Cri­sis: Will we all starve?

Auckland City Harbour News - - NEWS -

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.’’


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