HIGHLIGHTS 35 October 31, 2014

Get your priorities right

Not just pesticide enthusiasts, but countless other good souls evoke the sacrosanct call of "We need to feed the 9 billion people" whenever there is a discussion about the future of food. The cliché is indeed relevant: 9 billion people are expected here in 25 years. But not coincidentally, a lot more challenges than just the 9 billion people are converging around us over that same period.  

Because this prospect is well within our lifetimes, it is worth giving it at least as much thought as we would give to plan our children's education for a successful career, a loan on a house or an insurance policy. Below is a review of the trends, which you can use to better evaluate your priorities and that of your political agenda.


Brace yourself, as the picture is not very pretty, but ignoring what’s coming does not make it go away.

One: topsoil loss

We have no viable technological fix to replace topsoil on a reasonable scale. At the current rate of loss, due to intensive agricultural practices and overtake by urban and industrial development, it is estimated that we will run out of topsoil in the next 60 years. As there is little plant life without topsoil it is hard to conceive of much animal life either. No soil, no life.

Two: chemical pollution

It is quite dramatic, not visible to the naked eye and growing in volume by the day. The 30 million tonnes a year global output is to triple by the mid-century. The earth and all life on it are being soaked with synthetic chemicals in an event unlike anything that has occurred in the four billion years of our planet’s history. No living creature is without these chemicals in its tissues, often at levels well within those causing adverse effects. This began with the 20th century, and progressed so fast that most people are still unaware of the extent of the problem. "Unknown is the impact of the tens of thousands of man-made chemicals that have created a chemical soup we are all living in whether we are a whale or a human being," said Thomas Lovejoy. One of its many dangerous repercussions - the emergence of widespread antibiotic resistance - is likely to cross paths with our exhausted immune systems compromised by this chemical contamination.

Three: global water crisis

Major rivers like the Indus, Colorado, Ganges, Rio Grande, and Yellow are so over-tapped by agriculture, industry and ballooning cities that they never reach the oceans for part of the year. Secondly, aquifers are over-exploited. Over-pumping of underground aquifers forces water tables to fall and irrigation wells to dry up. Thirdly, melted mountain glaciers mean no year-round water flow for large numbers of people in Asia, South America and Africa. Fourthly, deforestation in some countries further reduces water retention capacity of the lands, leading to flash floods and land slides, and - as in the case of the Amazon it disrupts hydrological cycle, reducing rain for important agricultural hubs to the south.

Four: population growth

220 000 new kids sit down at our global dinner table every day. Many are in countries where the best arable soils are consumed by cash crops grown for export.


Graph of the global human population from 10,000 BC to 2000 AD, from the US Census Bureau. Source: Wikipedia

According to a report on global land use recently released by the United Nations Environmental Program, "An effective policy to control human fertility and thus growth of the world population may have a more pronounced impact on future food security than efforts to enhance crop yields."

Five: phosphorus

Phosphorus, a scarce, finite mineral is one of the building blocks of all life. Every living cell requires it. Plants need phosphorus to grow as much as they need water. Phosphorus is a major component in fertilizer. Without it, fertilizer is useless. Without fertilizer, two thirds of the world's population will starve because the Earth cannot support our demands for food. There are no alternatives to phosphorus and no synthetic ways of creating it. The phosphorus mines of Morocco and Western Sahara, China, the US and Australia are expected to run out within the next 50 - 100 years.


Six: global warming

The pleasantly stable weather patterns of the last ten thousand years of the Holocene, which allowed for the development of agriculture, are changing.



For each degree Celsius rise in temperature above the norm during the growing season, farmers can expect a 10% decline in wheat, rice, and corn yields. And that assumes a gentle scenario in which climate change is gradual instead of a more abrupt one – such as the current drought in California

that massively disrupts not only the lives of local people but also throws a wrench at global agricultural exports (because California is one of the great food suppliers to the world.

Secondly, CO2 acidifies the ocean water, which undermines the food chain and ultimately reduces the seas capacity to provide protein.

Thirdly, climate change also means that rising tides devour flood prime land property forcing inland migrations of considerable scales. Just take Bangladesh, a country sitting basically on river delta, which is about to lose 11% of its territory (home to 15 million people) when the sea level rises by only 1 meter, not a particularly extreme prediction over the next 4 decades.


Seven: biodiversity loss

Essentially half of the wildlife of the planet has been wiped out by us in fewer than 50 years. We lose over 20 species a day. As many as 30 to 50 percent of all species will likely be extinct by mid-century. Just in agricultural crops 75% of genetic diversity has been lost. Such a substantial and largely irreversible loss is a direct biological threat to us as life depends on life No organism, and no species, is capable of living in biological isolation. We need the life supporting services of other organisms such as gut and soil microbes, for example.

David Liittschwager, a photographer, spent a few years traveling the world, putting one-cubic-foot metal frames into gardens, streams, parks, forests, oceans, and then photographing whatever, came through. Beetles, crickets, fish, spiders, worms, birds — anything big enough to be seen by the naked eye. Here's what he found after 24 hours in his Cape Town cube: There were 30 different plants in that one square foot of grass, and roughly 70 different insects.


Craig Childs, as he tells it in his new book, Apocalyptic Planet, spend two nights and three days smack in the middle of a 600-acre farm in Grundy County in Iowa amongst the corn stalks to see what's living there. There corn is an insecticide itself, the ground is sprayed. The stalks are sprayed again. He found almost nothing. "I listened and heard nothing, no bird, no click of insect." There were no bees. The air, the ground, seemed vacant. There was one ant "so small you couldn't pin it to a specimen board." A little later, crawling to a different row, he found one mushroom, "the size of an apple seed". "It felt like another planet entirely," he said, a world denuded.


Eight: fossil fuels

Finite fossil fuels are not only used to produce, transport and process food (agrochemicals are made from fossil fuels). Estimates of the net energy balance of agriculture in the United States show that ten calories of hydrocarbon energy are required to produce one calorie of food. But the carbon molecule of the now still abundant fossil fuels is the base feedstock for raw materials of plastics which underpin other large areas of our economy: electronics, music, cars, packaging, cosmetics, textiles, construction, pharmaceuticals to name a few. And then there are all the service jobs that depend upon fossil fuel-based activities – such as dentists, painters, anesthesiologists, rocket scientist and make-up vendors.

Dubai Shoes

Substituting carbon molecules from the fossil stocks with those that are produced by plants simply means more competition for land on which to grow the fiber when the fossil ones become more expensive to extract, or less available. It’s not a rosy perspective, given that we are running out of top soil and water.

That poses competitive pressure for land to grow food, fiber (including raw material for plastic) and increasingly fuel. Be it for cooking, heating, air-conditioning, transport or to run the machinery in mines or on fields, fuel - whether it is forest wood or diesel oil - is required. Palm oil, which can be used either for cooking or to make soap, to produce biodiesel fuel (or napalm for example) is a great illustration of how the competition between food and fuel and fiber is already showing up.

The new geopolitical experiment of massive acquisitions of land to grow food in other countries may impact migration. The land-buying countries are mostly those whose populations have outrun their own soil and water resources (Israel, China, the UK, Saudi Arabia, the US, India, Egypt, etc), while countries selling or leasing their land are often low-income ones and, more often than not, with a history of chronic malnutrition or, worse, hunger.

Chart 1 Chart 2

Some depend on the World Food Program for part of their food supply. There is rarely idle productive land in such places so the land seizures, whether by direct acquisitions or by the introduction of invasive technology (such as the GM crops for industrial-scale agricultural production) suggest that many local farmers will simply be displaced. It is not just Africa or South America. Europe is also experiencing tremendous and rapid land concentration. Spain already produces 120 000 ha of GM crops. Ten giant agro-holdings now control about 2.8m hectares in the Ukraine.

There are other

The population size and the carrying capacity overshoot, of which food systems and water are such an integral part, will cripple the global economy as migration mounts and social institutions are unable to deliver critical functions. The international humanitarian agencies are already reaching the limits of their capacity due to the multiplication of armed conflicts and resulting migratory pressures.

We should not be fooling ourselves that those are third world problems - those are Swiss problems as well.

Of course, nobody can deal individually with the multiple forces that now converge. It takes a community of like-minded people, a matter-of fact discussion and a wise plan.

Having a shared understanding of what that day in the near future looks like allows us to work backwards from then to now, determine the true priorities and act on them.

Some simplistic solutions offered to deal with part of the problem undermine the overall goal. One example here is that plans to use pesticide-intensive agriculture to allegedly feed 9 billion people, ignore the devastating impact these practices have on water, climate, biodiversity and soil, which as explained earlier, not only undermine our long-term survival but worse - divert our focus from the real problems.

The remaining ecosystems, ravaged as they may become, will be all what is left from our essential ecological capital. They will be the basis of our survival at the local level, which is what will matter most, the day international trade is disrupted. Think globally, but make sure that local systems are in place, that can best survive what is coming. False priorities undermine local sustainability.

When the crash truly starts encompassing the world, emotions and competition will run high, society will radicalize and we will have lost the chance to avert the worst. We will be making hurried decisions in a crisis mode, just because we were earlier seduced by noble peripheral issues: saving the pandas, recycling paper and plastic, creating jobs or feeding the planet with pesticided food. These are wonderful topics, but they don’t address the core challenges that inevitably confront us in the next few decades.