Feed the world, or protect the planet?

31 10 2012

Did you know that July 11, 1987 was the very first “World Population Day”? [1]   World Population Day was designed  “to track world population and bring light to population growth trends and issues related to it”.  That year, the world’s population was 5 billion – a result of about 200,000 years of population growth – and 24 years later, we had added 2 billion more.  Now 150 babies are being born every minute and the United Nations forecasts world population to reach 9 billion people by 2050.

I think you can easily google all the nightmare scenarios that this crushing population burden can have on our lives.  One question which continues to be very controversial is how we’re going to feed 9 billion people, when today nearly 1 billion people don’t have enough food to eat. The United Nations warns that food production needs to increase by 70% in order to feed the world in 2050. [2] But with agricultural land dwindling while more than 1 billion people go to bed hungry, how could we possible feed the whole world population in 2050?

Since the 1950’s, we’ve been able to increase food production significantly through the “magic” of the “Green Revolution”, which increased yields through the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, expansion of irrigation,  and genetic engineering.  The Green Revolution is a known quantity, and big chemical companies have lots at stake in ensuring that it continues down the same ol’ path of more agrochemicals and genetically modified crops, even though the world is different now.    Farmers continue to use a lot of chemicals, because there is no coast assigned to environmental externalities, and the profitability of doing things with lots of chemical input isn’t questioned, according to Matt Liebman, an agronomy professor at Iowa State Univeristy. [3]

But in the world of the 21st Century,  growth in food production is flattening, human population continues to increase, demand outstrips production and food prices soar. As Dale Allen Pfeiffer maintains in Eating Fossil Fuels, modern intensive agriculture – as developed through the Green Revolution – is unsustainable and has not been the panacea some hoped it would be. Technologically-enhanced agriculture has augmented soil erosion, polluted and overdrawn groundwater and surface water, and even (largely due to increased pesticide use) caused serious public health and environmental problems. Soil erosion, overtaxed cropland and water resource overdraft in turn lead to even greater use of fossil fuels and hydrocarbon products:

  • More hydrocarbon-based fertilizers must be applied,
  • along with more pesticides;
  • irrigation water requires more energy to pump;
  • and fossil fuels are used to process polluted water – a vicious cycle.

The data on yields, fertilizer and pesticide use (not to mention human health problems) supports these allegations. A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists called “Failure to Yield” sums it up nicely. (click here).

This food crisis has produced contradictory accounts of the problem and different ways of solving it.  One group is concerned mainly about feeding the world’s growing population. It argues that high and volatile prices will make the job harder and that more needs to be done to boost supplies through the spread of modern farming, plant research and food processing in poor countries. For this group, the Green Revolution was a stunning success and needs to be followed by a second one now.

The other group argues that modern agriculture produces food that is tasteless, nutritionally inadequate and environmentally disastrous. It thinks the Green Revolution has been a failure, or at least that it has done more environmental damage and brought fewer benefits than anyone expected. An influential book espousing this view, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, starts by asking: “What should we have for dinner?” By contrast, those worried about food supplies wonder: “Will there be anything for dinner?” The second group often proposes the tenants of organic agriculture as a way out of this crisis.

There is much skepticism and sometimes even outright opposition to sustainable agriculture. The popular belief is that switching to organic agriculture will almost certainly result in lower production, which couldn’t possibly be a way to feed 9 billion people.  Mark Rosegrant, of the International Food Policy Research Institute, sums up this view nicely by saying that going organic would require more land, and though not bad, per se, it is not an important part of the overall process to feed 9 billion people.[4] And The Economist, in a special report on “feeding the World”, said “Traditional and organic farming could feed Europeans and Americans well. It cannot feed the world.”[5]

Why am I obsessing about agriculture?  Agriculture and food production are the base of life and the economy and have multiple functions in creating healthy societies. It is at the center of addressing challenges like hunger and poverty, climate change and environment, women’s wellbeing and community health, income and employment. We certainly need to look beyond black/white, either/or options and find creative solutions to this crisis.

Agroecology is one of many terms people use to describe one approach to farming – others being sustainable agriculture, ecological agriculture, low-external input agriculture or people-centered agriculture.  Agroecology is: farming that “centers on food production that makes the best use of nature’s goods and services while not damaging these resources.” It applies ecology to the design of farming systems; uses a whole-systems approach to farming and food systems; and links ecology, culture, economics and society to create healthy environments, food production and communities.[6]  And agroecology  works (please see reports in the footnotes section below)[7]:

  • More food is produced.
  • Fewer inputs are required – meaning reduced expenses.
  • Soil fertility is improved.
  • Rainfall is captured and managed better.
  • Pests are managed better.
  • Greater income is generated.
  • Farming systems are diversified and produce synergistic benefits.
  • Farms and communities are more resilient to climate change and shocks such as hurricanes, droughts and food or fertilizer price spikes.
  • Carbon is sequestered in soils rich in organic matter and the integration of trees into farming systems.
  • And farmers and their organizations use their skills, knowledge and creativity to learn and manage the process. These women and men are the innovators and leaders creating healthy farming systems for their communities and countries.

In March, 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food , Olivier de Schutter, presented a new report, “Agro-ecology and the right to food”, which was based on an extensive review of recent scientific literature. The report demonstrates that agroecology, if sufficiently supported, can double food production in entire regions within 10 years while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty. “Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live — especially in unfavorable environments. …To date, agroecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 developing countries, with an average increase of 116% for all African projects,” De Schutter says.

Now Mark Bittman, writing in the New York Times, states that “it’s becoming clear that we can grow all the food we need, profitably, with far fewer chemicals. …Conventional agriculture can shed much of its chemical use – if it wants to”.[8]   He cites a study published by Iowa State University, in which researchers set up three plots: one replicated the typical Midwestern cycle of planting corn one year and then soybeans the next, along with its routine mix of chemicals. On another, they planted a three-year cycle that included oats; the third plot added a four-year cycle and alfalfa. The longer rotations also integrated the raising of livestock, whose manure was used as fertilizer. The longer rotations produced no downside at all – yields of corn and soy were better, nitrogen fertilizers and herbicides were reduced by up to 88%, and toxins in groundwater was reduced 200-fold – while profits didn’t decline by a single cent.  There was an increase in labor costs (but remember profits were stable), so “it’s a matter of paying people for their knowledge and smart work instead of paying chemical companies for poisons.”[9]

Mr. Bittman goes on to say :

No one expects Iowa corn and soybean farmers to turn this thing around tomorrow, but one might at least hope that the U.S.D.A.would trumpet the outcome. The agency declined to comment when I asked about it. One can guess that perhaps no one at the higher levels even knows about it, or that they’re afraid to tell Monsantoabout agency-supported research that demonstrates a decreased need for chemicals. (A conspiracy theorist might note that the journals Science and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences both turned down the study. It was finally published in PLOS One; I first read about it on the Union of Concerned Scientists Web site.)

I think this study is a good example of agroecology principles.  Mr. Bittman goes on to say:

When I asked Adam Davis, an author of the study who works for the U.S.D.A., to summarize the findings, he said, “These were simple changes patterned after those used by North American farmers for generations. What we found was that if you don’t hold the natural forces back they are going to work for you.”

THIS means that not only is weed suppression a direct result of systematic and increased crop rotation along with mulching, cultivation and other nonchemical techniques, but that by not poisoning the fields, we make it possible for insects, rodents and other critters to do their part and eat weeds and their seeds. In addition, by growing forage crops for cattle or other ruminants you can raise healthy animals that not only contribute to the health of the fields but provide fertilizer. (The same manure that’s a benefit in a system like this is a pollutant in large-scale, confined animal-rearing operations, where thousands of animals make manure disposal an extreme challenge.)

Perhaps most difficult to quantify is that this kind of farming — more thoughtful and less reflexive — requires more walking of the fields, more observations, more applications of fertilizer and chemicals if, when and where they’re needed, rather than on an all-inclusive schedule. “You substitute producer knowledge for blindly using inputs,” Davis says.

So: combine crop rotation, the re-integration of animals into crop production and intelligent farming, and you can use chemicals (to paraphrase the report’s abstract) to fine-tune rather than drive the system, with no loss in performance and in fact the gain of animal products.

Can you argue that less synthetic chemical use would not be a good thing?  This is big business, and naturally the food system will need big investors to effect any changes.  But some are waking up.  One investor who sees the need for change is Jeremy Grantham,  chief investment strategist for Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo & Co, LLC, who says:  “The U.S.D.A., the big ag schools, colleges, land grants, universities — they’re all behind standard farming, which is: sterilize the soil. Kill it dead, [then] put on fertilizer, fertilizer, fertilizer and water, and then beat the bugs back again with massive doses of insecticide and pesticide.” (At one point in the conversation, he said that most supporters of industrial agriculture, who tell “deliberate lies over and over again,” could have been taught everything they know by Goebbels.)  “I think a portfolio of farms that are doing state-of-the-art farming over a 20-, 30-year horizon will be the best investment money can buy.”[10]


[1] Adwell, Mandy, “World Population Day…2011”, The 9 Billion, http://www.the9billion.com/2011/07/12/world-population-day-well-reach-7-billion-by-october-2011/

[2] Vidal, John, “Food Shortages could force world into vegetarianism, warns scientists”, The Guardian, August 26, 2012.

[3] Bittman, Mark, “A simple fix for farming”, The New York Times, October 21, 2012

[7]

[8] Bittman, Mark, “A simple fix for farming”, The New York Times, October 21, 2012

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bittman, Mark, “A Banker Bets on Organic Farming”, New York Times, August 28, 2012

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31 10 2012
eremophila

Reblogged this on Travels with Fred and commented:
Another great article from two amazing women!

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