Peak soil: industrial civilisation is on the verge of eating itself
New research on land, oil, bees and climate change points to imminent global food crisis without urgent action
19 October, 2014
A new report says that the world will need to more than double food production over the next 40 years to feed an expanding global population. But as the world's food needs are rapidly increasing, the planet's capacity to produce food confronts increasing constraints from overlapping crises that, if left unchecked, could lead to billions facing hunger.
The UN projects that global population will grow from today's 7 billion to 9.3 billion by mid-century. According to the report released last week by the World Resources Institute (WRI), "available worldwide food calories will need to increase by about 60 percent from 2006 levels" to ensure an adequate diet for this larger population. At current rates of food loss and waste, by 2050 the gap between average daily dietary requirements and available food would approximate "more than 900 calories (kcal) per person per day."
The report identifies a complex, interconnected web of environmental factors at the root of this challenge - many of them generated by industrial agriculture itself. About 24% of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, encompassing methane from livestock, nitrous oxide from fertilisers, carbon dioxide from onsite machinery and fertiliser production, and land use change.
Industrial agriculture, the report finds, is a major contributor to climate change which, in turn is triggering more intense "heat waves, flooding and shifting precipitation patterns", with "adverse consequences for global crop yields."
Indeed, global agriculture is heavily water intensive, accounting for 70 per cent of all freshwater use. The nutrient run off from farm fields can create "dead zones" and "degrade coastal waters around the world", and as climate change contributes to increased water stress in crop-growing regions, food production will suffer further.
Other related factors will also kick in, warns the report: deforestation from regional drying and warming, the effect of rising sea levels on cropland productivity in coastal regions, and growing water demand from larger populations.
Yet the report points out that a fundamental problem is the impact of human activities on the land itself, estimating that:
"... land degradation affects approximately 20% of the world's cultivated areas".
Over the past 40 years, about 2 billion hectares of soil - equivalent to 15% of the Earth's land area (an area larger than the United States and Mexico combined) - have been degraded through human activities, and about 30% of the world's cropland have become unproductive. But it takes on average a whole century just to generate a single millimetre of topsoil lost to erosion.
Soil is therefore, effectively, a non-renewable but rapidly depleting resource.
We are running out of time. Within just 12 years, the report says, conservative estimates suggest that high water stress will afflict all the main food basket regions in North and South America, west and east Africa, central Europe and Russia, as well as the Middle East, south and south-east Asia.
Unfortunately, though, the report overlooks another critical factor - the inextricable link between oil and food. Over the last decade, food and fuel prices have been heavily correlated. This is no accident.
Last week, a new World Bank report examining five different food commodities - corn, wheat, rice, soybean, and palm oil - confirmed that oil prices are the biggest contributor to rising food prices. The report, based on a logarithm designed to determine the impact of any given factor through regression analysis, concluded that oil prices were even more significant than the ratio of available world food stocks relative to consumption levels, or commodity speculation. The Bank thus recommends controlling oil price movements as a key to tempering food price inflation.
The oil-food price link comes as no surprise. A University of Michigan study points out that every major point in the industrial food system - chemical fertilisers, pesticides, farm machinery, food processing, packaging and transportation - is dependent on high oil and gas inputs. Indeed, 19% of the fossil fuels that prop up the American economy go to the food system, second only to cars.
Back in 1940, for every calorie of fossil fuel energy used, 2.3 calories of food energy were produced. Now, the situation has reversed: it takes 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce just one calorie of food energy. As food writer and campaigner Michael Pollan remarked in the New York Times:
"Put another way, when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases."
But high oil prices are here to stay - and according to a UK Ministry of Defence assessment this year, could rise as high as $500 per barrel over the next 30 years.
All this points to a rapidly approaching convergence point between an increasingly self-defeating industrial food system, and an inexorably expanding global population.
But the point of convergence could come far sooner due to the wild card that is the catastrophic decline in honeybees.
Over the last 10 years, US and European beekeepers have reported annual hive losses of 30% or higher. Last winter, however, saw many US beekeepers experiencing losses of 40 to 50% more - with some reporting losses as high as 80 to 90%. Given that a third of food eaten worldwide depends on pollinators, particularly bees, the impact on global agriculture could be catastrophic. Studies have blamed factors integral to industrial methods - pesticides, parasitic mites, disease, nutrition, intensive farming, and urban development.
But the evidence specifically fingering widely used pesticides has long been overwhelming. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), for instance, has highlighted the role of neonicotinoids - much to the British government's chagrin - justifying the EU's partial ban of three common pesticides.
Now in its latest scientific warning put out last week, the EFSA highlights how another pesticide, fipronil, poses a "high acute risk" for honeybees. The study also noted large information gaps in scientific studies preventing a comprehensive assessment of risks to pollinators.
In short, the global food predicament faces a perfect storm of intimately related crises that are already hitting us now, and will worsen over coming years without urgent action.
It is not that we lack answers. Last year, the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change chaired by former chief government scientist Prof Sir John Beddington - who previously warned of a perfect storm of food, water and energy shortages within 17 years - set out seven concrete, evidence-based recommendations to generate a shift toward more sustainable agriculture.
So far, however, governments have largely ignored such warnings even as new evidence has emerged that Beddington's timeline is too optimistic. A recent University of Leeds-led study found that severe climate-driven droughts in Asia - especially in China, India, Pakistan and Turkey - within the next 10 years would dramatically undermine maize and wheat production, triggering a global food crisis.
When we factor into this picture soil erosion, land degradation, oil prices, bee colony collapse, and population growth, the implications are stark: industrial civilisation is on the verge of eating itself - if we don't change course, this decade will go down in history as the beginning of the global food apocalypse.
• Dr Nafeez Ahmed is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development and author of A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation: And How to Save It among other books. Follow him on Twitter @nafeezahmed