The latest on the state of world agriculture, and how far we have to go to fix it

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!

Of course we don’t have to totally run out to hit enormous problems. Cribb notes: “During the global food price panic of 2007-8, when consumers ere facing increases of a few percent in food prices, farmers were being asked to pay 160 percent more for urea (a nitrogen fertilizer), while diammonium phosphate prices rocketed by 318 percent. This caused many farmers worlwide to cut back on or abandon the use of fertilizer, which in turn reduced food production. At the same tie, high fertilizer prives also encourage the opening of new mines – which add to the global supply of fertilizer in the short run but deplete reserves more quickly in the long run.” (p. 76)

Cribb’s got the latest, terrifying, figures on general soil loss. In Asia, Africa and South America, soil loss due to erosion averages 30-40 tonnes a year per hectare (30 to 40 times greater than the rate of formation). And in India, Australia, South Africa and South America, soil formation rates are close to zero, so no loss can be replaced. (p. 52) And there’s industrial pollution – more of a problem than I’d realised. In 1990 figures it affected 1% of the world’s farmland, and up to 8% in industrialised societies. More recent Chinese figures suggest 10% of its cultivated land has been contaminated, “mostly in economically developed areas” (also of course the richest farmland. (p. 57)

He makes the point that “peak land” is long passed – in the 1960s. The area for food production per person has declined from 0.45ha (1.1 acres) to 0.23ha (about the traditional average size of an Australian suburban house block, I note), falling to about 0.18ha in 2050. (p. 48)

He’s also solid on the meat argument: “Every American ‘consumes’ an average of 753kg of corn a year, which is mainly used to nourish the livestock that produce meat, eff and dairy products. Imagine how it will affect world grain supplies were Chinese consumers (who outnumber Americans four to one) to increase their feedgrain intake sevenfold to achieve a similar meat-rich diet, and what would occur should equally numerous Indian consumers abandon centuries of vegetarianism…. In case this should be though improbable on cultural grounds, it is worth bearing in mind that, in the 1930s, 97% of the diet of the average Chinese was composed of grain and vegetables; today it is just 67%.” (p. 104) He also notes that the average well-off consumer “gobbles up” 2,000 tonnes of water and 66 barrels of oil in the form of food “along with hundred of tonnes of soil and tons of wasted nutrients”. (p. 180)

He’s generally very good on the science, an excellent source for the latest stats, but rather less good, and coherent, on the sociological and political issues. On the “philosophical divide” between proponents of low-input smallholder agriculture and the giant agri-business model, he’s keen to “take the best ideas from each and cross-fertilize them”. And yet he also argues, after John Williams, that we need a “whole systems” approach that completely recycles water and nutrients within effectively closed systems – not something that agri-business is even capable of countenancing. (And he’s weirdly and blindly pro-total free trade, in contrast to all of the logic of everything else he says.)

He says Americans, Europeans and Asians are unlikely to abandon their supermarkets (p. 132), even though that’s clearly an ecologically bankrupt model of food distribution. He seems to think it is possible to change farming practice, but not social. And he notes how advertising and the broadcasting of affluent (indeed often unhealthy) meat-rich diets by the media spread demand for this ecologically disastrous (at least in excess quantities) product, and government policies that push the urban poor towards packaged junk food, without suggesting that it might be possible to do anything about this. (p. 163) Although he does note how as many as three in five of the children now in school in the well-off world is “destined to die as a result of hat they eat, from the host of chronic disorders that result from overnutrition”. And he thinks education could do something about this. (p. 181)

Yet he’s not entirely blind to politics, noting “under climate change, Canada, Russia and Siberia will emerge as the world’s grain superpowers by the end of the present century. Scientists have calculated that by 2080 Russia/Siberia could gain an extra 40-70 percent of new farming land, while North America ya gain 20-50 percent. Such increases would in theory go a long way towards counterbalancing heavy losses in food production in the tropics and subtropics – but unless the food produced iin the North is somehow transported and affordably distributed in the deficit regions, the risk of large-scale local famines triggered by climate impacts will be acute. In all of history to date, the existence of vast food surplus in the North has failed to prevent starvation in the South”. (p. 142) (And he rather doubts that the 1.3 billion people who now depend on the great rivers of the Indian subcontinent, fed by Himalayan glaciers, will be given the chance to resettled in water-rich regions.)

And he does see the need to at least make some of the profiteers pay something back. He says food manufacturers and supermarkets “should volunteer, ot be required” to fund agricultural science and communication of the results. “Just as mining companies are now asked to clean up the sites they mine and repair their environmental damage, so should the food industry be required to repair the environmental damage it causes through its pricing policies.” (p. 197) And he’s clear that privatised research, with the results used for further profit-generation, is not the way to proceed – all research results should be available to all.

2 Comments

  • December 29, 2011 - 9:05 pm | Permalink

    L’única estrella que prenc per guia és la de gaudi i de la música.
    Feliç any 2012!!

  • January 27, 2012 - 12:10 am | Permalink

    When the music stops,it will be finita la musica for everybody in the old West,except for the transnational corporate armies and cells of anarchists hiding and hungering to death deep inside cave systems.

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