A mini solution to the coming food crisis

Posted on Tuesday, October 13th, 2009 at 3:13 pm by dpacheco

Promoted from the community blogs. —dpacheco

If you’ve found the Chelsea Green web site, then chances are you’re probably a little bit worried about the future. This is Sustainability Central, so it’s a good place to vent criticisms and present creative/constructive solutions for promoting more sustainable ways of life. Most of us are at least a little bit worried about the future of the world, and some folks are downright paranoid. The truth is that the future isn’t looking too bright at the moment. Humankind is quickly running through our remaining supplies of the resources that have made our lifestyles tick, and the future appears to be one where peak oil, peak phosphorus, climate change, the growing unpredictability of water supplies, and other resource limitations will place tremendous pressure on humankind.

Well, add to this the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO’s) recent warning that the world will need to produce 70% more food by 2050 in order to feed the world’s population. This is due to a huge increase in world population, more urbanization, and the impacts of climate change (basically, variable rainfall with more regional floods and droughts, more pests and disease, and a shifting of agricultural areas to accommodate change). The upshot: this report recommends that a huge amount of new cropland be “created” and that governments around the world, particularly in developing countries, spend large amounts of money (a 50% increase from now) developing new food production.

Does “creating” new cropland mean chopping down the rainforests? If so, I’m against it, yet I realize that people in poorer countries need to eat. Irrigating the desert is a great idea if there is enough water and enough cheap energy to pump it for hundreds or thousands of miles. On either score, I have my doubts. In between those two extremes, there are probably other places that can be farmed, but reasons why they have not historically been farmed: overall it’s going to require huge inputs of both water and fertilizer to make this happen. Water is getting scarcer and more expensive (as mentioned above), while fertilizer depends upon phosphorus (which is peaking) and chemical fertilizers require natural gas for their production process (scarcer and more expensive as well).

And then there’s the fact that farmers can’t afford to buy seeds anymore. One of those big multinational companies owns the property rights to them, so you need to pay them a license that is prohibitively priced in the developing world. They’ll sell you seeds for rice that produce twice as much as the last kind, and are twice as disease resistant, but they cost four times as much. Oh, and also, biofuel production is set to increase by 90% in the next ten years (and probably more than that as we realize we’re running out of affordable oil) so food production is competing with energy production on our prime growing land. Tell the peasants they can’t eat the corn; it’s going in someone’s gas tank.

Well, I have no comprehensive solutions except the conviction that we need to live within our means. Easier said than done, right? At the very least, everything I’ve written above forces the conclusion that fresh food will become much more expensive in the coming years. But I do have a partial “mini-solution” which is that every person should start growing a little more of his/her own fresh food. Increased urbanization around the world means that urban residents need to take charge of (at least a small part of) their own food production. Yes, you can farm on a balcony, on a patio, and even on a sidewalk. You can sprout your own fresh food anyplace, anytime. You can plant a neighborhood fruit tree that can feed the whole block with a month of fresh fruit. Or a dwarf fruit tree on your doorstep in a container of dirt.

Actually, there is a lot you can do to produce your own food, even in a small living space. Granted, there’s a lot you cannot do also. But what if each of us could produce just 10% of our own food at home? What a huge difference that would make in better nutrition, decreased household expenses, plus reduced energy use and carbon outputs from not having to produce that food and transport it for hundreds or thousands of miles. if each of us aims for helping out just a little, we can all make a big impact collectively. Give it a shot. This is a great time to think about a winter garden (if your climate allows), or sprouting, or mushrooming, or fermenting, or…dreaming of a spring garden. Some of the best plans are hatched during those cold winter months!

BBC article on UN FAO’s report: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8303434.stm

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