Beating Famine (Will Anybody Listen?)

The world has forgotten that farmers are the most important human beings alive.  Not only do they grow food, they also manage half the world’s land, three-quarters of its fresh water and a third of the atmosphere.

global food crisis

The challenge facing the next farming generation is to double the global food supply, using half the water, far less land and exhausted soils.  Moreover, they must accomplish this without fossil fuels and with very expensive fertiliser and limited technology, while diseases and pests continue to spread.  And then there’s erratic climate!

By 2050 a population of 9,2 billion will eat as much as 13 billion people at today’s nutritional levels.  The food demand is expected to more than double by the middle of the century.  Can we cope?

While of value, genetically modified (GM) crops haven’t added anything global famineto the total food supply – we’ll need more than biotechnology to avert famine.  Current food output is keeping pace with population growth, but not with growth in food demand.  This gap will widen as more societies develop economically and switch to a western diet.  We need to increase our investment in agricultural research and development fourfold.  This can be funded by levying the global weapons spend of US$1,3 trillion by just 10%.  And that has to be done, because the threat of famine is even more serious than global warming.  Consider the following:

  • By 2050 cities will use more than half the available fresh water.  This could be as much as 2800 cubic kilometres – about the same amount we use for irrigation today.
  • As the Himalayan Water tower melts, the great rivers will rise, then empty, bringing potential catastrophic reductions in the size of the harvest in one of the world’s most populous regions.
  • The world is annually losing about 1% (up to 50000 square kilometres) of its farmland.  If we don’t stop this, two-thirds of our farming and grazing lands will be useless by mid-century.  The total urban footprint is already half the size of China.
  • “Development” must now be understood to mean permanent loss of food production capacity.  The world is haemorrhaging nutrients at every step between farm and fork.  We passed peak phosphorus in 1988.  Demand for nutrients to grow food will progressively outrun the discovery and development for new resources.  At the same time, we waste up to 90% of applied nutrients, which leach off farms, are lost in the food chain, or are discarded.  Nutrients pollute water bodies, devastating aquaculture.  We’re pumping around 150 million tons of nitrogen and 9 million tons of phosphorus into the biosphere annually – something that wasn’t happening a century ago.
  • Global demand for petroleum is outstripping the rate of new discoveries.  This will drive up energy and fertiliser prices.  Since 97% of nitrogen fertiliser is made from natural gas, also due to peak shortly, a nitrogen scarcity is also on the cards.
  • By 2040 it’s unlikely we’ll be using fossil fuels in agriculture.  Replacing farm energy with home-grown biofuel will cut food output in developed countries by about 10%.  If farm biofuel is also used to transport food to cities, 30% of the developed world’s farmland would have to be turned over to fuel production.
  • Most fisheries could be gone by 2040.  Plagues of jellyfish point to overfishing and nutrient pollution, while carbon emission is turning the seas acidic, threatening marine food chains.  If we can’t double the ocean harvest as food demand doubles, we’ll have to produce 100 million tons more meat from land animals, requiring 1 billion tons more grain and 1000 cubic kilometres of freshwater annually.
  • Regions once thought to have increased farming potential, such as Latin America, southern Africa and the Indian grain bowl may prove unreliable due to increased droughts.  Australia is already regarded as ‘the canary in the coal mine’ – with reduced food potential as a result of climate change.
  • Ecological overshoot” means withdrawing more resources from the planet than it can replace annually.  We now consume the total productivity of 1,3 earths in food, water, energy and other resources.  If the trend continues we’ll use two planets’ worth of production by 2050.  Today’s food production systems and diets aren’t sustainable, and we must reinvent them. The UK Ministry of Defense, the CIA, the US Centre for Strategic and International Studies and the Oslo Peace Research Institute all recognise famine as a potential trigger for conflict and even nuclear war.  We can only forestall this by successfully meeting the rising demand for food, despite all the constraints I’ve identified.

Finding Solutions

The easiest way to increase food availability is to end the waste of half of all the food we produce.  This will also save water, nutrients, energy and soil, it means redesigning our diets, food production and distribution systems.

We need to recycle all water and all nutrients and create new food production systems based on hydroponics, biofarming and cell culture.

At the same time we’ll have to choose a global diet that uses far less energy, water, land and nutrients to produce.  This is a diet containing 50% more vegetables than today’s western diet – it will still have meat and dairy but in smaller quantities.

There are thousands of “undiscovered” indigenous vegetable waiting to make this culinary adventure as well as a global awakening and a health revolution.  They are suitable for traditional horticulture, broadacre irrigation and hydroponic urban farming systems and use less land, water and nutrients to grow more food.  Meat production will go back to the rangelands where it will be lower in energy intensity, organic and more acceptable to changing social mores than factory meat.  Finally, some young women in all cultures are refusing to marry and have children.  If we support them, they can reduce the global population peacefully and voluntarily.  We have the money to make these changes is we really wanted to.

Article condensed by Roelof Bezuidenhout from Prof. Julian Cribb’s FTSE keynote address, “Research, Productivity, Food Security”.

Source: Farmer’s Weekly

As if our population explosion and climate change are not enough, political and social dysfunction can and do also produce famines.  There are countries that have the potential and resources to be net exporters of food, for example Zimbabwe.  Zimbabwe was southern Africa’s ‘bread basket’ but its controversial, failed land policies have reduced this country to nothing more than a basket case.  South Africa has also recently become a net food importer, no doubt as a result of this country’s failing land redistribution programme.  As the article above states, farmers are probably the most important people alive and yet governments, especially in Africa, seem to treat them as third class citizens.

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