Most of the main efforts these days related to sustainability seem to be focused around issues concerning energy. That is easy to understand with oil prices near all time highs, and the recent energy-related environmental catastrophes in the Gulf of Mexico (BP) and Japan (Nuclear) fresh in our minds. These daily reports of dwindling fuel supplies and the environmental impacts of fossil/nuclear fuels have us all concerned and as such, have been the main focus of recent news reports. With that in mind, it is understandable that most people are completely unaware of the much larger threat that is bearing down on humanity like a tsunami.
We will soon be running out of food.
This is not my opinion but an undeniable fact. We are facing an issue that will severely affect every family, country, and region on the planet, not just the poor and developing nations. Our food chain is currently in the early stages of collapse. It is already a reality for the majority of our global community, unless you are living in Europe, the U.S., or have lots of money. There are a variety of views on how this will all play out. Some experts feel we can adjust and stabilize our current situation if we are proactive, while there are other opinions and models that suggest our planet’s population carrying capacity could be reduced by as much as 2/3 (approximately 2 billion people) by the middle of this century. These are not the fear-based rants of “over-sensitive”, end-of-the-world environmentalists, but computer models analyzing core data that directly affects food production capacity and future production levels. We need to pay close attention and start preparing for shortages.
To get a better handle on this, we need to look at all the issues involved. Outdated farming and fishing practices are currently being pushed to their limit. Over-harvesting, climate change, soil nutrition loss, and collapsing bee colonies are just part of the problem. When you also consider pollution, aquifer depletion, bio-diversity reduction, and habitat destruction we begin to see the threats to a system already overwhelmed by an expanding population. For the first time in history, in an effort to make up for current short falls, India is importing rice, Russia has stopped exporting wheat, and China has leased farmland in 13 separate countries in Africa.
Many of us may counter that we are producing more food at this time in history than ever before, and you would be right. In addition, it is a said that we have plenty of food and it is just a distribution problem made more difficult because of fuel costs and the distance most food has to travel to get to consumers these days. Again, if this opinion is based on supply and demand today, then it would be hard to argue that point. However, we need to pay heed to the trend lines which indicate that the food we take for granted will not be so available in the years to come. Starvation may likely be the norm and not the exception. This is difficult to imagine as most of us have never experienced real hunger, but it will surely be the reality that our children will have to endure if we do not take decisive action and soon.
So let us break down some of the major areas where the food chain is currently vulnerable and examine the threats to our resources that are behind this opinion. I will keep these sections as concise as possible and concentrate on the specific issues (the efforts to provide solutions will be the follow-up to this article in next month’s issue). To fully examine each area would take a book, and not an article–one can find a plethora of supportive information and scientific studies by “googling” any of these main topics:
Whether or not, one believes man and fossil fuels are the cause of our changing weather patterns, or that it is just part of a natural cycle, the fact that the weather is changing is undeniable. Since 2009 there have been 100 year droughts in Australia, China, India, East and West Africa, and devastating dry periods in Russia, South America, the southeastern U.S., and throughout California. This is not “normal” as some people would argue. The scientific data now available through recent studies of ice cores and deep sea ocean sediments, have increased our understanding of climate patterns exponentially to where we have a clear idea of what is “normal”. Recent record warm and cold temperatures, floods in areas that rarely, if ever flood, powerful storms and unusual seasonal weather systems have filled news headlines increasingly over the last few years.
The key impacts of climate change that make us vulnerable are the shifts in hydrologic patterns (the disbursement of atmospheric moisture) and the effects altered temperature ranges have on agriculture, bio-diversity, and eco-systems in general. Our agricultural farm belts exist, and we are able to raise crops worldwide only in areas where there is a suitable balance between land resources and climate. Flooding, droughts, longer warm seasons or unseasonably cold temperatures throw t
his balance out of whack. Plants in those eco-systems become weak due to stress– and either die, fail to blossom, or become prone to insect infestation and plant viruses. We can all relate to this as food prices trend higher when crops begin to fail with greater consistency and supply chains are squeezed.
Loss of Pollinators
Bees are responsible for pollinating 90% of fruit and vegetable growth world-wide. The US Department of Agriculture showed a 29 percent drop in beehives in 2009, following a 36 percent decline in 2008 after a 32 percent fall in 2007. Losses globally were comparable. Einstein once said that 2 years after the bees have disappeared, civilization will collapse. Let us leave it at that.
UN special rapporteur Olivier de Schutter said in an October 2010 Rome meeting for world food security that a combination of environmental degradation, urbanization and large-scale land acquisitions by investors for biofuels is squeezing land suitable for agriculture. “Worldwide, 5m to 10m hectares of agricultural land are being lost annually due to severe degradation and another 19.5m are lost for industrial uses and urbanization,” he said in his report.
Soil Nutrient and Topsoil Loss
The depletion of soil nutrients is a major problem globally. Years of poor farming and careless irrigation practices have contributed greatly to a systematic stripping of key elements from our soils that are needed for healthy crops. This has also created an unnatural reliance on fertilizers making once prime farm lands now completely dependent on massive amounts of industrial additives in order to grow our produce and grains. In order to flourish in these poorer growing conditions, native crops have been replaced by genetically modified varieties that are better able to deal with these conditions. The result is less nutritional crops that are comprised more and more out of nutritionally poor cellulose (plant cell walls). It is a real issue as the vitamin and nutritional value of the produce we consume and need as part of a healthy diet is reduced.
Then there is the loss of topsoil. It is clear that we are eroding soils at a rate much faster than they can regenerate. Cropland in the U.S. is being eroded at least 10 times faster than the time it takes for lost soil to be replaced according to the National Academy of Sciences. The United Nations has been warning of soil degradation for decades. This is a major concern in the third world where soil loss has contributed to the rapidly increasing number of malnourished people. Topsoil grows back at the rate of an inch or two over hundreds of years and can therefore not be taken for granted. Like all our resources it is finite.
Aquifer and Ground Water Depletion
Most areas of the world depend on aquifers, healthy river systems, and inland water sources for their agricultural needs. Northern China is losing farm land at the rate of 2100 square kilometers per year due to a regional system collapse of their aquifers. The same is true for India. In the U.S., the Ogallala aquifer which runs from the Dakotas to Texas (the major water resource for Midwest U.S. farming) has seen water levels drop over 150 feet in some areas threatening farm production. Current water use is at 130-160% of the recharge rate. In addition, the Colorado River which is the main water resource for the U.S. Southwest and Southern California is being de-watered at a rate of 1% per year (USGS Fact Sheet). Snow pack depletion in the Sierra Mountains threatens to turn California’s fertile central valley (arguably the most important farmland in the world) into a desert by mid century.
These three world agricultural powers are among a number of other countries that are confronted with falling water tables and disappearing snowpack dependant water resources. Together they comprise more than half the world’s total population.
Agricultural Bio-Diversity Reduction
In an effort to provide a more dependable, and uniform product, commercially-grown fruits and vegetables have been genetically manipulated for a consistent look and flavor. Additionally, a small number of “super grains” have been created that can adapt more easily to varied growing conditions and offer higher yields. Today’s fruits, vegetables, and grains have replaced the huge diversity of stocks that used to feed our masses. This has made our farm production vulnerable to targeted viruses that can potentially wipe out singular varieties. We are purposely reducing the number of strains we cultivate, in an effort to homogenize our agricultural products.
Now when a virus breaks out in a particular agricultural food source it has the potential for wiping out that entire strain worldwide. This is evident in the wheat blight known as Ug99, a new form of stem rust that has spread out from central Africa that now threatens to destroy the world’s entire wheat supply. Loss of this food stock would create a global crisis and result in potentially tens of millions of people dying from starvation as a core food source disappears. The Cavendish banana is being wiped out by the tropical race 4 virus eliminating the second strain of mass marketed bananas to fall victim to a worldwide sickness in the last two decades. Biodiversity is the natural defense that protects our food supply.
Limited Phosphorus Reserves
By some estimates, we will be out of easily mined rock phosphorus within the next 40-50 years. Phosphorus is one of the three main elements that make up fertilizer and there is no substitute for it. Flower and root development are supported by this crucial element and once we run out, commercial farming as we know it will cease to exist.
Dependence on Fossil Fuels for Food Production and Transportation
Our current food production system is completely dependent on fossil fuels for commercial production and transportation. If we look at charts (see below) of population growth and fossil fuel production from the beginning of the 20th century until present day you can see that there is a direct correlation between our ability to produce fossil fuels and the growth of our global population. By all industry estimates we hit peak fossil fuel production between 2006-2009. It is anticipated that we will only be able to produce less than half of our current levels by mid-century even if we tap all available known sources still left on our planet. If the population curve follows this trend line (as it has for the last hundred plus years), a reduction in population matching that trend line would seem inevitable.
Over-harvesting Ocean Fisheries
An international group of ecologists and economists in a 2009 U.N report warned that the world will run out of seafood by 2048 if steep declines in marine species continue at current rates. This is based on a four-year study of catch data and the effects of fisheries collapses. Steve Palumbi, from Stanford University in California, one of the other scientists on the project, added: “Unless we fundamentally change the way we manage all the ocean species together, as working ecosystems, then this century is the last century of wild seafood.” This position is supported by NOAH.
Many people are depending on land-based fish farming to make up for these short falls. The problem here is that farm raised fish depend on the fish meal and fish oil from so called ocean “garbage species” (Sardines, Menhaden, Mackerel) as their main feed source. Unfortunately, we are over-harvesting those groups of fish at 3 times the rate we are wiping out our wild food fish species. Therefore land-based aquiculture will be unsustainable using current feed sources.
CO2 is changing the chemical composition of our oceans. This by itself may be the single most significant area we need to be concerned about. As ocean water becomes more acidic (a result of increased CO2 levels), it also lowers the amount of calcium carbonate available to aquatic animals that use the mineral to build shells or skeletons. This is having a devastating effect on coral reefs which are responsible for supporting as much a ¼ of all sea life. Right now every coral reef on the planet is in some stage of bleaching (the condition that singles their eventual demise).
Additionally phosphorus and other pollutants, mostly from agricultural runoff, are creating large dead areas throughout the ocean as they pour out of river and sewage systems into estuaries and coastal waters. This causes a condition known as eutrophication and can bring on an anoxic event which deprives the water of oxygen and creates a dead zone where almost all sea life disappears. Each year there are more and more of these areas worldwide, and each year these areas continue to expand. The fear is that with continued CO2 pollution this could become a global condition for our entire ocean system, forever changing (as far as humans are concerned) our planet in a way which would be very inhospitable to people and higher organisms.
It is not my intention to challenge any religious beliefs or be misconstrued as to how I view the extraordinary value and potential of every human being on our planet. There are simply too many of us. If we do not learn how to manage our population growth, we will alter our environment and our ability to survive as a species as we destroy the eco-systems and overuse the resources that every living thing depends on. No single contributor is more central to our current dilemma and more dangerous to our future, than our inability to control the size of our population.
So, taken in its entirety this argument may seem ominous, yet I believe there is a way out of this mess. There are new food growth technologies, methods, and protocols that can have a huge effect on reversing these trends and help to mitigate the food challenges we will all soon face. It will however, require a massive coordinated and collaborative effort to be successful. For the past few years, Energime has led an effort to organize agricultural and aquaculture specialists, technology developers, and key university programs globally to join us in addressing the key issues that will affect our future food supplies. Up to this point, we have only been able to engage a limited group of top educators, universities, experts, and some innovative companies. This is the beginning of collaborative alliance that has come together to participate in addressing these challenges. We will need wider support, recognition, investment, and swift action however, if we are to succeed.
The next article in this series “How do we address our future global food challenges?” will address ideas, technologies, strategies, and solutions we need to coordinate to mitigate this potential crisis.