April 24, 2014

How to feed people under a regime of climate change

Modern agriculture is not only highly vulnerable to climate change, it is also a major cause of climate change due to its emissions of greenhouse gases and its damaging effects on soil and freshwater resources. A combination of traditional agricultural knowledge and techniques, combined with newly emerging sustainable technologies, may hold the answers we need.

Published in World Affairs Journal, winter 2003.

The first thing that must be pointed out is that climate change is by far and away the most daunting problem that mankind has ever encountered. The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its last assessment report has told us that we could expect a temperature change of up to 5.8°C within this century. However, the IPCC did not take into account a number of critical factors including the annihilation of our tropical forests and other vegetation. However, these contain six hundred billion tons of carbon almost as much as is contained in the atmosphere, much of which is likely to be released into it in the next decades by the increasingly uncontrolled activities of the giant logging companies. The Director General of the United Nations Environment Programme recently stated that only a miracle could save the world’s remaining tropical forests.

Nor does the IPCC take into account the terrible damage perpetrated on the world’s soils by modern industrial agriculture with its huge machines and arsenal of toxic chemicals. The world’s soils contain one thousand six hundred billion tons of carbon, more than twice as much as is contained in the atmosphere. Much of this will be released in the coming decades unless there is a rapid switch to sustainable – largely organic – agricultural practices. On the other hand, the Hadley Centre of the British Meteorological Organisation has taken these and other such factors into account in its more recent models and has concluded that the world’s average temperature will increase by up to 8.8 rather than 5.8 C this century. [1] Other climatologists who take into account often still largely neglected factors are even gloomier. [2] If they are right, what then are the implications?

The IPCC tells us that we can expect a considerable increase in heatwaves, storms, floods, and of course, the spread of tropical diseases into temperate areas, which will not only affect human health but also that of our crops. It also tells us to expect a rise in sea levels of anything up to eighty eight centimetres this century which will affect (by seawater intrusion into the soils underlying croplands and by temporary and also permanent flooding) something like 30 percent of the world’s agricultural lands. [3] Of course, if the Hadley Centre is right, the implications will be horrifying.

Very worrying too is the melting of the secondary Antarctic, the Arctic, and in particular, the Greenland ice-shields which is occurring far more quickly than was predicted by the IPCC. Among other things, this will reduce the salinity of the oceans which in turn must weaken if not divert, oceanic currents such as the Gulf Stream from their present course. [4] This process if it continues, would eventually lead to the freezing up of areas that at present have a temperate climate such as Northern Europe which could eventually resemble that of Labrador which is on the same latitude.

“even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, our planet would continue to heat up for at least a 150 years”

It is indeed ironic that global warming could lead to local or regional cooling. If this were not bad enough, we must realise that even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, our planet would continue to heat up for at least a 150 years; the residence time of carbon dioxide the most important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, while the oceans will continue to warm up for a thousand years at least. All we can do is take those measures – and very dramatic ones at that – that are required to slow down the warming process so that when our climate eventually stabilises, our planet remains partly, at least, habitable.

Unfortunately, climate change is proceeding faster than predicted. This has been made apparent among other things by the prolonged droughts in many parts of the world. Four years of drought in much of Africa have resulted in 30-40 million people facing starvation. At the same time, drought in the main bread-baskets of the world: the American corn belt, the Canadian plains, and the Australian wheat belt will seriously reduce cereal exports which is not very encouraging for the vast masses of people in Africa and elsewhere who are today facing starvation.

The climate in Europe has also been dreadful. Massive floods in Germany in 2002 are expected to cost at least $13 billion. The terrible storms in northern Italy, with hail stones the size of tennis balls, destroyed crops in 2002 over a wide area. Drought in southern Europe as also drastically harvests.

I was personally driven through endless olive groves in the southern Italian province of Foggia and did not see a single olive on any of the trees. Worse still, southern Sicily is said to be drying up.

We must remember that all this is the result (partly at least) of no more than 0.7 C degree increase in global temperatures. What will things be like when we have to grow our food in a world whose average temperature has increased by 2 or 3 C, let alone by 5 to 8 C as we are told we might have to later in this century?

Emissions of nitrous oxides and methane

All this must make it clear that climate change or rather its different manifestations mentioned above will be the most important constraints on our ability to feed ourselves in the coming decades. Clearly we cannot just sit and wait for things to get worse. Instead, we must do everything we can to assure the transformation of our food production system so that it helps us to combat global warming and, at the same time, to feed ourselves, in what will almost certainly be far less favourable conditions.

The term “transformation” is quite clearly appropriate as modern industrial agriculture by its very nature makes and must make a very large contribution to greenhouse gases. Consider that currently it is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, 60 percent of methane gas emissions and 80 percent of nitrous oxide, all powerful greenhouse gases. [5]

Nitrous oxide is generated through the action of denitrifying bacteria in the soil when land is converted to agriculture. When tropical rainforests are converted into a pasture, nitrous oxide emissions increase by three times. All in all, land conversion is leading to the release of around half a million tonnes a year of nitrogen in the form of nitrous oxide.

Nitrous oxide is some 200 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, though fortunately atmospheric concentrations of nitrous oxide are currently over 1,000 times lower than that of carbon dioxide – 0.31ppmv compared with 365 ppmv. Nitrogenous fertilisers are another major source of nitrous oxide. Around 70 million tonnes a year of nitrogen are now applied to crops and are contributing as much as ten per cent of the total annual nitrous oxide emissions of 22 million tonnes. With fertiliser applications increasing substantially, especially in developing countries, nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture could double over the next 30 years. [6]

In the Netherlands, the site of the world’s most intensive farming, as much as 580 kilograms per hectare of nitrogen in the form of nitrates or ammonium salts are applied every year as fertiliser and at least ten per cent of that nitrogen gets straight back into the atmosphere, either as ammonia or nitrous oxide. [7]

“the destruction of forests for cattle-raising is . . . leading to increased emissions of two of the most important greenhouse gases”

The growth of agriculture is also leading to increasing emissions of methane. In the last few decades, there has been a substantial increase in livestock numbers – cattle, in particular – much of which has been made possible by the conversion of tropical forests to pasture. Cattle emit large amounts of methane and the destruction of forests for cattle-raising is therefore leading to increased emissions of two of the most important greenhouse gases.

Worldwide, the emissions of methane emitted by livestock amount to some 70 million tonnes. With modern methods of production, cattle are increasingly fed on a high-protein diet – especially when fattened in feedlots. Such cattle emit considerably more methane gas than grass-fed cattle. Even the fertilisation of grasslands with nitrogen fertilisers can both decrease methane uptake and increase nitrous oxide production, which thereby increases atmospheric concentrations of both these gases. [8]

The expansion of rice paddies has also seriously increased methane emissions. Rain-fed rice produces far less methane than inundated rice fertilised with nitrogen fertiliser. Once again, the modernisation of agriculture increases methane gas emissions as well as nitrogen emissions.

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Energy intensity

The most energy-intensive components of modern industrial agriculture are the production of nitrogen fertiliser, farm machinery and pumped irrigation. They account for more than 90 percent of the total direct and indirect energy used in agriculture and they are all essential to it.

Emissions of carbon from the burning of fossil fuels for agricultural purposes in England and Germany were as much as 0.046 and 0.053 tonnes per hectare while they are only 0.007 tonnes, i.e. roughly seven times lower, in non-mechanised agricultural systems. [9]

This ties in with the estimate made by Pretty and Ball [10] that to produce a ton of cereals or vegetables by means of modern agriculture requires 6 to 10 times more energy than it does by using sustainable agricultural methods.

It could be argued that a shift to renewable energy sources such as wind power, wave-power, solar power and fuel cells would avoid having to reduce energy consumption to protect our climate, however, this necessary substitution would take decades – some think about 50 years or so.

However a radical reduction in gas emissions is immediately necessary if we are to believe the Hadley Centre’s contention that rising temperatures within thirty years will have become sufficient to begin transforming our main sinks, (our forests, oceans and soils) for carbon dioxide and methane gas into sources of these greenhouse gases. If this occurs, of course, we would be caught up in a “runaway” process, i.e. an unstoppable chain-reaction towards increasing temperatures and climatic instability.

What we must develop is of course an agricultural system that does not cause these terrible problems, and which on the contrary helps to revitalise and hence build-up our soil resources. Such an agricultural system would, surprisingly enough for those imbued with the ideology of progress, have much in common with those that were once practiced by our distant ancestors and which are still practiced by those communities in the remoter parts of the Third World, which have succeeded in staying, to some extent at least, outside the orbit of the industrial system.

They may be ‘uneconomic’ within the context of an aberrant and necessarily short-lived industrial society, but they are the only ones that are actually designed to feed local people and in a really sustainable manner. Significantly, the most respected authorities on sustainable agriculture, among them Jules Pretty and Miguel Altieri, and there are many others, increasingly use the term ‘sustainable agriculture’ as synonymous with ‘traditional agriculture’.

If traditional agriculture is the answer one might ask why are governments and international agencies so keen to prevent traditional peoples from practising it anymore and to substitute modern industrial agriculture in its place. The answer is that traditional agriculture is not compatible with the developmental process that we are imposing on the people of the Third World, still less with the global economy, and less still with the immediate interests of the transnational corporations that control it all.

That this is so is clear from the following quotes from two World Bank reports. In the first, on the subject of the development of Papua New Guinea, the World Bank admits that “a characteristic of Papua New Guinea’s subsistence agriculture is its relative richness”. Indeed “over much of the country nature’s bounty produces enough to eat with relatively little expenditure of effort”. [10] Why then change it? The answer is clear, “Until enough subsistence farmers have their traditional lifestyles changed by the growth of new consumption wants, this labour constraint may make it difficult to introduce new crops” [11] – those required for large scale production for export of course.

“smallholders are outstanding managers of their own resources”

Even in the World Bank’s iniquitous Berg report, it is acknowledged “that smallholders are outstanding managers of their own resources – their land and capital, fertiliser and water”. [12] But in the same report it is also acknowledged that the dominance of this type of agriculture or ‘subsistence production’ “presented obstacles to agricultural development. The farmers had to be induced to “produce for the market, adopt new crops and undertake new risks”. [13]

Whether we like it or not, modern industrial agriculture is on the way out. It is proving ever less effective. For instance we are now encountering diminishing returns on fertilisers. The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) admitted in 1997 that wheat yields in both Mexico and the USA had shown no increase in 13 years. In 1999, Global wheat production actually fell for the second consecutive year to about 589 million tons, down 2 percent from 1998. Fertilisers are too expensive and as McKenney puts it,

“the biological health of soils has been driven into such an impoverished state in the interests of quick, easy fertility, that productivity is now comprised, and fertilisers are less and less effective”. [14]

Pesticides too are ever less effective. Weeds, fungi, insects and other potential pests are amazingly adaptable. 500 species of insects have already developed genetic resistance to pesticides as have 150 plant diseases, 133 kinds of weeds and 70 species of fungus. The reaction today is to apply evermore powerful and more expensive poisons, which in the US cost $8 billion a year not counting the cost of spreading them on the land. [15] The farmers are loosing the battle, the pests are surviving the chemical onslaught but farmers are not. More and more of them are leaving the land, and the situation will get much worse.

Today we are witnessing the forced introduction of genetically modified crops by international agencies in collusion with national governments, as the result of the massive lobbying being carried out by an increasingly powerful biotechnology industry. Genetically modified crops, quite contrary to what we are told, do not increase yields. Also they require more inputs including more herbicides, whose use they are supposed to reduce significantly, as well as irrigation water. Also the science on which they are based is seriously flawed. No one knows for sure what will be the unexpected consequences of introducing, by a very rudimentary technique, a specific gene into the genome of a very different creature. Surprises are in store and some could cause serious problems of all sorts. [16]

Another reason why industrial agriculture has had it’s day, even without climate change, is that it is far too vulnerable to increases in the price of oil, more so, to shortages in the availability of this fuel.

If three million people starved to death in North Korea in the last few years, it was partly because, as a result of the collapse of the Russian market which absorbed most of its exports, it could no longer afford to import the vast amount of oil on which its highly mechanised, Soviet inspired, agricultural system had become so totally dependent. Its farmers had simply forgotten how to wield a hoe or push a wheelbarrow.

The UK could have been in a similar plight if the transport strike of 2000 had lasted a few more weeks. In an industrial society, oil is required to transport essential food imports, to build and operate tractors, to produce and use fertilisers and pesticides and process, package and transport food to the supermarkets – a more vulnerable situation is difficult to imagine at the best of times – but it is suicidal today.

It is not just temporary oil shortages associated with temporary jumps in the price of oil that we are destined to face but the steady decline in the availability of this commodity. As this occurs oil is due to become increasingly expensive until it will be affordable only a minority of corporations – US ones, in all probability, as the US oil industry is positioning itself to take over and use for its own purposes the fast declining supplies.

The truth is that worldwide oil production will peak within the next four to ten years. Oil discoveries have been very disappointing and much of the oil we are using today was discovered some forty years or so ago. The Caspian Sea area which many people in the oil business expected to contain as much as 200 billion barrels of oil, according to Colin Campbell, [17] one of the world’s leading authorities on the oil industry, is more likely to contain some 25 billion barrels and no more than 40 or 50 billion. This is not all that significant in a world that uses 78 billion barrels a year, and whose consumption goes on increasing at an alarming rate.

Though the US has tried desperately to reduce its dependence on the Middle East that it has succeeded in doing to a certain extent, alternative sources of oil are drying up more quickly than expected. Iran for instance is unlikely to produce more oil than it requires for its own use in more than 10 – 15 years – indeed in the next 20 years the US will have become more dependent on the Middle East than it is today as oil production of countries like Angola, Nigeria, Venezuela, and Mexico also begin to fall.

This explains of course, why the US oil industry which is now in effect, the government of the USA, is so fanatically determined to conquer Iraq which has 11 percent of world known reserves of which only a fraction are exploited, and whose oil is the cheapest in the world. The economic consequences of the coming world oil crisis cannot be over-estimated.

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