Friday, May 9, 2014

The Coming Famine

Consumers live like toddlers, in a comfortable crib surrounded by colorful toys, with others providing our needs.  We can turn on our computer without blowing apart mountains to fetch coal.  We don’t have to murder indigenous people to put gas in our Prius.  We don’t have to destroy rainforests to plant soy for our veggie burgers.  Someone else does it for us.  The grocery store always has food, so we can spend seven hours a day staring at screens.

Electricity and petroleum were experiments that have far higher costs than benefits.  Luckily, they are finite, and humankind’s devastating addiction can only be temporary.  Food, on the other hand, is an actual need.  Those who attempt to quit their food habit soon experience painful withdrawal symptoms and die.  Experts tell us that our population will hit nine billion by 2050, but reality isn’t required to obey trend lines.  Experts predict that by 2030 there will be five cities having populations in excess of 30 million.  Imagine what a hellish life that would be.

Experts also tell us that we’re already beating the stuffing out of the planet with a wee herd of just seven billion.  We’re engaged in a mad effort to prove that perpetual growth is possible, an endeavor slithering with slimy brain worms.  It’s an embarrassing and disgraceful enterprise for a species so proud of its legendary intelligence and evolutionary superiority.

And yet, there is tireless jabber, by serious straight-faced experts with nice neckties, about what needs to be done to feed nine billion, a heroic humanist project as sensible as space colonies.  Only humans matter, they believe.  Humanists are not biologists.  Biologists comprehend ecological reality.  They have a clear-headed understanding of overshoot, and the dependable all-natural remedy for overshoot.  What goes up must come down.

Obviously, we could reduce almost all of our serious problems by shifting our population into reverse, and flooring the gas pedal — a rational strategy that’s theoretically possible, but the experts are not interested, nor is anyone else.  It’s traitorous heresy.  God commanded us to breed like there’s no tomorrow, so we must.  Big Mama Nature laughs out loud at our folly, and with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes, fetches her medicine bag.

Julian Cribb is an Australian science writer of good repute, who suffers from having both humanist and biologist tendencies.  He began to suffer from nightmares, in which humankind’s amazing techno-magic failed to provide regular happy meals for nine billion, resulting in human suffering.  During the daylight hours, he rolled up his sleeves and did a lot of high quality research, to envision a way to regularly provide nine billion happy meals.  Then he wrote The Coming Famine.

The path we’re on today is in the fast lane to serious famine, which is expected to peak by 2050.  It will not be a single global catastrophe, but a series of regional famines scattered over time and place.  Rapid economic growth in nations like India and China is accelerating the fast lane, because one of the first desires of the newly prosperous is to have a luxurious high protein diet.  This diet requires raising far more animals, which requires raising far more grain, which requires far more cropland, water, oil, fertilizer, machinery, and so on.

This high protein trend implies that increasing the table settings from seven billion to nine billion will actually require doubling global food production.  Is that possible?  Maybe, says Cribb, but it won’t be easy.  His book provides a valuable catalog of the serious obstacles to success, and it optimistically points to a chance of temporarily feeding the projected mega-crowd.  Success requires massive, radical, intelligent change, on a global scale, really soon.

Climate change alone could block success.  It may make it impossible to feed anything close to the current population, let alone nine billion, and it’s out of control.  Runoff from the Himalayan snowpack enables the survival of 1.3 billion people, and warming temperatures will change the flow patterns of major rivers.  Many other regions, like the U.S. southwest, are also at high risk.  Agricultural systems cannot tolerate unusual patterns of precipitation and temperature, and huge populations cannot tolerate food scarcity.

Water shortages alone could make dinner for nine billion impossible.  We’re already having serious water issues, and growing urban populations will divert more and more water from the fields, while contributing more and more pollutants.  Aquifers are being drained right now.  Rivers are being pumped dry.  Hot weather is speeding the evaporation of reservoirs. 

Cropland destruction alone could spoil the big dinner party.  Soils are being depleted of nutrients.  They are being carried away by water and wind.  They are being rendered infertile by salt buildup.  They are being buried by urban sprawl — most cities have been built on the finest farmland in the world.  Deserts are expanding.

Peak cheap energy alone seems certain to cancel the party.  Even if population growth stopped forever today, the end of cheap and abundant energy will radically change the crazy way we’ve been living for the last 200 years.  Imagine feeding seven billion without farm machinery, irrigation pumps, refrigerators, and transportation systems.  By 2050, when nine billion are expected for dinner, the global fuel gauge will be quite close to empty. 

All life requires nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium — remove any one and life ends.  It takes cheap and abundant energy to manufacture, distribute, and apply fertilizers.  Phosphorus is likely to become the first essential nutrient to reach crisis stage, since phosphate production peaked in 1989, and what remains is of declining quality.  As rising demand exceeds supply, prices will get uppity, tempers will rise, fists will fly, and crop yields will wheeze.  Phosphorus is transferred from the soil to the corn, from the corn to the hog, from the hog to the human, flushed down the toilet and sent to the sea, lost forever.  Nutrients flow into cities and are not returned to the fields.  Poop is precious.  Remember that.

Our disastrous experiment with fossil energy enabled the mass production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, an enormous expansion of cropland and irrigation, and the tragic success of the Green Revolution.  There were 2.5 billion people in 1950, and more than 7 billion today.  The techno-miracle that can double food production by 2050 has yet to be imagined.  Half of the fertilizer we apply never reaches the target plants, and neither does half of the irrigation water.  Half of the food we grow is never eaten.  It’s really hard to reduce this costly waste.  We’ve tried.

Cribb doesn’t reveal the brilliant silver bullet solution for avoiding the coming famine, but he’s bursting with smart suggestions.  It’s so hard being a smart person living in a society that has lost its mind.  It drives him bonkers.  He is focused on better management, tighter controls, and smarter processes.  Other species have managed to do quite well without controlling their ecosystem, by simply adapting to it, and enjoying their lives.  Could there be a lesson here?

Cribb has created an excellent book.  It clobbers a generous number of dangerous illusions and lunatic fantasies, and shines a floodlight on the monsters beneath the bed.  It’s well researched, easy to read, and an essential contribution to the human knowledgebase.  Read it to the kids at bedtime, and make it the standard gift for weddings, birthdays, graduations, vision quests, and consumer holidays.

Cribb, Julian, The Coming Famine, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2010.

Here is a 22-minute video of Cribb discussing his book.  YouTube has longer videos.


Jane said...

I think about these things much of the time…. this week….

What Is Sustainable said...

Jane, in 1909, Franklin Hiram King visited China, and observed daily carvans of handcarts hauling 60 gallon containers of night soil from the city back to the farm. He described this in Farmers of Forty Centuries. My review is here. Grigg says that, if cities survive, they MUST recycle the nutrients in their soil.

Phil Foggitt said...

Yes, it only gets scarier Richard but the same messages keep coming out- need to go veggie or at least less meat and very interesting to see recommendation for tree crops- something I'm just starting to get into.

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Phil! Righto! Less meat, and especially less grain-fed meat. It's such a challenge to eat in an ethical manner. There's more than a little haze of bad karma around soybeans, too.

Some day, the West will catch up with the rest of the world in fine dining on insects.

In case you haven't seen it, my review of Tree Crops is here.

What Is Sustainable said...

Food update 2017:

Farming the World: China’s Epic
Race to Avoid a Food Crisis