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How to Feed the World While Earth Cooks

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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harvestA conference on feeding the world must also feed itself. Having attended more than my share of such conferences, I can say that the norm is keynotes that rally the troops in favor of organics while said troops munch on tortilla or potato chips. Or there is the earnest vegan route. (This is not a problem that afflicts other disciplines. For example, a recent conference on energy featured a steak dinner at Smith & Wollensky’s.)

For the New America Foundation’s recent “Feeding the World While the Earth Cooks,” the restaurant seems like it was chosen specifically to highlight those inherent tensions. Nora describes itself on an awning as “certified organic, exciting, seasonal, elegant dining, innovative, enjoy, creative, memorable, fresh, healthy, tasty.” Nevertheless, steak retained its place on the menu, albeit locally sourced and “grass-finished.” That allowed even the woman next to me, a food-justice advocate who campaigns for better food access for the poor, to feel comfortable ordering it.

And yet it takes 8 kilograms of feed to make one kilogram of cow, 4 kilograms of feed for one kilogram of pork and two kilograms of feed for one kilogram of chicken. “The number one thing you can do if you care about climate change is cut down on meat consumption,” as Dawn Moncrief, executive director of meat reduction group A Well-Fed World, noted the following day. That is one thing the world is most definitely not doing. While the U.S. may have reached “peak meat,” the emerging economies of China, India and elsewhere more than make up the difference

Back to the table: The clinking of knives and forks accompanied brief discursions on biochar (use charcoal in your soil and other handy tips from the 1800s), climate change (weird weather is upon us), and the soil crisis (20 kilograms of topsoil are lost for every 25 kilograms of corn produced in this country). The rivers of America run brown with our patrimony while farmers are enserfed to big business, while employing legions of actual serfs to service their fields, according to several of the speakers at the conference.

In fact, ethical conundrums abound when it comes to food. How to reconcile stewardship of the planet and the moral imperative to provide better food (and nutrition!) to the billions starving? How to reconcile a lifestyle founded on getting fat and a need to convince others not to widen their own girths? The central tenet of the discussion: this doesn’t have to be a conflict, technology can save us from having to choose, whether through genetically modified crops or lab grown meat. But the cow cells grown in culture still have to eat something as well as nourish. So how do we convince others to eat less meat while still enjoying a nice steak?

Setting those social quandaries aside for a moment, there are at least six other major challenges facing agriculture in the 21st century, according to farmer Fred Kirschenmann, president of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Those are: climate change, depleting natural resources, the loss of biodiversity, mining soil, aging farmers, and the end of cheap energy. As it stands, modern farming relies on a stable climate, endless supplies of fertilizers and water as well as being “enormously dependent on energy,” Kirschenmann noted at the conference. “It takes 10 kilocalories of energy for every calorie of food we produce. It’s the least efficient system we’ve ever had.”

In essence, modern industrial farmers strip mine fields to produce a commodity, yellow stuff as I’ve heard corn called; they are not paid to manage the soil or other resources. The present system kills diversity—whether it be microbial biodiversity or actual crop diversity—while providing cheap food on the backs of cheap labor. Ninety-five percent of the agricultural land in Iowa produces just two crops: corn and soy. But other systems are on offer, whether it be organic methods or Argentina’s unique agriculture focused on reducing energy use in the field.

In a poll taken at the outset of the one-day meeting, convenience beat out “green as it gets,” per the text message survey. And that highlights the bigger problem: if even food savvy folk require convenience above all then what hope is there to turn back the tide of agribusiness, which offers, above all, convenience?

To square that circle, the New America Foundation and its partners imported Midwestern experts (after all, farming is largely a boutique enterprise in the Northeast compared to the massive irrigated crop circles in the dry West or sprawling cornfields of the Middle West) and fed them a light breakfast of yogurt with granola and fruit. (At the energy conference, it was donuts.) Then they were turned loose on the obvious “silver bullet”: genetic modification, or breeding on steroids.

Yet genetic techniques alone likely will not be enough to adapt crops to a changed world, though the science of genetic modification is also likely to be one of the tools needed to deal with drought, heat tolerance, yield and the like. “Some of those promoting improved seed as a silver bullet, it’s a little bit like getting really high octane gas in a car whose tires are all punched out,” noted Sara Scherr, president of EcoAgriculture Parners, a non-governmental organization striving to ensure that farming landscapes work for farmers and biodiversity. That’s because more than a billion subsistence farmers around the world live with severe soil and water degradation and even the best, most advanced seeds need good soil and water to survive, let alone produce.

So perhaps a new round of domestication is needed? Salt- or heat-tolerant species could be turned to crops, repeating the trick of turning weedy inedible teosinte into maize, or the “most remarkable feat of genetic modification we ever accomplished,” in the words of biologist Nina Fedoroff of Penn State University. But then there’s the need to convince people to eat them (see GMOs).

Perhaps it’s organics that will save us? A switch to organic methods would require both increased research into how to get the best yields from these techniques (and optimizing crops to respond to them) as well as a global re-education campaign. It’s the switch from an industrial method (farmer as factory worker and supervisor) to an artisanal mode (farmer as, well, farmer). “Organic takes a lot of inputs—brain inputs,” noted entomologist Hans Herren, president of the Millennium Institute and winner of the World Food Prize for his work to employ biological controls (wasps) on cassava-killing pests.

Of course, the bulk of the world’s farmers already use organic practices—for lack of access to anything else, which suggests farming could be part of the solution to global poverty. A better route to more equitable economic development might be allowing these poorest farmers to sell their food on a global market, one undistorted by agricultural subsidies. They may even teach us something about how to adapt to climate change: the farmers of the Sahel region of Africa, to take but one example, have been adapting to weird weather for decades by planting trees to shade wilting crops and retain water. And the mobile phone revolution is helping to spread that hard-won agricultural knowledge, whether through cow care apps like iCow or simple market price reports. “People don’t sit there waiting to die,” noted geogrpaher Edward Carr of the University of South Carolina and a climate change advisor to U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), who has spent years studying the ebb and flow of economic growth in Ghana. “Do not underestimate how smart these farmers are.”

Another core message: we’ll all need to be smart as we’ll be asking the land to support producing food, feed, fiber and even fuels for us as well as serving as a home for whatever life can survive along with us. Already “half of the world’s wild species are only present in agricultural lands,” Scherr noted. “So agricultural lands need to play a role in habitat.” Yet there are more people in jail than farming in the U.S., according to filmmaker Graham Meriwether, director of “American Meat,” who was man enough to admit that he didn’t know a potato grew underground until after an experience working at a friend’s farm. That is how divorced the average American has become from the process that feeds us.

The lunch menu featured wraps: ham, turkey, avocado, grilled veggies, plus big bowls of fruit unlikely to have ripened in the metropolitan D.C. hinterlands in April. But local food is a distraction when it comes to climate change. The miles that food travels are insignificant compared to the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture generally, whether it be cutting down trees in Brazil or methane emissions from rice paddies in Asia. Or all that American beef (pork and chicken) production and its attendant methane. The ubiquitous plastic water bottles served to keep speakers’ throats wet were more significant from a climate change perspective than the apples shipped across the continent and cooled en route, which is why liquid purveyors like Coke and Pepsi are trying to create plastics from plants.

In June in Rio, the world will mark the anniversary of pledges to curb climate change, preserve biodiversity and slow deforestation, among other environmental aims. “That promise has proved hollow,” noted journalist Mark Hertsgaard, who convened the conference as a New America Foundation fellow. “My daughter and the other 2 billion young people born since Jim Hansen’s testimony [on climate change in 1988] are fated to spend the rest of their lives coping with the hottest and most volatile climate humans have ever faced since we started practicing agriculture 10,000 years ago.”

In fact, Kirschenman’s challenges are not imminent, they are already here: food prices remain volatile, oil prices are high and extreme weather events wreak havoc on crops. But solutions are also already available or have been identified: turn annual crops into perennials. Turn waste (animal and, yes, human) into food. Focus on the soil, nurture its biodiversity, spike it with biochar and stop it from washing away (partially by stopping the wholesale slaughter of microbial life with pesticides). “We need more awareness of what is going on in the soil and the need to have a living soil,” noted farmer Martin Kleinschitt of the Center for Rural Affairs, a Nebraska non-profit focused on salvaging family farms.

As for me, I took a water bottle and an apple for the road—a trip by Acela train back to New York City. At least I saved the carbon dioxide emissions from yet another flight, even one powered in the future by biofuels from our farms. As long as humans garden on a grand scale—the practice we know as agriculture—there will be hope for our own climate sins. After all, growing plants pull CO2 from the atmosphere and, under the right conditions, can lock it away. That’s what fossil fuels are made of in the end, and that will solve our fossil fuel pollution problem in the end, with us or without us. “We can do without automobiles, we can do with computers and, if we have to, we can do without underpants,” Kirschenmann said. “We can’t do without food.”

Image: Courtesy of George Alexander / Flickr.com

David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. singing flea 1:50 pm 05/8/2012

    Growing food crops does very little to help alleviate the emissions of green house gasses. The author is correct when he says, “After all, growing plants pull CO2 from the atmosphere and, under the right conditions, can lock it away.” That is only true when we plant orchards, the vast majority of food production is vegetables, grain and livestock, all of which add CO2 and methane as a by product when it is eaten and the silage decays back into the soil. Unless the world can be fed with only fruit and nuts, food production is not going to help, it will only make matters worse. The problem is over population and too much flatulence from overweight humans and livestock.

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  2. 2. stampsc 2:00 pm 05/8/2012

    “How to reconcile stewardship of the planet and the moral imperative to provide better food (and nutrition!) to the billions starving?”

    Billions eh? I’m going to guess that was a misprint and not a factual error.

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  3. 3. pokerplyer 2:07 pm 05/8/2012

    David Biello repeatedly chooses to view the world as he wishes is existed and not as it is in reality. Biello frames the issue(s) completely inappropriately when he identifies the key concerns as:

    “Ethical conundrums abound when it comes to food. How to reconcile stewardship of the planet and the moral imperative to provide better food (and nutrition!) to the billions starving?”

    David- you seem to ignore the ethical issue of people having more children than they or their environment can support. You always seem to ignore that the real world is made up of approximate 200 independent nations each primarily looking after their own self interest. There is no established worldwide duty to feed the people starving in another nation except in your personal view.

    David, you make additional leaps in describing the issues which we will have to confront in the future.
    “climate change, depleting natural resources, the loss of biodiversity, mining soil, aging farmers, and the end of cheap energy.”

    David mixes real and phony issues in his claims. The loss of biodiversity and the end of cheap energy are examples. History has shown that species come and go as time goes by. It is unrealistic to believe that all species can be maintained. Regarding energy, how does David or anyone else know how electrical energy will be generated in 100 years? We know fossil fuels are a limited resource, but we don’t know about replacements. His other points are also nothing more than whining.

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  4. 4. Tucker M 3:56 pm 05/8/2012

    pokerplyer,

    For someone who accuses the author of making “leaps,” you play pretty fast and loose. For example, you equate the author’s concern about “the loss of biodiversity” with an absolutely crazy belief that no one holds: that “all species can be maintained.” And while “species come and go as time goes by,” as you put it, that has precisely nothing to do with whether we are currently facing an unusual “loss of biodiversity” that warrants concern.

    I’m always amazed by the (unjustified) arrogance of so many who comment on SA blogs and articles.

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  5. 5. gesimsek 4:37 pm 05/8/2012

    When you are in the crowded leage, look at China for answers. It was able to feed its own enormous population for centuries with only one big river system.

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  6. 6. Bridge2Vision 4:58 pm 05/8/2012

    When I read worthy articles like this one and others that detail the incredible amount of work to be done on so many fronts to ensure humanity’s future on this Earth, I often fight the feeling of overwhelm and helplessness. And, there are times I have found myself tuning out – which I KNOW is not an useful or productive response. My sense is when I read articles like this one, both factual and overwhelming all at once, I need to center on what the one thing is that I CAN do. This post begins to make the case that “The most basic opportunity to impact climate change is to evolve our inner response to the wide range of stimulus, challenge, and change we encounter.”

    After writing that post, I read an article by Bill Blackmore on how climate change represents an opportunity to “hug the monster.” I think he and I have similar ideas, and I love how he expressed his take on it!

    Here’s to all of us hugging the monster – whether stemming from the changes we process every day – or the change that climate change calls for from humanity as a whole.

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  7. 7. Roto2 5:04 pm 05/8/2012

    I agree. The problem is over population. An solutions to this are fleeting. Feed more people. Make more people. End of story.

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  8. 8. geojellyroll 5:18 pm 05/8/2012

    Not my issue. We have lots of food in Canada. 1.3 children per woman.

    hint…condoms and birth control pills. Everything else is feel-good fluff.

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  9. 9. Mark665165165 5:47 pm 05/8/2012

    Finally we get to the heart of the matter, out Malthusian problem. If there were only three factories and six cars in the world, they could belch all the fumes they wanted.

    The core issue is that for populations to have control over their own lives they must have minimal resources. Middle class families usually have two or three kids, poor families have six or eight, so enough will survive, but even more so because they are not going to spend food money on contraceptives. To fight overpopulation we must first fight extreme poverty and assure that the minimal universal rights of man (food, water, shelter, security, education) is provided to all populations. Free birth control clinics (which also offered free dental care so people would feel like cattle) should abound in all, but especially poor, countries.

    Second, eventually I see no way out other than a population cap agreement, modeled after current emissions cap agreements, such as Kyoto, which all civilized Western nations have signed (except for one manipulated by a privileged, yet curiously noblesse oblige free, plutocracy where the very rich pay almost no taxes and bear almost no risks).

    Each nation would agree to curb, in N years, their population to M percent of their current one.

    One child families must be made fashionable; stronger ties with cousins and friends would in part replace siblings. If we do this, in a few generations we may reduce the world population to manageable levels.

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  10. 10. Mark665165165 5:49 pm 05/8/2012

    oops – make that >>(which also offered free dental care so people would NOT feel like cattle)<<

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  11. 11. geojellyroll 6:30 pm 05/8/2012

    Mark: “poor families have six or eight, so enough will survive, but even more so because they are not going to spend food money on contraceptives”

    Not for a generation. It’s cultural. Their choice to have children or not. we need to stop acting as if folks in developing countries are like pets that have no brains. Mothers in Nairobi, Kenya have a cell phone, 15 pounds of extra fat and 7 kids. Their choice…their responsibility.

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  12. 12. erichj 1:59 am 05/9/2012

    Google, General Electric, BP, ConocoPhillips, NRG Energy, Exelon and venture capital firms Shea Ventures and North Bridge Venture Partners are backing CoolPlanet Biofuels. A thermal conversion process which yields 120 gallons of gasoline equivalent from one ton of biomass and Biochar for soil carbon sequestration;
    http://www.biofuelsdigest.com/bdigest/2012/03/05/ll-cool-planet-rocks-the-bells/

    Short a nano material PV / thermoelectrical / ultracapasitating Black swan,
    What we can do now with “off the shelf” technology, what I proposed at the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, to the EPA chiefs of North America.
    The most cited soil scientist in the world, Dr. Rattan Lal at OSU, was impressed with this talk, commending me on conceptualizing & articulating the concept.

    Bellow the opening & closing text. A Report on my talk at CEC, and complete text & links are here:
    http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/biochar-policy/message/3233

    The Establishment of Soil Carbon as the Universal Measure of Sustainability

    The Paleoclimate Record shows agricultural-geo-engineering is responsible for 2/3rds of our excess greenhouse gases. The unintended consequence, the flowering of our civilization. Our science has now realized these consequences and has developed a more encompassing wisdom. Wise land management, afforestation and the thermal conversion of biomass can build back our soil carbon. Pyrolysis, Gasification and Hydro-Thermal Carbonization are known biofuel technologies, What is new are the concomitant benefits of biochars for Soil Carbon Sequestration; building soil biodiversity & nitrogen efficiency, for in situ remediation of toxic agents, and, as a feed supplement cutting the carbon foot print of livestock. Modern systems are closed-loop with no significant emissions. The general life cycle analysis is: every 1 ton of biomass yields 1/3 ton Biochar equal to 1 ton CO2e, plus biofuels equal to 1MWh exported electricity, so each energy cycle is 1/3 carbon negative.

    Beyond Rectifying the Carbon Cycle;
    Biochar systems Integrate nutrient management, serving the same healing function for the Nitrogen and Phosphorous Cycles.
    The Agricultural Soil Carbon Sequestration Standards are the royal road for the GHG Mitigation;

    The Bio-Refining Technologies to Harvest Carbon.
    The photosynthetic “capture” collectors are up and running all around us, the “storage” sink is in operation just under our feet, conversion reactors are the only infrastructure we need to build out. Carbon, as the center of life, has high value to recapitalize our soils. Yielding nutrient dense foods and Biofuels, Paying Premiums of pollution abatement and toxic remediation and the growing Dividend created by the increasing biomass of a thriving soil community.

    Since we have filled the air,
    filling the seas to full,
    soil is the only beneficial place left.
    Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.

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  13. 13. Dr. Strangelove 3:44 am 05/9/2012

    The problem is there are too many cows. There are more cows than humans by weight. And they eat 8 kilos of feed for every kilo of cow.

    “20 kilograms of topsoil are lost for every 25 kilograms of corn produced in this country”

    This is just alarmist talk. The topsoil does not disappear out of thin air. It gets deposited on river banks. The regular flooding of Nile River produced fertile land for agriculture.

    “It takes 10 kilocalories of energy for every calorie of food we produce. It’s the least efficient system we’ve ever had.”

    1 Calorie of food = 1 kilocalorie of energy. So the energy input to food output ratio is ten to one. Not 10,000 to one. Food production is actually energy efficient considering that 1 kg of gasoline contains a lot more energy than 1 kg of wheat and 75% of fuel energy is heat loss.

    “My daughter and the other 2 billion young people born since Jim Hansen’s testimony are fated to spend the rest of their lives coping with the hottest and most volatile climate humans have ever faced since we started practicing agriculture 10,000 years ago.”

    If you extend the time since the Cambrian era, your daughter lives in one of the coldest eras in 600 million years. We are still in an Ice Age.

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  14. 14. priddseren 4:26 am 05/9/2012

    More and more crap. I guess the reader doesn’t realize that cattle eat grass, you know stuff we cant eat. or the feed they are given if not grass fed, is not edible for humans or barely so. Plus, a cow or a chicken needs only food and water for indefinite storage and use, it just lives until you eat it. Crops on the other hand require massive effort to grow enough feed anyone, then you have storage needs and a short shelf life.

    Yes, lets plow under every square foot of land area, burn down every acre of forest and jungle all to make room for the crops these people want to grow to feed everyone the most inefficient way possible. That makes sense.

    Or just put some cattle or chickens out in a field, it takes almost no effort and eat them when you want. Oh and it takes less quantity of meat to get the same energy as some sort of vegen choice.

    Oh and one last point, did it not ever occur to these people that humans evolved and it is likely best to eat what your ancestors did. So if you come from say norther europe or asia, maybe a load of meat is good because that is pretty much all you had all winter long, where other places like southern India with year round vegetables and fruit probably should eat that.

    I give up, the ridiculous logic of warmists is sometimes just too much. They would exterminate all land animals and birds because they WANT vegetables to be the best choice, not because they are. They want crops the somehow save the planet, even though it is a load of BS. And yeah people, they would exterminate all animals and birds by turning ever bit of land into growing crops all in the name of saving the planet.

    How about we all just eat foods created by chemicals only and forget something like growing it.

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  15. 15. Kingdom Hill Farm 8:06 am 05/9/2012

    There is a powerful symbiotic relationship between bovines and topsoil that results in an increase in the amount of living topsoil overtime. Vegetable farming, on the other hand, depletes living topsoil. Carefully managed rotational grazing of bovines can increase biodiversity. Vegetable farming organic or conventional decreases biodiversity. The symbiotic relationship between bovines and topsoil results in a measurable increase in soil organic matter over time. That organic matter consists largely of sequestered carbon. If the 8 kilograms of feed comes from a rotationaly grazed permanent pasture system symbiosis will very quickly result in a more productive pasture. In other words 8 kilograms of feed consumed this year results in 9 kilograms of feed being produced the next year and so on…I have been farming this way for over a decade and I see increased productivity every year.

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  16. 16. hb 5:43 pm 05/9/2012

    What could we do to help ensure that there is enough food for everyone? We could look out for our own best interests. Here are two obvious things to do.

    Stop wasting food. You paid for it out of your own pocket, and most of us aren’t getting any richer. It’s an easy way to stretch your paycheck and it helps feed more people.

    Take care of your health. Don’t smoke – tobacco is a crop too. Avoid soft drinks and other HFCS-containing garbage – much of the corn grown is used to produce that unhealthy junk. Eat less meat and more vegetables. Learn to cook – if all you can do is boil vegetables in salty water you aren’t going to eat too many veggies. Believe it or not, well prepared vegetable dishes actually taste good.

    So, why do we waste food and live on junk? First too many of us prefer convenience to quality. Probably more importantly, Big Business is hell-bent on selling us unhealthy garbage, “food-like substances”, and they will stop at nothing to have their way – from getting junk “food” subsidized to relentlessly manipulating the buying public.

    Healthcare is self-care and it starts with a good diet. And a good diet is easier on the planet than the junk we eat and drink now. Look out for your own best interests and there is more food for everyone.

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  17. 17. Steve3 7:12 pm 05/10/2012

    ” …My daughter and the other 2 billion young people …”

    There will be winners and losers. The north and south will see gains and the hot middle will see massive losses. The n & s will gain tropical fruit and the hot belt will lose lives.

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  18. 18. Steve3 7:17 pm 05/10/2012

    ” ..So if you come from say norther europe or asia, maybe a load of meat is good because that is pretty much all you had all winter long, ..”

    Actually we ate root crops stored beneath piles of dirt or in root cellars and we pickled a hell of a lot of stuff. No we didn’t go hunting in minus 20 and we didn’t keep much livestock because it would have to be kept with us in the hut to stop it from freezing to death.Sometimes we ate each other.

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  19. 19. rabarker 12:39 am 05/11/2012

    The “vertical farming” concept offered by Desmond Despomier seems thoroughly fanciful in his book on the idea, but it may actually prove valuable in dense cities and dry regions. It is worth exploring.

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  20. 20. patrickh74 11:08 am 05/14/2012

    Way to overthink, intelligent idiots! Fast growing field crops such as, you guessed it, corn and soybeans, is the most effiecient way to combat global warming. These plants eat more CO2 and give off more oxygen than almost all other plant life. And for the record, the farming in and around my local area in Ohio, utilizes soil conservation measures. The farmers understand that if the good soil washes away, so does their production. So there, being a smart, eco friendly farmer actually means a better environment for our planet in the future.

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  21. 21. David Marjanović 7:00 pm 05/14/2012

    reducing energy use in the field

    That’s good, because current agriculture can be summarized as oil into potatoes, and as we’re approaching Peak Oil, that’s going to become a problem. Tractors and all the other machinery burn fossil fuels, making fertilizer out of air and water requires energy from burning fossil fuels, transporting food and fertilizer requires burning fossil fuels, and so on – and, so far, biofuels hardly break even.

    There is no established worldwide duty to feed the people starving in another nation except in your personal view.

    Well, if you so freely admit to being evil, I’m not going to stop you.

    I’m not saying that lack of access to contraception and to education aren’t problems, but they can be solved without being evil.

    When you are in the crowded leage, look at China for answers. It was able to feed its own enormous population for centuries with only one big river system.

    Two big river systems, and it had regular famines (at least in the south) till the 1950s… that last one, part of the Great Leap Forward Off Every Available Cliff, was caused by political stupidity, however.

    Second, eventually I see no way out other than a population cap agreement

    Kerala, one of the poorest states of India: 1.8 children per woman. That’s less than China, which has 1.9.

    Kerala has invested what little it had into education, especially for women. The results have been impressive.

    but even more so because they are not going to spend food money on contraceptives

    That’s an argument for distributing contraceptives for free.

    Since we have filled the air,
    filling the seas to full,
    soil is the only beneficial place left.
    Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.

    When there’s too much soil erosion, even coal oxidizes, and the carbon ends up in the air.

    The topsoil does not disappear out of thin air. It gets deposited on river banks. The regular flooding of Nile River produced fertile land for agriculture.

    *eyeroll* Most of it is deposited in the sea, in front of the deltas, not on top of them.

    If you extend the time since the Cambrian era, your daughter lives in one of the coldest eras in 600 million years. We are still in an Ice Age.

    True* but irrelevant. The speed of the change is the problem.

    *Except for the number. The Cambrian only began 542 million years ago.

    I guess the reader doesn’t realize that cattle eat grass, you know stuff we cant eat.

    That was 200 years ago. Today, most cattle are mostly or almost entirely fed corn. Freely grazing cattle have become a rarity, globally speaking.

    And yeah people, they would exterminate all animals and birds by turning ever bit of land into growing crops all in the name of saving the planet.

    All long-term arable land is already under the plow. There’s only rainforest left, and that’s sand on which nothing can grow for long (the rainforest itself grows above it).

    Fast growing field crops such as, you guessed it, corn and soybeans, is the most effiecient way to combat global warming. These plants eat more CO2 and give off more oxygen than almost all other plant life.

    Yes, except you forgot about all the fossil fuels needed in large-scale agriculture. Oil into potatoes, oil into corn, oild into soybeans.

    So far, there’s enough food being produced to feed the entire world twice over. Jean Ziegler is not exaggerating when he says “every child that starves today is being murdered”. But the price of oil will keep rising.

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  22. 22. Heteromeles 9:58 pm 05/14/2012

    Personally, my interest tends to go to feeding the soil.

    However, I have to point out a central conundrum. Back about 110 years ago, they were worried about massive global starvation, due to lack of new mineable manure sources (read: guano). At that point, the world population was about 1.6 billion (source: Wikipedia).

    The critical invention that “saved the world” was industrial nitrogen fixation, which allows us today to support 7 billion, plus a nitrogen-intensive military industrial complex (all those bullets and explosives depend on fixed nitrogen, too). One could argue that World Wars 1 and 2 would not have been possible without this invention.

    Unfortunately, nitrogen fixation did not banish famine. More people are either in famine or in danger of famine now, than they were back in 1900.

    Nitrogen fixation is energetically expensive, whether it’s done by a plant or by a factory. This causes a bunch of problems. One is that the Peak Oil problem is actually worse than it looks, because we may see wide-scale nitrogen starvation if we lose cheap energy supplies. Even engineering plants to be nitrogen fixing is a devil’s bargain, because fixing nitrogen diverts energy away from food production. Nitrogen fixing corn would be less productive than ordinary corn, even though it might have higher protein content.

    What’s the solution?

    Unfortunately, the best answers seem to be:
    –get consumption per person down drastically. We’re going to have to get used to being efficient. Note that this will happen, and our choice is how to do it, not whether to do it.
    –get population down drastically, ultimately to the 1-2 billion we can support without industrial nitrogen fixation. As above, this will happen over the next century, and our choice is how to do it, not whether to do it.
    –Cripple the industrial strangleholds of Monsanto, ADM, and similar firms. They’re in a “too big to fail” position in world agriculture, and as with the banks in that position, this ultimately means they are too big to exist as they do today.
    –Get into rebuilding soils worldwide. This not only captures carbon and improves nutrient retention, it improves crop resilience. Again, this will happen, but it can either be done as our descendents garden desperately in the ruins, recycling all their manure into their fields, or as a matter of policy now.

    It’s a grim prognosis, but we really need to learn from the past. It doesn’t appear that we can eliminate famine, but we can certainly control how many people starve and why.

    Similarly, we’re going to abandon our culture of perpetual growth, voluntarily or not. Our choice is to do this creatively and heroically, by inventing new values to organize our lives around, or we can do this in desperation as our incredibly complex global civilization breaks down, and the survivors reorganize in the ruins. Personally, I hope we can find the nerve to do it voluntarily. There’s a lot of good in the world, and I’d hate to lose it, simply because we didn’t have the guts to sacrifice to save it.

    Link to this
  23. 23. Jerzy v. 3.0. 9:25 am 05/15/2012

    Yawn. Well meaning, but ultimately, very stupid and unproductive article.

    One obvious mistake is mix-up between regions and continents, where problems are often opposite. Population grows in Africa, but Europe faces actualy ageing population. And no, you cannot import tens of millions of poorest Africans to repopulate Europe.

    Second mistake is not realizing that countries and segments of population which are undernourished usually have very poor organization, so all organized programs and hi-tech fixes are just cloudcuckooland. Try to implement anything in Somalia or South Sudan!

    Third mistake is ignoring economical aspects of agriculture. The easiest way communities can get out of poverty is by selling their agricultural output and yes, consuming more fuel, producing more meat and competing with first-world farmers. Sorry, your idea of localy sourced beef irritates African countries who hate U.S. trade barriers.

    Link to this

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