Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Into the Fire: Food in the Age of Climate Change

Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute, points out that earlier civilizations often collapsed because of food shortages brought on by unsound agricultural practices.

The Sumerian civilization sank because their soil was ruined by rising salt levels, the result of a design flaw in their irrigation system. The Mayan empire fell due to soil erosion, caused by excessive land clearance to feed their population. We now stand in a similar position, facing an acute threat to our own food system, and the immediate danger comes from a changing climate. But there is a major difference between our civilization and earlier ones: we have a clear scientific understanding of the roots of the crisis and are thus in a better position to respond to it. Collapse is not inevitable. The big question we face is not a “why” but a “whether”: whether we will act effectively before it’s too late.

Brown also says, in the same context, that economic and social collapse was almost always preceded by a period of environmental decline. This indicates that there is generally a margin of time in which we can pull back from the brink. We’re now in that phase of decline, and the need to act promptly and decisively to preserve the world’s food system cannot be overemphasized. We’ve already delayed too long. At present close to a billion people suffer from chronic hunger and malnutrition. If the food system fails to produce enough food to feed the planet, millions more, mostly children, will be consigned to a life of perpetual want, even to death by starvation. In countries stricken with food shortages, social chaos will erupt and food riots will break out. Migration will increase from poor countries to more affluent ones, triggering a backlash of resentment. States in the poorest regions will totter and fail, perhaps unleashing more waves of violent terrorism.

Avoiding such a fate requires rapid changes to our energy system, a transition from an economy driven by fossil fuels to a leaner economy powered by benign sources of energy. At the same time, we must promote greater equity between the global North and South in a collaborative effort to end hunger everywhere. Such changes, however, could not be easily implemented on the basis of our present scale of values, which exalts profits and economic expansion even by ripping apart the natural systems on which the economy depends. Our culture will have to change in its fundamentals: from one that celebrates luxury, power, and consumption to one that honors sufficiency, generosity, social justice, and the integrity of the biosphere.

The problem of food security is exacerbated by the projected rise in global population from 7 billion to 9.3 billion people by 2050. A growing population exerts more pressure on the world’s food supply not only because there will be many more mouths to feed, but also because more of those mouths will be eating higher on the food chain. As people in developing economies rise in social status they choose a diet rich in meat and dairy over one based primarily on plants. Since it takes several pounds of grain to produce a pound of meat, grain stocks that would otherwise go to feed hungry people would instead be used to feed livestock in order to provide meat and dairy for the affluent. According to a recent report from the World Resources Institute, unless the affluent restrain their demand for animal products, worldwide food calories will need to increase by about 60 percent from 2006 levels if we’re to feed everyone adequately.

But while agriculture must be empowered to feed a larger population, it will have to employ methods of cultivation that minimize its negative impact on the environment. Modern industrial agriculture harms the environment in at least three ways: (1) by the degradation of ecosystems, particularly through deforestation and loss of biodiversity; (2) by its demands on the world’s sources of fresh water, 80 to 90% of which is used by agriculture; and (3) by emitting massive amounts of greenhouse gases, which aggravate climate change. At present, agriculture accounts for about 25% of greenhouse gas emissions. These include methane from livestock, nitrous oxide from fertilizer use, and carbon dioxide from machinery, transport, and land use change. Meat and dairy production emits far higher amounts of greenhouse gases than crop cultivation, ranging from 16 times more for beef to 4.6 times more for chicken. This provides another strong argument for reducing consumption of meat. More