Thursday, November 14, 2013


Limits to Agriculture in the 21st Century

Two key twentieth-century inventions have made it possible to feed the current human population on this planet. The first, which Alan Weisman  (Countdown) calls the most important invention in the modern era, is the Haber-Bosch process (1909), which has enabled modern farmers to fix atmospheric nitrogen, vastly increasing the amount of nitrogen available to plant growth from what Nature has bequeathed us through the use of legumes. The second is Norman Borlaug's research (Nobel Peace Prize, 1970) leading to a dwarf disease and mildew-resistant strain of wheat, ushering in the Green Revolution, which has enabled poor Third World farmers to vastly increase their yields. India has gone from being a big importer of food in the 1960's to a net exporter now, thanks to the new strains of wheat. These two developments have extended our numbers from 1.75 billion in 1910 to 7 billion today.

Being able to fix atmospheric nitrogen has enabled us to feed 7 billion people, along with new seed strains from the steady, Herculean labors of Borlaug and his research associates. But nitrogen fertilizer is very costly in terms of CO2 use, and its regular overuse by farmers has created another transgressed boundary, the Nitrogen Cycle. Now, with the prospect of 9-10 billion by the end of this century, GM seeds put us on the threshold of making the next leap in yields, keeping within the Land Use limits that have us crowding the other species in the Cenozoic Ark. This is because GM seeds enable twice the grain yields of organic farming. This is the most important claim in the book. And if, as Lynas suggests, biotech researchers can find a way to induce grainseeds to fix their own nitrogen, that next leap would be assured.

Most of the planetary boundaries are involved with food production, which is not surprising, since feeding our species is the biggest single operation with which we task our host. Climate Change (CO2 emissions, but also methane); nitrogen cycle, land use, freshwater use, toxins, and of course biodiversity loss, which the Planetary Boundaries group ranks as number one, just ahead of climate change. Lynas argues that industrial ag, with the help of GMO's and intelligent use of market capitalism, is far more likely to feed the mass of humanity than traditional agriculture. In addition to huge conservation of land, he points to savings in freshwater usage, though two other boundaries don't fare as well, the nitrogen cycle and toxins. In these cases, though, he feels that new GM crops can help reduce both fertilizer and insecticide/herbicide applications. And he thinks many of the approaches of organic farming, including intercropping and biological pest control, can help in concert with GMO's.

Lynas accepts the importance of thinking ecologically, and grants the fact that this is now a matter of regular policy, business, and political concern - a huge victory for the environmental movement. But as activists, Greens tend not just to educate, but to prescribe, and this is where Lynas believes they once again go wrong in terms of agriculture. Since he was once one of the key anti-GM voices in the UK, he understands the dynamics well. As the journalistic voice of the 29 scientists in the Planetary Boundaries group, he extends the frame of ecological thinking, giving us a more complex and factually accurate basis for judging what are the appropriate tools and methods. For me, this means I must cooly take into account all the boundaries, not just accept the bundle of received opinions intertwined with deeply-held values and gut passions which have guided me heretofore.

I am a longtime organic advocate and organic gardener. And definitely anti-GMO. More than three decades ago, reading Jacques Ellul, I was struck by the gravity of the genetic encoding issue. If we started messing with that, I felt, we were crossing a line, eating not only from the Forbidden Tree, but creating an entirely new tree from which we would eat still more. Monstrous hubris, no?. Now we are routinely playing god, modifying the gene sequences to fit our needs, in agriculture as well as medicine. Monsanto, the biggest player in agricultural seedstock and chemical weed management, has recently won the World Food Prize (mistakenly called the “Nobel Prize for Agriculture”). Yet Monsanto is Greens' most hated agriculture corporation, the model for all that is wrong in industrial agriculture. If Lynas is right, I must be willing to rethink the once-sacred boundary of plants' genetic codes.

Beyond the issue of organic purity, what about the huge human population all these agricultural breakthroughs has afforded? Have we not already transgressed the number of human beings that the biosphere can sustainably support? Lynas insists that there is no numerical boundary for our population. Rather, we can reproduce as much as we would like as long as the nine boundaries are respected. But this is the man who cheerily says we have “only” broken three of the boundaries. Borlaug, on the other hand, lived under the Malthusian shadow. He felt his discoveries would provide a “temporary success in mankind's war against hunger and deprivation,” a breathing space in which to deal with the “Population Monster.”

My own boundary for human population, a gut number after reading many accounts from anthropological and green farming perspectives (while dismissing futurists and demographers, whose numbers I simply could not abide) is around 2 billion people – where we were at the dawn of modern agriculture. My guiding assumptions as I came up with this figure were principally using organic farming, leaving enough habitat for a significant portion of our Cenozoic cousins to survive, and enough fresh water for our species' activities, within reasonable limits that would preserve water for the other 8-10 million species. No matter that Donella Meadows, lead author of Limits to Growth, figured we could feed 10-12 billion. Bless her heart, she was sharp, but died an incurable optimist. That was not the kind of world I wanted to live in.

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I do not believe it is true that the Haber-Bosch and Ostvald processes, which are used in combination to manufacture nitrates cheaply and in quantity, “vastly increas[ed] the amount of nitrogen available to plant growth from what Nature has bequeathed us through the use of legumes.”

It would be truer to say that these processes temporarily enabled farmers to maximize fertility without recycling the urine and feces of the animals and people that consume their crops, and controlling soil-depleting runoff, the way that nature does. The urine and feces, which contain the nitrate, phosphate, potassium, and other nutrients, are instead “thrown away” into sewers and streams, to eventually wind up in the ocean where they cannot be effectively recovered.

Nowadays, we compound the problem by mixing our human and animal wastes with toxics from our industries and households, thus guaranteeing their uselessness to agriculture.

Farmers’ reliance on commercial nitrates adds seriously to the rate of CO2 build-up in the atmosphere. But a very-probably-more-serious near-term threat to the world’s artificial-fertilizer-dependent agriculture is the phosphate issue. The mining industry has said there is still enough phosphate in the ground for humans to go on extracting it for centuries to come. It is in their commercial interest to say so: the equivalent of global warming denial by the petrochemical industry. But many scientists have been saying for decades that the readily-minable phosphate, like the easily-extractable petroleum, is fast running out.

I spoke about this to Friends back in the late 1980s, but there is more up-to-date data available now.

U.S. domestic phosphate production is expected to peak just twenty years from now, after which the U.S. will be as much at the mercy of phosphate exporters, mainly China, just as it is presently at the mercy of petroleum exporters.

Cordell, Drangert and White, writing in the May 2009 issue of Global Environmental Change, predicted that global “peak phosphorus” would arrive around 2040 AD. Jeremy Grantham, a business investment strategist who has compiled a very nice track record, especially in the prediction of economic crises and crashes (he can be Googled) takes the Cordell et al. forecast seriously and worked with Business Insider to create a pictorial presentation for dummies which you can look at and share as you feel moved.

Natasha Gilbert, reporting on the topic in the November 9, 2009 online issue of Nature, consulted with a wider range of scientists and gave a wider range of predictions. What she has is important because it underscores how little we know for certain.

If the Cordell et al. forecast is right, then forecasts about how humans will be affected by greenhouse warming after about 2035 are rather beside the point, because by then we will probably be using chemical, biological, and thermonuclear weapons on each other in real-life hunger games. We may fervently hope Cordell et al. are wrong!

But either way, it is clear that there is much more involved in the future of agriculture than nitrates, hybrid seeds, and accelerating climate change, and that the transgression of boundaries is a far more serious issue than Lynas imagines.

Soil erosion, topsoil carbon and mineral depletion, and soil structure destruction are big parts of the overall agricultural picture, too, but that would require a much longer discussion, and I don’t know that I can manage one right now.
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