Crisis: Will we all starve?
Time to come down to earth – literally. Example: Too many people, not enough earth.
World experts predicting massive problems ahead are making New Zealand problems almost trivial by comparison.
You know, that hard-tosolve problem involving the dairy industry and water purity:
We need our dairy products to survive as an international trader. So Fonterra and Beehive bigwigs stage their penitent pilgrimages to convince Beijing and all points east that it was all a mistake, a little Mickey Mouse happening which will never be repeated.
So we need as many cows as we can cope with, all doing their thing, filling the world’s shelves with milk-based food. But there’s another thing all those cows produce – effluent that find its way into rivers and streams, an ever-growing attack on the standing of that 100 per cent clean promise we have staked the future on.
Meanwhile, the facts of human life on this planet are becoming plainer by the day.
Latest international bearer of bad news is Sir David Attenborough.
Earlier in the year, he rattled cages with simple and worrying words when he said human beings were a ‘‘plague on the Earth’’. His latest diagnosis: ‘‘We are heading for disaster unless we do something.
‘‘We keep on talking about the problem without putting names on it in that sense. And getting it on the agenda of people.
‘‘And if we don’t do something, the natural world will do something. And you say that, but of course they’ve been doing it for a long time, the natural world.
‘‘All these famines in Ethiopia, what are they about? They’re about too many people for too little piece of land. That’s what it’s about. And we are blinding ourselves. We say, get the United Nations to send them bags of flour. That’s barmy.’’
He may be knocking on the Vatican to ask the new pope – apparently in tune with population issues – to play a part.
‘‘It is the individual’s great privilege to have children. And who am I to say that you shan’t have children? There’s a religious one, in the sense that the Catholic Church doesn’t accept this. That you should control the population.
‘‘So that’s another huge area of concern. And the last sensitivity – and the most tricky of all – is the fact, when you talk about world population, the areas we’re talking about are Africa and Asia.’’
He agreed it could be construed as just being about ‘‘poor people’’, adding: ‘‘And to have a European telling Africans that they shan’t have children is not the way to go around things.’’
A recent report says the world will need to more than double food production over the next 40 years to feed an expanding global population. But as the world’s food needs are rapidly increasing, the planet’s capacity to produce food suffers from overlapping crises that, if left unchecked, could lead to billions facing hunger.
The UN projects global population will grow from today’s 7 billion to 9.3 billion by mid-century.
According to the report by the World Resources Institute ‘‘available worldwide food calories will need to increase by about 60 per cent from 2006 levels’’ to ensure an adequate diet for this larger population. At current rates of food loss and waste, by 2050 the gap between average daily dietary requirements and available food would approximate ‘‘more than 900 calories per person per day’’.
Which is about half what an adult needs.
The report identifies a complex, interconnected web of environmental factors at the root of this challenge – many generated by industrial agriculture itself.
About 24 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture like New Zealand’s – methane from livestock, nitrous oxide from fertilisers, carbon dioxide from onsite machinery and fertiliser production and land use change.
Industrial agriculture, the report finds, is a major contributor to climate change which, in turn is triggering more intense ‘‘heat waves, flooding and shifting precipitation patterns’’, with ‘‘adverse consequences for global crop yields’’.
Global agriculture is heavily water intensive, accounting for 70 per cent of all freshwater use.
The nutrient run-off from farms can create ‘‘dead zones’’ and ‘‘degrade coastal waters around the world’’ and as climate change contributes to increased water stress in crop-growing regions, food production will suffer further.
And drinking water could dry up!
Other related factors will also kick in, warns the report: Deforestation from regional drying and warming, the effect of rising sea levels on crop land productivity in coastal regions and growing water demand from larger populations.
Yet the report points out that a fundamental problem is the impact of human activities on the land itself, estimating that ‘‘land degradation affects approximately 20 per cent of the world’s cultivated areas’’.
Over the past 40 years, about two billion hectares of soil (an area larger than the United States and Mexico combined) – have been degraded through human activities, and about 30 per cent of the world’s crop land have become unproductive. It takes on average a whole century to generate a single millimetre of topsoil lost to erosion.
Effectively soil is a nonrenewable but rapidly depleting resource.
We are running out of time. Within just 12 years, the report says, conservative estimates suggest that high water stress will afflict all the main food basket regions in North and South America, west and east Africa, central Europe and Russia, as well as the Middle East, south and south-east Asia.
Writing in the Guardian, Nafeez Ahmed said: ‘‘Unfortunately the report overlooks another critical factor – the inextricable link between oil and food.
‘‘Over the last decade, food and fuel prices have been heavily correlated.
‘‘This is no accident. A new World Bank report examining five different food commodities – corn, wheat, rice, soybean, and palm oil – confirms oil prices are the biggest contributor to rising food prices.
‘‘The bank recommends controls on oil price movements as a key to countering food price inflation.
‘‘The oil-food price comes as no surprise.
‘‘A University of Michigan study points out that every major point in the industrial food system – chemical fertilisers, pesticides, farm machinery, food processing, packaging and transportation – is dependent on high oil and gas inputs.
‘‘Nineteen per cent of fossil fuels that prop up the American economy go to the food system, second only to cars.
‘‘In 1940, for every calorie of fossil fuel energy used, 2.3 calories of food energy were produced.
‘‘Now it takes 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce just one calorie of food energy.’’