Our Day of Reckoning

By: Richard Mills


As a general rule, the most successful man in life is the man who has the best information


The second half of the 20th century saw the biggest increase in the world's population in human history.

Our population surged because:

  • Medical advances lessened the mortality rate in many countries
  • Massive increases in agricultural productivity because of the "Green Revolution"
The global death rate has dropped almost continuously since the start of the industrial revolution - personal hygiene, improved methods of sanitation and the development of antibiotics have all played a major role.

The term Green Revolution refers to a series of research, development, and technology transfers that happened between the 1940s and the late 1970s.

The initiatives involved:
  • Development of high yielding varieties of cereal grains
  • Expansion of irrigation infrastructure
  • Modernization of management techniques
  • Mechanization
  • Distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides to farmers
Tractors with gasoline powered internal combustion engines (versus steam) became the norm in the 1920s after Henry Ford developed his Fordson in 1917 - the first mass produced tractor. This new technology was available only to relatively affluent farmers and it was not until the 1940s tractor use became widespread.

Electric motors and irrigation pumps made farming and ranching more efficient. Major innovations in animal husbandry - modern milking parlors, grain elevators, and confined animal feeding operations - were all made possible by electricity.

Advances in fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, antibiotics and growth hormones all led to better weed, insect and disease control.

There were major advances in plant and animal breeding - crop hybridization, artificial insemination of livestock, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Further down the food chain came innovations in food processing and distribution.

All these new technologies increased global agriculture production with the full effects starting to be felt in the 1960s.

Cereal production more than doubled in developing nations - yields of rice, maize, and wheat increased steadily. Between 1950 and 1984 world grain production increased by over 250% - and the world added over two billion more people to the dinner table.

The Green Revolution

The modernization and industrialization of our global agricultural industry led to the single greatest explosion in food production in history. The agricultural reforms and resulting production increases fostered by the Green Revolution are responsible for avoiding widespread famine in developing countries and for feeding billions more people since. The Green Revolution also helped kick start the greatest explosion in human population in our history - it took only 40 years (starting in 1950) for the population to double from 2.5 billion to five billion people.

Norman Borlaug, an American scientist, is often called the Father of the Green Revolution (GR). In 1943, he began conducting research in Mexico regarding developing new, disease resistant high yielding varieties of wheat. Mexico then combined Borlaug's wheat varieties with the agricultural technologies being developed at the time and was able to become a wheat exporter by the 1960s - prior to Mexico's Green Revolución the country was importing almost half of its wheat supply.

Improving seeds is what people have been doing since the beginning of agriculture - people selected the biggest seeds that were easiest to thresh and stored them for planting the next crop. But in Mexican test plots something special happened - improved varieties of short stemmed wheat dramatically increased yields.

"Borlaug's innovations would change wheat production worldwide forever. Borlaug began by tackling stem rust, a highly contagious mold-like fungus that breeds on a variety of grasses and transfers to wheat just as it comes to maturity. Stem rust could ruin entire fields of wheat at once. After extensive testing, MAP staff discovered that while foreign varieties were more resistant to stem rust than native wheat varieties, foreign varieties tended to mature late in the season. Furthermore, higher-yielding wheat varieties were more rust-susceptible than lower-yielding ones. 
The MAP wheat program made three key discoveries. First, enhancing soil, particularly through nitrogen supplementation, increased wheat yield even with ongoing stem rust problems. Second, to make new hybrid crosses, in 1945 Borlaug began "shuttle-breeding," or moving seed from Chapingo, with its early growing season, to Sonora, which had a later growing season. Shuttle breeding cut development time in half and fostered varieties that could thrive across a variety of conditions. Finally, Borlaug began working with "Norin" dwarf wheat imported from the U.S., a short straw variety that was both rust-resistant and higher yielding. When it was incorporated into the elaborate crosses already developed, wheat production rose dramatically. Mexico became self-sufficient in wheat production by 1956, and in MAP's first twenty years, Mexico tripled its wheat production." The Mexican Agriculture Program (MAP),

What makes these improved plants successful are:
  • Plants with the largest seeds were selected for breeding to create the most production
  • By maximizing the seed or food portion of the plant, the plant is able to use photosynthesis more efficiently because the energy produced during this process went directly to the food portion of the plant
  • By selectively breeding plants that were not sensitive to day length, researchers doubled a crop's production because the plants were not limited to certain areas of the globe based solely on the amount of light available to them

These high yield plant varieties need:
  • Fertilizers
  • Irrigation
  • Pesticides

The "revolution" in Green Revolution is well deserved. The new seeds along with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and more irrigation replaced traditional farming practices in many areas of the world.

The Green Revolution's use of hybrid seeds, irrigation, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fossil fuels, farm machinery, and high-tech growing and processing systems combined to greatly increase agriculture yields. The Green Revolution is responsible for feeding billions - and likely enabling the birth of billions more people.

Unfortunately the high yield growth is tapering off and in some cases declining. This stagnation, and in some cases decline, in productivity is due to a depleting natural resources base such as a steep fall in ground water table levels because irrigation has depleted water aquifers and chemical fertilizers and pesticides have impaired water quality, while their overuse has contributed to a deficiency of micro-nutrients in the soil and overall deteriorating soil health.

Narrowly focusing on increasing production as the Green Revolution did cannot alleviate hunger because it failed to alter three simple facts;

An increase in food production does not necessarily result in less hunger - if the poor don't have the money to buy food increased production is not going to help them.

The most severe consequences of non-existent or more expensive staple foods are first felt in developing countries whose citizens spend an exorbitant percentage of their incomes feeding themselves and their family compared to families in the western world. Almost half of the planets population lives on less than $2.50 a day - roughly 1.4 billion people live on less than $1.25 per day.

When food prices soar these people lack the money to feed themselves and their children - when your living on a couple of dollars a day, or less, and most of your income already goes to feed your family there's no money to cover a price spike in the cost of survival.

Secondly, a narrow focus on production ultimately defeats itself as it destroys the base on which agriculture depends - topsoil and water.

One of the most basic, fundamental problems we've created for ourselves is the impact of human activities on the land we need to cultivate for our very survival.

"The top 20cm of soil is all that stands between us and extinction." ~ Luc Gnacadja, executive secretary of the UNCCD

It takes 100 years to generate a single millimeter of topsoil - 24 billion tons of fertile soil disappear annually.

Over the past four decades, 15 percent of the Earth's land area - an area larger than the United States and Mexico combined - have been degraded through human activities. Desertification doesn't refer to the advance of deserts which can and do expand naturally. Desertification is a different process where land in arid or semi-dry areas becomes degraded - the soil loses its productivity and the cover vegetation disappears or is degraded to the point where wind and water erosion can carry away the topsoil leaving behind a highly infertile mix of dust and sand.

Land degradation, and the eventual resulting desertification of dry land ecosystems is most often caused by human activities such as:
  • Unsustainable farming - intensive farming depletes the nutrients in the soil
  • Overgrazing - animals eat away grasses and erode topsoil with their hooves
  • Deforestation or clear-cutting of land - the tree and plant cover that binds the soil is removed
  • Misuse of water resources
  • Industrial activities
Climate change can accelerate and intensify the degradation process.

And thirdly, to end hunger once and for all, we must make food production sustainable and develop secure distribution networks of needed foodstuffs.

Our agriculture system is concentrated on producing a very few staple crops - there is a very serious lack of crop diversity. Corn, wheat, rice and soy are the main staples and production is oftentimes half a world away from where the majority of the crop would be consumed. The world's extreme poor exist almost exclusively on what is a 'buy today, eat today' plant based diet - wheat, corn, soy or rice provide the bulk of their calories.

Taken together, this means if we get hit by a particularly bad harvest in one area, if a severe El Nino strikes, or more localized severe weather phenomena strikes, food supplies can get totally out of control in many countries.

Considering that the global food supply chain is weak (easily disrupted by lack of transportation, weather, insurgency, stealing) and non-existent in many areas then you have a recipe for potential disaster in many regions of the world.

If a person was so inclined they could bury their head in the sand and write off all of the above as nothing more than something someone in the poorer, undeveloped parts of the world has to worry about. After all we here in the west have our grocery stores and unlimited food supplies, right?

That might not be prudent thinking.

Western consumers are, for all intent and purposes, totally dependent on retail food stores for their subsistence. Yet these stores have only 2 - 3 days of inventory on hand at any one time. If any kind of a short term crisis hits, let alone a massive disruption in the food supply chain, stockpiling and hoarding will quickly empty store shelves.


Ecological Overshoot

For most of human history we've been consuming resources at a rate lower than what the planet was able to regenerate.

Unfortunately we have crossed a critical threshold. The demand we are now placing on our planets resources appears to have begun to outpace the rate at which nature can replenish them.

The gap between human demand and supply is known as ecological overshoot. To better understand the concept think of your bank account - in it you have $5000.00 paying monthly interest. Month after month you take the interest plus $100. That $100 is your financial, or for our purposes, your ecological overshoot and its withdrawal is obviously unsustainable.

Today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.6 planets to provide the resources we use.

The United Nations (U.N.) says if current population and consumption trends continue, by the 2030s, we will need the equivalent of two Earths annual resource production to support us. That's a lot of overshoot and it is in no way shape or form sustainable.

Conclusión

A day of reckoning is coming...

According to the U.N. the world's population reached 7.3 billion as of mid-2015 and is growing by 1.18 per cent or 83 million people annually.

Using the U.N.'s medium projection, not the highest nor the lowest, the medium projection says the world's population is expected to reach 8.5 billion in 2030, and to increase to 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100.

Population growth, climate change and our destructive attitude towards our home, the Earth, and our wasteful use of her resources, are humanity's main concerns going forward.

Here's a link to Norman Borlaugs Nobel Lecture, December 11th, 1970. It's a fascinating speech and one all of us need to read.

Borlaug is on record saying the Earth, if we did everything right and technological advances kept improving yields, could support 10 billion people. Unfortunately yields have not kept pace, further technological advances are slow in coming, population growth in undeveloped countries is out of control and something Borlaug never had a chance to fully consider - the effects of global climate change, has in your author's opinion, vastly lowered the 10 billion figure.

Our coming day of reckoning should be on all our radar screens. Is it on yours?

If not, maybe it should be.

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