Food to Sustain our Earth at Risk into the Future

by S. Tom Bond on September 12, 2017

World population growth outstripping food production capacity

Long Term Prospects for Food are not Good

Essay by S. Tom Bond, Resident Farmer, Jane Lew, WV

The future is always different from the past, but the pace of change is rapidly increasing for food, especially. Primary worsening factors are the world population increase, global warming, loss of farmland by development and erosion, and the increasing severity of large scale political conflict with the increasing possibility of nuclear weapons. About the only factor one might think of that could improve the prospect for adequate food supply is technology.

Not much can be projected about the increasing possibility of use of nuclear weapons. It depends too much on kinky leaders. No doubt the rich men in many countries will continue to manipulate politics to try to steal the wealth of the rich men in other countries. We might see some distance into the future if rational paths were followed, but too much depends on irrational leaders, so what we can see or do concerning use of nuclear war is pretty much in the realm of prayer.

On the other hand, population growth is highly predictable from the number of children born in a year and their expected life span, which is the stuff of a census. Birth rates change slowly in response to opportunity and workload of the child bearers. Wars seldom leave a wrinkle on the graph of population against time, and only very severe diseases like the Black Death of the Middle Ages show up. Only China has been able to affect birth rate by law, but even that law was largely ignored in rural areas. Government restraint has caused a downward alteration in the curve, but not a decline.

Loss of farmland by erosion is not new. Books have been written about civilizations that have perished because they destroyed the soil. I vividly remember the pamphlets produced in the 1930’s about soil conservation by the new U. S. Soil Conservation Service. At that time corn rows went up and down hill, manure wasn’t widely used as fertilizer, cover crops weren’t used to control sheet and wind erosion, gullies were ignored, fences were poor and many other practices to avoid erosion were not used.

The SCS encouraged contour farming, spreading manure on crops, seeding tilled land with a cover crop in time for winter, controlling gullies by building check dams, planting trees for a windbreak, and similar little tricks that held soil in place. Today the U. S. Department of Agriculture Conservation Service, the SCS successor, still performs the same work in a more quiet way.

Until the West was closed in the years before 1900, land was unlimited in the U. S. The problem was to fill it, not conserve it. The attitude that land does not need to be conserved continues here and throughout most of the world today. The U. S. wheat crop is grown on 46 million acres. However, we have 40.6 million acres in lawns, hardly a priority as far as food production is concerned. Furthermore, 300,000 acres of land goes out of wheat each year. World wide, the production of wheat goes down by the volume of wheat produced in France each year! According to the New York Times for October 4, 2002, “The United States is losing two acres of mostly prime farmland every minute to development, the fastest such decline in the country’s history, a new study has found.”

In China, land is so valuable that rural, agricultural villages are composed largely of four and five story apartment buildings. The recent economic growth (averaging 10% over the last 30 years, vs. the U. S. rate of 3%) has caused cities to expand dramatically, often covering the best agricultural soil, just like in the U. S.

“Earth has lost a third of arable land in past 40 years, scientists say” is the title of a Guardian article published December 2, 2015. Scientific American says “We are losing 30 soccer fields of soil every minute, mostly due to intensive farming.” That is a big problem since almost everywhere land is at its carrying capacity.

Drought is a problem, too. The main stream media articles tell about the Syrians fleeing to Europe, leaving the impression it is mainly due to the political upheaval there, but there has been a severe drought there for years and food is not to be found. The same drought is sending thousands from Africa to Southern Europe, too.

Is the unusual weather caused by global warming having an effect on food supply? You bet! In the United States dry weather has reduced peach production in Georgia and South Carolina by 85% for the year. Dry weather in California has affected strawberries especially, but other vegetables as well. In Montana and South Dakota particularly, dry weather has affected cattle and sheep and wheat all over the West. Hurricane Harvey was disastrous for cattlemen in Southeast Texas, drowning their cattle and carrying them away. Irma will do the same for cattlemen in Florida and north. Cattle graze in wetlands in that area.

As for the rest of the world, there is too much to tell. Australia, prone to drought, had two in 2013 and 2014 that are considered the “worst ever.” Because of drought in Africa, Ethiopia alone has 7.8 million at risk of starving, Somalia has 6.7 million, with more elsewhere. This is the worst drought in the Eastern Mediterranean in 900 years. Wine crops in France are at risk.

The typhoon season in Asia runs almost year-round, with typically a dozen or more typhoons. The Joint Typhoon Warning Center, run by the U. S. and Japan, found the intensity had increased by 12 to 14 percent. The number of category 4 and 5 typhoons, those with wind speeds between 130 mph and 157 mph or higher — increased to around seven per year today, from less than five in the 1970s. The Philippines, Taiwan, Japan and China rice crops are affected. Heavy Monson rains affected much of Southeast Asia with the damp and insets afterwards killing thousands with malaria and dengue as well as disrupting crops and causing soil erosion.

Technology has changed to help. In the Middle Ages it was customary to plow and leave the land fallow a year before planting. Crop rotation, using crops for human food some years, and crops for improving soil fertility other years began sometiemin the 1700’s. The big changes in agricultural technology came in the middle of the 1800’s to 1910. Use of lime was put on a scientific basis. Ways to produce abundant phosphorus in a form available to plants, the chemistry of extracting nitrogen from air and putting it into a form plants could use and use of potassium containing minerals began then.

Also introduction of food plants from America into Europe and Asia occurred about this time. Potatoes and sweet potatoes, tomatoes and corn (often called maize), some kinds of beans, squash, turkey, peanuts, pecans, and cashews, chocolate and vanilla were among the most familiar foods. Of great economic importance were cotton and tobacco.

The most recent big change in agricultural technology was the “Green Revolution,” which ran from the 1930’s to the 1960’s. It was due to new understanding of genetics. Hybridization resulted in high yields, more efficient use of fertilizers, ability to harvest with machines, lengthened or shortened growing seasons, so plants could be grown at different latitudes, insect resistance and other improved characteristics.

At least the more advanced parts of the human race have been spared famine, although millions are hungry today. At no time has there been great surplus. We are always just above the line. How long will this continue as the natural world become more hostile to food growing?

The only great changes in the works today are hydroponics, where plants are grown in greenhouses in solution, without soil, and the even more advanced technique called aeroponics where plants are simply suspended in greenhouses and sprayed with water-fertilizer solutions. It is not clear if these systems can be utilized on a large scale, or if they can be used for feeding the population or only be used to provide very high quality food plants in small quantities. Nothing else seems to be in sight.

With so many trends moved by separate drivers, it is impossible to predict the future. Two of the negative drivers are strongly affected by fracking, however. Increasing temperature of the atmosphere by delivering into it the principal long term greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, and the very severe short term greenhouse gas methane is one. The other is wide scale destruction of the productivity of land, where fracking is done and where the sand it requires is extracted. A determined set of business men, probably unaware of the long term food situation and hell-bent to make a fortune advance what they see as personal gain against the best interest of humanity. They will continue until the body politic forces them to stop or the system collapses.

The next few generations will, for sure, “live in interesting times,” as the “Chinese curse” puts it. Plant breeding, and to a lesser extent, animal breeding, will continue to help, but beyond that, nothing is in sight that can be used to get more food for the future.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

S. Thomas Bond September 13, 2017 at 7:23 pm

Readers might be interested in an article which begins “A third of the planet’s land is severely degraded and fertile soil is being lost at the rate of 24 billion tonnes a year, according to a new United Nations-backed study that calls for a shift away from destructively intensive agriculture.)

It wasn’t out at the time the above was written.

Tom Bond, Lewis County, WV



S. Thomas Bond September 16, 2017 at 10:32 am

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