• Photo: rogerimp/flickr

Though it may seem hard to believe, in ancient times Egypt was known as a land of seemingly limitless agricultural bounty. "The gift of the Nile" made Egypt the ancient Mediterranean’s largest exporter of grain, supplying nearby civilizations, the Greeks and Romans, with food.

Historians call it the "breadbasket of antiquity." But looking at Egypt today, a more astonishing reversal of fortune could scarcely be imagined. The "breadbasket" has become the world’s largest importer of grain. A massive increase in the country’s population coupled with the loss of agricultural land to desertification, urbanization, and even rising sea levels has left once abundant Egypt at the mercy of other nations for its food supply. It’s a stark lesson in the finite limits of the environment and each region’s carrying capacity.

In 2008, global food prices hit record highs, and precipitated days of rioting in Egypt and elsewhere. In 2011, food prices are again spiking, and the riots in Egypt have turned into a full-scale revolution. Certainly, it would not be the first time food shortages have sparked revolt. In 1789, rising bread prices in France sparked the rioting that spiralled into the French Revolution. And crop failures and food shortages played a role in precipitating the English Revolution in 1640 and the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Here in Canada, there is a tendency to imagine we somehow live in a country immune from such problems. Canada, so the conventional wisdom goes, is a vast country of limitless resources that need not worry about food shortages. But, in fact, what is happening in Egypt today has happened here before. In 1837, crop failures led to food shortages in Lower Canada, which sparked an armed uprising against an unpopular, autocratic government. Hundreds of people were killed in the ensuing violence.

Urban sprawl in Montreal Photo:NASA

Canada today may be a country of agricultural abundance. But this should not be an excuse for carelessness toward how we use our land. As the Science Council of Canada warns, a serious misunderstanding persists among Canadians about the difference between our vast total land area, and the fact that less than ten percent of the country sits on arable land. To put that in perspective, take a map of Canada, then cover up the northern 9/10ths of it — the thin strip of land remaining is roughly all the farmland we have. Except, in the past few decades much of Canada’s best farmland in southern Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia has been destroyed by urban sprawl.

Perhaps it’s time we seriously start to reconsider our assumptions about limitless growth. What will a Canada with 50 million people look like? 70 million? 80 million? (For one thing, we know we would have far less foodstuffs to export abroad to countries that need it, like Egypt.) Many of our current municipal policies don’t do enough to limit outward growth in out cities. Maybe it’s time to focus on building inward and upward for the good of what we put on our plates.