Feeding people while sustaining resilient ecosystems

17 05 2009

Land-use change is a primary driver degrading ecosystems aside from the potential effects of climate change. This change has been brought upon us by the necessity of providing food, fibre, water and shelter to a growing human population. The mass conversion of forests, wetlands and grasslands into agricultural land has undermined the ability of ecosystems to sustain food production, maintain freshwater and forest resources, regulate climate and air quality, and buffer the spread of infectious diseases. We are presented with the challenge of creating a future in which land is used in a sustainable and integrated manner.

Paul Roberts talks a little about our food system on motherjones.com:

A couple years back, in a wheat field outside the town of Reardan, Washington, Fred Fleming spent an afternoon showing me just how hard it’s gotten to save the world.

After decades as an unrepentant industrial farmer, the tall 59-year-old realized that his standard practices were promoting erosion so severe that it was robbing him of several tons of soil per acre per year—his most important asset. So in 2000, he began to experiment with a gentler planting method known as no-till.

While traditional farmers plow their fields after each harvest, exposing the soil for easy replanting, Fleming leaves his soil and crop residue intact and uses a special machine to poke the seeds through the residue and into the soil.

The results aren’t pretty: In winter, when his neighbors’ fields are neat brown squares, Fleming’s looks like a bedraggled lawn. But by leaving the stalks and chaff on the field, Fleming has dramatically reduced erosion without hurting his wheat yields.

He has, in other words, figured out how to cut one of the more egregious external costs of farming while maintaining the high output necessary to feed a growing world—thus providing a glimpse of what a new, more sustainable food system might look like.

But there’s a catch. Because Fleming doesn’t till his soil, his fields are gradually invaded by weeds, which he controls with “judicious” amounts of Roundup, the Monsanto herbicide that has become an icon of unsustainable agribusiness.

Fleming defends his approach: Because his herbicide dosages are small, and because he controls erosion, the total volume of “farm chemistry,” as he calls it, that leaches from his fields each year is far less than that from a conventional wheat operation.

None­theless, even judicious chemical use means Fleming can’t charge the organic price premium or appeal to many of the conscientious shoppers who are supposed to be leading the food revolution. At a recent conference on alternative farming, Fleming says, the organic farmers he met were “polite—but they definitely gave me the cold shoulder.”

That a recovering industrial farmer can’t get respect from the alternative food crowd may seem trivial, but Fleming’s experience cuts to the very heart of the debate over how to fix our food system.

Nearly everyone agrees that we need new methods that produce more higher-quality calories using fewer resources, such as water or energy, and accruing fewer “externals,” such as pollution or unfair labor practices.

Where the consensus fails is over what should replace the bad old industrial system. It’s not that we lack enthusiasm—activist foodies represent one of the most potent market forces on the planet. Unfortunately, a lot of that conscientious buying power is directed toward conceptions of sustainable food that may be out of date.

Think about it. When most of us imagine what a sustainable food economy might look like, chances are we picture a variation on something that already exists—such as organic farming, or a network of local farms and farmers markets, or urban pea patches—only on a much larger scale.

The future of food, in other words, will be built from ideas and models that are familiar, relatively simple, and easily distilled into a buying decision: Look for the right label, and you’re done.

But that’s not the reality. Many of the familiar models don’t work well on the scale required to feed billions of people. Or they focus too narrowly on one issue (salad greens that are organic but picked by exploited workers). Or they work only in limited circumstances. (A $4 heirloom tomato is hardly going to save the world.)

Such problems aren’t exactly news. Organizations such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (which despite its namesake is a real leader in food reform) have long insisted that truly sustainable food must be not just ecologically benign, but also nutritious, produced without injustice, and affordable.

And yet, because concepts like local or organic dominate the alternative food sector, there is little room left for alternative models, such as Fred Fleming’s, that might begin to bridge the gap between where our food system is today and where it needs to be.

And how big is that gap? Using the definition of sustainability above, about 2 percent of the food purchased in the United States qualifies. Put another way, we’re going to need not only new methods for producing food, but a whole new set of assumptions about what sustainability really means.

Food is not simple. To make it, you have to balance myriad variables—soil, water, and nutrients, of course, but also various social, political, and economic realities.

But because our consumer culture favors fixes that are fast and easy, our approaches toward food advocacy have been built around one or two dimensions of production, such as reducing energy use or eliminating pesticides, while overlooking factors that are harder to define (and ditto to market), such as worker safety.

Read the rest of this entry »





Peak phosphorus

24 03 2009

You have no doubt heard of peak oil. The point at which the rate of oil production begins to decline. Well there’s another peak you should be concerned about if you like to eat food grown in fertilised soil, like much of the world’s population does. Phosphate is a non-renewable resource and is therefore not created on a timescale meaningful to people. This presents us with a bit of a problem because we are using a lot of it and it could potentially run out within the next 50-100 years, having enormous consequences for global food supply and geopolitics. But, its demise could improve the condition of our rivers, lakes, seas and oceans.

A recent paper published in the journal Global Environmental Change titled “The story of phosphorus: Global food security and food for thought” has explored the phosphate dilemma. Here are some of its main points.

Food production is fundamental to our existence, yet we are using up the world’s supply of phosphorus, a critical ingredient in growing food.

Phosphate rock reserves are in the control of only a handful of countries (mainly Morocco, China and the US), and thus subject to international political influence. Morocco has a near monopoly on Western Sahara’s reserves, China is drastically reducing exports to secure domestic supply, US has less than 30 years left of supplies, while Western Europe and India are totally dependent on imports.

Existing rock phosphate reserves could be exhausted in the next 50–100 years.

The demand for phosphorus is predicted to increase by 50– 100% by 2050 with increased global demand for food and changing diets.

The need to address the issue of limited phosphorus availability has not been widely recognized.

As well as the problem of eutrophication due to the leakage of excess phosphorus into waterways, the production of fertilizers from rock phosphate involves significant carbon emissions, radioactive by-products and heavy metal pollutants.

The peak in global phosphorus production could occur by 2033.

Phosphorus can be recovered from the food production and consumption system and reused as a fertilizer either directly or after intermediate processing. These recovery measures include: ploughing crop residues back into the soil; composting food waste from households, food processing plants and food retailers; and using human and animal excreta. Such sources are renewable and are typically available locally.

Fertilizing urban agriculture with phosphorus recovered from organic urban waste could be a significant step towards reaching the Millennium Development Goals on eradicating hunger and poverty, and providing access to safe sanitation.

Shifting to a vegetarian diet, combined with reducing over-consumption, would be one of the most cost-effective measures to reduce agricultural resource inputs (including water, energy, land and fertilizers) and would also minimize greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution.

+ organic farming, permaculture and ending capitalism (an unlikely suggestion in a mainstream academic journal).