The State of Global Food Production and Recommendations for the Future

Getting food:

Gathering: harvesting existing food sources without domestication or cultivation; includes hunting, plant gathering, fishing wild stocks.

Whereas gathering food with no effort to domesticate or cultivate requires about 1 km2 per person, and the earth’s surface is approximately 148 million km2, even if we assume that all the earth’s surface is equally capable of supporting humans (which it isn’t), the global population limit is about 148 million without cultivation.

Cultivation: Managing the germination/conception and maturity of the species involved and sometimes includes hybridizing or genetic selection; includes livestock and fish rearing, and land and sea horticulture

Limiting Factors:

Hard:

  • Capacity for land/water ecosystems to produce food over time (solar energy, soil fertility and structure, species’ tolerance for culling; amount of land given to food uses at the expense of biodiversity etc.) – note this is fluid in any one place and especially so given global climate instability
  • Capacity for land/water ecosystems to absorb wastes over time
  • Energy available to gather or cultivate food (and transport or process it)

Soft:

  • Dietary choices (culture, history, class)
  • Geopolitical and local political conditions (war, political famines, agricultural subsidies)
  • Overarching economic and government system (food as right vs. food as commodity for example)
  • Availability and willingness of human labour to produce food

Essential Conditions for Sustainable Food Supplies:

Land-based: soil, light, water, non-farm habitats, integrated systems involving both animals and plants, biodiversity, renewable energy

Water-based: uncontaminated water, water flow, zones of limited human activity, various shore and coastal habitats for breeding and/or farming (deltas, mangroves, beaches, lagoons etc.), biodiversity, renewable energy

Contemporary Industrial Agriculture and Fisheries

Our contemporary food production system violates every principle of sustainable food production because it relies on non-renewable fossil fuels; uses more energy than it produces; creates unabsorbable quantities of pollution and waste; does not facilitate or even permit (in some cases) biodiversity or non-farm uses of land and water; destroys soil; destroys stocks of wild animals; prioritizes profit over human and non-human rights; perpetrates unnecessary violence on living things; is socially inequitable and has facilitated an unsustainable growth in the human population – it has permitted us to exceed any reasonable carrying capacity.

Some Facts:

10 units of energy are required to produce 1 unit of unprocessed food energy in the North American/European diet; this ration rises to 1000:1 in the case of processed foods; another way of seeing this is that if we have to replace fossil fuel energy with human labour in the current system, one day’s food would take 111 hours of human work to produce.

  • Nitrogen fertilizer and most pesticides (insecticides, herbicides) require the use of fossil fuels to produce
  • In the U.S. (comparable in some ways to Canada and the country for which the most research is available), in 1994, 400 gallons of oil/year were required to feed each person not counting the oil required to package, ship, refrigerate or cook the food
  • From 1945-1994, energy input to agriculture has increased 4X while yields have increased only 3X – since then, energy input has continued to increase while yields have stabilized
  • Globally we are losing 1mm of agricultural soil per year which is 10-30X the rate of replenishment – it takes approximately 500 years to produce 25mm (1 inch) of soil
  • Crop yields decline exponentially as soil thins, not arithmetically
  • Mechanical plowing and harvesting destroys soils by breaking down soil structure and compacting it so that essential life forms can’t thrive; pesticides, fertilizers and constant irrigation add to soil degradation by killing essential
    life forms and salinizing the soil
  • We have currently occupied all reasonably arable land; the only areas remaining are marginal and farming them has disastrous consequences as well as only short-term gains (i.e. tropical forests, semi-deserts)
  • Global capture fishing has plateaued
  • About ¼ of fish stocks are over-fished and have collapsed; about ¼ are ‘under-exploited’; and ½ are being fished at peak rates
  • Since the 1970s, we have expanded fishing to deep seas to make up for collapsing coastal fisheries but these species show an even greater susceptibility to over-fishing due to their larger size and longer maturity rates
  • All deep-sea fishing relies on fossil fuels for transport and refrigeration and over half the global fishing fleet is fossil fuel-powered
  • Aquaculture has increased dramatically but at least some of it relies on fishmeal and oil from wild stocks for food supplies (the catching and processing of which relies on fossil fuels)
  • There are no sizeable areas of land left to significantly increase large-scale aquaculture and the growth of this industry has likely peaked
  • Meat consumption is increasing but meat production absorbs huge amounts of fossil fuel energy for feed production, transport, processing, pharmaceuticals etc. (1 calorie of beef protein costs 78 calories of fossil fuels; pork = 1:35; poultry = 1:22)
  • Agri-business profit margins have required the consolidation into ever larger, mono-species operations which then require ever larger inputs of fertilizers, pesticides and medicines (for animals) which costs ever greater quantities of fossil fuels

There are many more relevant facts and a fascinating history to recount in terms of the so-called ‘progress’ we’ve made in farming in the last 200 but especially 50 years. Anyone who is interested in learning more about how we have farmed our way toward famine would be advised to read up on the Green Revolution and its consequences in the Punjab and Indonesia. As well, I haven’t trotted out the usual stats about over-consumption among some sectors of the global population at the expense of the 1 billion under-fed.

Solutions

GMOs:

Genetically modified organisms, particularly of staple crops like soy, corn and other grains (canola etc.), are touted by the corporations who designed them and the scientists in their employ as the saviours of the human race because they will increase crop yields while reducing reliance on polluting pesticides. Apart from the obvious danger of introducing new species to the planet and the absurdity of making them ‘terminator’ species (ones that can’t reproduce themselves) when it comes to food, the claims have not been borne out in research situations.

The few independent trials that have been done on GMO crops suggest that they do require fewer pesticides in monocrop planting for the first few years but then as pests adapt to them, they soon require the same amount as non-GMOs. Indeed, Round-up Ready crops may receive more pesticide simply because it’s easier to apply and over-use when the crop is resistant to it. GMOs do not reduce the need for fertilizers or irrigation.

There isn’t clear evidence that these crops produce more food than their non-GMO versions. Indeed, in some cases (soy) they may yield less.

We have nowhere near enough data to judge whether GMOs have a health consequence for humans or animals but we do know that once they are planted in an area, their capacity to infect and cross breed with non-GMOs extends quite far – in other words, they are not containable as their manufacturers would claim.

Finally, GMOs are patented commodities that are created to produce a profit. They cannot be part of any global movement to encourage family farming (see below) and local food provision since they are already replicating the effect of Green Revolution hybrids. To wit, having to pay for seeds and expensive inputs forced a concentration of land ownership putting many small farmers off the land and into abject poverty. GMOs are repeating that pattern in the global south (search the example of Bt cotton in India). GMOs should not be allowed to be part of our food future given their limited ‘advantages’ and largely unknown disadvantages.

Organic Land Farming:

There are different versions of organic out there. I would prefer to think here about absolute organic farming which requires the substitution of all fossil fuel inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, mechanical irrigation) with other approaches.

One of the key challenges to replacing fossil fuels in organic farming is fertilizers (currently made by burning natural gas). Crop rotations using legumes that fix nitrogen from the air into the soil and leaving land fallow can work but do not seem to regenerate nitrogen fast enough for an intensive cropping system. Integrated farming, combining animal husbandry and horticulture, is far more effective as manures are high in nitrogen. One can surmise that using human manures would also enable a higher intensity use of the land (as in China and India for hundreds of years).

In terms of yields, organic farms have matched and in some circumstances out-produced industrial farms. But the trick here is that organic farming requires much more intensive human labour and management so that a single farming family can only work a much smaller plot of land if they’re doing it organically. The extra labour is required for such things as weeding, pest management, animal husbandry (herding and pasturing animals), intercropping (planting different species together), harvesting by hand and observing the land to make necessary adjustments in crop rotations etc. As well, sustainable organic farms in temperate and tropical regions require biodiverse ecosystems. In other words, there needs to be non-farm areas like bush/scrub and forest to host a diversity of species, some of whom (birds, wasps etc.) act as pest-managers.

The advantages to non-synthesized methods are long-term:

  • Using manures and compost builds soil fertility over time so that the soil actually improves under organic management rather than deteriorating
  • Improved soil structure reduces the need for irrigation as good soils hold more water
  • Healthy soils make healthier plants that are less susceptible to pests so that pests can be tolerated
  • Intercropping and crop rotation, in contrast to monocropping, naturally limits food crop predators since they are not assured of their favourite foods every year
  • Organic produce would appear to have more nutrients than industrial produce and of course, doesn’t expose the consumer to nasty chemicals

No-till Farming:

No-till methods are gaining support. This is simply the practice of leaving last year’s crop stubble on the land and planting into it rather than plowing it under every year.

Aquaculture:

Fish-farming on land or along coastlines will likely be part of our food future, but it will never replace the 80-90 million tonnes of capture fish we currently consume (about 75% as food and 25% as fishmeal and oil fed to other fish or animals). Capture fishing (at sea) has plateaued and will likely decline as oil prices and availability limit the fleet we can power and as we deplete wild stocks, and inland, as competition heats up for freshwater uses (agriculture, hydro power, sanitation).

Aquaculture (AC) is also limited by the following factors:

  • Limited unused land area for expansion though South America and Africa could still expand here
  • Availability and cost of fish feed – those species reliant on fishmeal from wild capture may not be viable
  • Limited ability to intensify production due to the real risks of epidemic diseases among the animals (White Spot in shrimp farming is a great example of this) and the rising costs of pharmaceuticals
  • Expensive and then reduced fossil fuels for pumping water which is the main energy requirement for AC

Consequences

Here are some of the more obvious and profound consequences of our food future:

Labour: We will have to replace the energy derived from fossil fuels with human and animal labour. By some estimates, this will require about 60% of the Canadian (or any population) to be dedicated to farming – that means 5 million new family-sized farms created in the near future complete with farmers capable of doing the job. By extension then, training the next generation as money-managers and marketing experts is a waste of time. In addition, it is very likely that if we are to retain urban settings, most urbanites are also going to have to work at food farming on a small scale and spend more time processing raw ingredients that no longer arrive with 1000x the energy embodied in them than they contain in calories. This speaks to the changing nature of work in a post-industrial society.

Diet: The Canadian diet will have to change substantially for many reasons. Obviously, all those tasty long-distance foods will disappear or become luxuries reserved for special occasions (tropical fruits and vegetables, fresh seafood for most of us, many spices and non-food goods like coffee and tea etc.). The diet will at first simplify but likely then diversify again as people re-discover foods that have fallen into disfavour (turnips, cabbage, leafy greens, heritage varieties etc.) though current levels of variety are unlikely to be seen again. Super-processed foods will slowly disappear as they become too expensive for most people. This is undeniably a good thing for our health but if it isn’t accompanied by other measures to ensure a living wage with fewer hours of work, the stress on the family, and particularly on women, will likely cause social upheaval and/or negative health outcomes (stress, malnutrition etc.). The future is NOT vegan. We will have to combine animal and plant farming to make our farms viable and we will have to use local animal products (mostly eggs and milk rather than meat) in our diet to survive. Finally, food will become more expensive and take up much more of our income or tradable surplus.

Land Use: We will have to radically alter our land use priorities to conserve remaining farmland and reclaim land that has been turned over to other uses (big box malls, suburbs, golf courses, rooftops, parking lots etc.). Much of this ‘land’ does not contain viable soils for agriculture (and some is contaminated) and will have to be remediated. This may provoke one or both of the following settlement patterns: we concentrate settlement in urban and semi-urban areas to maximize productive spaces and/or we disperse into rural areas to be closer to food sources. This will really depend on what transportation options remain for food to reach urban areas.

Population: This is the kicker. Intensive, integrated organic farming may support 2 billion people worldwide but that’s it. As fossil fuels peak (some say they already have) and then decline in availability while rising in price, food as we know it is going to become very expensive and eventually ungettable. This is likely to play out in the next 80 years so that population reduction is imperative if we are to transition to a sustainable future in a humane way. We therefore need negative reproduction rates now. [Editors note. Currently the population replacement rate is 2.1 children per woman, but this will decline as life expectancy increases. Therefore it is clear that the population replacement rate must fall to a lower value if a sustainable, no-growth population is to be attained.]

Politics: Because are still going to have to feed some people using fossil fuel inputs to sustain yields of staple grains into the near future, we need the political will to recognize that fossil fuels must be diverted from transportation and industrial uses (which together account for 67% of consumption) to food production and transportation – high levels of food processing will also have to stop. Concurrently, we will have to begin to transition land use to sustainable farming and make hard decisions about how much land and water can be spared for energy production and housing over food production.

Sources

Bruges, James. 2000. The Little Earth Book. Alastair Sawday Publishing.

FAO. 2007. The State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2006. FAO Publications. Available online at www.fao.org/docrep/009/A0699e/A0699E00.htm

Heinberg, Richard. 2007. The Green Devolution: Food, Energy and the Fate of Industrial Agriculture. Briarpatch Magazine. February. See also his book Peak Everything: Waking Up to a Century of Declines. New Society Publishers.

Jermyn, Leslie. 2000 (May/June). White Gold: The Social and Economic Consequences of High Intensity Shrimp Farming. E The Environmental Magazine XI(3).

Montgomery, David. 2008. Peak Soil. New Internationalist 418:18-19. See also his book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. University of California Press.

Pfeiffer, Dale Allen. 2004. Eating Fossil Fuels. From the Wilderness Publications. Available online at http://www.organicconsumers.org/corp/fossil-fuels.cfm.

Vasilikiotis, Christos. 2001. The Legacy of Industrial Agriculture. Energy Bulletin. Available online at http://www.energybulletin.net/print/1469.

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