16 February 2008

Future food redux

Since my last post on the subject, concerns about agriculture and food continue to be raised with increasing frequency. The problems remain the same, but the future keeps looking more grim.

Food prices continue to soar, with many commodities reaching all-time highs (and still rising!). There are several causes for this. Weather-related disasters are destroying crops in some areas (recently in China, for example). Whether these extreme events are a result of the changing climate or simply natural variability remains unclear; it is really impossible to tell. In Australia, the severe drought which has been ongoing for several years is finally beginning to break (in NSW and QLD; it remains in others), a result of the delayed La Nina rains. This is purportedly stabilizing food prices, which have risen considerably recently (a fact to which I can personally attest...). In December, milk prices went up 10.1 percent, vegetables rose 8.6 percent and bread gained 8.8 percent

The diversion of arable land to the production of biofuels is also reducing supply. This is done in the name of sustainability, but is really just the latest get-rich-quick scheme of global capitalism. Further, more detailed studies suggest that biofuels may actually end up increasing greenhouse gas emissions through a so-called 'land-use cascade'. Further, the production of biofuels is leading to human-rights abuses, particularly in Indonesia.

While the situation is bad today, future climate change and environmental degradation will likely make things worse. CO2 enhancement is not necessarily good for plants, contrary to widespread belief. Studies suggest that as CO2 levels rise, protein levels in staple grains like rice and wheat could be reduced by up to 15%, obviously lowering their nutritional value. Also, the fossil record suggests that plant-eating insect activity increases greatly in a warmer climate. As the current climate warms, this suggests further losses due to pests, meaning fewer crops and/or the application of more environmentally harmful pesticides. Further, shifting rainfall and temperature pattens suggest that impoverished regions of Africa and Asia could see severe crop shortages in the next few decades...

The dynamics of the modern agricultural system also pose a problem, independent of climate change or widespread topsoil loss. The green revolution itself is completely dependent on cheap oil,at or near peak production now. Without oil, it will be difficult to maintain current food production. How will we cope with a rising population? The system itself is in the hands of amoral (immoral?) global corporations, legally bound to maximize profits at all costs. The methods of production they use are globally homogeneous; to increase profits, the genetic diversity of their 'products' (particularly animals) have been narrowed to a few select breeds which perform well. Such a narrowing increases the chance of a highly pathogenic strain of disease. Perversely, this leads to a greater control by corporations, as free range stocks are generally the ones that are banned, further disadvantaging independent farmers.

Serious reform of current agricultural practices is needed. Agricultural should be better utilized for development of poorer regions. Increased research into sustainable agriculture is also needed to overcome the concerns of climate change and environmental degradation. Development of local crops, overlooked today, may also help alleviate some concerns in the short term. Outside of agriculture, limits to population growth are sorely required. Most importantly, a change of lifestyle is needed, particularly by those of us in western nations. Rampant consumerism and the acquisition of 'stuff' has got to go. Our society is unsustainable and we surely face collapse if we do not make the change now.


Image: Jamie Lantzy, Wikipedia

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