union collective have recently banned all pesticides that harm bees.
This example shows us the see-saw of sustainability rationale we will have to address in the future. But it’s not all doom and gloom. We have enough warning that we can act now. As individuals we can take some personal responsibility in addressing one of the biggest problems – mitigating the enormous contribution food waste has by reducing our habits.
We have to adapt our thinking if we are to remain the agile animal on planet earth. Evolution has proved that humans are resourceful and smart. Let’s hope we stay that way.