BY MARJORIE STEWART
Norman Borlaug, father of the ‘Green Revolution,’ saved the lives of millions in Mexico and Asia with his improved strains of wheat. He also warned that this level of production could not be sustained indefinitely because of its reliance on massive inputs of water and chemical fertilizers. His efforts bought some time to deal with the underlying causes of hunger: poverty and population growth.
Wasteful industrial agricultural methods include separating crop production from natural replenishments of soils and people from the land which feeds them. Water for irrigation is moved from ground aquifers to fields and feedlots. Every quarter-pound cheeseburger with a glass of milk uses about 740 gallons of water. Aquifers do not magically refill and drained aquifers are no use in times of drought. The minerals excreted by feedlot animals become wastes leeched into rivers and oceans and the minerals from our food become sewage dumped into oceans. Peak oil is coming very close but so is peak food, the way we produce it.
Increased population is outstripping increased grain production and most of the grain is no longer being used to feed people. In 2008 about five per cent of grain was being used for biofuel, 47 per cent for animal fodder and nearly 50 per cent for food. All that water squandered on fodder and fuel and population increases, mostly because many people are living longer.
According to ecological footprint metrics, it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year. By overfishing, overharvesting forests, and emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the planet can sequester, we use more ecological resources and services than nature can replenish.
Attitudes about all this data are wildly divergent. The super-optimists think technology will: produce more food; and/or take us to the stars; and/or provide never-ending green renewable energy. The super-pessimists focus on irreversible damage we have already done; bad leadership in all sectors (government, business, civil society); and human nature as incapable of positive change.
Those of us realists who are alarmed but trusting content ourselves with doing what we can, where we can, when we can, so as not to contribute to the destruction while trying to support alternatives to what is obviously not working.
Meantime, world scientists recently brought out a 25th anniversary update to the Union of Concerned Scientists warning to the world of 1992, noting very little evidence of positive results over that period (the ozone hole is smaller and there has been some progress, in some places, in population containment through education and more equality for women). Unnecessary poverty and unrestrained population growth are still the issues, economic growth the curse, and loss of species and climate change our comeuppance.
So what can we do? Look after the planet, stop the waste, feed ourselves sensibly and support those local groups working for the positive alternatives.
We can’t say we haven’t been warned.
Marjorie Stewart is past chair of the Nanaimo Foodshare Society. She can be reached at email@example.com.