Peak water, soil and food

On this page:

  1. Water crisis
  2. Phosphorus crisis
  3. Feeding cars instead of people?
  4. Industrial farming requires oil
  5. Industrial farming kills the soil
  6. We’re losing 100,000 kilometres a year!
  7. Even poorer farmers are destroying their soil
  8. Something is up — the papers are worried about soil!
  9. Global warming will reduce crops by 10% per degree!
  10. Suburbanisation — paving over the farmlands 10 times more than urbanisation
  11. More great papers: the Earth Policy Institute

1. Water crisis

Droughts kill crops, period. So in an era of shifting climate, how reliable is that once abundant accumulation of renewable freshwater we simply call the river going? It turns out the global water crisis is approaching biblical proportions.

As Lester Brown reports:

Global freshwater use tripled during the second half of the twentieth century…Rivers are running dry, lakes are disappearing, and water tables are dropping… With the projected addition of 2.6 billion people to the global population by 2050, most of them in countries where water tables are already falling and wells are going dry, water shortages will likely become more commonplace and more severe. Absent a global effort to quickly slow population growth and to use water more efficiently, water shortages may translate into food shortages in more and more countries.

  • Many of our main agricultural bread baskets are suffering a fresh water crisis.
  • Major rivers around the world often do not reach the sea (Lester Brown).
  • America probably experienced ‘peak water’ in the 1970’s (Arstechnica).
  • More than 1.2 billion people lack access to clean drinking water (UN).
  • More recently, a majority of the world’s important groundwater reserves known as ‘fossil water’ have been overused and recent drought and local climate changes have depleted them further. Many are backup water sources for when the rains fail, only now these are failing as well. US Intelligence reports indicate this could cause conflicts and failed states (Guardian 2014).

2. Phosphorus crisis

Put simply, every time we flush our toilets we flush phosphorus out to sea, and it is pretty much permanent. My peak phosphorus page explores how to recycle the phosphorus we have left, and how we might even recover some of the phosphorus we’ve already flushed out to sea. In summary: we must recycle sewage. When we do so, seafood will return some phosphorus from the sea, and we can also use seaweed fertilisers as a top up.

3. Feeding cars instead of people?

Growing crops for fuel instead of food is immoral in a world with billions of hungry people. The only biomass fuels we can consider using are from marginal lands or agricultural waste. Turning fuel into food and feeding SUV’s and 4WD’s instead of people is immoral. I discuss this dilemma further on my biofuels page.

4. Industrial farming requires oil

One of the first things I ever read about peak oil explained the currently important role oil has in our food production. The article Eating Fossil Fuels burned into my mind the fact that we rely on enormous energy consumption to force our food to grow. This was the article that first introduced me to one startling statistic: that it takes 10 calories of oil and gas energy to grow just 1 calorie of food energy!

Today’s agriculture depends on fertilisers made from oil (and gas) in many ways. The ironically named Green Revolution consumes a huge amount of energy mining and applying the 3 main fertilisers known as NPK, which are Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potash. Nitrogen is ‘mined’ from the air using natural gas in the Haber Bosch process, which sucks Nitrogen from the air and fixes it to the hydrogen in the gas. (Natural gas is another petroleum product which could peak in the next 10 years – according to Shell!).

Once mined these fertilisers are then transported hundreds or thousands of miles to where we grow our food, where they are spread by plane or tractor. The crops are often watered with diesel-operated pumps. The food is then harvested with massive agricultural combine harvesters — which these days house the driver in a high air-conditioned cockpit, more like the pilot of a 747 than a tractor!

Once harvested and washed, dried, and packed the goods are freighted all over the country and even internationally. This uses even more oil. Now you can visualise how it takes us 10 calories of oil and gas energy to grow just 1 calorie of food!

References:
Green Revolution by wikipedia
Earth Policy: Oil and Food: A Rising Security Challenge (May 2005)
Eating Fossil Fuels by From the Wilderness.
International Soil Reference and Information Centre (ISRIC)

We can replace all the energy inputs in this system with clean, nuclear-waste eating breeder reactors and hydrogen harvesters (or even some other synthetic fuel). But when are we going to start, and how much damage are we doing to our soils with such heavy use of chemicals in the first place?

5. Industrial farming kills the soil

The wiki says: It is estimated that up to 40% of the world’s agricultural land is seriously degraded.

Industrial farming involves deep ploughing of the earth and heavy use of fertilisers and pesticides to basically force food to grow in dead soil. The dirt may as well be cotton wool with chemical additives. It kills off soil micro-organisms and makes us rely on chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The so-called ‘green revolution’ is turning once fertile farming belts into dry soils that simply blow away in the wind.  We are losing 100 thousand square km of arable land each year!

As the wiki on soil retrogression and degradation says:-

Lastly, use of herbicides leaves the ground naked between each crop. New cultural practices, such as mechanization also increases the risks of erosion. Fertilization by mineral manures rather than organic manure gradually destructures the soil. Many scientists observed a gradual decrease of soil organic matter content in soils, as well as a decrease of soil biological activity (in particular, in relation to chemical uses).

As the BBC puts it:

….The excess comes from fertilisers running off farmland, from livestock manure, and from other human activities. It is changing the composition of species in ecosystems, reducing soil fertility, depleting the ozone layer, intensifying climate change, and creating dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and other near-coastal seas….

Food security comes at a high price. In any case, it is a security many can only envy.
BBC November 2004 – Can the planet feed us?

6. We’re losing 100,000 kilometres a year!

As the Arable Land Wiki says:

Of the earth’s 148,000,000 km² (57 million square miles) of land, approximately 31,000,000 km² (12 million square miles) are arable; however, arable land is currently being lost at the rate of over 100,000 km² (38,610 square miles) per year.

7. Even poorer farmers are destroying their soils

Ancient slash and burn agricultural practices and global warming to destroy soil at a global level. As the erosion wiki puts it:

Approximately 40% of the world’s agricultural land is seriously degraded.[5] According to the UN, an area of fertile soil the size of Ukraine is lost every year because of drought, deforestation and climate change.[6] In Africa, if current trends of soil degradation continue, the continent might be able to feed just 25% of its population by 2025, according to UNU‘s Ghana-based Institute for Natural Resources in Africa.[7]

As the IAEA explains of Africa:

Desertification has left its greatest impact on Africa, where two-thirds of the continent today is desert or drylands. Estimates of African desertification show that 74% of rangeland, 61% of rain-fed cropland, and 18% of irrigated land are severely affected in the 33 countries of the region.

The sad practice of ‘single serve’ farming known as slash and burn is an ancient means of agriculture that may have worked on a smaller scale for primitive man, but cannot be maintained on as large a scale as it is being used today. In developing and 3rd world nations where poverty reigns and families are large, forests are burnt down for farmland, and the soil is ploughed up and eventually washes away.

Between 200 to 500 million people farm this way, mainly in the tropics, which is devastating rare rainforests. But as we will see in the ecosystems crisis, this does not just destroy forests and create ‘single serve’ farming of the soil, leaving a new area open to erosion and desertificsation, but it also wipes out ecosystems and habitats for rare species.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) publishes the Global Environmental Outlook (GEO) report. The GEO 2000 states:

There is a lack of reliable data on land degradation but it is likely that soil degradation has affected some 1 900 million hectares of land worldwide (UNEP/ISRIC 1991). The largest area affected, about 550 million hectares, is in Asia and the Pacific. In China alone, between 1957 and 1990, the area of arable land was reduced by an area equal to all the cropland in Denmark, France, Germany and the Netherlands combined, mainly because of land degradation (ESCAP 1993)….

…FAO projections for food supplies by region (FAO 1996) suggest that future problems will be concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and that chronic under-nutrition is expected to affect 11 per cent of the population, or 637 million people in these countries in the year 2010. The countries projected to suffer from serious shortfalls in food supply are also those faced with rapidly growing populations and urbanization, low productivity agriculture, high debt and insufficient wealth to import food. Food availability in all other regions is projected to be adequate by the year 2010, as agricultural production growth is expected to keep pace with growing food requirements…. more from the GEO 2000

Other References:
Agriculture’s environmental problems: — Wikipedia
Slash and burn — Wikipedia
Desertification — Wikipedia
Erosion — Wikipedia
Arable land — Wikipedia
People and planet documents this trend in historical terms.
Peak Soil by Culture Change
Earth Policy Institute: Population Growth Leading to Land Hunger (January 2003)
The World Clock — calculated from UN information — tracks the rate of population growth as the world’s arable land decreases by 1 hectare every 7 seconds.

8. Something is up — the papers are worried about soil!

National Geographic — Our Good earth, the Soil beneath our feet!

Unfortunately, compaction is just one, relatively small piece in a mosaic of interrelated problems afflicting soils all over the planet. In the developing world, far more arable land is being lost to human-induced erosion and desertification, directly affecting the lives of 250 million people. In the first—and still the most comprehensive—study of global soil misuse, scientists at the International Soil Reference and Information Centre (ISRIC) in the Netherlands estimated in 1991 that humankind has degraded more than 7.5 million square miles of land. Our species, in other words, is rapidly trashing an area the size of the United States and Canada combined.

New York Times: Grains Gone Wild!

April 2008
…First, there’s the march of the meat-eating Chinese — that is, the growing number of people in emerging economies who are, for the first time, rich enough to start eating like Westerners. Since it takes about 700 calories’ worth of animal feed to produce a 100-calorie piece of beef, this change in diet increases the overall demand for grains.

Second, there’s the price of oil. Modern farming is highly energy-intensive: a lot of B.T.U.’s go into producing fertilizer, running tractors and, not least, transporting farm products to consumers. With oil persistently above $100 per barrel, energy costs have become a major factor driving up agricultural costs….

…But it’s not clear how much can be done. Cheap food, like cheap oil, may be a thing of the past. (more)

International Herald Tribune
March 2008

That quest is taking on new urgency at a time when the global population is expanding by roughly 75 million people each year and creating ever-greater demand for water from cities and towns, even as farmers are growing more crops for food, grain-fed livestock and fuels.The result is unprecedented pressure on natural resources, and on water in particular, at a time when extreme weather conditions linked to climate change are creating more severe droughts than in the past.

Scientists, companies and governments are responding with a variety of projects to lessen water demand, but they face a race against time. (more)

New York Times: An Oil Quandary: Costly Fuel Means Costly Calories

January 2008
….This is the other oil shock. From India to Indiana, shortages and soaring prices for palm oil, soybean oil and many other types of vegetable oils are the latest, most striking example of a developing global problem: costly food.

The food price index of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, based on export prices for 60 internationally traded foodstuffs, climbed 37 percent last year. That was on top of a 14 percent increase in 2006, and the trend has accelerated this winter.

In some poor countries, desperation is taking hold. Just in the last week, protests have erupted in Pakistan over wheat shortages, and in Indonesia over soybean shortages. Egypt has banned rice exports to keep food at home, and China has put price controls on cooking oil, grain, meat, milk and eggs.

According to the F.A.O., food riots have erupted in recent months in Guinea, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen….(more)

Drought, population and biofuels threaten food supplies
The AGE (Melbourne) January 2008

HUMANITY is eating more food than it is producing.

As world food prices soar to record levels, scientists are warning that global food supplies are rapidly diminishing due to water shortages, fiercer and more intense droughts, soil loss, increased land competition from crops grown for biofuel and humanity’s apparently insatiable appetite for meat.

According to leading science writer Julian Cribb, the greatest challenge this century will be to double global food production with less land, less water and less nutrients — all in drier and hotter conditions.

Speaking yesterday at a Melbourne conference, Professor Cribb said that while public awareness of climate change had grown exponentially, the world had remained relatively ignorant of the fact it was entering a prolonged period of food shortages…..(more)

Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute puts it this way:

The eight warmest years on record have all occurred in the last decade.

For seven of the last eight years, the world has consumed more grain than it produced; grain stocks are now at a historic low.

One fifth of the U.S. grain harvest is now being turned into fuel ethanol.

Grain yields increased half as fast in the 1990s as they did in the 1960s.

9. Global warming will reduce crops by 10% per degree!

“All the grains we grow are beyond their thermal maximum. For every degree Celsius [that mean global temperature] increases, yield drops 10 percent,” notes geochemist Wallace Broecker of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “In the meantime, population is going up by 30 percent. With three degrees [Celsius] warming, it’s 30 percent down in grain and 30 percent up in population, then you’ve got a big problem.”

via How Can Humanity Avoid or Reverse the Dangers Posed by a Warming Climate?: Scientific American.

10. Suburbanisation — paving over the farmlands 10 times more than urbanisation

This is actually a minor point. Suburban growth does annoy me as it uses land so inefficiently, and if we built around New Urban principles our cities could be a tenth the size they are now and surrounded by attractive farms and forests. But as only 2.6% of the land surface of the earth is covered by cities and suburbia, I cannot push this point too hard. We need to rethink suburbia for many other reasons, but not really because we are running out of farmland.

Remember that because suburban sprawl is roughly 10 times the size of well planned New Urbanism, suburban sprawl often destroys the beauty and amenity of local farmlands. Instead of attractive, peaceful rural areas being within a short bike ride, our food and forests are pushed further back every year. Suburbia is the Modus Operandi of the Western World. As suburbia expands, we pave over our greenfields and farmlands. It makes me sad. Sydney is doing this right now. We are turning wheat fields into Westfields, water-purifying marshlands into McMcMansions, so that the proverbial old McDonald’s farm is now just a McDonalds. The BBC special, Can the planet feed us? puts it this way:

Globally, we have taken over about 26% of the planet’s land area (roughly 3.3 billion hectares) for cropland and pasture, replacing a third of temperate and tropical forests and a quarter of natural grasslands.

Another 0.5 billion ha has gone for urban and built-up areas. Habitat loss from the conversion of natural ecosystems is the main reason why other species are being pushed closer to the brink of extinction.

Food security comes at a high price. In any case, it is a security many can only envy.
BBC November 2004 – Can the planet feed us?

11. More great papers: The Earth Policy Institute

Earth Policy updates include titles like:
Melting Mountain Glaciers Will Shrink Grain Harvests in China and India 20 March 2008
The Earth Is Shrinking: Advancing Deserts and Rising Seas Squeezing Civilization 15 November
Disappearing Lakes, Shrinking Seas 7 April 2005
World Food Security Deteriorating 5 May 2004

World Food Prices Rising 28 April 2004
Wakeup Call on the Food Front 16 December 2003

World Facing Fourth Consecutive Grain Harvest Shortfall
17 September 2003

Record Temperatures Shrinking World Grain Harvest
27 August 2003
World Creating Food Bubble Economy Based on Unsustainable Use of Water 13 March 2003
Rising Temperatures & Falling Water Tables Raising Food Prices 21 August 2002
Water Deficits Growing in Many Countries 6 August 2002

….The excess comes from fertilisers running off farmland, from livestock manure, and from other human activities. It is changing the composition of species in ecosystems, reducing soil fertility, depleting the ozone layer, intensifying climate change, and creating dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and other near-coastal seas.

Globally, we have taken over about 26% of the planet’s land area (roughly 3.3 billion hectares) for cropland and pasture, replacing a third of temperate and tropical forests and a quarter of natural grasslands.

Another 0.5 billion ha has gone for urban and built-up areas. Habitat loss from the conversion of natural ecosystems is the main reason why other species are being pushed closer to the brink of extinction.

Food security comes at a high price. In any case, it is a security many can only envy.
BBC November 2004 – Can the planet feed us?

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