Archive for February, 2012

Food Security: Mission Impossible

This article is a work-in-progress, still being researched and developed.  Feedback is welcome.  Feel free to leave a comment.

To achieve food security for everyone on the planet is an impossible goal, and any efforts in this direction will have the opposite effect, making the situation worse.

A lesson in population dynamics, Ecology 101.  The population of any species will increase as the food available to it increases.  As the food available decreases, the population decreases.  This means that a proportion of individuals in this population experiences a lack of food, and starve to death.

In terms of the current situation of human population and food availability: the more we try to provide enough food for everyone – the more food we make available – the more the population grows, and the more food is required to feed everyone.  Food security is a paradox.  Starvation is inevitable.

I recently read Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick.  It is a true story of living in famine conditions in North Korea in the 1990s.  It includes accounts of people experiencing starvation, and seeing people around them starve to death.

A kindergarten teacher sees her students arrive each day in a weaker state than the last, until they can’t lift their heads from the table.  After a few weeks they stop coming altogether.  She can’t bring herself to ask their parents what has happened.  She knows that they have died.  Her family has access to food through the black market, but to share with her students would be her own death.

A family spends a whole day to get to the countryside where there are pear orchards they might be able to raid, as there is no food available in the city.  So many people have come before them that they find only one pear, partly rotten.  They take it home and divide the edible part between them.

A woman sells what she can on the black market to buy food for her family.  It is not enough for them all, and over the course of a few months she sees her husband, her mother-in-law and her son die in the house.

Between 1994 and 1998, up to 3.5 million died of starvation in North Korea.

During the 1930s Depression, five thousand people died of starvation in Melbourne, Australia.  There are a lot more of us now, and the situation we are facing is a lot larger than an economic downturn.  We’re also a lot less prepared to deal with it.

A few of the issues facing the world food system:

  • Collapse of aquifers.  Once underground water has been extracted to the point that an aquifer is empty, it collapses and can never be restored.  A large percentage of global agriculture is currently dependent on harvesting water from aquifers at a faster rate than can be replenished.
  • Peak oil.
  • Peak nutrients.
  • Land availability.  Land grabs by corporations and governments, meaning farmland is not available to small-scale farmers.
  • Land degradation.  Soil loss and erosion.  Land is becoming less viable for farming.
  • Climate change.
  • Climate chaos: extreme weather events causing crop losses.
  • Decreased pest resistance in crops that are grown in industrial monocultures.
  • Collapse of honeybee populations.  Honeybees are essential to pollinate almost all food plants.
  • Corporate control of food production and distribution systems.
  • Large-scale, centralised food system vulnerable to shocks and interruptions.
  • Loss of diversity of food plants and animals.
  • Loss of skills in food production, preserving and preparation.
  • No new farmers.  Existing farmers are aging, and very few of the next generation are taking up farming as a career.
  • Urban sprawl taking over valuable farmland.
  • Exponential population growth, requiring an ever-increasing amount of food to be produced to feed everyone -> more land to be given over to farmland -> loss of wilderness areas -> climate change, species loss and loss of soil fertility -> existing farmland becomes less viable.
  • Waste.  Around half of all food produced is wasted.
  • Lack of awareness of these issues in the general population.

Any one of these issues on its own can cause a food crisis.  All of them together, and all of them becoming increasingly present, seem unlikely to be understood and overcome in time to prevent a global famine on a massive scale.

I’ve listed 18 separate issues here, all are interconnected.  Most current approaches to these issues address them separately, and actions taken often have disastrous effects elsewhere, leading us further along the path of collapse.

Conclusion:  Enjoy the food you have.  It won’t last long.

Thoughts on being hopeful, positive and in denial:

Any actions taken can only have a tiny impact, given the scale of the situation.

The most general definition of food security is “there is enough for everyone to eat.”  The term food insecurity is occasionally mentioned, but I’ve never heard any acknowledgement that this means “there is not enough for everyone to eat, so some people starve.”

I feel that we are better placed to address these issues if we understand and accept what we are facing.

This article brings together the ideas presented in two books that I am partway through reading: The Coming Famine by Julian Cribb, and If They Give You Lined Paper, Write Sideways, by Daniel Quinn.  And another one that I finished reading, called Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick.

An idea for an app: free stuff!

I don’t know what an app is, really, but someone somewhere could take this idea and do something with it.

If you have something you don’t want, or you want something you don’t have, write it in the app-space.  Anyone that wants the thing you have, or has the thing you want, can see, and can take it from you or give it to you.  Are you following?  And you could browse and see things that it hadn’t occurred to you to want, but since it’s available, you could make use of it.  And you could see what other people want and realise that the thing in the shed or the cupboard that you haven’t used for years might be better off with someone else.  You could set it so that you only connect with people who live close by, or people you already know, or if it’s some specialised thing you could connect with people who have an interest in such specific things.

When my mum or dad has some useful thing they don’t need, they ask me “do you know anyone who would want this thing?” and maybe I do someone who would want it, but I don’t know that they want it.  I would like to know, so I can give it to them.

So in conclusion, I want this free-share-swap-things app.  If you have it and can share it, will you give it to me?

And I have lots of peaches and grapes right now, do you want them?  Also there is a mouse living in my kitchen that I don’t want.  You can have it if you like.

The End of Life on Earth

For two hundred unique forms of living beings, today is the last day of life on earth.

Extinct.  Forever.  And so it has been, two hundred species, every day, for as long as I have lived, and so it will continue to be for as long as I live.

When Europeans first arrived in North America, they saw flocks of passenger pigeons fly overhead, so large that the sky would darken for hours, even days, on end.  There were estimated to be five billion birds.  The last passenger pigeon died in 1900.

Living beings are connected and interdependent in ways that we may never understand.  Flocks of passenger pigeons dropped manure on the forest floor in layers of several inches thick below their roosts.  The extinction of these birds would have led to a decline in the health of the forest, making trees and other species more susceptible to pests and diseases, and no doubt causing the extinction of many other species – plants, animals, insects, birds and microbes.

In North America today, it is rare to see or hear a bird.  The forests are eerily silent.  Occasionally I hear the tapping of a woodpecker, or see a turkey buzzard circling high above.  I suspect it won’t be more than a couple of years before these, too, are gone.

There are now very few salmon in the streams, hardly any frogs, and the bee population is declining rapidly.  No bees means no berries, no berries means no bears, and the whole ecosystem collapses, as all the strands in the web of life that hold it together fall away.

Humans are part of this web too, although many of them refuse to believe it.  They think of themselves as better than the animals, independent of everything that goes on around them.  Many consider the loss of their life support system as a good thing.  They see other living things as competitors, and value their destructive economy as more important than the foundation of earth and life that it is built on.  They cannot see that the growth of their economy and population is only possible by destroying and consuming its own foundations, which will inevitably lead to a sudden collapse.

Humans are only slowly beginning to discover their own vulnerability, and becoming aware of their place in the web.  The approaching extinction of the honeybee brings their attention to a strand of the web that they can comprehend.  Honeybees are necessary for the pollination of almost all human food.  No bees, no pollination.  No pollination, no food plants.  No food, no humans.  The enormous and rapidly growing population may hide the fact, but humans are now an endangered species.

There is no way to bring back the millions of species that we have lost, but by becoming aware of our connections in the interdependencies, we may be able to prevent further breakages of the web, and life may continue for a little while longer.  It seems unlikely though, given the current belief systems of most humans.  It’s probably already too late.  The last day of life on earth for humans may come sooner than we think.