In the past few weeks I’ve been listening to several debates about how we will feed nine billion humans when we reach that global number in 2050. A few weeks ago I spoke at the American Enterprise Institute’s workshop on pesticides and the precautionary principle where industry made the case that we had to have pesticides and genetically modified seeds (in their words “modern agriculture”) to feed the world. Similar arguments are being made in a New York Times blog series.
There are two problems with these adamant claims that we need pesticides and GMOs. (Although these problems apply equally to the assertions that organic agriculture can feed the world.) First, they begin with the wrong question. If we actually reach nine billion people we will face more problems than food. Do we really want to just go along for the ride while the human population seriously overshoots the Earth’s carrying capacity?
The second problem with these claims is that agriculture may have produced a lot of raw materials but it has been dependent on abundant water, stable climates, and plentiful fossil fuels. All three are likely to change dramatically. These changes are even more likely to occur if our population expands to nine billion.
When the debate is reduced to whether we can rely on organic agriculture, industrial agriculture or even some combination of these approaches to increase production, it presumes that we will maintain our diet, which is highly dependent on just four crops (wheat, rice, corn, soybeans), even though we’ve run out of fresh water, climate is virulently unstable, and fossil fuels are no longer widely available.
This is not possible. I speak from some experience having been part of a 3500 acre organic farm for the past 16 years. Even though our farm is often touted as being sustainable, I can assure you that erratic weather and fuel prices have made our farm vulnerable. We raise cattle and many grains including wheat, oats, and barley. The grains all require enormous amounts of fuel for the tractors and harvesting equipment. Then they are shipped off farm, processed, and shipped again before they even reach a person’s stove. The long chain of agricultural grain products is simply not sustainable when fuel reaches 4 dollars a gallon, much less when it reaches 10 dollars a gallon, or even worse, when it isn’t available.
I predict that diet will change substantially and rapidly. Here’s what I think will happen, particularly in North America.
- We will shift from agriculture to horticulture and move from cereals/grains produced agriculturally to root crops and other starches produced horticulturally. Grains like wheat take too much processing and energy before they are eaten.
- We’ll increase perennials, especially more nuts and fruits but also perennial grains, although we probably will not replace perennial grain for annual grain acre per acre.
- We’ll shift from larger animals (cows) to smaller animals (fowl) that fit horticultural systems but still produce manure since every ecological system requires animals.
- We’ll dramatically increase urban agriculture.
- Dryland farming will predominate.
- We’ll diversify species we eat. For instance, insect larvae is one of the best infant weaning foods around — full of fat and protein. We won’t be feeding babies soymilk.
- Trade will be intra-continental and only rarely inter-continental.
- We will stop raising useless crops like lawns.
- We will breed seeds for specific ecozones increasing resilience.
- We’ll reclaim an essential source of fertilizer – our own excrement. It’s an ecological gift to soil when it’s composted. It an ecological travesty when we put it in water.
- Food preservation and storage techniques will evolve to be less energy and water intensive. For instance, we’ll see more local fermentation (sauerkraut, kimchee, etc.), more storage in root cellars. This will change the specifications for architecture so that we build in root cellars and other home processing and storage features.
- We are going to run lots and lots of experiments and discover that one size, even two sizes (industrial agriculture and organic agriculture) no longer fit all.