Every day there are 220 000 new people. They naturally expect food, shelter, education, security, basic health and some prosperity. Meanwhile, a range of factors are leading in precisely the opposite direction – towards rising toxification and resource depletion which translates to food, energy and economic insecurity.
In the 20th Century medicine and public health programs lowered mortality, while dense and powerful fossil carbons and modern agriculture fed the rising numbers of people and allowed for economic growth. But too little was done, and too late, to lower fertility though education of women and access to reproductive health. Too few questions were asked what increasing human numbers do to the carrying capacity of the planet.
FOOD World food production kept up with population growth for some time, and only began lagging behind in the 1990s.
The “Green Revolution” monocultures and high yielding crops demand more water and more pesticides. Now about six times as much chemical fertilizer and 25 times as much pesticides are used as they were in 1950 – despite that, yields per hectare seem to have reached a physical ceiling. Irrigated land produces 40% of the crops – but irrigation uses about 70% of water consumption while rivers are going dry and water tables are declining in China, India, Pakistan, the Middle East, Mexico and the western North America. By 2050, 47% of the entire population is expected to be under severe water stress.
Arable acreage per capita is declining just as top soils are degrading in quality due to nutrient depletion and agrochemical (fertilizers, pesticides) impact on the soil microbiome. Meanwhile, the fiber and chemical industries are posed to compete for more land to grow crops to replace fossil hydrocarbons as feedstock.
Now hope for higher yields rests mostly on solutions such as further marginal land overtake (despite such land’s vital role of supporting pollinators and predators of crop pests, protection of soil erosion, and water retention/purification), dramatic deforestation, and genetic modification – all quite dangerous ventures in their own right.
What’s more, new technologies promising solutions to food insecurity, such as hydro culture, ultimately rely on more fossil energy inputs, and thus exacerbate the CO2 deposits to the atmosphere and the oceans.
Modern agriculture already heavily depends on fossil carbons – petroleum and gas – to run its heavy machines and provide feedstock for fertilizers and pesticides. As more complicated extraction processes of fossil carbons demand even more energy inputs, the long-term viability of maintaining the current yield levels and new technologies to improve them is dubious.
Acquiring food from the oceans will be problematic. Most fisheries have been decreased so significantly from their original levels, that the only way to increase production is to decrease production, while populations can recover. For the most part, this is not happening. Over-fishing continues.
Meanwhile, rising water temperatures, ocean acidification due to CO2 emissions, spreading eutrophication zones from excessive fertilizer use and growing toxification – all add to rapid disaster in the making.
As with other areas, any attempts to solve the problems with technology create new problems of their own. For example, aquaculture pollutes the water with harmful chemicals, competes with livestock and humans for grains, and adds to wild fish population collapse as wild fish are fed to farmed fish.
LIFE The urban population was 732 million in 1950. It is expected to be 4.9 billion by 2030, an almost 7- fold increase in 80 years. Much of that increase is propelled by desperate peasants moving to cities to stay alive.
Calls for economic growth to provide jobs for the growing masses of people dominate almost every political discourse. But they miss the point. Besides the fact that the drawdown of finite resources to fuel the growth on to infinity is impossible, technology brings efficiencies and automation to drive productivity up, so growth is not generating jobs anymore. The solution to combat unemployment and low wages is fewer workers competing for jobs.
Thus the problems of poverty and the competition for resources are producing tensions and conflict, either in the form of intensified migration to the OECD countries, terrorism, failed states or local wars and insurrections. These are likely to increase as population growth continues.
Today out of the 7.3 billion people, about 800 million are so malnourished that their bodies and brains have not been able to develop properly. As global epidemic of chronic diseases testifies, many of the overfed and underfed on adulterated food lack access to essential nutrients, besides being loaded with chemical toxicants.
Food security cannot be achieved even now, and unlikely to be improved and sustained eternally for 8, 9 or 12 billion people. Neither can energy security, and – what follows – economic security.
Pesticide Life Sciences?
“Feeding the World” is an idea that resonates well with most people. We’ve all seen pictures of hungry children in poor countries and nobody wants those children to starve. But agrochemical companies have usurped this very emotional mission to bolster the deceptive argument that pesticides play an important role in ending world hunger.
There are two angles to consider: one global and one national.
First, let’s look at the global food situation. A large – if not the most important – part of productivity gains in the developing world come from employing proper agricultural practices. Not agrochemicals.
Second, feeding the world’s population as it grows (it is expected to rise from today’s 7.13 billion people to roughly 9.5 billion 20 years from now, and 12.8 billion in 30 years) requires that we address numerous issues: soil depletion and erosion; water scarcity; fossil fuel dependency; ecosystem damage; climate change; and deforestation.
Anyway, the world population probably won’t reach these astronomical levels simply because our social security systems would collapse first. But feeding a growing population also requires bracing for land competition in light of future need for biofuel and fiber, when decreasing fossil fuel extraction gets too expensive. We tend to forget that today’s plastic materials now used for so many things (take fiber for clothing, construction materials, cosmetics, sports and household equipment, construction materials, electronics, packaging) are produced from fossil fuels, as are pesticides. When fossil carbons become scarce or more difficult to extract, they would have to be replaced by carbon produced by current plants. And these have to grow in fields. More fields? We are already using up all available, biologically viable land for cultivation of our food.
Third, feeding the world does not mean selling more pesticides to farmers. Intense chemical agriculture in the short term brings more profitable crops, but it destroys the fertility of the soil over the mid- and long-term.
Overpopulation, water depletion, desertification, erosion and salination make people abandon land, migrate into slums and socio-political problems soon follow. We are already seeing this in Syria.
Indeed, we are entering an era of global food scarcity. It will be increasingly a time of each country for itself, and each person for himself. Now is the time to put in place policies that ensure a harmonious, civil society capable of cohesion and mutual respect – even in hard times. Now is the time to prepare, while we can still afford it.
Every community in the world has a responsibility to take into account its own long-term perspectives. It should develop the ability to withstand a storm – create its own resilience.
The ability to grow your own food is a fundamental part of this. Thus one of the priorities for each government should be a plan to phase out pesticides. Our government included.
If we turn to the domestic side of the issue, we can easily recognize that feeding the developing world so far has had the vicious effect of moving production to those countries in order to feed us rather than themselves with cheap, suboptimal food triggering the depletion of their forests and soils, and in return forcing our own farmers into a hopeless competition anchored on agrochemicals that ends up putting our own food security and health of the population in jeopardy.
Second, we hear that our food production will drop by 40% if we don’t use pesticides.
Meanwhile we waste 40% of our food. So what is the point of producing so much of it with pesticides at such a heavy environmental and health cost.
Third, before we start really feeding the world, we have to ensure that we can feed ourselves. Preserve our soils. Preserve our ecosystems that are our life support (no matter how oblivious we are to this simple fact). Preserve the health of our people. Quantity or quality?
With the right policies and intelligent agriculture we can produce healthy and economically viable food and import what is needed from countries using a similar approach. Without pesticides. Without reckless waste. Without an irresponsible impact on the health of our children.
With the right economic return for our farmers so they can nurture the land.
We are a community and as such we can become more mutually supportive and become much more resilient.
We have sufficient knowledge and resources to make intelligent changes. Everyone should play a role. Our citizens are the most important stakeholders in this. And solutions exist. But, of course, it’s not going to be easy. Those with a vested interest in the status quo will surely react. It will be necessary to rebut their reactions and create the appropriate economic and political framework for a conversion to healthier growing practices. And the sooner we start the better, because the ground is slipping from under our feet.