Food Prospects

The world’s ability to feed itself is not secure, and the headline concerns are well-recognised:F18

Land: Demand for land is increasing due to population growth, the need to produce food in bulk for cities and their supermarkets, and the spread of the “western diet” based on animal products and highly processed foods. This is forcing local farmers to leave the land or find ways of subsisting on minimal areas, allowing little or no space for crop rotation and local habitats. It has also led to the invasion of natural ecosystems such as forests and peatlands, as well as of nations.F19

Water: Intense demand for water from underground reservoirs has depleted the supply. Extraction and redirection has led to the frequent drying-out of rivers such as the Yellow River, the Colorado River in the southwestern United States, and even the Aral Sea (now the Aralkum Desert).F20

Soil: Many soils have been exhausted of their organic matter and nutrients.F21

Energy: Much of the world’s agriculture has become dependent on fossil fuels for cultivation, the manufacture of fertilisers and pesticides, storage, drying, transport and retail. Depending on the steepness of the decline in oil and gas supplies there is a prospect of deep, and maybe permanent, food shortages when energy outages begin.F22

Food poverty: The dependence on food markets—as distinct from subsistence—and global focus on food commodity trade has put people at risk of famine owing to lack of purchasing power, even if food is available.F23

Climate: Extreme events, such as drought and flood, are already beginning to destroy large areas of agricultural land at critical stages in the harvest year.F24

Hybridisation: Hybrid seeds have led to the use of identical varieties in large regions by a global agricultural industry. They provide a remarkable hybrid vigour, and rising yields and consistent quality for international trade and multiple retailers, but have led to a loss of agricultural biodiversity and increased the risk of large-scale damage by pests and diseases (Genetic Modification).F25

Industrialisation and specialisation: The treatment of food production as an industrial process has made food producers dependent on ever-more-costly imports of seed, fertilisers, pesticides and equipment, forcing many local and small-scale farmers into crippling debt. It also calls for the planting of large areas with a single crop (monocropping), which is invariably at a high risk of failure, requiring costly measures to prevent it (Lean Food).F26

Depleted oceans: Overfishing is sharply reducing the value of oceans as a source of food.F27

The world’s food establishment is evidently in an uncomfortable situation. Conventional industrial agriculture is the short-lived product of cheap energy, enabling a small number of farmers, farm workers and industrial food processors to operate on a very large scale. Science takes the credit, but it is oil and gas that did it. And the intense competition to survive in this fuel-dependent market has made it necessary for farmers to make use of every method available to them, including industrially-produced fertilisers and pesticides and the elimination of natural ecosystems which stand in the way. Industrial agriculture brings the whole supply chain—from seed to mainstream supermarket checkout—under the commercial control of a few very large companies. It is without defences against the consequences of the coming energy-famine, and it will retreat before it. Yet where genetically modified crops have been used, the feasibility of converting from industrial agriculture to a less input-intensive regime will be reduced by depleted soil and super-persistent weeds; since genetic changes persist, it may even be impossible on any relevant timescale.F28

But it is darker than this. Let us look more closely at one aspect. We tend to think of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring as being a typical product of the 1960s, when the broad-spectrum ecological consequences of the organophosphate and organochlorate insecticides (DDT and the like) were not yet fully recognised, except by the people who lived close enough to nature to notice. Better now? No. It is just subtler now. There is no point in killing everything that moves when you need to kill only those species that are eating the crops. Modern pesticides aim to be highly specific in their targeting and systemic in their application: instead of being applied externally to the crops, where they will wash off in the rain or degrade in the sun, they are absorbed into the plant’s tissues, where they are poisonous to the pests but not to other animals such as bees and humans.

At least, that is the theory. But the design of toxins which are as picky as that about whose nervous system to destroy and whose to leave alone is difficult. It is also difficult to test them; it takes a long time for any effects to become apparent, especially in the case of larger animals. And the effects are subtle, studies have to look for effects that are harder to detect than that helpful indicator that something is wrong: sudden death.

 

Bee-killing neonicotinoids, and why it’s so hard to stop using them

The group of chemicals which has been most successful as a systemic pesticide is the neurotoxins (nerve poisons) known as the neonicotinoids. A survey from the industry’s research establishment finds that they are “the most important chemical class for the insecticide market”, thanks to their “target specificity [and the] relatively low risk for nontarget organisms”.F29

These features are important, since pollination by insects is essential to agricultural systems and other ecosystems alike. Yet bee-keepers in North America and Europe have observed that colony collapse—the disappearance of entire colonies of bees—is becoming common, raising the prospect of bees and their indispensable work of pollination going missing on a large scale.F30

The type of neonicotinoid on which most research has been done is imidacloprid, but . . .

All neonicotinoids have a similar chemical structure, are mainly used as systemic pesticides, show a high toxicity to bees, and affect the nervous systems of invertebrates in the same way.F31

Such findings have led many (very reasonably) to urge that the neonicotinoids should be banned.

And yet, the nature of large-scale monoculture, lacking any form of plant life other than the crop itself, means that the crop is intensely vulnerable to pests, since there is no local ecosystem to support the life-cycles of their predators. And if neonicotinoids were not used, what should be used instead? No one would want a return to the organochlorates, yet banning the neonicotinoids which underpin this system (and equivalent pesticides), is at present beyond the reach of feasible policy.F32

So agriculture has got itself into a technological trap. The agricultural establishment depends on these chemicals; as their advocates in the industry rightly protest, it cannot do without them. On the other hand, continuing to use them has its problems, too. A steep decline in pollinating insects—‘peak bees’—would, like peak oil, raise questions about whether our society on its present scale can be fed.

And there are other unknowns here. It could be a cause for concern that we don’t know whether the neurotoxins in food we have ourselves been eating for twenty years are as harmless as had been hoped, or whether they may now be well advanced in the work of confusing our own nervous systems. The causes of several neurological disorders in humans are still poorly understood. There are also unknowns as to the effect of neurotoxins on the nervous systems of the birds and other predators that feed on the pests—almost exactly the problem that was raised by Carson half a century ago. The bees may have something to tell us.

The trap: once a technology has started down a particular route, the logic leads it, step by step, in a direction which would not have been followed if there was choice in the matter—that is, if it had been designed in response to the question, “How do we want our food to be produced?” It was never intended to be like this. It is not, then, the neonicotinoids that should be banned. It is the system that depends on them. True, that system will break down rapidly when the energy shortages start, but it would be a good idea before then to have made some progress towards a less toxic and inefficient system of food production—putting this dismal accumulation of unintended consequences out of its misery before it crashes, taking us with it.

And yet that dependency on the fossil fuels and their products is now being ramped up even further, as if no one had the slightest inkling that any problems of energy, climate, fertility, toxicity or the control of disease could conceivably be in prospect: the new generation of hypergiant (2,000–cow) dairy farms, for instance. They are wholly dependent on oil and gas for nitrogen fertilisers and biocides for the feed, for transport and waste disposal, for every detail of their work. They are highly susceptible to disease, and rely on routine antibiotics, which will quickly and urgently be supplemented by genetically engineered elaborations as a non-negotiable necessity. And, by pricing milk from the remaining mixed farms out of the market, they are forcing them, too, into the same dependencies. Concentration into just a few giant food production centres removes all defences against the spread of trouble, which will ripple through into the wider industry, giving our security against famine the resilience of a house of cards.F33

The key to all this is to recognise that the driving force behind industrial agriculture is not (as is usually claimed), the need to feed the world’s population of 7 billion or more. Indeed, as a way of providing food, industrial agriculture is inefficient: the use of giant-scale standardisation on single crops is not a way to get the maximum yield per acre of land, but to get the maximum yield per worker; the machinery and chemicals are intended to depopulate the agricultural landscape. Those workers that do remain are a quaint rearguard in retreat from the robots.F34

It is true that the food produced by a farming culture that had not done everything it could think of to eliminate labour would be more expensive, but that would be reflected in higher minimum wages, which are based on the cost of subsistence. In equilibrium a higher cost of food would make no difference to living standards other than providing uncontaminated food, rich with the complex nutrients provided by a resilient ecosystem which is not on the point of collapse. And we would have a farming economy which did not have to get involved in the fine-tuning of neurotoxins in order to provide you with a pizza, nor to treat animals reared for their meat with a depth of contempt which shames our age.

There is the option, but it is a radical one (Kaikaku), of turning agriculture in a different direction: breaking free from the model of supergiant, centralised production which is forced by competition to stop at nothing in getting rid of human labour and other pests. Of moving on from a culture which traps even its most successful participants into a routine which they may profoundly loathe, but in which they have no options. The claim that industrial agriculture is the only way of feeding a large population is about as scientific as a belief in Creationism—and far more damaging. The real task—to maintain a secure supply of quality non-poisonous, food and to sustain an environment capable of supporting it—has been buried by an industry weighed down with preoccupations other than those of food and soil.F35

This is not a situation in which technical advances will help—except to postpone the shock of the release stage in the Wheel of Life, so that the break when it comes is as catastrophic as possible. Lean Food suggests some of the forms that radical but non-catastrophic transformation could take.

 

Related entries:

Genetic Modification, Climacteric.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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