World food visionPosted by: admin | Posted on: July 16, 2008
Apocalyptic vision of a post-fossil fuel world
The invention of the petrol engine increased the amount of arable land available to grow food, the size and efficiency of farm machinery improved, and better pesticides were developed – all of which contributed to a better food supply.
As food became more plentiful and cheap, the threat of famine disappeared and obesity became more widespread than hunger. Food, grain, meat and vegetables began to be exported around the world and the world population increased six-fold.By the 1960s industrial-chemical practices had been exported to the third world and in the next half century food production tripled – but at an unrecognised cost of water and soil pollution and enormous environmental damage.
Heinberg said that, unfortunately, it was all unsustainable and the abundance of food depended on depleting, non-renewable fossil fuels whose burning produced climate-altering carbon dioxide.The depletion of oil stocks, the demand for biofuels as an alternative, environmental degradation and extreme weather caused by climate change, were coming together to pose massive problems for world food production.
The situation would be made worse by a shortage of fresh drinking water. According to UN estimates, one third of the world’s population lived in areas with water shortages and 1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water. The situation was expected to worsen dramatically over the next few decades.While the human population had tripled in the 20th century, the use of renewable water resources had grown six-fold.
The UN Environment Program had concluded that the planet’s water, land, air, plants, animals and fish stocks were all in "inexorable decline" much of it due to agriculture, which constituted the greatest single source of human impact on the biosphere.
Heinberg said that to get to the heart of the crisis a comprehensive transformation of world agriculture was needed – greater than anything seen in many decades – which would produce a system that was not reliant on fossil fuels.He cited Cuba as an example of what could be achieved. In the 1980s it had become reliant on cheap fuel supplied by Russia and was using more agrochemicals per acre than even the US. But after the fall of communism, supplies dried up. The average Cuban lost 20lbs in weight, living standards collapsed and malnutrition became widespread.
Cuban authorities responded by redesigning the food supply system. Large state-owned farms were broken up and given to families and they were encouraged to form co-operatives, biological methods were used for pest control, oxen replaced tractors, urban vegetable gardens flourished and people began to keep chickens and rabbits for food. Twenty years later food production was 90 per cent of its former levels.
Heinberg said what was needed was a return to ecological organic farming methods which would require the transformation of societies.And with oil supplies rapidly running out the full resources of national governments would be needed to achieve it.The amount of food transportation would have to be reduced, food would need to be grown in and around cities, and producers and consumers would need to live closer together.
The use of pesticides would have to be reduced in packaging and processing, draft animals would be reintroduced and governments would have to provide incentives for people to return to an agricultural life. Land reform would be needed to enable smallholders and farming co-ops to work their own plots and population growth would have to be curbed.
"All of this constitutes a gargantuan task, but the alternatives – doing nothing or attempting to solve our food-production problems simply by applying mere techno-fixes – will almost certainly lead to dire consequences," he said.
" All of the worrisome trends mentioned earlier would intensify to the point that the human carrying capacity of Earth would be degraded significantly, and perhaps to a large degree permanently."
Heinberg added: "The transition to a fossil-fuel-free food system does not constitute a distant utopian proposal. It is an unavoidable, immediate, and immense challenge that will call for unprecedented levels of creativity at all levels of society.
"A hundred years from now, everyone will be eating what we today would define as organic food, whether or not we act.
"But what we do now will determine how many will be eating, what state of health will be enjoyed by those future generations, and whether they will live in a ruined cinder of a world, or one that is in the process of being renewed and replenished."