Monday, November 16, 2009
Feeding the World and Compact Green Living
While the focus of our attention in these posts is on the U.S. and by inference comparable affluent countries of the world, I would like to direct the reader to a recent fascinating study about the feasibility of feeding a global population of more than 9 billion in 2050 using environmentally friendly “organic” crops and moving away from confined animal feeding toward more humane free range approaches. The study dispels the usual claim that organic agriculture is fine for the affluent, but we need high-technology fertilizer and pesticide based cropping systems along with confined animal feeding operations to provide the world’s population including the poor with a healthy amount of calories and proteins.
The starting point for the study is the Food and Agricultural Organization’s (FAO) projections for 2050 agricultural production and land use. A “business as usual” forecast yields a 9 percent cropland expansion relative to 2000 and an increase in crop yields per unit land of around 54 percent. Production rises in the future according to these projections primarily because of growth in agricultural yields as opposed to more expansive land cultivation. A review of the literature on organic agriculture suggests crop yields somewhat below conventional agriculture, but less so in developing countries where organic agriculture possesses a substantial potential to improve soil fertility and productivity. Organic crop yields are close enough to conventional agriculture to support healthy global diets for all in 2050 under expected trends. The study considers three methods of raising livestock for protein: intensive, humane, and organic. To allow animals to range freely (the humane option) requires 10 percent more feed input than confined feeding (the intensive option), and to adopt organic standards costs 20 percent more in feed than the intensive option. The study concludes that organic agriculture can likely feed a projected global population of 9.2 billion in 2050 without increasing land under cultivation by more than the 9 percent projected by the FAO. This added cropland can come out of the huge inventory now devoted to grazing globally while at the same time expanding free-range meat productivity through more intensive pasture management. The essential cost for us in U.S. and some of the other affluent countries of the world to accomplish all this will be a need to reduce our caloric and protein intake to lower, healthier levels, such as those in the French diet. Judging from the gastronomical pleasures the French enjoy (as discussed earlier), this shouldn’t be too much of a problem. A huge environmental virtue of free-range animal husbandry and organic cropping would be a substantial reduction in greenhouse gases associated with our current fossil-fuel dependent agricultural system. On top of this, injections of excessive nitrogen from fertilizer runoff into our oceans that cause dead zones can be brought to a halt, and we can do this without the need to take away more of nature’s space. The study also suggests that roughly 15 percent of our current global energy consumption can come from agriculture (mostly wastes and perennial grasses such as switch grass) while still meeting global food supply needs.
All this means that compact living at a global level is eminently feasible. We can get by with the current amount of land we use for cropping and grazing worldwide even with an increase in population to 9 billion.
(The reference for the study is Karl-Heinz Erb et al., Eating the Planet: Feeding and Fuelling the World Sustainably, Fairly, and Humanely--a Scoping Study (Institute of Social Ecology and PIK Potsdam, 2009 [cited November 13, 2009]); available from http://www.ciwf.org.uk/includes/documents/cm_docs/2009/e/eating_the_planet_full_report_nov_2009.pdf.)