Friday, July 25, 2014


"Farming near Klingerstown, Pennsylvania".
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
I'm currently reading The soil will save us!: how scientists, farmers, and foodies are healing the soil to save the planet by Kristin Ohlson, and while it's an interesting read, aimed at a general audience, I'm not entirely convinced by the title.
But this is not my review of Soil, but the title is serving as a jumping-off point for some other things I've been reading and thinking about. Such as how we're facing this massive increase in population over the rest of this century.
It seems we're expected to increase world population from six to eight or nine billion before we top out. And somehow we need to feed all these people, an accomplishment made all the more difficult by peak oil, global warming, and the question of equitable distribution. The argument is made by industrial agriculture advocates that without high-tech, capital intensive farming, we'll never be able to feed everyone.
But here's the thing; modern agriculture is not a solution. Hell, pre-1900 agriculture is not a solution. Agriculture is the problem. Not the only one, true, but approximately a fifth of the problem. It's not that global warming will impact our ability to grow food in different areas, it's that growing food is contributing to global warming.
The FAO reports that:
[...]estimates of greenhouse gas data show that emissions from agriculture, forestry and fisheries have nearly doubled over the past fifty years and could increase an additional 30 percent by 2050, without greater efforts to reduce them.
[...]Agricultural emissions from crop and livestock production grew from 4.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents* (CO2 eq) in 2001 to over 5.3 billion tonnes in 2011, a 14 percent increase.  The increase occurred mainly in developing countries, due to an expansion of total agricultural outputs.

Meanwhile, net GHG emissions due to land use change and deforestation registered a nearly 10 percent decrease over the 2001-2010 period, averaging some 3 billion tonnes CO2 eq/yr over the decade. This was the result of reduced levels of deforestation and increases in the amount of atmospheric carbon being sequestered in many countries.
* Carbon dioxide equivalents, or CO2 eq, is a metric used to compare emissions from different greenhouse gases based on their global warming potential.
image via Food and Agriculture Organization

 Around the world, up to 80 percent of the carbon sequestered in our soils has been released by agriculture, both traditional and industrial. Rather than being a net carbon capture, agriculture, by putting plough to soil, is a net carbon emitter. Add modern fertilizers and herbicide/pesticide production and you get a massive release of carbon to the atmosphere both from the invention of agriculture until the present, and the enormous pulse released since the Second World War.
There are methods by which agriculture can rebuild soil, but it is not a simple, single solution. It requires a wholesale abandonment of ten thousand years of soil-destructive practices--and farmers are not renowned for embracing change. After all, it's taken most of a century of destroying rural lifestyles, political action to move rural residents into the cities to become labour for manufacturing, radical reshaping of the economic structure to make industrial scale farming marginally viable, to get us to the point we are now.
Grass farmers, or microbe farmers, like Joel Salatin, are beginning to recognize that soil is an extremely complex system that, for several million years, sequestered carbon while producing food that, when consumed by large groups of herbivores, produced the conditions for continued, improved, soil growth. Breaking into the soil with a plough disrupt the complex systems that encourage plant growth, releasing carbon and causing soil depletion.
The picture at the top of this post looks bucolic, the way we think a farm should look. Wide fields planted in nice straight lines. But creating that farm means killing the soil.
This goes beyond the idea of organic growing. This requires a full re-think of the way we produce food on the land. There is hope, however. The people at the bleeding edge of these new processes are reporting higher caloric yields per acre, and positive results in growing more (richer, carbon-sequestering) soil.

No comments:

Post a Comment