We’re killing our food supply and technology can’t save us

Farrell, Paul B. Feb 11, 2015. Opinion: We’re killing our food supply and technology can’t save us. Big Ag can’t feed 10 billion and magical technologies won’t appear.  MarketWatch.

We’re maxing-out on Peak Food. Billions go hungry. We’re poisoning our future, That’s why Cargill, America’s largest private food company, is warning us about water, seeds, fertilizers, diseases, pesticides, droughts. You name it. Everything impacts the food supply. Wake up America, it’s worse than you think.

The truth is Big Ag worldwide farm production can’t feed the 10 billion humans forecast on Planet Earth by 2050.

Conservative Greg Page, executive chairman of the Cargill food empire, has that great can-do spirit of capitalism: At $43 billion, Cargill is America’s largest privately held company. Listen to the future he sees coming: “Over the next 50 years, if nothing is done … crop yields in many states will most likely fall … the costs of cooling chicken farms will rise … and floods will more frequently swamp the railroads that transport food in the United States” … he wants American agribusiness to be ready.

But what if Cargill’s scientists are too optimistic, when arguing America’s agriculture sector is “well prepared to adapt to changes.” Former New York mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, was skeptical of Cargill. The Times reported Bloomberg asking Page: “Do the technologies exist? Or are you saying they will someday, ‘as in, we know there will be a cure for cancer, but we have no idea when or how’?”

Yes, food is one of the biggest problems in the world: We already have trouble feeding the 7.3 billion people already here today. And it’s virtually impossible to feed another 3 billion by 2050, warns Jeremy Grantham, whose firm is an investment manager for $120 billion, and also funds the Grantham Research Center at the London School of Economics.

Bill Gates caps population at 8 billion people. Columbia University’s Jeff Sachs, head of the Earth Institute and a key adviser to the UN Secretary General, warns that five billion is the max Earth can sustain. Yet, at today’s trajectory, it’s 10 billion, a disaster waiting to happen.

The Bush Pentagon already warned us that by 2020 the planet’s “carrying capacity” will be so drastically compromised America’s war machine is already preparing military defense systems for the coming “all-out wars over food, water, and energy supplies.”

Grantham is not as optimistic as Page. Just the opposite, he reinforces the Pentagon’s worst fears, warning of an “inevitable mismatch between finite resources and exponential population growth” with a “bubble-like explosion of prices for raw materials,” plus commodity shortages that are a major “threat to the long-term viability of our species when we reach a population level of 10 billion,” making “it impossible to feed the 10 billion people.”

The planet’s “carrying capacity” cannot feed 10 billion people, so Grantham concludes: “As the population continues to grow, we will be stressed by recurrent shortages of hydrocarbons, metals, water, and, especially fertilizer. Our global agriculture, though, will clearly bear the greatest stresses.”

Agribusiness has the “responsibility for feeding an extra two to three billion mouths, an increase of 30% to 40% in just 40 years. The availability of the highest quality land will almost certainly continue to shrink slowly, and the quality of typical arable soil will continue to slowly decline globally due to erosion despite increased efforts to prevent it. This puts a huge burden on increasing productivity.” An impossible equation for Cargill.

Grantham believes “humans have the brains and the means to reach real planetary sustainability,” But “the problem is with us and our focus on short-term growth.” Our “human ingenuity” can even solve the energy problem, even shortages of metals and fresh water. Even solve the population demand problem without starvation, diseases and wars.

But agriculture is facing a huge loss of nonrenewable resources that technology cannot solve, so here’s why agriculture is the world’s No. 1 time bomb. And why American politicians damn well better start to deal with Grantham’s five constraints:

  1. We’re “running out completely of potassium (potash) and phosphorus (phosphates) fertilizers and eroding our soils … Their total or nearly total depletion would make it impossible to feed the 10 billion people …
  2. Potassium and phosphorus (in fertilizer) are necessary for all life; they cannot be manufactured and cannot be substituted for …
  3. “Globally, soil is eroding at a rate that is several times that of the natural replacement rate …
  4. “Poor countries found mostly in Africa and Asia will almost certainly suffer from increasing malnutrition and starvation. The possibility of foreign assistance on the scale required seems remote.
  5. “Many stresses on agriculture will be exacerbated … by increasing temperatures … increased weather instability … frequent and severe droughts and floods.”

Grantham is skeptical of solutions based on the usual short-term thinking will work in the future: “Capitalism, despite its magnificent virtues in the short term, above all, its ability to adjust to changing conditions, has several weaknesses. Capitalism cannot deal with the tragedy of the commons, e.g., over fishing, collective soil erosion, and air contamination.”

Just the opposite, unregulated free markets just makes things worse.

And yet in today’s culture of science denialism, the “finiteness of natural resources is simply ignored, and pricing is based entirely on short-term supply and demand.” In short, the next few decades challenge a fundamental tenet of capitalism: That the public good is best served by the “invisible hand” of competing individuals, acting solely in their own separate special interests. No cooperation, no global solutions, it’s everyone for themselves, no restrictions. Unfortunately that’s a dead-end for everyone, a time bomb soon to explode.

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4 Responses to We’re killing our food supply and technology can’t save us

  1. Don Stewart says:

    See this paper:

    For more information, search on David C. Johnson soil

    Johnson’s system does not use fertilizer or pesticides or herbicides at all. It restores and grows topsoil, conserves water, and puts carbon back into the soil.

    In fact, the major problem with it is that it greatly reduces the role of BigAg. There is probably no government in the world, and very few NGOs, who will believe that biology, rather than technology, is the answer.

    When Johnson says that his system can accomplish carbon sequestration at one tenth the cost of industrial systems, most leaders do not see that as an advantage. It sounds too much like a bunch of untaxed peasants just doing their thing. Surely we have to have gigantic enterprises paying gigantic taxes to solve the problem!!!

    Don Stewart

  2. david higham says:

    An agricultural civilisation has fundamental systemic flaws. An industrial
    civilisation increases the number of those systemic flaws. Those systemic flaws did not exist under a hunter-gatherer system. When industrial civilisation collapses this century from the multi-dimensional Perfect Storm coming,will the few remaining hunter-gatherer bands manage to survive in
    the climate altered wasteland it leaves behind? There are some interesting links in the comments section of this article.

  3. Rhea says:

    I was talking to a friend about how not all inventions are good inventions and many have made the world a worse place. He wanted to point out some helpful inventions as a counterpoint and gave the invention of industrial farming as his first example for feeding billions of people who would otherwise be starving. I found this flabbergasting, I believe the “green revolution” was the most harmful invention of all time. It is turning our planet into a desert rapidly and enabled the population explosion and led to surplus food dumping on poor countries, putting subsistence farmers out of business all over the world! When I read Sowing Seeds in the Desert by Masanobu Fukuoka I learned how harmful industrial farming is to soil fertility. He came up with a method to restore fertility to desertified soils.

    “In my opinion, if 100% of the people were farming it would be ideal. If each person were given one quarter-acre, that is 1 1/4 acres to a family of five, that would be more than enough land to support the family for the whole year. If natural farming were practiced, a farmer would also have plenty of time for leisure and social activities within the village community. I think this is the most direct path toward making this country a happy, pleasant land.”
    ― Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution

    • energyskeptic says:

      Well, read William Rees on carrying capacity, we’re able to produce 5x more food with natural-gas based fertilizers. If the soil isn’t class 1 or 2, people could farm 7 x 24 and not produce much food. Huge regions of the country don’t have enough water, and the aquifers are being drained. And the topsoil in Iowa has gone from 18″ to 9″ on average, IN JUST A CENTURY, and you need 6″ of soil to grow food. I’d love it if John Jeavons vision of 18 family compounds on a minimal amount of land could be achieved somewhere, someplace, and he estimates about 4 hours of work a day on average, though more initially to establish the farm, dig down 2 feet of soil, improve the soil, and so on. And climate change will make it hard even for people on good soil with plenty of water. With 3% of people owning 80% of the land, I’m afraid we are more likely destined for a feudal system after fossils are gone, sigh. This is why I and others so much wanted people to wake up and for government to do something, but the last thing they’ll do is redistribute land!