Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Can Billions Eat Without Destroying The Environment? NO.

Much attention has been focused on the recent IPCC report on the dire manifestations of even worse global warming by 2040, e.g.

Climate report understates threat

That report, in the words of Erik Solheim - quoted by WaPo writer Margaret Sullivan in a recent piece ('Earth's Fate Is All That Matters Now') :

"Is like a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen. We have to put out the fire."

But will we? CAN we?  With the deniers still in full dispute mode, that may be too big an ask.

Another report - bearing an equally grave message -   published last Wednesday in the journal Nature,  has received far less attention. The report featuring 23 authors hailing from Europe, the U.S., Australia and Lebanon - reviewed the many components of the global food system and how they interact with the environment. One of the primary takeaways was that transformation of the existing food system is just as critical as controlling the increase in CO2 tied to climate change. This is given that the planet will hold as may as 9.5 billion to 10 billion people by 2050. Right now the population is  7..6 billion, meaning we are talking about an additional 2 billion mouths at least.

Will they get enough to eat? Will the existing system be able to deliver given what we know about it? Not really!  As in the case of the IPCC report there is the chasm between what needs to be done to save a dire situation and what most likely will be done.  Many are preaching the need for carbon taxes given the ominous United Nations report — prepared by The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change.  But this still isn't enough to stave off the worst warming,  likely to be closer to 4 C more by 2050.  That will require putting 500m autos out of commission in the next two years. Anyone likely to do that? Any nation?  Hardly!

Similar constraints and plain human cussedness and obstinacy stand in the way of having the food to feed an additional 2 billion or so by 2050.

For example, with the current demand for meat and animal protein, some 70 percent of the world's fresh water is already used for agriculture - much of it for meat consumption, Already, half the planet's ice -free land surface is devoted to livestock or the growing of food for those animals - not humans.  This is an area equal to North and South America combined, according to Katherine Richardson, Director of the Sustainable Science Center at the University of Copenhagen.

To give an idea of the water intensity of typical livestock based production, A 1/3-pound burger requires 660 gallons of water. Most of this water is for producing beef. Meanwhile,  one pound of beef requires 1,799 gallons of water, which includes irrigation of the grains and grasses in feed, plus water for drinking and processing.

It doesn't take a Mensa member to see this is totally unsustainable in a world faced with 25% more humans in barely 30 years.

This is critical given the current demand for food is increasing more rapidly than the population. So by the time the population hits even 9 billion we will be in serious trouble.

Added to the problem is the fact that one of the primary reservoirs for CO2 - rain forests - are inexorably being cleared for more crop land. So while more space is rendered to feed human livestock, and humans, less is available for CO2- absorbing trees in forests.

Not even mentioned yet is the amount of current food waste which translates into massive water waste we can ill afford.

Seven years ago a  study released  by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). showed roughly 1.3 billion tons of food was either lost or wasted globally due to inefficiencies throughout the food supply chain.  According to the report, industrialized and developing countries wasted or lost roughly the same amount of food each year – 670 million and 630 million tons respectively. But while rich countries wasted food primarily at the level of the consumer, the main issue for developing countries was food lost due to weak infrastructure – including poor storage, and inadequate processing and packaging facilities that lack the capacity to keep produce fresh.

 At the time it had been made evident that food losses mean lost income for small farmers and higher prices for poor consumers in developing countries. Now we also know the exent to which food waste and losses mean wasted water resources as well. 

According to a report  published in Plos One  6 months ago, Americans alone wasted over 25 percent of their food between 2007 and 2014.   Researchers at the US Department of Agriculture analyzed eight years of food dat  to see where food is wasted and also what members of the public say they do at meal times.  About 150,000 tons of food is tossed out in US households each day, equivalent to about a third of the daily calories that each American consumes. Fruit and vegetables were the most likely to be thrown out, followed by dairy and then meat.

This waste was also found to have an environmental toll, with the volume of discarded food equivalent to the yearly use of 30 m acres of land and 4.2 trillion gallons of irrigated water. Rotting food not only denies nutrition to a vast population that needs it but also clogs up landfills and releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

Let us also note, for the record and in terms of the new Nature paper, that ruminants such as cows are prodigious generators of methane as they digest food.   Thus, the Nature report notes that greenhouse gas emissions from the global food system could be reduced significantly if people curb red meat consumption and instead follow a diet based on fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes.

In effect, the report emphasized a "synergistic combination of measures will be needed to limit environmental damage" especially as the world population dramatically increases.

But can this be done? One contributor to the Study, Johan Rockstrom, insists:

"Feeding humanity is possible. It is just a question of whether we can do it in an environmentally responsible way."

To which I concur, for the present population, but not for the one projected in 2050.  If we keep eating heavily protein -based diets, especially now in the U.S. and China (which has derived a new taste for pork and beef amongst its middle class millions) there is no way in hell that 9.5 billion can be adequately fed in 2050. Far less doing so without terminating whatever is left of the environment by then.

Interestingly, the Nature report is mostly agnostic on the issue of GMO crops and foods in the food supply. This is incredible given now even another physician - Dr. Erika Schwartz - has weighed in against them in her book, 'Don't Let Your Doctor Kill You'.  Well, in her particular chapter it could have been headed 'Don't Let Monsanto Kill You', i.e. with its glyphosate -riddled GMOs that engender all manner of cancers, other health issues.

Curiously, the report also takes no position on population growth - which is remarkable in itself. That is given that unless global population is stabilized no change in food production or efficiency will be able to feed the additional billions.  We may not like to admit it, but in terms  of adequate resources this planet does have a human carrying capacity.

The projections now are for at least 9.5  billion people by 2050, and an 80 percent probability of 12.3 billion on Earth by 2100. Simply put, there simply aren't the resources to support even the lower addition. At root, the issue is sustainability - especially for water which is needed for crops. NO water, no crops to feed a growing population. The graphic below puts this into perspective;                                               

The interpretation of the graph (upward) is straightforward. By June, 2030 TWO full Earths - that is,  the resources therein - will be needed to support the then population. Already we are at 1.7 Earths. Every year Global Footprint Network raises awareness about global ecological overshoot with its Earth Overshoot Day campaign. Earth Overshoot Day is the day on the calendar when humanity has used up the resources that it takes the planet the full year to regenerate.

Given the report's omission of such hard realities it is evident to me that no, billions cannot eat without destroying what's left of the environment - and by 2050 the extra billions may not have enough to eat, period.

See also:

Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits | Nature

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