A shorter version was published on Blogcritics.
Back in 2006, it was in part concern about world food supplies – and particularly the condition of the soils and water that produce them – that led me to join the Green Party. I did an agricultural science degree, a long time ago, and I never “practiced” as a scientist, but an interest in soils, and comprehension that their complexity is something that is terribly important and terribly poorly understood, has stayed with me. And being an Australian, particularly one who spent some time in the bush, an awareness of water scarcity is part of my DNA.
Since then, I’ve had to ration my reading on the subject. It’s too depressing to confront it too often. But it seemed when I came across The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do To Avoid It by Julian Cribb, from the University of Technology Sydney (ah, I remember its wool science lab well!), published last year, it was time to update with the words of a specialist.
We’re already in a bad place. As Cribb notes, in the Soviet grain emergency of 1972-5, world food prices rose by 78%, while between 2005 and 2008, they rose on average by 80%. (p.3) But in the intervening period, it is very clear, global governments and NGOs took their eye off the ball. They thought food was fixed, sorted, and would keep on getting cheaper. And it is set to get a lot worse:
The challenge facing the world’s 1.8 billion women and men who grow our food is to double their output of food – suing far less water, less land, less energy, and less fertilizer. They must accomplish this on low and uncertain returns, with less new technology available, amid more red tape, economic disincentives, and corrupted markets, and in the teeth of spreading drought.” (p. 13)
On soil loss, Cribb is bigger than others I’ve read on the spread of cities, noting that adding all of the world’s urban areas together they are estimated to occupy 4.75 million square kilometres, about half the size of the US or China (p. 58), and making the, good, point, that not only do they consume land for housing, but also for leisure facilities around them – golf courses, playing fields etc, plus off course in the West anyway commuter belts. Because cities are usually located on the best agricultural land, they’re also pushing farming into more marginal territory, where soil degradation, saliniation etc are likely to be more of a problem.
Cribb follows one of my favourite issues in stressing how much cities once did and could again supply a significant proportion of their own food, but current planning policies actively work to prevent this. (This madness being just a small example.) And he’s big on the need for cities to preserve nutrients (yes, I’m a big fan of composting toilets for this reason) – “humanity is thought to produce around 3 billion tonnes of phosporus in its sewage, so, in theory at least, the world’s cities concentrate around 1.5 billion tonnes- an immense resource that is largely wasted by flushing it into the oceans”. (p. 80) Particularly telling since peak phosphorus (produced from rock) was around 1989 – and “there’ are no substitutes for phosphorus. It is fundamental to the chemistry that supports all forms of life”. (p. 76)
And supplies depend on a narrow range of sources: “The lion’s share of phospate production… comes from China (37%), Morocco and the Western Sahara (32%), South Africa (8%) and the US (7%). Potash [one of the other key nutrients] is obtained by mining potassium salts and comes chiefly from four countries – Canada (53%), Russia (22%), Belarus (9%) and Germany (9%).” (p. 72) Nitrogen, the other key element, is mostly made from synthetic ammonia made using natural gas and is made in more than 60 countries. (Still sounds like a powerful argument for the coplete fertiliser of compost to me!