A Big Animal That Lives On Land And In Water Food Security – How Will We Grow Enough Food?

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Food Security – How Will We Grow Enough Food?

Around the middle of 2011, world population clocks tell us that there will be 7 billion people on earth; meaning 7,000,000,000 chemical engines that require a minimum of 2,000 calories a day in food to avoid starvation.

The calorific value of our digestive system rice and wheat, the main starch for most of us, is about 340 per 100 g. If we ate only grains to meet our daily calorie needs, men would lose 290 kg and women 214 kg in a year.

So we need 1.76 million every day if we were all vegetarians. Of course, many of us enjoy meat. The efficiency of energy transfer from plant to livestock to us means that we need approximately three times as many plant calories to provide animal protein.

Round up some carnivore numbers and ratios, and every day farmland must produce the equivalent of 3 million metric tons of usable grain; over a billion tons every year.

Suppose 7 billion was the peak and the population was stable for a while. Maintaining food production will become more difficult every year because nutrient depletion, land degradation, desertification and lack of irrigation water are spreading across much of our productive land. Demographers suggest that global population growth will slow, but not until the total reaches somewhere between 9 and 12 billion souls. The numbers could then drop over time to perhaps 6 billion by the end of the millennium.

The challenge for this generation is planning to overcome this population bump without starving.

Imagine the fights we’ll have if food supplies run out. Our history is one of war and conquest, the proximate cause of which may be the desires of selfish empire builders, but ultimately it is about land, natural resources, and growing enough food.

It would also be reasonable to go over the hump without stripping the earth of its ability to support life.

This challenge is real. Finding enough food is a daily reality for many people in the developing world, but food production requires solutions from everyone, even those of us who are well-nourished.

So what can be done?

One solution is to keep throwing technology at the problem. For some time, farmers have used artificial fertilizers, genetics and irrigation methods developed by scientists to prevent yield declines. These agronomic efforts have produced spectacular results in the short term, especially the green revolution of the 1970s.

Recently, more high-tech has been added to the mix. Today we can see crops grown on laser-leveled fields with computer-managed irrigation to synchronize with the plants’ water demand and fertilizer applied precisely from holes triggered by on-board GPS systems linked to maps of yield. This is the ultimate high input system and can work extremely well where the soil is suitable for precise management of nutrient input and uptake. The Dutch have been particularly good at perfecting these systems.

This intensive approach to farming suits us well. We are very fond of arranging technology that reduces direct human effort and increases the quantity and reliability of return even though the initial investment is prohibitive for living systems.

High-tech agribusiness also sits well in our economies. It generates a profitable product and uses multiple suppliers and service providers to distribute economic returns across the market.

Given all these benefits, one option seems attractive and we should pursue it, especially where soils, climate and management capacity are suitable.

But technology is not a universal solution.

Much of agriculture is low input relying on nature to provide production largely unaided. It will be difficult to provide technological solutions for agricultural land managed with little or no external input, because farmers who rely on natural soil regeneration have no alternative. They lack the resources to do it any other way. However, these lands must produce continuously to support the growing human population.

The solution in these soils is to help nature achieve natural regeneration and efficient recycling of nutrients. This means helping the land to regenerate its natural fertility.

Maintaining production in low-input agriculture has been the holy grail of agricultural development work for many decades. Under the guise of “sustainable land management,” organizations from the FAO and the World Bank to local organic cooperatives have sought ways to achieve sustainability.

What has been missing from many of the grandest schemes is the simplicity of the sustainable solution. All it requires are practices that keep carbon in the soil.

So how are we going to grow enough food?

We will have to apply technology where we can. Science will help and we can’t be too careful about issues like genetic modification.

However, smart application of technology is essential. It cannot work everywhere and it is unwise to create large tracts of monoculture crops even if they are managed by computers. Nature has a bad habit of substituting similarity for diversity. And in this case for diversity read pests and diseases.

However, the big solution will be to put carbon back into the soil where it has been depleted and also to increase soil carbon levels wherever we can.

Soil maintained at optimal carbon levels stores and exchanges nutrients efficiently, has good structure that supports plants and allows roots to develop, and conserves moisture as well as drainage. In short, soil carbon promotes plant growth.

The initial solution to growing enough food on low-input lands is to use carbon markets to reward farmers who store carbon in the soil. Paying farmers to farm carbon will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and even sequester some of the CO2 from the atmosphere into the soil. Greenhouse gas emitters can buy the greenhouse credit generated by low-input farmers.

In the end, although the greenhouse benefit is not the real value of the investment; the real return is growing enough food.

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