Where Will Our Food Come From?
First published in Common Ground Magazine, 2005.
Peaches and blueberries, apples and plums, tis the season of harvest, and amply fed tums.
But there’s a cloud looming on the farming horizon which we need to address, before it turns our harvest celebrations into something a bit less comforting.
In the summer of 2003, when Europe sweltered through a month long heat wave, the Ukraine lost 75% of its harvest. When the temperature goes above 35?C, most plants simply stop growing. Overall, Europe lost 32 million tonnes of grain that summer, the equivalent of half the US wheat crop. As the temperatures rise because of climate change, we can expect to see more such losses.
At the same time, our population is growing by 74 million people a year. That’s two additional Canadas and two Irelands every year, and they all need to eat.
For the past 50 years, modern farming has shown an amazing ability to increase production in pace with the growing population. From 2000 to 2003 it failed to do so, and the world’s food surplus fell dramatically, but in 2004 the harvest bounced back with a record 2049 million tons, 9% higher than 2003.
We should not get complacent, however. Of the three fertilizers used in chemical farming, nitrogen depends on natural gas for its synthesis from atmospheric nitrogen, and the world’s gas supply will peak by 2020, and be gone by 2060. Phosphate and potash both need oil for mining, processing and trucking, and the world’s oil supply will be gone by 2030. Most pesticides are also made from oil and gas.
The water tables are also falling in several of the world’s grain-growing areas - the North China Plan, most of India, and in the USA, the southern Great Plains and the southwest. No water, no food.
Enough! This is the kind of stuff that gets environmentalists a bad name: gloom, doom, and worst case scenarios. But let’s assume there will be a global food crunch, as temperatures rise, water tables fall, oil and gas become too expensive to use, and the world population keeps rising. Where will our food come from, then?
The answers lie in our own backyards, and in a worldwide shift to organic production. If Cuba can do it, what’s to stop the rest of us?
As the food crisis deepens and the price of oil keeps rising, the cost of food will go up, making it more attractive to grow local organic food. As oil-driven cars and trucks disappear off our streets, making way for bicycles, biofuelled buses and electric vehicles, the air will become cleaner too, making people feel better about growing food in the city.
The next time you wander around your neighbourhood, make a mental note of how much land could grow food. It’s everywhere! In Victoria, which prides itself on being the City of Gardens, I estimate that only one garden in five has much beyond a lawn.
Imagine the return of farmers markets where local growers could take their crops to market, and urban food cooperatives where they could combine crops to supply companies such as Small Potatoes Urban Delivery or Saanich Organics, which do weekly home deliveries of fresh organic produce.
When we grow food organically, there’s no need for pesticides and fertilizers, and the food is healthier, too. A recent study of 180 farms in Britain showed that organic farms are also better for wildlife: they contain 85% more plant species, 33% more bats, 17% more spiders and 5% more birds.
Could the prairies go organic? Of course they could; many farmers already are. The farms would be smaller, and there would be more people working, so rural life would benefit as homesteads grew into rural ecovillages. In Europe, several nations help farmers make the switch with an organic transition subsidy, financed by a tax on pesticides and fertilizers. The yields from organic farming can be just as good as yields from chemical farming, so there’s no need to worry about declining harvests.
Finally, two other changes would make our food go a long way further. First, we should stop wasting so much (and eating so much). A recent 8-year study by a University of Arizona archaeologist has documented that more than 40% of the food grown in America is either lost or thrown away, in farms, factories, supermarkets, restaurants, and in our own homes.
And secondly, if we stopped eating meat, we could produce far more food, since a meat-based diet requires seven times more land than a plant-based diet. More than half of America’s farmland is devoted to cattle. A meat-eater needs 3.25 acres of farmland. A vegetarian needs 0.5 acres. A vegan needs 0.16 acres. I rest my case.