Agriculture (aka ‘primary production’) requires soil, sea, fresh water and energy, all under threat. Already, competition for the ‘global larder’ of sufficient, safe, nutritious food is heightening.
Soil: There is no more land to cultivate.
And today’s agricultural land is under stress — of which more later. Moreover, significantly less land, perhaps only two-thirds, will be available in the future, through soil depletion, erosion and contamination, weather conditions — soon, swathes of the world, as already in parts of the Middle East and North Africa, will be too hot for human habitation, or for growing food. And more land will be needed to suck carbon out of the atmosphere.
Water: Currently, one third of the planet is water-deficient, and this will reach two-thirds by 2050.
We’re already seeing conflicts about river diversions, about damming, about irrigation — all irrigation systems fail over time, the only reliable water source is ‘soil water’; i.e. rainfall held in the soil itself. If you don’t have water security, you can’t have food security.
We have warning, too, of the impact of climate change, Recent catastrophic events in the southern US, the West Indies and Central America wiped out areas of food production. It can take years for land to recover from a flood.
Air: Many countries, most significantly China, have an additional grave challenge to that of not being able to produce enough food for their own population. Much of the food China grows is of poor quality, owing to industrial contamination, not just of soils, but also of air too, as this image of Zhengzhou (population 9.6M) shows:
Energy: Agriculture alone is responsible for 13% of carbon emissions. More significant are the unquantified emissions from ‘added value’ processing — food ‘manufacturing is by far the biggest manufacturing sector worldwide.
Sea: David Attenborough’s Blue Planet: Costing the Earth showed the challenges to our seas through human activity, including our harvesting of food, to millions of us last year.
What is less talked about are the ocean oscillations that might tip into different systems with climate change; see this Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution summary.
The move to capital-intensive farming undoubtedly makes agriculture more efficient, so it’s a crucial part of the “sustainable intensification” necessary for feed us all.
It can and sometimes does wreak irreversible damage on soil and water. Precision technologies will help minimise this damage.
Of significance, too, is that mechanised farming practices leaves labour-intensive farming at an economic disadvantage. Some crops, notably many fruit and veg, cannot be picked and processed mechanically.
Perhaps it is the economic effect of the move to capital-intensive farming, combined by all the added value levels between harvest and the supermarket shelf, that has resulted in 70% of the world’s primary production being starchy carbohydrates, and a mere 12% being fruit and vegetables. But that’s how it is.
And . . . that results in 34% of the UK household food spend being on edible products with zero or close to zero nutritional content — I won’t call ’em food products.
How do we know this? Through an analysis of our VAT spend, a whole other story which you can read about here.
And the significant money being made by big corporations that manufacture these edible products. Nestle, Pepsico and Coca Cola are Forbes’ 2017 top three “food and drink” companies; indeed, most by far of the top 25 companies are in the business of supplying such edible products.
(For more info about one of these companies, see our report Coca Cola and its effects on us and the city.)