The Problem with Agriculture
Our use of land, particularly for agriculture, is absolutely essential to the success of the human race. We depend on agriculture to supply us with food, feed, fiber, and, increasingly, biofuels. Without a highly efficient, productive, and resilient agricultural system, our society would collapse almost overnight.
- Jonathan Foley, Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of the Minnesota
Farmers and the food system be put front and center in economic reform. Agriculture is responsible for 75 percent of the ongoing loss of biodiversity on the planet, and that the majority of people in many poor countries are farmers who are being forced by global agribusiness either to go into debt to adopt expensive soil-killing technologies, or to give up and move to the city or, in the worst instance, commit suicide, as a quarter-million Indian farmers have done.
- Vandana Shiva of India
While Global Warming has garnished a large amount of spotlight, one sideeffect is that other problems of growing urgency have been forced into the shadows. Nothing can be more important than food security. While the greater majority of the population of the world have difficulty grasping the concept of Global Warming, everyone knows the importance of food. Without food, we simply would not be alive. There’s only a few things more immediate than food: air and water.
As we shall see below, we cannot unlink agriculture with land use. A problem in one is a problem in the other.
Jeremy Grantham holds that the looming shortage of Potassium (found in Potash), Phosphorous and soil is the most critical danger facing humanity and their total or nearly total depletion would make it impossible to feed the 10 billion people expected 50 years from now. Potassium and phosphorus are necessary for all life and they cannot be manufactured and cannot be substituted for. …Globally, soil is eroding at a rate that is several times that of the natural replacement rate. This will certainly lead to many poor countries, most of which are located in Africa and Asia to suffer from increasing starvation and malnutrition.
Investment Advisor Jeremy Grantham speaking on the real threat to humanity: unsustainable agricultural practices
All images exerpted from Dr. Jonathan Foley/Institute of the Environment, University of Minnesota TED slideshow
- 40% of all land use
- 70% of all freshwater use
- 30% of CO2 emissions from deforestration, methane from cows and rice, nitrous oxide from too many fertilizers
- Single largest emitter of Greenhouse gases of any single human activity in the world, more than transportation, electricity or manufacturing
- Massive driver of biodiversity loss
- Fertilizer pollution: 2x the flow of nitrogen and phosphorous in the environment due to fertilizers has caused massive pollution problems with lakes, rivers and hypoxic “dead zones where the rivers and oceans meet
- It is the single largest force since the Ice Age
- Demands will only increase, due to growing population and changing diets: more meat, peak oil will demand
- Agricultural production will have to at least double
(All pictures taken from Dr. Jonathan Foley’s TED presentation)
Figure 1: Amazon Basin Brazil Deforestration: Before and After
Figure 2: Amazon Basin Bolivia Deforestration: Soy Crops to feed Animals: Before and After
Figure 3: Colorado River to Irrigate Food Growth in the Desert: 1950 (left) 2011 (right)
Figure 4. Soviet Union Aral Sea Water diverted to Grow Cotton 1973, 1986 and 1999
Figure 5. Soviet Union Aral Sea Water diverted to Grow Cotton 2004 and 2009
Figure 6: Aral Sea Today
Figure 7: Current Agricultural Cropland and Pastures. One Solution to more Agricultural Land is to Repurpose Pastures
Figure 9: We have to Balance 2 Seemingly Opposing Choices: Agriculture vs Natural Ecosystem
Within our existing paradigm, we are confronting a paradox. If we decide to increase crop and pasture production, we do so at the expense of decreasing natural ecosystems along with all their accompanying crucial functions. Yet, if we maintain or increase natural ecosystems, we reduce our croplands, pastures and ability to feed ourselves. We need to find other paradigms outside of the current unsustainable dualistic model.
Agriculture and Oil
There is another looming threat to agriculture and it comes from Oil, namely Peak Oil. Modern agriculture is completely dependent on fossil fuels:
- to power tractors and combine harvesters
- for oil-and-gas-based fertilizers and pesticides
- to irrigate land, transport harvest, and refrigerate harvest
In the industrialised world it takes ten calories of fossil fuel to produce each calorie of food energy, so the impact of peak oil on agriculture will be profound to say the least. Not surprisingly, some writers such as Richard Heinberg and David Blume argue that the only option is to shift to a system of local, organic food production, whereas others question whether this approach could ever match the yields of energy-intensive farming to feed a growing global population.
Permaculturalist David Blume’s personal experience as a successful permaculture farmer of many years with impressive yields makes him confident that Permaculture can solve many of the problems that an agricultural approach faces. Read his gardening experience here and decide for yourself.
Agriculture is the other inconvenient truth that nobody is talking about. Ultimately, food security is the most important social variable of all for the simple reason that if people don’t eat, people don’t live. What will happen to our remaining ecosystems, including tropical rainforests, if we need to double or triple world agricultural production, while simultaneously coping with climate change? Already, a billion people are starving on the planet. Will we use up even more than the 40% we already use? Or will we resort to the unpopular Monsanto approach to genetically modify crops to try to increase yields? Will we remove more of the forests, the planetary lungs to feed our growing population? If we do, we will risk increasing global warming to even greater levels. It appears that the agricultural approach is plagued with a variety of difficult challenges.
Where do the solutions lay?