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  1. Since World War II ended, agriculture has dramatically changed. New technologies have caused food productivity to soar. Mechanization, specialization, and increased chemical use hinder farmers from producing lower-priced foods and fiber. Government policies that favor maximized production is a key factor. These developments have many positive effects and reduce the risks associated with farming. But they also have significant costs. Topsoil depletion, air pollution, groundwater contamination, and greenhouse gas emissions only scratch the surface. Also, there is the decline of family farms, neglect of farm laborers' living conditions, and human health threats due to new pathogens. As well, rural communities are being disintegrated due to the concentration of economics in the agricultural and food industries. Over the last four decades, a growing movement has come forth that questions the need for high costs. This movement offers more innovative and reasonable alternatives. This movement is toward sustainable agriculture. It continues to garner increasing acceptance and support in the food production sector. The three main goals of sustainable agriculture are social equity, environmental health, and economic profitability. Although the concept is made up of a wide range of practices, policies, and philosophies, there are a few common principles that define sustainable agriculture. Throughout this movement, practice and science have led to many key farming techniques aimed at sustainability. Crop Rotation and Diversity Maintaining plant variety can be very beneficial. It results in improved pest control and healthier soil. Incorporating intercropping and complex crop rotations are ways of implementing crop diversity. Irrigation Rainwater can be collected or harvested with the use of gravity feed water tanks. Harvesting rainwater helps the environment and saves money. Water from wells, lakes, ponds, streams, rivers, and other sources can also be stored. Cover Crops Clover and hairy vetch are two types of cover crops. Cover crops are planted off-season when an area would be left bare. Planting cover crops allows the soil to be protected and builds soil health by replenishing nutrients, lowering the need to use herbicides, preventing erosion, and keeping weeds at bay. Reduced or No-Till Methods To prevent weed problems and to prepare fields for planting, traditional plowing known as tillage has been used. However, this generally causes massive soil loss. Reduced or no-till methods allow seeds to be directly inserted into undisturbed soil. This reduces erosion and improves soil health. Overall, more diverse and complex agricultural practices have proven to be the most productive and sustainable.
  2. In just 15 years the world could suffer a catastrophic global water crisis, the United Nations (UN) warn in its annual World Water Development Report. The UN report forecasts that global water demand will increase by 55 percent by 2050. If current trends of water usage continues the world could suffer a 40 percent shortfall in water supply as early as by 2030 – which could potentially have catastrophic consequences. Groundwater supplies are quickly diminishing and the report estimates that 20 percent of the world’s aquifers are currently over-exploited. There is an urgent need to manage water more sustainably, the UN report concludes. If we fail to do this, the competition for water will increase and lead to “significant impacts” on both the economy and human well-being. It will also increase the risk of conflicts, the UN report warns. Safe drinking water supplies will continue to dwindle as long as water pollution continues to be ignored and go unpunished by local authorities, and water use remains wasteful and unregulated, as it unfortunately does in many nations, the UN says in its report. In order to mitigate this water crisis, the UN is urging politicians, communities and industries to rethink its water policies and to make a greater effort to conserve water. The 55 percent increase in water demand is mainly due to growing demands from manufacturing, thermal electricity generation and domestic use. But due to increasing population numbers and consumption levels, agriculture will also need to substantially increase its food productions to keep up with demand – and this will in turn increase water usage. “By 2050, agriculture will need to produce 60 percent more food globally, and 100 percent more in developing countries […] global water demand for the manufacturing industry is expected to increase by 400 percent from 2000 to 2050, leading all other sectors, with the bulk of this increase occurring in emerging economies and developing countries,” the UN report said. “Unless the balance between demand and finite supplies is restored, the world will face an increasingly severe global water deficit.” Considering that current demands for water in the agriculture sector is already unsustainable, this will be a difficult task. The agriculture sector must increase its water use efficiency by reducing water losses in the production process, and to “increase crop productivity with respect to water” availability and demand, the report says. The UN report also points to two worrying global trends that are converging: climate change and growing economic development in poor developing countries. This convergence will especially “intensify the water insecurity of poor and marginalized people in low income countries.” “Water resources are a key element in policies to combat poverty, but are sometimes themselves threatened by development,” said UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova. “Water directly influences our future, so we need to change the way we assess, manage and use this resource in the face of ever-rising demand and the over exploitation of our groundwater reserves.”
  3. Even though some farmers who grow their plants in conventional way say that organic agriculture does not have more environmental benefits, facts speak for themselves. The Organic Trade Association claims that if all farmers in the United States switched to organic productions, we would stop around 500 million pounds of dangerous pesticides from entering the environment each year. This would have a major impact on all aspects of the environment, and here it is how. Water Many practices of conventional agriculture require extensive use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that pollute underwater. This is a major issue in many agricultural areas. In organic agriculture no synthetic fertilizers are used. Instead of these, organic farms rely on the use of natural fertilizers such as compost, animal manure or green manure. Besides enhancing soil structure this also increases water infiltration. Organic systems that are managed properly have better nutrient retentive abilities and reduce the pollution of underwater. In some countries like France and Germany, where underwater pollution is a big issue, the use of organic materials is encouraged as a restorative measure. Climate In conventional agriculture, many fossil fuels are used. Not only are they used on farms but also in the production of pesticides and fertilizers. These all contribute to the greenhouse effect and global warming. On the other hand, organic agriculture does not have negative impact on the climate. The use of renewable energy that is encouraged in organic agriculture actually mitigates global warming. These practices reduce the use of fossil fuels and provide carbon sequestration in the soil. Organic agriculture thus strengthens agro-ecosystems and helps farmers learn how to confront and challenge changes that appear in the climate. Soil Some of the most important organic agricultural practices are crop rotations, crop covers and inter-cropping all of which help build the soil. This does not only improve its formation and structure but also encourages flora and fauna and helps build a more solid structure. These practices also help control the soil erosion. It is less exposed to the erosive forces and its productivity is increased. Even though organic agriculture relies heavily on the use of renewable resources, sometimes it is necessary to supplement organic soils with some other resources such as calcium, magnesium or potassium. GMOs GMOs are one of the most discussed issues of today. Even though the GMOs’ impact on environment and health is not yet entirely understood, their use is not permitted in organic agriculture. Still, since a big number of farmers that deal with convention agriculture use GMOs the organic farms won’t be able to ensure that their products have not GMO free. This will happen because of the GMOs are transmitted into our environment through air (by pollen for example). Biodiversity Without the use of dangerous pesticides and fertilizers the soil is able to attract more species of plants and animals to it. The use of renewable resources actually creates a healthier gene pool which makes a perfect home for some re-colonizing species. Some of these species are pest-predators or pollinators and their presence is of great importance. Organic agriculture also offers farmers to grow certain plants with improved flavor and aroma. For example, when growing cannabis not only that these are improved but with some strains its potency is increased as well. Be sure to learn more about strains if you plan to start an organic garden. It is obvious that organic agriculture has many benefits for our environment. So if you are thinking about starting a garden, deciding on organic farm would be a great option. Be sure to grow plants which are perfect for this type of garden.
  4. Do you think vertical farming can help us increase food availability around the world? Or is it doomed from the start, as the author of this article claim?   "Building factory farms in urban skyscrapers is promoted as a way to fix our broken food system. Despite the good intentions of its advocates, it’s a fantasy, an unrealistic techno-fix that can only divert attention from the need for real change."   Or do you, like Dickson Despommier, see farms in urban skyscrapers as a solution to green deserts and potential future food crisis?   "Despommier thinks vertical farming will allow us to grow locally and safely without taking over more of the earth’s arable land."  
  5. Authors of a recent climate change analysis, published in the monthly scientific journal Nature Climate Change, says that while the world struggles to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, we have given too little attention to other harmful greenhouse gases – more specifically, greenhouse gases associated with livestock. “Because the Earth’s climate may be near a tipping point to major climate change, multiple approaches are needed for mitigation,” said William Ripple, a professor in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University and co-author of the analysis. “We clearly need to reduce the burning of fossil fuels to cut CO2 emissions. But that addresses only part of the problem. We also need to reduce non-CO2 greenhouse gases to lessen the likelihood of us crossing this climatic threshold.” While acknowledging the dangers of CO2, the authors say that much more should be done to reduce releases of methane and nitrous oxide, two non-CO2 greenhouse gases that trap more heat than CO2 does. Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas and recent studies have shown that methane releases could be much higher than previously thought. Methane release comes from a variety of sources, but it’s estimated that ruminants form the largest single human-related source of methane. The authors write that the most effective way to combat climate change is therefore to reduce the world’s populations of ruminant livestock, which are mostly associated with cattle and the production of beef. Research has shown that greenhouse gas emissions from cattle and sheep productions are 19 to 48 times higher (per food produced) than the equivalent production of non-meat foods such as beans, grains, or soy products. So although CO2 is the most abundant greenhouse gas, the world could see a much faster reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the near-term through a substantial reduction in the number of ruminants globally. Individuals can do this by adopting a more vegetarian diet which cuts down on meat and dairy products. “Reducing demand for ruminant products could help to achieve substantial greenhouse gas reductions in the near-term,” said co-author Helmut Haberl of the Institute of Social Ecology in Austria, “but implementation of demand changes represent a considerable political challenge.”
  6. Karl Marx came up with the term "metabolic rift" to explain the crack or rift that capitalism has created between social and natural systems, humans and nature. This rift, he claimed, led to the exploitation of the environment and ecological crisis. Marx argued that we humans are all part of nature and he was also the first one who saw social societies as an organism with a metabolism similar to that of humans. In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts from 1844, Marx wrote that: "Man lives from nature, i.e., nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man's physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature." The general idea is that disruptions, or interruptions, in natural cycles and processes creates an metabolic rift between nature and social systems which leads to a buildup of waste and in the end to the degradation of our environment. As people moved into cities they lost the contact with nature, and as a result they became less likely to consider how their actions and decisions affected the environment. Marx also noted that as the income for the workers in the cities increased, capitalists searched for a cheaper workforce outside of the city. Today when half of the world's population lives in cities this is happening on a larger and more global scale. More people than ever have lost the direct contact with nature. And instead of companies and corporations looking for cheaper workers from the countryside they now look outside the nation's borders, mainly in developing nations. The developed world is performing a "brain drain" where they are literally stealing the higher educated students and people from poorer and undeveloped nations. This is turn is fueling "a vicious downward cycle of underdevelopment" in the countries affected. An example of a global metabolic rift and its consequences can be seen in the 19th century trade in guano (bird droppings) and nitrates from Peru and Chile to Europe. In the late 1800s several agronomists and agriculture chemists, such as Justus von Liebig, warned that the transfer of food from the early industrialized agriculture farms on the countryside to the cities had resulted in a severe loss of soil nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. This threat to the food production was the result of the division between town and country. The food was now being transported to cities far away from its source. And its waste products, which before used to help replenish the soil, now ended up polluting the cities instead. So this metabolic rift between town and country resulted in the loss of soil fertility in Great Britain and other nations which in turn led to the global trade of guano and nitrates from Peru and Chile. This trade also involved transfer of labor from China to work on the guano islands in Peru under slave-like or even worse conditions. It resulted in national economies strained by a huge burden of debt, the degradation of the Chilean and Peruvian environment and even led to a war between Chile and Peru over the guano resources. Liebig has said that this hunt for guano and nitrates "deprives all countries of the conditions of their fertility" and even likened Great Britain to a vampire which is "sucking its lifeblood without any real necessity or permanent gain for itself". Today guano is still widely sold around the world especially to countries such as France, Israel and the United States. Lately guano has also gained the status as an organic fertilizer which has helped increase the demands for it. But due to commercial overfishing as well as habitat loss and degradation the Guanay Cormorant bird has declined from its former population peak at around 60 million individuals to a slowly increasing population level at around 4 million birds today. When it comes to anthropogenic global climate change Marx metabolic rift theory can help us to better understand and solve the biggest environmental crisis ever. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that the observed 0.6 °C temperature increases in global temperatures since the middle of the 20th century is a result of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities such as fossil fuels. So we humans have with our overdependence on fossil fuels disrupted the natural carbon cycle and earth's climate system. We are now accumulating more and more waste emissions into our atmosphere, 23 billion metric tons of CO2 every year, with no end in sight. With devastating effects this accelerating buildup of greenhouse gas waste emissions is warming up our planet and changing our climate. Because capitalism promotes the accumulation of capital on a never-ending and always expanding scale it cannot be sustainable. So the manmade climate change we are seeing now is, according to Brett Clark and Richard York, a result of a metabolic rift created by the capitalistic world system. To be able to address and solve this carbon rift and stop the worst effects of climate change Marx metabolic rift theory shows us that a complete transformation, or revolution, of our society is needed. If we don't the carbon rift will continue to expand and we will race faster and faster towards the burning cliff. References: Hornborg, A., J.R. McNeill & J. Martinez-Alier, red. (2007)."Rethinking Environmental History: World-System History and Global Environmental Change" Clark, Brett & York, Richard (2005). "Carbon metabolism: Global capitalism, climate change, and the biospheric rift" Moore, Jason (2000). "Marx and the Historical Ecology of Capital Accumulation on a World Scale: A Comment on Alf Hornborg's "Ecosystems and World Systems: Accumulation as an Ecological Process."" Foster, Bellamy, John (1999). "The Vulnerable Planet" McMichael, Philip (2008). "Contemporary Contradictions of the Global Development Project: Geopolitics, Global Ecology and the "˜Development Climate," Third World Quarterly.
  7. The Global Land Rush

    Between 2007 and mid-2008, world grain and soybean prices more than doubled. As food prices climbed everywhere, some exporting countries began to restrict grain shipments in an effort to limit food price inflation at home.Importing countries panicked. Some tried to negotiate long-term grain supply agreements with exporting countries, but in a seller's market, few were successful. Seemingly overnight, importing countries realized that one of their few options was to find land in other countries on which to produce food for themselves. Looking for land abroad is not entirely new. Empires expanded through territorial acquisitions, colonial powers set up plantations, and agribusiness firms try to expand their reach. Agricultural analyst Derek Byerlee tracks market-driven investments in foreign land back to the mid-nineteenth century. During the last 150 years, large-scale agricultural investments from industrial countries concentrated primarily on tropical products such as sugarcane, tea, rubber, and bananas. What is new now is the scramble to secure land abroad for more basic food and feed crops - including wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans - and for biofuels. These land acquisitions of the last several years, or "land grabs" as they are sometimes called, represent a new stage in the emerging geopolitics of food scarcity. They are occurring on a scale and at a pace not seen before. Among the countries that are leading the charge to buy or lease land abroad, either directly through government entities or through domestically based agribusiness firms, are Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China, and India. Saudi Arabia's population has simply outrun its land and water resources. The country is fast losing its irrigation water and will soon be totally dependent on imports from the world market or overseas farming projects for its grain. Land acquisitions, whether to produce food, biofuels, or other crops, raise questions about who will benefit. Even if some of these projects can dramatically boost land productivity, will local people gain from this? When virtually all the inputs - the farm equipment, the fertilizer, the pesticides, the seeds - are brought in from abroad and all the output is shipped out of the country, this contributes little to the local economy and nothing to the local food supply. These land grabs are not only benefiting the rich, they are doing so at the expense of the poor. As land and water become scarce, as the earth's temperature rises, and as world food security deteriorates, a dangerous geopolitics of food scarcity is emerging. The conditions giving rise to this have been in the making for several decades, but the situation has come into sharp focus only in the last few years. The land acquisitions discussed here are an integral part of a global power struggle for control of the earth's land and water resources. By Lester R. Brown. From Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity by Lester R. Brown. Read the full report here.
  8. This is the final part of a series of articles that have taken a closer look on the relationship between increasing human population levels and the food production system that sustains human livelihoods. This part examines current and future food levels as well as summarizing all the previous parts. Despite the predictions from populationists, the global agricultural production has grown and even exceeded the population growth rate. Global crop production has had an average annual growth rate of one percent for the past 20 years. This can be exemplified in the slow, although steady, increase in average food per capita availability, which has increased from around 2220 kilocalories per person/day to about 2790 kilocalories between early 1960 and 2006. The largest increase can be seen in developing countries where food availability has jumped from 1850 kilocalories per person/day to over 2640 kilocalories. In 2010, the global food system produced more than 13 quadrillion calories; on a per capita daily basis this equals 5359 kilocalories. Globally, food production has increased by 18 percent over the past two decades and for the past 50 years crop production growth has seen a threefold increase. Interestingly, arable land has declined, at an accelerating rate, with about 40 million hectares since the 1980s in developed countries. At the same time arable land has increased with around 107 million hectares in developing countries. This has resulted in a global increase of 67 million hectares of arable land. Therefore, the increased growth in crop production in the developed world can be attributed to yield improvements and more intensive farming methods. Only a smaller part of the increase can be attributed to an expansion in arable land. FAO believe that the potential to increase crop yields further is substantial and that a future peak yield seems unlikely. FAO's future predictions are hence more positive than the estimates from UNEP earlier. According to FAO there remain significant opportunities to increase food production in developing countries. Especially in Africa which is far behind other regions in its food production capacity. But they also stress the importance of "considerable" public intervention and investment to be able to reach the required yield increases. The majority of these investments are needed in agricultural research, but more are also required to mitigate environmental damage and prevent further environmental degradation. With all this talk about yield levels and ratios it's easy to forget that yields aren't everything when it comes to increasing global food availability. There are other ways that can help improve global food security. Because overall population growth is slowing down FAO predicts that total global food demand will decrease. Unfortunately, deep-rooted poverty plays a large part in this slowdown in global food demand. However, FAO expect that the demands from the bio-based economy, such as the production of biofuels, will continue to increase. This development is a double-edged sword. The further expansion of the bio-economy will offer "considerable growth potential" for the agricultural sector and supply farmers with new income possibilities. But it will also create rising food prices and put pressure on an already strained environment and natural resource base. The topic of biofuels has been covered in previous chapters, so it won't be delved into further here. But another large part of our total cereal production is being diverted away from our plates. While only having around 18 percent of the world's population, OECD countries in the rich world consumes 37 percent of the total global production of cereal. The reason for this large share is mainly due to the high levels of meat consumption in these countries. More than half of the total amounts of cereals consumed are being used to feed our livestock and animals in the meat industry. So by reducing our consumption of meat and biofuels we could increase the availability of food worldwide. But the production of biofuel is estimated to expand and the demand for meat shows no slowing down. Current models show that by 2050 an additional 550 million tonnes of cereals are needed to just feed our livestock. That same amount could have instead fed as many as 3.4 billion people. Another way is to reduce food losses and waste. It's estimated that approximately one-third, or about 1.3 billion tonnes every year, of the food produced for human consumption is being wasted or lost in the production process. Consumers in Europe and North-America waste between 95-115 kg per year/capita, while consumers in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa only waste around 6-11 kg per year/capita. In developed countries with medium- and high-incomes most food is wasted at the consumer level. This is food that is being wasted even though it is still suitable for consumption. In low-income countries in the developing world most of the food is lost in the production process before it even reaches the market. FAO takes this matter seriously. The UN agency considers food losses to be a "significant cost" to the world economy and serious threat to global food security and availability. Population or Environmental Food Crisis? In the beginning of this series, Population or Environmental Food Crisis, I asked if it's possible for organic agriculture, in the face of intensifying environmental degradation and fears of rising population numbers, to reach global food security and sustain human livelihood. The previous parts has shown that Malthus and other populationists have been wrong in their doomsday predictions and that they have misjudged the possibilities of technological advancements to increase our food production. But just as I've shown, this technology has unfortunately created environmental problems that now threatens valuable ecosystems, our resource base and our very ability to sustain more people. It's clear that a different approach to agriculture is needed so that a smarter food production increase can take place. I've been able to conclude that the claims from populationists that we would somehow face a population crisis to be unfounded and excessive. Demographic data shows that global population levels are increasing, but they aren't increasing exponentially and nowhere near those levels that populationists are warning about. The data compiled in the previous parts shows how human population growth is actually starting to slow down and that the growth is expected to stabilize by 2100 with around 10 billion people. In fact, this development has sparked fears about a potential ageing crisis with severe implications for developed countries such as Japan. If the population theories from Malthus-inspired thinkers like Ehrlich were to be true we would see a global population that is just getting younger and younger. But instead the global median age is increasing and data shows that people aged 60 or older is the group that is growing the fastest today. The food price crisis of 2008-2009 has been explained as the result of an energy crisis and that it didn't take place because of uninhibited population growth, like populationists have claimed. A closer look was also taken on undernourishment and malnutrition. While large portions of people around the world are still undernourished we are now experiencing a nutrition transition characterized by overnutrition and obesity. Overweight people has now actually surpassed the number of undernourished people in the world. We could also see how global food production is growing and how it has even exceeded population growth rate. But if we are to satisfy the projected food demand from a growing population we need to increase our global food production with 70 percent by 2050. This is no easy task, and it doesn't help that food prices are expected to rise and become more volatile from escalating environmental degradation. To avoid this we need to make changes to our food production system as well as re-thinking our own consumption patterns. Theoretically it's probably possible to increase yields and make the global food system more productive by further intensifying the use of external inputs such as pesticides and chemical fertilizers, which Borlaug among other advocates. But this could potentially have devastating effects on our environment, food prices and population levels. Even populationists, such as Kaplan and Ehrlich, warn that such practices could do more harm than good. Instead organic farming has been put forward as the solution to our growing environmental problems and broken food system. But populationists are opposing this alternative agriculture method as they believe it will be unable to adequately sustain human livelihood on a global scale. In an effort to find an answer to this, several studies on organic and conventional yield levels have been explored. The result is far from unanimous, but a large part of the studies shows promising results for proponents to organic agriculture. Several side-by-side studies seem to support the claims that it's possible for organic farming to sustain current and even future population levels. Considering the findings in this thesis, it's no surprise that national and international bodies are now seeing organic agriculture as a viable option in food security discussions. It's obvious that the potential for conventional agriculture to be converted to organic farmland around the world is vast. As can be seen from developments in Europe, this conversion is taking place, albeit to a varying degree and speed, with a few countries having done more progress than others. Despite this, organic farming still plays a shockingly tiny role in the global food production system. It's clear that the easiest way to safeguard food availability for current and future generations is to reduce the production of biofuels and our consumption of meat "“ both being responsible for taking away considerable farmland from crop cultivation. So, the answer to the question, if it's possible for organic agriculture to sustain human livelihood, is a probable yes. Organic farming seem to be capable of sustaining global human population levels while lessening the negative effects the agricultural sector has on our environment. It also seems that organic agriculture can withstand the effects of climate change much better than their conventional counterparts. But organic farming has a long and difficult road ahead. Considerable conventional farmland need be converted to organic land. Furthermore, a substantial increase in investments into research and development of alternative agricultural practices and yield increasing methods are also needed. But there's no question about it, we need to increase our food production in a smart way, with or without an imminent population crisis. Luckily for us, this seems to be possible.
  9. This is part six of a series of articles that take a closer look on the relationship between increasing human population levels and the food production system that sustains human livelihoods. While part five examined conventional agriculture, this post will look on the possibilities and realities of organic farming to feed a growing population. Organic farming is an agriculture system that has a more holistic approach in which it uses methods that are designed to be less damaging to ecosystem services and the natural resource base. Organic farming does this by emphasizing the overall health of the agro-ecosystem by promoting and enhancing local biodiversity and biological activity in the soil, recycling its own waste from crops and livestock so that it can return valuable nutrients to the land, improving and maintaining soil-fertility, minimizing all forms of agriculture-related pollution and its impact on the environment, among other things. Instead of synthetic materials and off-farm inputs organic farmers are keener on using on-farm resources and management practices which involve cultural, biological and mechanical methods. This does not mean that organic farming is hostile towards technology. Organic farmers have no problems with utilizing modern technology selectively while avoiding those practices or technological elements which are risky and possibly harmful for the environment. While conventional agriculture is free to use various practices, organic farming is subject to both national and international regulations which limit them in their options and practices. These certification standards and regulations may differ depending on country and region, but they all restrict the use of pesticides, fertilizers and certain forms of genetically modified crops organisms. As the demand for healthy food and environmental concerns are becoming more important for consumers around the world, alternative approaches to agriculture have become less alternative and more mainstream. Organic farming enterprises are emerging from the now profitable business and its products are no longer restricted to niche health food stores or farmers' markets. Despite this recent progress for alternative agriculture practices, the skepticism against organic farming is still strong. Ehrlich predicted that the use of pesticide and conventional practices would intensify, and that the ecological aspect of agriculture would be "ignored more and more" as population numbers increased and produce became scarcer. Critics argue that organic agriculture isn't more environmentally friendly as it requires more land to be converted to farmland to be able to reach similar yields levels as conventional farming. Critics also argue that vegetables that have been organically grown in greenhouses around Europe are much less sustainable than their conventional counterparts from Africa. Many people are also skeptical to claims that organic food is healthier or that it would contain more nutrients. Most of the criticism against organic farming revolves around the smaller yields the alternative system produces compared to the more conventional methods. The Possibilities of Organic Farming The UNEP report mentioned in part five forecasts that food will rise in demand as human population grows by about two billion more individuals, incomes increases and the growing consumption for meat continues unhindered. The report warns that although global food production "rose substantially in the past century", mainly thanks to agricultural expansion as well as fertilizers and irrigation, yields have in the last decade nearly stabilized for cereals. According to their estimates it's "uncertain" that further yield increases can be achieved. If they are possible to achieve, they will most likely be too small and thus unable to keep pace with the growing food demand. UNEP blames the leveling of yield increases partly on a lack of investments in agricultural research and development. But more so they warn about the negative effects on future crop yield levels that urban expansions, soil and environmental degradation, increased biofuel production, and anthropogenic climate change will have. The combined effects of all these has the potential to reduce projected yields by 5-25 percent by 2050. This would cause food shortages, with food production being up to 25 percent short of demand, and prices that are 30-50 percent higher than today. This scenario could be averted if we manage, while increasing yields, to optimize our food chain system. This is possible to accomplish by minimizing the loss of food energy from each step of the food production chain - from harvest and process to consumption and recycling. But more importantly, we need a "major shift" towards "more eco-based production" (read: organic farming) that can help reverse soil degradation, conserve biodiversity and protect ecosystem services. One study, which examines the relative yield performance between conventional and organic agriculture systems from 66 previous yield studies, shows that organic yields are on average 25 percent smaller than conventional ones. The results in the analysis ranged from 5 percent to 34 percent smaller yields, depending on contextual conditions, for organic farming. This would indicate that organic agriculture requires additional land to be converted into farmland for it to reach similar yield levels as conventional agriculture. A 13 year side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional corn-soybean systems, at the Iowa State University in the US, shows that organic farms can provide similar yields as conventional agriculture, while at the same time resulting in higher economic returns for the organic farmer. Another similar study is the 30 year side-by-side trial of organic and conventional corn and soybean yields by the Rodale Institute. The Farming Systems Trial (FST) started in 1981 to study the transition from conventional to organic farming procedures as well as compare yield levels between the two agriculture methods. During the first few years of the transition there was a decline in yields for the organic crops. Later on the organic yield levels saw a rebound and today the yield levels match, or in some cases even surpasses the conventional crop yields. Especially interesting are the findings that organic yields will outperform conventional crop yields during years of drought. Studies done on data from the FST confirm this to be the case. A review of the FST by David Pimentel and others from the Cornell University shows that organic agriculture produces the same corn and soybean yields as more conventional farms. During the drought years of 1988-1998, the organic crop yields were 22 percent higher than conventional yields in the trial. Organic farmers in the US say that they have fared better against the recent drought this past summer which severely damaged crops, reduced crop yields and drove up food prices. A 21 year study of organic and conventional farming systems in Switzerland may show what kind of performance we could expect to see from organic agriculture in Central Europe. The result from the study indicates that organic farming systems in Europe would see cereal crop yields that are on an average 20 percent lower than their conventional counterparts. But at the same time the nutrient input for the organic systems were 34-51 percent lower than in the conventional systems. That results in crops that require 20-56 percent less energy during their life-span, or 36-53 percent lower energy intakes per acre of farmland for organic crops. Therefore, the authors of the study still consider organic agriculture to be an "efficient production" method. The study could only find minor quality differences between the food systems. The organically managed soils showed a greater biological activity and a better floral and faunal diversity than the conventional managed soils. Their conclusion is that organic farming is "a realistic alternative" to conventional agriculture. Profits for the organic farm remained similar to its conventional equivalent. This would indicate that organic farmers could see financial gains from converting to organic agriculture as they need to spend less money on expensive off-farm inputs. Another study, which compiled data on the current global food supply as well as comparative yields between organic and conventional farming methods, also suggest that its possible for organic agriculture to feed both current and future human populations. The purpose of the study was to try and estimate how much food could be produced after a hypothetical global shift to organic farming. From a plethora of various other studies comparing crop yields between organic and conventional farms, the authors of the study calculated a dataset of 293 examples of global yield ratios for all the major crops in both the developed and developing world. The results showed that organic farming would give smaller yields in the developed world while the organic yields in the developing world would be larger than their current conventional yields. Two different models were then constructed. The first model applied the yield ratio for developed countries to the entire world, the model assumed that regardless of location all farms would only get the lower developed-country yield levels. For the second model the authors applied the lower organic yield ratios from the developed world to developed countries, the higher organic yield ratios which were measured earlier for the developing world was then applied to those respective countries. The results from the first conservative model indicated that organic farming would generate 2641 kilocalories per person/day. This is a good result, especially considering that the current food supply provides 2786 kilocalories per person/day and that the average caloric requirement for adults is between 2200-2500 kilocalories. The result from the second model was even more promising. It showed that organic farming on a global scale could generate 4381 kilocalories per person/day. This would result in a 75 percent increase in food availability for the world's current population. The results from model two would also result in a food production that could sustain a much larger human population. This increase in food quantity would be possible to achieve while maintaining the current agricultural land base. Organic farming methods could even have the potential to reduce total agricultural land base. If properly intensified, organic agriculture "could produce much of the world's food" and improve food security in developing countries. But for this transition, from conventional to alternative, to be possible we need to overcome numerous agronomically and economically challenges. The authors of the study calls for increased investments in agricultural R&D. Considering that for the past 50 years most agricultural research has been focused on conventional methods there is huge potential for comparable improvements in yield increasing procedures and pest management methods for organic farming. This is especially the case in developing countries which only spend US$0.55 for every US$100 of agricultural output on public agricultural research and development. This can be compared to US$2.16 for developed countries. Small farms are being highlighted in many of these studies as an important way to reach global food security. Both in developed and developing countries the production per unit area is greater on smaller farms. Therefore an increase in small farms would have positive effects for global food availability. In fact, and despite the large modern industrial-like farms of today, around 70 percent of the world's food comes from small farms. The widely held belief that the large monocultural farms are the most efficient and productive is a myth; it's actually the smaller farms, many of whom are located in developing countries that are the most efficient in their production. Small farmers manage to maximize the use of their land by using integrated farming systems which involve using a wide variety of crops as well as livestock on the farm. This combination helps provide a range of food and animal products to the local economy as well as supplying the farmer with manure for improving soil fertility. Larger farms might have higher yields per acre of a single crop, but overall the total production per acre of all crops and animal products combined is much higher on smaller farms. This way small farms helps to strengthen the local economy and environment while also improving food security worldwide. The Realities of Organic Agriculture Today Despite these promising possibilities for organic farming the reality is that organic farming still plays a very insignificant role in our global food production system. Total global arable land, which include both crop cultivation and pastures for livestock, is around 13 805 000 km². Of this only 0.9 percent, or around 370 000 km², are organic. In 2010 only seven countries had more than a total of ten percent organic agricultural land. In the beginning of the 21st century, some 17 million hectares of land (nearly 170 000 km²) were dedicated to organic farming globally. In North America around 1.3 million hectares of farmland were farmed organically. The majority, around 45 percent, were located in Oceania, mainly Australia. Europe had 25 percent and Latin America shortly followed with 22 percent. The highest share could be found in the EU with more than three percent of total agricultural land area dedicated to organic farming. 12 EU member states and the share of total organic crop area out of total utilized agricultural area (%) in their respective nations. Data from the Czech Republic and Estonia are not available until after 2002 and 2003 respectively. Source: EUROSTAT. When it comes to organic farming policy, the "EU leads the world." Various policies and political mandates in support of organic development have been in place in the EU since late 1980. In 1991, ten years before the equivalent US legislation came; the EU introduced consistent labeling of agricultural products and food across all member states. In the past two decades the amount of EU land dedicated to organic agriculture has seen a dramatic increase. Organic farmland increased five-fold just during 1993-2000. This development is expected to continue thanks to continued growth in consumer demand for organic products and various government incentives and mandates. Total organic land area, i.e. fully converted land area as well as land area under conversion from conventional to organic farmland, in EU27 increased from 3.6 to 4.1 percent 2005-2007. In 2008, organic farmland covered a total of 7.8 million hectares. The total organic area continues to show an upward growth trend in the union. During 2006-2007 the increase was 5.9 percent. 2007-2008 organic farmland increased with 7.4 percent. The five member states with the largest organic area for EU27 is Spain (1.3 m/ha), Italy (1.0 m/ha), Germany (0.9 m/ha), UK (0.7 m/ha) and France (0.6 m/ha). Figure 6 shows how the size of organic farmland varies greatly from one member state to another with some states making more progress than others. The graph shows how Sweden's farmland has increased from 5.9 percent to 14.3 percent during 2000-2010. Other countries haven't seen a similar development during this period. The UK increased their share with less than one percent, going from 3.3 to only 4.1 percent.
  10. This is part five of a series of articles that take a closer look on the relationship between increasing human population levels and the food production system that sustains human livelihoods. Part five and six examines the current state of the agriculture sector around the world. This post will focus on conventional forms of agriculture, it upsides and downsides, while part six looks on the possibilities of organic farming to feed a growing population. We cannot ignore the basic fact that population growth, along with rising incomes and urbanization, is the main socio-economic factor for increasing global food demand. Even if the total demand for food is estimated to grow more slowly this century, substantial increases in the global food production is required. To be able to satisfy the projected food demand during this half of the century we need to increase global food production by 70 percent by 2050. Preferably we need to do this without further degrading our already fragile ecosystems and natural resources. Our planet has considerable land reserves which in theory could be converted to arable land to satisfy future demands from a growing population. But the extent to which this is possible, or even preferred, is limited. Most of these land reserves are situated in only a few countries in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa where the lack of proper infrastructure could, at least in the short-term, limit their contribution to the global food production system. But more importantly, large parts of these land reserves have important ecological functions that will be destroyed if turned into arable land. Considering these limitations, FAO projects that the global area of arable land will be expanded by five percent, or around 70 million hectares, by 2050. The environmental food crisis is a term that comes from UNEP and a report which the organization commissioned in 2009 in response to the food price crisis. The report concluded that food prices will increase and become more volatile from escalating environmental degradation. Conventional agriculture Conventional agriculture has had both positive and negative effects for human society. Technological innovations since the 19th century have managed to completely transform rural landscapes, populations and agriculture productions in the developed world. The key element of this transformation was the change from "on-farm" to "off-farm" resources. Thanks to new technological advances it became more economically profitable to replace human labour with machinery. Equally profitable became it to enhance the farm's soil fertility by just buying chemical fertilizers. The use of pesticide allowed farmers to protect their crops from pests while making large-scale agricultural systems more easily managed. These technological advancements have increased the productivity of the agriculture sector which in turn has led to food becoming more abundant and cheaper for consumers. The labour force which was replaced by machinery could also be employed in other production areas, and thus the total wealth of society increased. But this development has had socio-economic and environmental effects. The population decline in rural areas has led to major structural changes in which formerly agricultural regions now have unemployment levels above average and difficult social conditions. The technological transformations, in which agricultural systems have been detached from their natural roots, are especially evident in factory farms where livestock are involved. Just consider the housing of hens in battery cages and how little, if anything, it resembles the natural environment. As conventional farms are looking more like factories with industrial-like production systems, concerns for animal welfare and environmental health is becoming more and more significant in developed and affluent societies. There is no denying that the negative effects of conventional agriculture are far reaching. Reports show that 15 out of 25 ecosystem services, such as water supply or various forms of food production like seafood, are already degraded or used beyond sustainable levels. Actions taken to further intensify the use of the natural resource base and these other ecosystem services will often cause the degradation of other areas and services. The intensification of our food production system has caused loss of tropical forest and biodiversity, soil nutrient depletion, erosion, desertification, and depletion of freshwater reserves. Considering that irrigated agriculture is an extremely productive food system, it covers only one fifth of arable land but contributes nearly 50 percent of global crop production, it's worrying that fresh water reserves are being depleted at an alarming rate. All in all, conventional agriculture is said to be responsible for 75 percent erosion in biodiversity, land degradation and water destruction. Long-term projections do suggest that the world's natural resource base should be adequate to meet future demands, but only if the degradation of our ecosystem services are stopped, or at least significantly slowed down. The conventional food system is also responsible for massive greenhouse gas emissions. In the US alone, the conventional food system is with its 19 percent just behind cars when it comes to total usage of fossil fuels. Globally, our food production system is responsible for around 37 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere. In the 1940s our food production system produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of energy we invested. Today it takes 10 calories of energy to produce a single calorie of food. This transformation is not hard to imagine considering how much fossil fuels are required in every process of the industrial food production system. Conventional agriculture requires chemical fertilizers and pesticides which are made with the help from natural gas and petroleum, it also requires heavy farm machinery and the whole procedure involves energy intense food processing and packaging, as well as fossil fuel-powered transportation systems to reach consumers worldwide. The green revolution Despite its name, the Green Revolution should not be mistaken for an alternative or organic agriculture practice. It's quite the opposite. The Green Revolution can be seen as a neo-agricultural version of conventional farming practices of the 1960-1970s where the main aim is large-scale environmental modification. The Green Revolution involves the development, practice and distribution of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, genetically modified grains, and large-scale irrigation infrastructure "“ all being practices that requires a heavy and constant input of fossil fuels. Norman Borlaug, whom was considered to be the father of the Green Revolution, continuously advocated for the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers as a solution to growing populations and environmental degradation. Borlaug rejected claims that organic agriculture would be better for the environment as "ridiculous". Because organic farming resulted in lower yields Borlaug predicted that more land and forests would be required to be cultivated if we wanted to be able to maintain the same yield levels for organic farming as the ones achieved from more conventional methods. If we intensify our farming practices we can leave more land for the rainforest, Borlaug's thinking went. There's truth to this. Thanks to the "seed and fertilizer" practices of the Green Revolution, global cereal production tripled between 1950-2000 while land use only increased by 10 percent during the same period. UNEP's assessment for the future development of our food production system states that any future system will be dependent on and "must contribute positively" towards the realization of "healthy ecosystems and resilient communities". Clearly, the Green Revolution and conventional agriculture has no place in such a food system.
  11. Population or Environmental Food Crisis?

    In 2011 the world's population passed the seven billion mark. By 2050 the human family is expected to reach nine billion individuals. Many believe that we are in the midst of a population crisis that already has far-reaching effects on our society and our environment. Globally, almost 900 million people are chronically undernourished today, and more than 1.4 billion people are estimated to suffer from malnutrition. Despite various UN goals to halve hunger in recent years there just seems to be no end in sight. At the same time, ecological degradation is getting worse. We can see how important and unique ecosystems are being destroyed, we can see the alarming loss of biodiversity, we can see how desertification and soil erosion is spreading, we can see the worrying signs of depletion of freshwater reserves, and we can see the devastating effects from the increasing quantities of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that we are spewing out. Our food production system and our agricultural practices play a central role in both worsening and lessening the effects of environmental degradation. So it seems we are facing an environmental food crisis as well. The main argument brought forward by populationists and Malthus-inspired thinkers is that we cannot feed a growing population and that, if we haven't already, we will soon reach our carrying capacity. War, pestilence and famine will follow and wreak havoc around the world, they warn. Others believe that more alternative and environmentally friendly agricultural practices can help us sustain population numbers while at the same time safeguarding our environment from further degradation. Populationists have always been pessimistic about our possibilities to sustain current and future populations let alone to do it from organic farming, which they argue will give us smaller yields than what we get from more conventional agriculture. But which side of this debate is correct? Is it possible for us to convert to more environmentally friendly agricultural practices that can help stop, or at least slow down, ecological degradation while at the same time being able to feed a growing number of humans? That's a pretty big question to try and explain. Therefore I will divide everything up into smaller and more manageable chapters and parts. The first part will take a closer look on popular overpopulation theories, both from the early days of Malthus and to more modern flavors of population theory. Part 2: Popular overpopulation theories Part 3: Population levels for today and tomorrow Part 4: The end of cheap food Part 5: Conventional agriculture Part 6: Alternative agriculture Part 7: Reaching food security today and tomorrow
  12. At the time of the Arab oil export embargo in the 1970s, the importing countries were beginning to ask themselves if there were alternatives to oil. In a number of countries, particularly the United States, several in Europe, and Brazil, the idea of growing crops to produce fuel for cars was appealing. The modern biofuels industry was launched. This was the beginning of what would become one of the great tragedies of history. Brazil was able to create a thriving fuel ethanol program based on sugarcane, a tropical plant. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, however, in the United States the feedstock was corn. Between 1980 and 2005, the amount of grain used to produce fuel ethanol in the United States gradually expanded from 1 million to 41 million tons. Then came Hurricane Katrina, which disrupted Gulf-based oil refineries and gasoline supply lines in late August 2005. As gasoline prices in the United States quickly climbed to $3 a gallon, the conversion of a $2 bushel of corn, which can be distilled into 2.8 gallons of ethanol, became highly profitable. The result was a rush to raise capital and build distilleries. From November 2005 through June 2006, ground was broken for a new ethanol plant in the United States every nine days. From July through September, the construction pace accelerated to one every five days. And in October 2006, it was one every three days. Between 2005 and 2011, the grain used to produce fuel for cars climbed from 41 million to 127 million tons - nearly a third of the U.S. grain harvest. (See Figure 4-1.) The United States is trying to replace oil fields with corn fields to meet part of its automotive fuel needs. The massive diversion of grain to fuel cars has helped drive up food prices, leaving low-income consumers everywhere to suffer some of the most severe food price inflation in history. As of mid-2012, world wheat, corn, and soybean prices were roughly double their historical levels. The appetite for grain to fuel cars is seemingly insatiable. The grain required to fill a 25-gallon fuel tank of a sport utility vehicle with ethanol just once would feed one person for a whole year. The grain turned into ethanol in the United States in 2011 could have fed, at average world consumption levels, some 400 million people. But even if the entire U.S. grain harvest were turned into ethanol, it would only satisfy 18 percent of current gasoline demand. With its enormous growth in distilling capacity, the United States quickly overtook Brazil to become the new world leader in biofuels. In 2011, the United States produced 14 billion gallons of ethanol and Brazil produced under 6 billion gallons; together they accounted for 87 percent of world output. The 14 billion gallons of U.S. grain-based ethanol met roughly 6 percent of U.S. gasoline demand. Other countries producing ethanol from food crops, though in relatively small amounts, include China, Canada, France, and Germany. Most ethanol production growth has been concentrated in the last several years. In 1980, the world produced scarcely 1 billion gallons of fuel ethanol. By 2000, the figure was 4.5 billion gallons. It was still increasing, albeit slowly, expanding to 8.2 billion gallons in 2005. But between then and 2011, production jumped to 23 billion gallons. A number of countries, including the United States, are also producing biodiesel from oil-bearing crops. World biodiesel production grew from a mere 3 million gallons in 1991 to just under 1 billion gallons in 2005. During the next six years it jumped to nearly 6 billion gallons, increasing sixfold. Still, worldwide production of biodiesel is less than one fourth that of ethanol. The production of biodiesel is much more evenly distributed among countries than that of ethanol. The top five producers are the United States, Germany, Argentina, Brazil, and France, with production ranging from 840 million gallons per year in the United States to 420 million gallons in France. A variety of crops can be used to produce biodiesel. In Europe, where sunflower seed oil, palm oil, and rapeseed oil are leading table oils, rapeseed is used most often for biodiesel. Similarly, in the United States the soybean is the leading table oil and biodiesel feedstock. Elsewhere, palm oil is widely used both for food and to produce biodiesel. Although production from oil palms is limited to tropical and subtropical regions, the crop yields much more biodiesel per acre than do temperate-zone oilseeds such as soybeans and rapeseed. However, one disturbing consequence of rising biofuel production is that new oil palm plantations are coming at the expense of tropical forests. And any land that is devoted to producing biofuel crops is not available to produce food. Not only are biofuels helping raise food prices, and thus increasing the number of hungry people, most make little sense from an energy efficiency perspective. Although ethanol can be produced from any plant, it is much more efficient and much less costly to use sugar- and starch-bearing crops. But even among these crops the efficiency varies widely. The ethanol yield per acre from sugarcane is nearly 600 gallons, a third higher than that from corn. This is partly because sugarcane is grown in tropical and subtropical regions and it grows year-round. Corn, in contrast, has a growing season of 120 days or so. In terms of energy efficiency, grain-based ethanol is a clear loser. For sugarcane, the energy yield - that is, the energy embodied in the ethanol - can be up to eight times the energy invested in producing the biofuel. In contrast, the energy return on energy invested in producing corn-based ethanol is only roughly 1.5 to 1, a dismal return. For biodiesel, oil palm is far and away the most energy-efficient crop, yielding roughly nine times as much energy as is invested in producing biodiesel from it. The energy return for biodiesel produced from soybeans and rapeseed is about 2.5 to 1. In terms of land productivity, an acre of oil palms can produce over 500 gallons of fuel per year - more than six times that produced from soybeans or rapeseed. Growing even the most productive fuel crops, however, still means either diverting land from other crops or clearing more land. The capacity to convert enormous volumes of grain into fuel means that the price of grain is now more closely tied to the price of oil than ever before. If the price of fuel from grain drops below that from oil, then investment in converting grain into fuel will increase. Thus, if the price of oil were to reach, say, $200 a barrel, there would likely be an enormous additional investment in ethanol distilleries to convert grain into fuel. If the price of corn rises high enough, however, as it may well do, distilling grain to produce fuel may no longer be profitable. One of the consequences of integrating the world food and fuel economies is that the owners of the world's 1 billion motor vehicles are pitted against the world's poorest people in competition for grain. The winner of this competition will depend heavily on income levels. Whereas the average motorist has an annual income over $30,000, the incomes of the 2 billion poorest people in the world are well under $2,000. Rising food prices can quickly translate into social unrest. As grain prices were doubling from 2007 to mid-2008, food protests and riots broke out in many countries. Economic stresses in the form of rising food prices are translating into political stresses, putting governments in some countries under unmanageable pressures. The U.S. State Department reports food unrest in some 60 countries between 2007 and 2009. Among these were Afghanistan, Yemen, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Haiti. International food assistance programs are also hit hard by rising grain prices. Since the budgets of food aid agencies are set well in advance, a rise in prices shrinks food assistance precisely when more help is needed. The U.N. World Food Programme, which supplies emergency food aid to more than 60 countries, has to cut shipments as prices soar. Meanwhile, over 7,000 children are dying each day from hunger and related illnesses. When governments subsidize food-based biofuel production, they are in effect spending taxpayers' money to raise costs at the supermarket checkout counter. In the United States, the production of fuel ethanol was encouraged by a tax credit granted to fuel blenders for each gallon of ethanol they blended with gasoline. This tax credit expired at the end of 2011. Still in place, however, is the Renewable Fuel Standard, which is seen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of a strategy to "help recharge the rural American economy." This mandate requires that biofuel use ramp up to 36 billion gallons annually by 2022. Of this total, 16 billion gallons are slated to come from cellulosic feedstocks, such as cornstalks, grass, or wood chips. Yet for the foreseeable future, production of those cellulose-based fuels has little chance of reaching such levels. Producing ethanol from sugars or starches like corn or sugarcane is a one-step process that converts the feedstock to ethanol. But producing ethanol from cellulosic materials is a two-step process: first the material must be broken down into sugar or starch, and then it is converted into ethanol. Furthermore, cellulosic feedstocks like corn stalks are much bulkier than feedstocks like corn kernels, so transporting them from distant fields to a distillery is much more costly. Removing agricultural residues such as corn stalks or wheat straw from the field to produce ethanol deprives the soil of needed organic matter. The unfortunate reality is that the road to this ambitious cellulosic biofuel goal is littered with bankrupt firms that tried and failed to develop a process that would produce an economically viable fuel. Despite having the advantage of not being directly part of the food supply, cellulosic ethanol has strong intrinsic characteristics that put it at a basic disadvantage compared with grain ethanol, so it may never become economically viable. The mandate from the European Union (EU) requiring that 10 percent of its transportation energy come from renewable sources, principally biofuels, by 2020 is similarly ambitious. Among international agribusiness firms, this is seen as a reason to acquire land, mostly in Africa, on which to produce fuel for export to Europe. Since Europe relies primarily on diesel fuel for its cars, the investors are looking at crops such as the oil palm and jatropha, a relatively low-yielding oil-bearing shrub, as a source of diesel fuel. There is growing opposition to this EU goal from environmental groups, the European Environment Agency, and many other stakeholders. They object to the deforestation and the displacement of the poor that often results from such "land grabbing." (See Chapter 10.) They are also concerned that, by and large, biofuels do not deliver the promised climate benefits. The biofuel industry and its proponents have argued that greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels are lower than those from gasoline, but this has been challenged by a number of scientific studies. Indeed, there is growing evidence that biofuel production may contribute to global warming rather than ameliorate it. A study led by Nobel prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany reports that the nitrogen fertilizers used to produce biofuel crops release "nitrous oxide emissions large enough to cause climate warming instead of cooling." A report from Rice University that carefully examined the greenhouse gas emissions question concluded that "it is uncertain whether existing biofuels production provides any beneficial improvement over traditional gasoline, after taking into account land use changes and emissions of nitrous oxide. Legislation giving biofuels preferences on the basis of greenhouse gas benefits should be avoided." The U.S. National Academy of Sciences also voiced concern about biofuel production's negative effects on soils, water, and the climate. There is some good news on the issue of food or fuel. An April 2012 industry report notes that "the world ethanol engine continues to sputter." U.S. ethanol production likely peaked in 2011 and is projected to drop 2 percent in 2012. An even greater decline in U.S. ethanol production is likely in 2013 as oil prices weaken and as heat and drought in the U.S. Midwest drive corn prices upward. For many distillers, the profit margin disappeared in 2012. In early July 2012, Valero Energy Corporation, an oil company and major ethanol producer, reported it was idling the second of its 10 ethanol distilleries. Numerous other distilleries are on the verge of shutting down. If the ethanol mandate were phased out, U.S. distillers would have even less confidence in the future marketability of ethanol. In a world of widely fluctuating oil and grain prices, ethanol production would not always be profitable. Beyond this, the use of automotive fuel in the United States, which peaked in 2007, fell 11 percent by 2012. Young people living in cities are simply not as car-oriented as their parents were. They are not part of the car culture. This helps explain why the size of the U.S. motor vehicle fleet, after climbing for a century, peaked at 250 million in 2008. It now appears that the fleet size will continue to shrink through this decade. In addition, the introduction of more stringent U.S. auto fuel-efficiency standards means that gasoline use by new cars sold in 2025 will be half that of new cars sold in 2010. As older, less efficient cars are retired and fuel use declines, the demand for grain-based ethanol for blending will also decline. Within the automobile sector, a major move to plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars will further reduce the use of gasoline. If this shift is accompanied by investment in thousands of wind farms to feed cheap electricity into the grid, then cars could run largely on electricity for the equivalent cost of 80¢ per gallon of gasoline. There is also a growing public preference for walking, biking, and using public transportation wherever possible. This reduces not only the demand for cars and gasoline but also the paving of land for roads and parking lots. Whether viewed from an environmental or an economic vantage point, we would all benefit by shifting from liquid fuels to electrically driven vehicles. Using electricity from wind farms, solar cells, or geothermal power plants to power cars will dramatically reduce carbon emissions. We now have both the electricity-generating technologies and the automotive technologies to create a clean, carbon-free transportation system, one that does not rely on either the use of oil or the conversion of food crops into fuel. By Lester R. Brown. From Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity by Lester R. Brown (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.). Supporting data, video, and slideshows are available for free download at
  13. Eroding Soils Darkening Our Future

    In 1938 Walter Lowdermilk, a senior official in the Soil Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, traveled abroad to look at lands that had been cultivated for thousands of years, seeking to learn how these older civilizations had coped with soil erosion. He found that some had managed their land well, maintaining its fertility over long stretches of history, and were thriving. Others had failed to do so and left only remnants of their illustrious pasts. In a section of his report entitled "The Hundred Dead Cities," he describes a site in northern Syria, near Aleppo, where ancient buildings are still standing in stark isolated relief, but they are on bare rock. During the seventh century, the thriving region had been invaded, initially by a Persian army and later by nomads out of the Arabian Desert. In the process, soil and water conservation practices used for centuries were abandoned. Lowdermilk noted, "Here erosion had done its worst. If the soils had remained, even though the cities were destroyed and the populations dispersed, the area might be repeopled again and the cities rebuilt. But now that the soils are gone, all is gone." The thin layer of topsoil that covers the earth's land surface was formed over long stretches of geological time as new soil formation exceeded the natural rate of erosion. Sometime within the last century, soil erosion began to exceed new soil formation. Now, nearly a third of the world's cropland is losing topsoil faster than new soil is forming, reducing the land's inherent fertility. Soil that was formed on a geological time scale is being lost on a human time scale. Scarcely six inches thick, this thin film of soil is the foundation of civilization. Geomorphologist David Montgomery, in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, describes soil as "the skin of the earth - the frontier between geology and biology." The erosion of soil by wind and water is a worldwide challenge. For the rangelands that support 3.4 billion head of cattle, sheep, and goats, the threat comes from the overgrazing that destroys vegetation, leaving the land vulnerable to erosion. Rangelands, located mostly in semiarid regions of the world, are particularly vulnerable to wind erosion. In farming, erosion results from plowing land that is steeply sloping or too dry to support agriculture. Steeply sloping land that is not protected by terraces, perennial crops, strip cropping, or in some other way loses soil during heavy rains. Thus the land hunger that drives farmers up mountainsides fuels erosion. In the United States, wind erosion is common in the semiarid Great Plains, where the country's wheat production is concentrated. In the U.S. Corn Belt, in contrast, where most of the country's corn and soybeans are grown, the principal threat to soil is water erosion. This is particularly true in the states with rolling land and plentiful rainfall, such as Iowa and Missouri. Water erosion of soil has indirect negative effects, which can be seen in the silting of reservoirs and in muddy, silt-laden rivers flowing into the sea. Pakistan's two large reservoirs, Mangla and Tarbela, which store Indus River water for the country's vast irrigation network, have lost a third of their storage capacity over the last 40 years as they fill with silt from deforested watersheds. Evidence of wind erosion is highly visible in the form of dust storms. When vegetation is removed either by overgrazing or overplowing, the wind begins to blow soil particles away, sometimes creating dust storms. Because the particles are small, they can remain airborne over great distances. Once they are largely gone, leaving mostly larger particles, sandstorms begin. These are local phenomena, often resulting in dune formation and the abandonment of both farming and grazing. The emergence of sandstorms marks the final phase in the desertification process. The vast twentieth-century expansion in world food production pushed agriculture onto highly vulnerable land in many countries. The overplowing of the U.S. Great Plains during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, led to the 1930s Dust Bowl. This was a tragic era in U.S. history - one that forced hundreds of thousands of farm families to leave the Great Plains. Many migrated to California in search of a new life, a movement immortalized in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Three decades later, history repeated itself in the Soviet Union. The Virgin Lands Project, a huge effort between 1954 and 1960 to convert grassland into grainland, led to the plowing of an area for grain that exceeded the current grainland in Canada and Australia combined. Initially this resulted in an impressive expansion in Soviet grain production, but the success was short-lived, as a dust bowl quickly developed there too. Kazakhstan, at the center of the Virgin Lands Project, saw its grainland area peak at 25 million hectares in the early 1980s. After dropping to 11 million hectares in 1999, the area expanded again, reaching 17 million hectares in 2009, but then began once more to decline. Even on this reduced area, the average grain yield today is scarcely 1 ton per hectare - a far cry from the 7 tons per hectare that farmers get in France, Western Europe's leading wheat producer and exporter. The precipitous drop in Kazakhstan's grain area illustrates the price that countries pay for overplowing and overgrazing. Today two giant new dust bowls have formed. One is centered in the Asian heartland in northwestern China and western Mongolia. The other is in the African Sahel - the savannah-like ecosystem that stretches across Africa from Somalia and Ethiopia in the east to Senegal and Mauritania in the west. It separates the Sahara Desert from the tropical rainforests to the south. Both of these newer dust bowls are massive in scale, dwarfing anything the world has seen before. China may face the biggest challenge of all. After the economic reforms in 1978 that shifted the responsibility for farming from large state-organized production teams to individual farm families, China's cattle, sheep, and goat numbers spiraled upward. A classic tragedy of the commons was unfolding. The United States, a country with comparable grazing capacity, has 94 million cattle, a somewhat larger herd than China's 84 million. But when it comes to sheep and goats, the United States has a combined population of only 9 million, whereas China has 285 million. Concentrated in China's western and northern provinces, these animals are stripping the land of its protective vegetation. The wind then does the rest, removing the soil and converting rangeland into desert. Wang Tao, one of the world's leading desert scholars, reports that from 1950 to 1975 an average of 600 square miles of land turned to desert each year. Between 1975 and 1987, this climbed to 810 square miles a year. From then until the century's end, it jumped to 1,390 square miles of land going to desert annually. A U.S. Embassy report entitled "Desert Mergers and Acquisitions" describes satellite images showing two of China's largest deserts, the Badain Jaran and Tengger, expanding and merging to form a single, larger desert overlapping Inner Mongolia and Gansu Provinces. To the west in Xinjiang Province, two even larger deserts - the Taklimakan and Kumtag - are also heading for a merger. Highways running through the shrinking region between them are regularly inundated by sand dunes. In some places, people become aware of soil erosion when they suffer through dust storms. On March 20, 2010, for example, a suffocating dust storm enveloped Beijing. The city's weather bureau took the unusual step of describing the air quality as hazardous, urging people to stay inside or to cover their faces if they were outdoors. Visibility was low, forcing motorists to drive with their lights on in daytime. Beijing was not the only area affected. This particular dust storm engulfed scores of cities in five provinces, directly affecting over 250 million people. Nor was it an isolated incident. Every spring, residents of eastern Chinese cities, including Beijing and Tianjin, hunker down as the dust storms begin. Along with having difficulty breathing and dealing with dust that stings the eyes, people must constantly struggle to keep dust out of their homes and to clear doorways and sidewalks of dust and sand. Farmers and herders whose livelihoods are blowing away are paying an even higher price. These huge dust storms originating in northwestern and north central China and western Mongolia form in the late winter and early spring. On average more than 10 major dust storms leave this region and move across the country's heavily populated northeast each year. These dust storms affect not only China but neighboring countries as well. The March 2010 dust storm arrived in South Korea soon after leaving Beijing. It was described by the Korean Meteorological Administration as the worst dust storm on record. Highly detailed media accounts of these storms are not always readily available, but Howard French described in the New York Times a Chinese dust storm that had reached South Korea on April 12, 2002. The country, he said, was engulfed by so much dust from China that people in Seoul were literally gasping for breath. Schools were closed, airline flights were cancelled, and clinics were overrun with patients who were having trouble breathing. Retail sales fell. Koreans have come to dread the arrival of what they call "the fifth season" - the dust storms of late winter and early spring. The situation continues to deteriorate. Korea's Ministry of Environment reports that the country suffered dust storms on average for 39 days in the 1980s, 77 days in the 1990s, and 118 days from 2000 to 2011. These data suggest that the degradation of land is accelerating. Unfortunately, there is nothing in prospect to arrest and reverse this trend. While people living in China and South Korea are all too familiar with dust storms, the rest of the world typically only learns about this fast-growing ecological catastrophe when the massive soil-laden storms leave that region. On April 18, 2001, for instance, the western United States - from the Arizona border north to Canada - was blanketed with dust. It came from a huge dust storm that originated in northwestern China and Mongolia on April 5th. Another consequence of dust storms is the economic disruption that they cause in cities, whether it is Beijing or any of dozens of other cities in northeastern China or South Korea. Dust storms can disrupt business, reduce retail sales, close schools, and even temporarily close governments in some cases. Each of these disruptions brings its own cost. Sometimes the effects are remote from the site of the dust, as when dust particles from African storms damage coral reefs in the Caribbean, adversely affect fishing and tourism. Africa is suffering heavy losses of soil from wind erosion. Andrew Goudie, Emeritus Professor in Geography at Oxford University, reports that dust storms originating over the Sahara - once rare - are now commonplace. He estimates they have increased tenfold during the last half-century. Among the countries most affected by topsoil loss via dust storms are Niger, Chad, northern Nigeria, and Burkina Faso. In Mauritania, in Africa's far west, the number of dust storms jumped from 2 a year in the early 1960s to 80 in 2004. The Bodélé Depression, a vast low-lying region in northeastern Chad, is the source of an estimated 1.3 billion tons of dust a year, up tenfold from 1947, when measurements began. Dust storms leaving Africa typically travel west across the Atlantic, depositing dust in the Caribbean. The 2-3 billion tons of fine soil particles that leave Africa each year in dust storms are slowly draining the continent of its fertility and hence its biological productivity. Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, is losing 868,000 acres of rangeland and cropland to desertification each year. The government considers the loss of productive land to desert to be far and away its leading environmental problem. No other environmental change threatens to undermine its economic future so directly. Conditions will only get worse if Nigeria continues on its current population trajectory toward 390 million people by 2050. While Nigeria's human population has increased from 47 million in 1961 to 167 million in 2012, nearly a fourfold expansion, its population of livestock has grown from roughly 8 million to 109 million head. With the forage needs of Nigeria's 17 million head of cattle and 92 million sheep and goats exceeding the sustainable yield of the country's grasslands, the country is slowly turning to desert. (See Figure 5-1.) In fact, Nigeria presents a textbook case of how mounting human and livestock population pressures reduce vegetative cover. Most notably, growth in the goat population relative to sheep and cattle is a telltale indicator of grassland ecosystem deterioration. As grasslands deteriorate from overgrazing, grass is typically replaced by desert shrubs. In such a degraded environment as Nigeria's, sheep and cattle do not fare well, but goats - being particularly hardy ruminants - forage on the shrubs. Between 1970 and 2010, the world cattle population increased by 32 percent, the sheep population was unchanged, but the goat population more than doubled. This dramatic shift in the composition of the livestock herd, with goats now in such a dominant role, promises continuing grassland deterioration and accelerating soil erosion. Growth in the goat population has been dramatic in some other developing countries as well, particularly in Africa and Asia, which combined account for 90 percent of the world's goats. While Pakistan's cattle population more than doubled between 1961 and 2010, and the sheep population nearly tripled, the goat population grew almost sevenfold. In Bangladesh, cattle and sheep populations have grown only modestly since 1980, while the population of goats has quadrupled. In 1985, Mali had roughly equal populations of cattle, sheep, and goats, but while its cattle and sheep populations have remained relatively stable since then, its goat population has more than tripled. Meanwhile, on the northern fringe of the Sahara, countries such as Algeria and Morocco are attempting to halt the desertification that is threatening their fertile croplands. Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika says that Algeria is losing 100,000 acres of its most fertile lands to desertification each year. For a country that has only 7.7 million acres of grainland, this is not a trivial loss. Among other measures, Algeria is planting its southernmost cropland in perennials, such as fruit orchards, olive orchards, and vineyards - crops that can help keep the soil in place. India is also in a war with expanding deserts. With scarcely 2 percent of the world's land area, India is struggling to support 18 percent of the world's people and 15 percent of its cattle. According to a team of scientists at the Indian Space Research Organization, 25 percent of India's land surface is slowly turning into desert. It thus comes as no surprise that many of India's cattle are emaciated. In Afghanistan, a U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) team reports that in the Sistan region in the country's southwest "up to 100 villages have been submerged by windblown dust and sand." The Registan Desert is migrating westward, encroaching on agricultural areas. In the country's northwest, sand dunes are moving onto agricultural land in the upper Amu Darya basin, their path cleared by the loss of stabilizing vegetation due to firewood gathering and overgrazing. The UNEP team observed sand dunes as high as a five-story building blocking roads, forcing residents to establish new routes. An Afghan Ministry of Agriculture and Food report sounds the alarm: "Soil fertility is declining,...water tables have dramatically fallen, de-vegetation is extensive and soil erosion by water and wind is widespread." After three decades of armed conflict and the related deprivation and devastation, Afghanistan's forests are nearly gone. Seven southern provinces are losing cropland to encroaching sand dunes. And like many failing states, even if Afghanistan had appropriate environmental policies, it lacks the law enforcement capacity to implement them. Iraq, suffering from nearly a decade of war and recent drought and chronic overgrazing and overplowing, is now losing irrigation water to its upstream riparian neighbor - Turkey. The reduced river flow - combined with the deterioration of irrigation infrastructure, the depletion of aquifers, the shrinking irrigated area, and the drying up of marshlands - is drying out Iraq. The Fertile Crescent, the cradle of civilization, may be turning into a dust bowl. Dust storms are forming with increasing frequency in western Syria and northern Iraq. In July 2009 a dust storm raged for several days in what was described as the worst such storm in Iraq's history. As it traveled eastward into Iran, the authorities in Tehran closed government offices, private offices, schools, and factories. Although this new dust bowl is small compared with those centered in northwest China and across central Africa, it is nonetheless an unsettling new development in this region. Iran - with 76 million people - illustrates the pressures facing the Middle East. With 9 million cattle and 80 million sheep and goats - the source of wool for its fabled rug-making industry - Iran's rangelands are deteriorating from overstocking. Mohammad Jarian, who heads Iran's Anti-Desertification Organization, reported in 2002 that sandstorms had buried 124 villages in the southeastern province of Sistan-Balochistan, forcing their abandonment. Drifting sands had covered grazing areas, starving livestock and depriving villagers of their livelihoods. As countries lose their topsoil, they eventually lose the capacity to feed themselves. Among those facing this problem are Lesotho, Mongolia, North Korea, and Haiti. Lesotho, one of Africa's smallest countries, with only 2 million people, is paying a heavy price for its soil losses. A U.N. team visited in 2002 to assess its food prospects. Their finding was straightforward: "Agriculture in Lesotho faces a catastrophic future; crop production is declining and could cease altogether over large tracts of the country if steps are not taken to reverse soil erosion, degradation, and the decline in soil fertility." Michael Grunwald reported in the Washington Post that nearly half of the children under five in Lesotho are stunted physically. "Many," he wrote, "are too weak to walk to school." Over the last decade, Lesotho's grain harvest dropped by half as its soil fertility fell. Its collapsing agriculture has left the country heavily dependent on food imports. A similar situation exists in Mongolia, where over the last 20 years more than half of the wheatland has been abandoned and wheat yields have started to fall, shrinking its harvest. Mongolia now imports nearly 20 percent of its wheat. At the same time, North Korea, largely deforested and suffering from flood-induced soil erosion and land degradation, has watched its yearly grain harvest fall from a peak of almost 6 million tons during the 1980s to scarcely 3 million tons per year today. In the western hemisphere, Haiti - one of the early failing states - was largely self-sufficient in grain 40 years ago. Since then it has lost nearly all its forests and much of its topsoil, forcing it to import over half of its grain. It is now heavily dependent on U.N. World Food Programme lifelines. The accelerating loss of topsoil is slowly but surely reducing the earth's inherent biological productivity. The shrinking area of productive land and the earth's steadily expanding human population are on a collision course. Soil erosion and land degradation issues are local, but their effect on food security is global. By Lester R. Brown. From Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity by Lester R. Brown (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.). Supporting data, video, and slideshows are available for free download at
  14. Farmed Fish Production Overtakes Beef

    The world quietly reached a milestone in the evolution of the human diet in 2011. For the first time in modern history, world farmed fish production topped beef production. The gap widened in 2012, with output from fish farming - also called aquaculture - reaching a record 66 million tons, compared with production of beef at 63 million tons. And 2013 may well be the first year that people eat more fish raised on farms than caught in the wild. More than just a crossing of lines, these trends illustrate the latest stage in a historic shift in food production - a shift that at its core is a story of natural limits. As the global demand for animal protein grew more than fivefold over the second half of the twentieth century, humans began to press against the productivity constraints of the world's rangelands and oceans. Annual beef production climbed from 19 million tons in 1950 to more than 50 million tons in the late 1980s. Over the same period, the wild fish catch ballooned from 17 million tons to close to 90 million tons. But since the late 1980s, the growth in beef production has slowed, and the reported wild fish catch has remained essentially flat. (See data.) The bottom line is that getting much more food from natural systems may not be possible. Much of the world's grassland is stocked at or beyond capacity, and most of the world's fisheries are fished to their limits or already crashing. Overstocked rangelands become obvious as the loss of protective vegetation leads to soil degradation, which at its worst can cause punishing dust and sand storms. Overexploited fisheries are less readily visible, but fishing patterns over time reveal that more effort is required to achieve the same size catch as in years past. Boats are using more fuel and travelling to more remote and deeper waters to bring in their haul. Fishers are pulling up smaller fish, and populations of some of the most popular food fish have collapsed. Historically, people's taste in eating animal protein was largely shaped by where they lived. In places with extensive grasslands, like in the United States, Brazil, Argentina, and Australia, people gravitated toward grazing livestock. Along coasts and on islands, as in Japan, wild fish tended to be the protein staple. Today, with little room for expanding the output from rangelands and the seas, producing more beef and fish for a growing and increasingly affluent world population has meant relying on feedlots for fattening cattle and on ponds, nets, and pens for growing fish. While open waters and grasslands can be self-sustaining if managed carefully, raising fish and livestock in concentrated operations requires inputs. Grain and soybeans have been inserted into the protein production food chain. Cattle consume 7 pounds of grain or more to produce an additional pound of beef. This is twice as high as the grain rations for pigs, and over three times those of poultry. Fish are far more efficient, typically taking less than 2 pounds of feed to add another pound of weight. Pork and poultry are the most widely eaten forms of animal protein worldwide, but farmed fish output is increasing the fastest. Average annual growth rates over the last five years have mirrored the relative efficiency of feed use, with the global production of farmed fish growing by nearly 6 percent a year, poultry by 4 percent, and pork by 1.7 percent - fast outpacing beef, which barely increased at all. As grain and soybean prices have risen well above historical levels in recent years, the cost of producing grain-eating livestock has also gone up. Higher prices have nudged consumers away from the least-efficient feeders. This means more farmed fish and less beef. In the United States, where the amount of meat in peoples' diets has been falling since 2004, average consumption of beef per person has dropped by more than 13 percent and that of chicken by 5 percent. U.S. fish consumption has also dropped, but just by 2 percent. Beyond economic considerations, health and environmental concerns are also leading many people in industrial countries to reduce their beef intake. Meanwhile, fish are touted as healthy alternatives (save for the largest types, which have accumulated mercury from environmental pollution). Diets heavy in red meat have been associated with a higher risk for heart disease and colon cancer, among other ailments. Beef production has garnered a negative reputation for having a large carbon footprint and for destroying habitat, notably in the Brazilian Amazon. And excess nitrogen fertilizer applied to the fields of feed corn grown to satisfy the world's livestock runs off into streams and rivers, sometimes flowing to coastal waters where it creates large algal blooms and low-oxygen "dead zones" where fish cannot survive. While it is only recently that the limitations of natural systems have emerged on a global scale, the practice of aquaculture dates back millennia. China, which accounts for 62 percent of the world's farmed fish, has long cultivated different types of carp that eat different things - phytoplankton, zooplankton, grass, or detritus - together in a mini ecosystem. Today carp and their relatives are still the mainstay of Chinese aquaculture, making up nearly half the country's output. Filter-feeding mollusks, like clams and oysters, account for close to a third. Carp, catfish, and other species are also grown in Chinese rice paddies, where their waste can fertilize the grain crop. This is also practiced in Indonesia, Thailand, and Egypt. (Other top aquacultural producers include India, Viet Nam, and Bangladesh.) Unfortunately, not all aquaculture works this way. Some of the farmed fish that are quickly gaining popularity, like salmon and shrimp, are carnivorous species that eat fishmeal or fish oil produced from forage fish from the wild. Yet most forage fish stocks (think anchovies, herrings, and sardines), which typically make up about a third of the world oceanic fish catch, are dangerously overharvested. Fish farmers are working to reduce the amount of fish meal and oil in their rations, but in the rush to meet ever-expanding world demand, the share of farmed fish being fed has increased because they can reach market size quickly. Norway, the world's top farmed salmon producer, now imports more fish oil than any other country. China, the world's leading shrimp producer, takes in some 30 percent of the fishmeal traded each year. As cattle ranches have displaced biologically rich rainforests, fish farms have displaced mangrove forests that provide important fish nursery habitats and protect coasts during storms. Worldwide, aquaculture is thought to be responsible for more than half of all mangrove loss, mostly for shrimp farming. In the Philippines, some two thirds of the country's mangroves - over 100,000 hectares - have been removed for shrimp farming over the last 40 years. Another problem with intensive confined animal feeding operations of all kinds, whether for farmed fish or for cattle, is not what gets extracted from the environment but what gets put in it. On a small-scale farm with livestock, animal waste can be used to fertilize crops. But putting large numbers of animals together transforms waste from an asset into a liability. Along with the vast quantities of waste, the antibiotic and parasite-killing chemicals used to deal with the unwanted disease and infestations that can spread easily in crowded conditions also can end up in surrounding ecosystems. The overuse of antibiotics in livestock operations can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, threatening both human and animal health. In the United States, for instance, 80 percent of antibiotics use is in agriculture - and often not for treating sick animals but for promoting rapid weight gain. Thus the solutions to our collision with the limitations of the natural systems that have long provided food have created their own host of problems. On a per person basis, beef consumption - now averaging less than 20 pounds (8.9 kilograms) each year globally - is unlikely to rebound to the 24 pounds eaten in the 1970s. But annual world fish consumption per person of 42 pounds - up from 25 pounds in the 1970s - is set to keep rising. With the additional fish coming from farms rather than the seas, the urgency of making aquaculture sustainable is clear. On the fish feed front, fishmeal producers are incorporating more seafood scraps into their products; today roughly a third of fishmeal is made up of food fish trimmings and other by-products. And some fish farmers are substituting livestock and poultry processing wastes and plant-based feeds for fishmeal and oil, which does not sound particularly appetizing, but does reduce pressure on wild stocks. From a sustainability standpoint, however, it would be preferable to shift the balance back in favor of farmed fish raised without feeds based on food grains, oilseeds, and protein from other animals. Our global population of 7 billion people, growing by nearly 80 million per year, cannot escape the limits of nature. To live within Earth's natural boundaries requires rethinking meat and fish production practices to respect ecology. Most important, it means reducing demand by slowing population growth and, for those of us already living high on the food chain, eating less meat, milk, eggs, and fish. By Janet Larsen and J. Matthew Roney.
  15. The European Environment Agency's (EEA) Scientific Committee yesterday called for the suspension of EU's target to increase the share of biofuels used in transport to 10% by 2020. The committee calls for a new, "comprehensive scientific study on the environmental risks and benefits of biofuels" before any targets should be set. The committees concerns are summarised below: The European Environment Agency's Scientific Committee consists of 20 independent scientists from 15 different EEA member countries. The committee helps the EEA Management Board and the Executive Director by "providing scientific advice and delivering professional opinions on any scientific matter" that the EEA might undertake. The EEA is located in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. EEA currently consists of 27 EU member states, 3 European Economic Area members (Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein), Switzerland and Turkey.