September 20, 2017

How to feed people under a regime of climate change

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Local food

What must be the structure of the agricultural system that satisfies our requirements? The first, quite clearly, is that it must be highly localised. Food instead of being produced for export, as farmers are forced to do by the IMF and now by the World Trade Organisation, must be produced primarily for local consumption. One reason is that transport in general accounts for one eighth of world oil consumption. [38] and the transport of food products accounts for a considerable slice of this. Consider that the import of food products and animal feeds into the UK by sea, air and road, accounts for over 83 billion ton kilometres and this requires 1.6 billion litres of fuel which would normally lead to annual emissions of 4.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. [39]

Air transport is the most energy-intensive form of transport. To give an idea, 127 calories of energy (as aviation fuel) are needed to transport 1 calorie of lettuce across the Atlantic. [40] Unfortunately more and more food is being transported by air rather than by ship, indeed since 1980 imports by air- freight of fruit and vegetables into the UK have increased by nearly 4 times.

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution has estimated that, on current trends, the contribution of air transport to man-made global warming is expected to increase by no less than 5 times between 1992 – 2050. [41] Scandalous as this may seem, the UK Government actually promotes this trend by exempting airlines of both the fuel tax and value added tax. As a result airlines pay up to 4 times less per litre for fuel than does anyone else. [42]

The only answer is the localisation of food production and distribution. According to a study carried out in 2001 greenhouse gas emissions associated with the transport of food from the local farm to a farmer’s market are 650 times lower than the average sold in supermarkets. In addition, to produce food locally, as the Report notes, “would be a major driver in rural regeneration as farm incomes would increase substantially”. There would also be very much more co-operation among local people and communities would be revitalised. [43]

The localisation of food is necessary even without climate change for it is only by producing food locally that the poor, particularly in the Third World, can have access to it. Indeed, one of the main causes of malnutrition and hunger in poor countries is the shortage of land for producing food for local consumption. Anything between 50 and 80 percent of the agricultural land of Third World countries is geared to the export trade. Local people are reduced to growing their own food on rocky outcrops or steep slopes that soon erode and become infertile. Urban Jonsson, the UNICEF country representative in Tanzania tells us that,

“when the World economy and Tanzania’s State economy are doing well, the villagers sell much of their maize and other staple foods. But when the State economy is in a bad way. . . prices for food drop and give the farmer less incentive to sell. . . the villagers do the only thing possible – they keep the food and eat it themselves”.

They also use land which they previously used for cash crops to grow food for their own consumption. In other words, it is only when they cannot export their food that they can eat properly. [44]

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Relative self-sufficiency

To produce food locally means, in effect, increasing self-sufficiency at a village, regional and state level. It also means storing food at all these levels in order to face possible food emergencies, which, scandalously enough, is illegal today as the WTO considers that the money required is better spent on paying back debts to Western banks.

Of course, the way International Agencies define ‘self-sufficiency’ has nothing to do with the way the term is normally used for a country that produces no food at all can still be regarded as ‘self-sufficient’ so long as it can pay for its imports. What we call food self-sufficiency they call “food autarky” and for them this is the greatest crime any country can possibly commit, for if it were adopted world-wide there would be no international trade, no global economy and no transnational corporations, while the economy of countries made dependent on world-trade would have to be drastically transformed.

That is perhaps the most important reason why the shift to something approaching food autarky or rather self-sufficiency, in the real sense of the term, is essential – though not in the extreme sense of the term as some trade will always be beneficial but it is largely surpluses that must be traded.

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Small farms

Farms that cater for the local area and are largely self-sufficient must necessarily be small. Big farms to survive must cater for the world market as they increasingly do, or they would not survive. What is more, to maximise efficiency they must use heavy machinery, fertiliser, pesticides and irrigation water, eliminate hedgerows and tree cover and grow a single cash crop over vast stretches of land year after year – exactly what we need to avoid – even without climate change.

We also need small farms because they are very much more productive than big ones. Even the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), which has spearheaded the shift towards industrial agriculture worldwide, [45] now admits this. Thus an FAO report makes clear that the farms with the highest productivity in Syria, for instance, were found to be about 0.5 hectares, in Mexico 3 hectares, in Peru 6 hectares, in India less than 1 hectare and in Nepal a little less than 2. In each case output was found to fall as soon as the size of the farm increased beyond these levels. [46]

The most productive form of food production is undoubtedly horticulture. In the UK, according to Kenneth Mellanby, [47] an English vegetable garden can produce as much as 8 tonnes an acre. Significantly, during the war, 40 percent of Britain’s food and vegetables were derived from just over 300,000 acres of vegetable gardens and allotments. Unfortunately most of these allotments were situated close to urban centres and have since been “developed”. Clearly they must urgently be replaced.

One reason why productivity is so high in a small farm or garden is that, the most important input, as Dr Schumacher always put it, is TLC – ‘tender loving care’, and this, small farmers, who totally depend on their land for their livelihood, are more likely to bestow on it than large-scale commercial farmers who are only in it for the money. With climate change, of course, ever more TLC will be required.

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Diversity of crops and varieties of crops

A localised, largely self-sufficient farming system largely made up of small farms necessarily cultivates a wide variety of different crops and even different varieties of these crops as traditional farmers have always done. In addition, some farmers, as Peter Rossett notes, often intercrop, using the empty space between rows which would otherwise produce weeds and combine or rotate crops and livestock. [48].

Jose Lutzenberger [see also Killing off small farms in Brazil], who was once Minister of the Environment in Brazil, [49] tells us that the Italian and German peasantry that established itself in South Brazil cultivated sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, sugar cane, cereals, vegetables, grapes, all kinds of fruit, and also silage for their cattle, as well as rearing chickens, pigs and cows. The total production of each small farm amounted to at least 15 tonnes of food per hectare, incomparably more than is produced on a modern soya-bean monoculture in the same area, all of which use the usual chemical inputs. What is more, there is a strong synergic relationship between the different crops cultivated by these traditional farmers.

Thus in a well-planned inter-cropping system early established plants tend to reduce soil temperature and produce the appropriate microclimate for other plants. Plants also complement each other in terms of nutrient cycling, thus deep-rooted plants can act as ‘nutrient pumps’ bringing up minerals from deep down in the sub-soil. Minerals released by the decomposition of annuals are taken up by perennials. The high nutrient demands of some plants are compensated for by the addition of organic matter to the soil by others. Thus cereals benefit by being grown in conjunction with legumes, which have deeper roots, permitting a better use of nutrients and soil moisture as well as possessing root nodules, which host bacteria specialised in fixing nitrogen.

Crop diversity thereby plays a significant role in the metabolism of a traditional agricultural ecosystem and thereby contributes to its productivity. However, if traditional small farmers plant such a wide diversity of crops, it is not primarily to maximise yields, but to reduce vulnerability to discontinuities such as droughts, floods and plant epidemics. As James Scott, who was an authority on peasant agriculture writes,

“the local tradition of seed varieties, planting techniques and timing was designed over centuries of trial and error to produce the most stable and reliable yield possible under the circumstances . . .”

Typically, the peasant seeks to avoid the failure “that will ruin him rather than attempting a big but risky killing”, [50] and this he largely achieves by cultivating a carefully chosen diversity of crops and crop varieties, whose exact composition he is well capable of adapting whenever necessary to changing environmental requirements. [51] As with climate change, nobody knows in advance which crops or crop varieties are capable of surviving the predictable heat waves, floods, droughts and invasions of exotic pests, it has never been more important for farmers to cultivate a well chosen diversity of traditional crops.

Needless to say, a deindustrialised world in which people live in small towns and villages, and produce locally much of their own food and artefacts, would be largely unaffected by the oil shortage that faced us today. It would also be an incomparably healthier, sounder and more sustainable world and there would be far less poverty, far less hunger and far less wars, as the majority that have been fought in the last fifty years are above all wars to obtain access to markets and resources that only a globalised industrial society requires. Nor of course would its economic activities transform the chemical composition of the atmosphere’s body to climatic destabilisation.

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