How to feed people under a regime of Climate Change
This recent article was provided by the author in August 2003 for the Global Warming Crisis Council. The paper is an educational and spirited tour de force.
by Edward Goldsmith
The first thing that must be pointed out is that climate change is by far and
away the most daunting problem that mankind has ever encountered.
The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its last
assessment report has told us that we could expect a temperature change of up to
5.8 degrees within this century. However,
the IPCC did not take into account a number of critical factors including the
annihilation of our tropical forests and other vegetation.
However, these contain six hundred billion tons of carbon almost as much
as is contained in the atmosphere, much of which is likely to be released into
it in the next decades by the increasingly uncontrolled activities of the giant
logging companies. The Director General of the United Nations Environment
Programme recently stated that only a miracle could save the worldís remaining
Nor does the IPCC take into account the terrible damage perpetrated on
the worldís soils by modern industrial agriculture with its huge machines and
arsenal of toxic chemicals. The
worldís soils contain one thousand six hundred billion tons of carbon, more
than twice as much as is contained in the atmosphere. Much of this will be
released in the coming decades unless there is a rapid switch to sustainable -
largely organic - agricultural practices. On the other hand, the Hadley Centre
of the British Meteorological Organisation has taken these and other such
factors into account in its more recent models and has concluded that the
worldís average temperature will increase by up to 8.8 rather than 5.8 degrees
this century.(1) Other
climatologists who take into account often still largely neglected factors are
If they are right, what then are the implications?
The IPCC tells us that we can expect a considerable increase in heatwaves,
storms, floods, and of course, the spread of tropical diseases into temperate
areas, which will not only affect human health but also that of our crops.
It also tells us to expect a rise in sea levels of anything up to eighty
eight centimetres this century which will affect (by seawater intrusion into the
soils underlying croplands and by temporary and also permanent flooding)
something like 30% of the worldís agricultural lands. (3) Of course, if the
Hadley Centre is right, the implications will be horrifying. Very worrying too
is the melting of the secondary Antarctic, the Arctic, and in particular, the
Greenland ice-shields which is occurring far more quickly than was predicted by
the IPCC. Among other things, this will reduce the salinity of the oceans which
in turn must weaken if not divert, oceanic currents such as the Gulf Stream from
their present course.(4) This process if it continues, would eventually lead to
the freezing up of areas that at present have a temperate climate such as
Northern Europe which could eventually resemble that of Labrador which is on the
It is indeed ironic that global warming could lead to local or regional cooling.
If this were not bad enough, we must realise that even if we stopped burning
fossil fuels tomorrow, our planet would continue to heat up for at least a 150
years; the residence time of carbon dioxide the most important greenhouse gas in
the atmosphere, while the oceans will continue to warm up for a thousand years
at least. All we can do is take
those measures - and very dramatic ones at that - that are required to slow down
the warming process so that when our climate eventually stabilises, our planet
remains partly, at least, habitable.
Unfortunately, climate change is proceeding faster than predicted. This
has been made apparent among other things by the prolonged droughts in many
parts of the world. Four years of
drought in much of Africa have resulted in thirty to forty million people facing
starvation. At the same time,
drought in the main bread-baskets of the world: the American corn belt, the
Canadian plains, and the Australian wheat belt will seriously reduce cereal
exports which is not very encouraging for the vast masses of people in Africa
and elsewhere who are today facing starvation.
The climate in Europe has also been dreadful.
Massive floods in Germany in 2002 are expected to cost at least 13
billion dollars. The terrible
storms in northern Italy, with hail stones the size of tennis balls, destroyed
crops in 2002 over a wide area. Drought
in southern Europe as also drastically harvests.
I was personally driven through endless olive groves in the southern Italian
province of Foggia and did not see a single olive on any of the trees. Worse still, southern Sicily is said to be drying up.
We must remember that all this is the result (partly at least) of no more
than 0.7 degree increase in global temperatures.
What will things be like when we have to grow our food in a world whose
average temperature has increased by 2 or 3 degrees, let alone by 5 to 8 degrees
as we are told we might have to later in this century?
Emissions of nitrous oxides and methane
this must make it clear that climate change or rather its different
manifestations mentioned above will be the most important constraints on our
ability to feed ourselves in the coming decades.
Clearly we cannot just sit and wait for things to get worse.
Instead, we must do everything we can to assure the transformation of our
food production system so that it helps us to combat Global warming and, at the
same time, to feed ourselves, in what will almost certainly be far less
The term îtransformationî is quite clearly appropriate as modern
industrial agriculture by its very nature makes and must make a very large
contribution to greenhouse gases. Consider
that currently it is responsible for 25% of the worldís carbon dioxide
emissions, 60% of methane gas emissions and 80% of nitrous oxide, all powerful
Nitrous oxide is generated through the action of denitrifying bacteria in
the soil when land is converted to agriculture. When tropical rainforests are
converted into a pasture, nitrous oxide emissions increase by three times.
All in all, land conversion is leading to the release of around half a
million tonnes a year of nitrogen in the form of nitrous oxide.
Nitrous oxide is some 200 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse
gas, though fortunately atmospheric concentrations of nitrous oxide are
currently over 1,000 times lower than that of carbon dioxide - 0.31ppmv compared
with 365 ppmv. Nitrogenous fertilisers are another major source of nitrous
oxide. Around 70 million tonnes a
year of nitrogen are now applied to crops and are contributing as much as ten
per cent of the total annual nitrous oxide emissions of 22 million tonnes. With
fertiliser applications increasing substantially, especially in developing
countries, nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture could double over the next
30 years. (6)
Netherlands, the site of the worldís most intensive farming, as much as 580
kilograms per hectare of nitrogen in the form of nitrates or ammonium salts are
applied every year as fertiliser and at least ten per cent of that nitrogen gets
straight back into the atmosphere, either as ammonia or nitrous oxide. (7)
The growth of agriculture is also leading to increasing emissions of
methane. In the last few decades,
there has been a substantial increase in livestock numbers - cattle, in
particular - much of which has been made possible by the conversion of tropical
forests to pasture. Cattle emit
large amounts of methane and the destruction of forests for cattle-raising is
therefore leading to increased emissions of two of the most important greenhouse
Worldwide, the emissions of methane emitted by livestock amount to some 70 million tonnes. With modern methods of production, cattle are increasingly fed on a high-protein diet - especially when fattened in feedlots. Such cattle emit considerably more methane gas than grass-fed cattle. Even the fertilisation of grasslands with nitrogen fertilisers can both decrease methane uptake and increase nitrous oxide production, which thereby increases atmospheric concentrations of both these gases. (8)
The expansion of rice paddies has also seriously increased methane
emissions. Rain-fed rice produces far less methane than inundated rice
fertilised with nitrogen fertiliser. Once
again, the modernisation of agriculture increases methane gas emissions as well
as nitrogen emissions.
The most energy-intensive components of modern industrial agriculture are
the production of nitrogen fertiliser, farm machinery and pumped irrigation.
They account for more than 90% of the total direct and indirect energy used in
agriculture and they are all essential to it.
Emissions of carbon from the burning of fossil fuels for agricultural
purposes in England and Germany were as much as 0.046 and 0.053 tonnes per
hectare while they are only 0.007 tonnes, i.e. roughly seven times lower, in
non-mechanised agricultural systems.(9)
This ties in with the estimate made by Pretty and Ball (10) that to
produce a ton of cereals or vegetables by means of modern agriculture requires
6 to 10 times more energy than it does by using sustainable agricultural
It could be argued that a shift to renewable energy sources such as wind
power, wave-power, solar power and fuel cells would avoid having to reduce
energy consumption to protect our climate,
however, this necessary substitution would take decades - some think
about 50 years or so.
a radical reduction in gas emissions is immediately necessary if we are to
believe the Hadley Centreís contention that rising temperatures within thirty
years will have become sufficient to begin transforming our main sinks, (our
forests, oceans and soils) for carbon dioxide and methane gas into sources of
these greenhouse gases. If this occurs, of course, we would be caught up in a
ìrunawayî process, i.e. an unstoppable chain-reaction towards increasing
temperatures and climatic instability.
What we must develop is of course an agricultural system that does not
cause these terrible problems, and which on the contrary helps to revitalise and
hence build-up our soil resources. Such an agricultural system would,
surprisingly enough for those imbued with the ideology of progress, have much in
common with those that were once practiced by our distant ancestors and which
are still practiced by those communities in the remoter parts of the Third
World, which have succeeded in staying, to some extent at least, outside the
orbit of the industrial system. They may be ìuneconomicî within the context
of an aberrant and necessarily short-lived industrial society, but they are the
only ones that are actually designed to feed local people and in a really
sustainable manner. Significantly, the most respected authorities on sustainable
agriculture, among them Jules Pretty and Miguel Altieri, and there are many
others, increasingly use the term ìsustainable agricultureî as synonymous
with ìtraditional agricultureî.
traditional agriculture is the answer one might ask why are governments and
international agencies so keen to prevent traditional peoples from practising it
anymore and to substitute modern industrial agriculture in its place.
The answer is that traditional agriculture is not compatible with the
developmental process that we are imposing on the people of the Third World,
still less with the global economy, and less still with the immediate interests
of the transnational corporations that control it all.
That this is so is clear from the following quotes from two World Bank
reports. In the first, on the
subject of the development of Papua New Guinea, the World Bank admits that ìa
characteristic of Papua New Guineaís subsistence agriculture is its relative
richnessî. Indeed ìover much of
the country natureís bounty produces enough to eat with relatively little
expenditure of effortî. (10) Why then change it? The answer is clear, ìUntil
enough subsistence farmers have their traditional lifestyles changed by the
growth of new consumption wants, this labour constraint may make it difficult
to introduce new cropsî (11)- those required for large scale production
for export of course.
Even in the World Bankís iniquitous Berg report, it is acknowledged ìthat
smallholders are outstanding managers of their own resources - their land and
capital, fertiliser and waterî. (12) But
in the same report it is also acknowledged that the dominance of this type of
agriculture or ësubsistence productioní ìpresented obstacles to
agricultural development. The
farmers had to be induced to produce for the market, adopt new crops and
undertake new risksî. (13)
Whether we like it or not, modern industrial agriculture is on the way out. It is proving ever less effective. For instance we are now encountering diminishing returns on fertilisers. The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) admitted in 1997 that wheat yields in both Mexico and the USA had shown no increase in 13 years. In 1999, Global wheat production actually fell for the second consecutive year to about 589 million tons, down 2% from 1998. Fertilisers are too expensive and as McKenney puts it ìthe biological health of soils has been driven into such an impoverished state in the interests of quick, easy fertility, that productivity is now comprised, and fertilisers are less and less effectiveî. (14)
Pesticides too are ever less effective. Weeds, fungi, insects and other
potential pests are amazingly adaptable. 500
species of insects have already developed genetic resistance to pesticides as
have 150 plant diseases, 133 kinds of weeds and 70 species of fungus.
The reaction today is to apply evermore powerful and more expensive
poisons, which in the US cost 8 billion dollars a year not counting the cost of
spreading them on the land. (15) The farmers are loosing the battle, the pests
are surviving the chemical onslaught but farmers are not.
More and more of them are leaving the land, and the situation will get
Today we are witnessing the forced introduction of genetically modified crops by international agencies in collusion with national governments, as the result of the massive lobbying being carried out by an increasingly powerful biotechnology industry. Genetically modified crops, quite contrary to what we are told, do not increase yields. Also they require more inputs including more herbicides, whose use they are supposed to reduce significantly, as well as irrigation water. Also the science on which they are based is seriously flawed. No one knows for sure what will be the unexpected consequences of introducing, by a very rudimentary technique, a specific gene into the genome of a very different creature. Surprises are in store and some could cause serious problems of all sorts. (16)
Another reason why industrial agriculture has had itís day, even without climate change, is that it is far too vulnerable to increases in the price of oil, more so, to shortages in the availability of this fuel.
If three million people starved to death in North Korea in the last few years,
it was partly because, as a result of the collapse of the Russian market which
absorbed most of its exports, it could no longer afford to import the vast
amount of oil on which its highly mechanised, Soviet inspired, agricultural
system had become so totally dependent. Its
ìfarmersî had simply forgotten how to wield a hoe or push a wheelbarrow.
The UK could have been in a similar plight if the transport strike of 2000 had lasted a few more weeks. In an industrial society, oil is required to transport essential food imports, to build and operate tractors, to produce and use fertilisers and pesticides and process, package and transport food to the supermarkets - a more vulnerable situation is difficult to imagine at the best of times - but it is suicidal today.
It is not just temporary oil shortages associated with temporary jumps in the price of oil that we are destined to face but the steady decline in the availability of this commodity. As this occurs oil is due to become increasingly expensive until it will be affordable only a minority of corporations - US ones, in all probability, as the US oil industry is positioning itself to take over and use for its own purposes the fast declining supplies. The truth is that worldwide oil production will peak within the next four to ten years. Oil discoveries have been very disappointing and much of the oil we are using today was discovered some forty years or so ago. The Caspian Sea area which many people in the oil business expected to contain as much as 200 billion barrels of oil, according to Colin Campbell, (17) one of the worldís leading authorities on the oil industry, is more likely to contain some 25 billion barrels and no more than 40 or 50 billion. This is not all that significant in a world that uses 78 billion barrels a year, and whose consumption goes on increasing at an alarming rate.
Though the US has tried desperately to reduce its dependence on the
Middle East that it has succeeded in doing to a certain extent, alternative
sources of oil are drying up more quickly than expected. Iran for instance is
unlikely to produce more oil than it requires for its own use in more than ten
or fifteen years - indeed in the next twenty years the US will have become more
dependent on the Middle East than it is today as oil production of countries
like Angola, Nigeria, Venezuela, and Mexico also begin to fall. This explains of course, why the US oil industry which is now
in effect, the government of the USA, is so fanatically determined to conquer
Iraq which has 11% of world known reserves of which only a fraction are
exploited, and whose oil is the cheapest in the world. The economic consequences
of the coming world oil crisis cannot be over-estimated.
Protecting the Soil
Industrial agricultureís main contribution to carbon dioxide emissions
is via the loss of soil carbon to the atmosphere.(18) This is caused by
intensive industrial agriculture in particular by such practices as :
deforestation and the drainage of peat lands and wetlands
in order to make available ever more land for agriculture and livestock
deep ploughing which exposes the soil to the elements, and
when practised on
steep slopes, causes serious soil erosion,
the use of heavy machinery that compacts the soil reducing or eliminating
open pore space for providing channels for air, water, plant roots and soil
the use of fertilisers as a substitute for natural fertilisers
soil structure killing and hence soil organisms,
the use of pesticides, some of which as Rachel Carson (19)
showed way back in 1962, do exactly the same thing,
overgrazing that has led everywhere to soil degradation and
in general intensive large scale monoculture of wheat and maize etc. year
after year which eventually turns the soil into a lifeless dust-like substrate
for crops that can only mature if dosed with increasing amounts of artificial
fertilisers and other inputs.
most obvious method of preventing soil-loss and indeed of increasing the organic
matter in the soil, is by the use of manures, compost, mulches and cover crops
such as forest bark, straw or other organic materials which can be fed back into
the soil. These serve to protect
the soil from erosion, desiccation, excessive heat and to promote, in this way,
the decomposition and mineralisation of organic matter. (20)
It also has other advantages such as reducing soil-born diseases and in
addition it also increases productivity. As Jules Pretty notes, in the Niger
Republic mulching with twigs and branches permits cultivation on hitherto
abandoned soils, (21) ìproducing some 450kg of cereals per hectare. In the hot
Savannah area of northern Ghana, straw mulches combined with livestock manures,
produce double the maize and sorghum yields than does the equivalent amount of
nitrogen added as inorganic fertiliserî.(22)
Pretty cites other impressive examples of this sort, in Guatemala, the
State of Santa Katarina, Brazil and elsewhere.
It is important that the soil should be left uncovered for as short a
time as possible. An undercrop, preferably leguminous such as lucerne, can be
sown along with a crop of cereals so that when the latter is harvested the land
remains under cover, and at the same time, enriched.
tillage, better still zero tillage appears ideal as it entirely avoids ploughing.
However to get rid of the weeds requires a lot of herbicides which are
undesirable on many counts. What is clearly needed is zero tillage without the
use of herbicides. If the area involved is small, mulches could presumably be
used to smother the weeds. A little ingenuity would, I am sure, enable us to
find alternative methods for killing weeds.
Significantly, ìWaipunaî a New Zealand Company suppresses weeds on
roadsides by spraying them with hot water. The heat is retained with the use of
an organic mousse partly made from coconut milk.
It is apparently very effective.
The FAO, in a report already referred to, tells us that the absorption of
carbon by the soil is maximised under a system of agroforestry. It can be as
high as from 2 to 9 tonnes annually. (23) Apparently, if agroforestry were
practised worldwide, agriculture could absorb in a ten year period some 2010
1.3Pg of atmospheric carbon annually. (24) The IPCC, in its Third Assessment
Report (2000), (24) also concludes that agroforestry yields the best results not
only by increasing soil
organic matter but also above-ground, woody biomass.
The USDA National Agroforestry Centre (2000) agrees that carbon sequestration under agroforestry is particularly high. They favour short-rotation coppicing that, if the wood is burnt instead of a fossil fuel, provides a double benefit through carbon sequestration and energy substitution. The Agroforestry Centre suggests that, with coppicing, soil carbon can be increased by 6.6 tonnes C/ha/yr over a 15-year rotation and wood by 12.22 tonnes C/ha/yr over the rotation. (25)
Combining agriculture with forestry is a solution multiplier: - Thus wind
velocity is reduced. In summer, the temperature under trees is much lower than
in open areas and also warmer in winter. Just
planting individual trees in the fields provides the necessary shade for plants
and for livestock. The humidity under trees is also greater than on open sites
because of the reduced evaporation and increased water-retention made possible
by the improved soil structure. The litter provided by the trees makes excellent
fertiliser especially when composted. Forested areas also play an enormous role
in preventing floods as the rainfall stored under the forest floor, rendered
porous by the tree roots, is released slowly to open spaces and to rivers rather
than all at once from otherwise hard deforested land. (26)
Forested areas are also a source of food and forage as well as vegetable dyes,
medicinal herbs and wood for posts, to prop up vines for instance, and for
fencing. Tree crops are also a valuable supplement or substitute for annual
crops. The sweet chestnut has a
very high food value, for instance, and was grown extensively in high altitudes
in southern Europe for making flour for pasta and bread. In the tropics,
perennial tree crops such as breadfruit, plantain, jackfruit etc. are still
important and are made the most of in Javanese and Singhalese forest gardens.
all, the agricultural methods required to protect our invaluable soil resources,
which is essential for coping with climate change, provide many additional
benefits. They give rise to a higher biodiversity of soil micro-organisms and
micro-fauna. They are much more energy efficient because of their far lower
dependence on energy-intensive inputs. By adding so much biomass to the soil,
they increase productivity as well as reduce costs, thereby rendering a farm
less vulnerable to discontinuities. Last
but not least, they provide very much healthier food.
Another essential change to our present agricultural system involves the phasing out of modern perennial irrigation methods. Modern irrigation is one of the most energy intensive components of industrial agriculture. Pimentel considers that when it is based on the use of water extracted from a depth of more than 30 metres, pumped irrigation
more than three times more fossil fuel energy for corn production than does the
rain-fed cultivation of the same amount of corn. (27) In addition, rice
cultivation which feeds a vast proportion of the people of the tropical world
gives rise as already mentioned, to very much more methane gas when rice fields
are flooded and treated with artificial fertiliser rather than rain-fed and
grown organically. The reason is
that flooding cuts off the oxygen supply to the soil, causing the organic matter
it contains to decompose into methane gas. (28)
Admittedly modern perennial irrigation is highly productive and makes
three crops a year quite feasible. Indeed, about 11% of the worldís crop land
(250 million hectares in 1994) are under perennial irrigation and supply as much
as 40% of the worldís food.(29)
dependence on perennially irrigated land is largely due to the cultivation of
crop varieties such as the hybrids of the Green Revolution and now the
genetically modified varieties which require very much more irrigation water,
just as they do more fertiliser and pesticides. This is not the case with
traditional varieties some of which are also highly productive and to which, in
some areas of India, farmers are beginning to return to.
It is also due to the accent today on highly water-intensive export crops
such as sugar cane, eucalyptus and worse still ìbeefî.
As Reisner notes, to produce a pound of corn (maize) requires some 100 or
200 gallons of water. But to produce a pound of beef requires up to 8500 gallons
i.e. 20 to 80 times more water. (30)
In any case, modern irrigated agriculture could not be less sustainable.
The amount of water used for irrigation is doubling every 20 years and at
present consumes nearly 70% of all the water used world-wide, something that
cannot go on for much longer, with or without climate change. Almost without
exception modern irrigation especially in tropical areas leads to waterlogging
and salinisation. As this occurs so the land is taken out of production - more
of it, so it appears, than is actually brought under irrigation every year.
the USA alone, 50-60 million acres, 10% of all cultivated land has already been
degraded by salinisation and many thousands of acres have been removed from
cultivation. The depletion of
groundwater resources has been just as dramatic. The massive Ogallala aquifer, which was at one time regarded
as practically inexhaustible, is been depleted at the rate of 12 billion cubic
metres per year. Over the years it has lost 325 billion cubic metres of water,
the annual depletion of aquifers worldwide amounting to at least 163.6 billion
cubic metres. (31) Land taken out of irrigated agricultural simple becomes
second rate grazing land, that can support a mere fraction of the previous human
population in the area.
If modern irrigated agriculture has had itís day it is also because
more than a billion people world-wide are now suffering from water shortages,
and it is expected that the number will increase dramatically in the coming
decades especially with global-warming. We
must remember that much of the water that flows in many of the worldís main
rivers is derived from melting glaciers in the mountains where the sources of
the rivers lie. However, glaciers
world-wide are in full retreat as a result of global warming, which means that
the flow of many rivers will be seriously reduced - in some cases, according to
Cynthia Rosensweig, by as much as 25%.
as Bunyard notes, (32) the amount of water required for irrigation as surface
temperatures rise, must increase, partly because of the increased evaporation
from the soil, the reservoirs and the irrigation channels but also because of
increased evapotranspiration from the vegetation and in particular the forests.
The reaction of governments and of the World Trade Organisation is as usual, to
transform the problem into a business opportunity. Under the General Agreement
on Trade in Services, water is being privatised and wherever this happens, of
course, the price of water doubles or trebles and in the state of Orissa,
according to Vandana Shiva, (33) has increased tenfold and is now way beyond the
means of the small farmers.
The only answer is to abandon the cultivation of water intensive crops
and the rearing of livestock for export. Instead we must return to the
traditional varieties of subsistence crops most of which are rain-fed, and to
traditional methods of irrigation which are seasonal as opposed to perennial and
do not give rise to salinisation, water-logging or the other terrible problems
caused by modern irrigation systems. (34)
farmers in the Malwa Plateau in the State of Madhya Pradesh in Central India are
returning to unirrigated wheat varieties which they had abandoned under
government and corporate pressure some 30 years ago. Some of them grow a short
season leguminous crop or an early ripening variety of cereal which is given a
full dose of farm manure before the monsoons and is thoroughly ploughed in. No
drainage is required so that as much as possible of the rainfall is absorbed as
soil moisture. Neither of these crops interferes with the traditional wheat, the
variety grown being very deep rooting as it searches for moisture and nutrients,
and this insulates it from competition from the largely leguminous weeds. When
the monsoon waters withdraw, the field is tilled and the wheat sown, the winter
dew assuring that it reaches maturity in late February. At the same time there
are great savings on inputs for the Green Revolution HYVs require that the weeds
be removed since, with their short roots, they are unable to utilise the
moisture that lies deeper down in the ground. There are further benefits in
terms of soil quality improvement of course, the reduced demand for water. (35)
irrigation has been practised throughout the Indian Subcontinent, Sri Lanka,
Java and elsewhere for hundreds of years. It is based on water harvesting and is
managed by local communities in a highly democratic and equitable manner and
needless to say, in a totally sustainable one. Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain
tell us that during the drought of 1987 in India, distant villages close to the
Pakistan border, which had not yet ìbenefitedî from government water
schemes, still provided water for people to drink for the simple reason that
their traditional water harvesting systems had remained intact. In the
ìdeveloped villagesî, on the other hand, people went thirsty, wells had
either no water or no electricity for powering the pumps and the villages were
forced to depend on occasional government tankers. Agarwal and Narain also tell
us how Jodpur, the famous desert city, once had an astounding water-harvesting
system with nearly 200 water sources - about 50 tanks, 50 step wells and 70
wells. In their houses, people used
to collect the rainwater from rooftops via water collection devices called
addition, the surrounding catchment areas were once covered with thick forest
abounding in wild animals. Today of course, the forest has gone and the tanks -
beautiful structures as they were - are largely used as refuse dumps. When
modernisation brought people a piped water supply, Agarwal and Narain note
ìthey came to neglect their traditional systems and to depend on the
governmentî(37) - yet another policy that must be reversed.
The tanks must now clearly be restored and indeed extended as a matter of
urgency. At the same time communities must organise themselves in
order to learn how to operate and manage them as they once did. There is no
What must be the structure of the
agricultural system that satisfies our requirements?
The first, quite clearly, is that it must be highly localised.
Food instead of being produced for export, as farmers are forced to do by
the IMF and now by the World Trade Organisation, must be produced primarily for
local consumption. One reason is that transport in general accounts for one
eighth of world oil consumption. (38) and the transport of food products
accounts for a considerable slice of this. Consider that the import of food
products and animal feeds into the UK by sea, air and road, accounts for over 83
billion ton kilometres and this requires 1.6 billion litres of fuel which would
normally lead to annual emissions of 4.1 million tonnes of carbon-dioxide. (39)
Air transport is the most energy-intensive form of transport. To give an
idea, 127 calories of energy (aviation fuel) are needed to transport 1 calorie
of lettuce across the Atlantic.(40) Unfortunately more and more food is being
transported by air rather than by ship, indeed since 1980 imports by air-
freight of fruit and vegetables into the UK have increased by nearly 4 times.
The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution has estimated that, on current
trends, the contribution of air transport to man-made global warming is expected
to increase by no less than 5 times between 1992 - 2050. (41)
Scandalous as this may seem, the UK Government actually promotes this
trend by exempting airlines of both the fuel tax and value added tax.
As a result airlines pay up to 4 times less per litre for fuel than does
anyone else. (42)
The only answer is the localisation of food
production and distribution. According
to a study carried out in 2001 greenhouse gas emissions associated with the
transport of food from the local farm to a farmerís market are 650 times lower
than the average sold in supermarkets. In addition, to produce food locally, as
the Report notes, ìwould be a
major driver in rural regeneration as farm incomes would increase
substantiallyî. There would also be very much more co-operation among local
people and communities would be revitalised. (43)
The localisation of food is necessary even without climate change for it
is only by producing food locally that the poor, particularly in the Third
World, can have access to it. Indeed, one of the main causes of malnutrition and
hunger in poor countries is the shortage of land for producing food for local
consumption. Anything between 50
and 80% of the agricultural land of Third World countries is geared to the
export trade. Local people are reduced to growing their own food on rocky
outcrops or steep slopes that soon erode and become infertile. Urban Jonsson,
the UNICEF country representative in Tanzania tells us that,
ìwhen the World economy and Tanzaniaís State economy are doing well,
the villagers sell much of their maize and other staple foods. But when the
State economy is in a bad way......prices for food drop and give the farmer less
incentive to sell. Thus ìthe villagers do the only thing possible - they keep
the food and eat it themselvesî. They also use land which they previously used
for cash crops to grow food for their own consumption. In other words, it is
only when they cannot export their food that they can eat properly. (44)
Relative Self Sufficiency
To produce food locally means, in effect, increasing self-sufficiency at
a village, regional and state level. It
also means storing food at all these levels in order to face possible food
emergencies, which, scandalously enough, is illegal today as the WTO considers
that the money required is better spent on paying back debts to Western banks.
Of course, the way International Agencies define ìself-sufficiencyî has
nothing to do with the way the term is normally used for a country that produces
no food at all can still be regarded as ìself-sufficientî so long as it can
pay for its imports. What we call food self-sufficiency they call ìfood
autarkyî and for them this is the greatest crime any country can possibly
commit, for if it were adopted world-wide there would be no international trade,
no global economy and no transnational corporations, while the economy of
countries made dependent on world-trade would have to be drastically
transformed. That is perhaps the most important reason why the shift to
something approaching food autarky or rather self-sufficiency, in the real sense
of the term, is essential - though not in the extreme sense of the term as some
trade will always be beneficial but it is largely surpluses that must be traded.
Farms that cater for the local area and are largely self-sufficient must
necessarily be small. Big farms to
survive must cater for the world market as they increasingly do, or they would
not survive. What is
more, to maximise efficiency they must use heavy machinery, fertiliser,
pesticides and irrigation water, eliminate hedgerows and tree cover and grow a
single cash crop over vast stretches of land year after year - exactly what we
need to avoid - even without climate change.
We also need small farms because they are very much more productive than
big ones. Even the Food and
Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), which has spearheaded the
shift towards industrial agriculture worldwide, (45) now admits this.
Thus an FAO report makes clear that the farms with the highest
productivity in Syria, for instance, were found to be about 0.5 hectares, in
Mexico 3 hectares, in Peru 6 hectares, in India less than 1 hectare and in Nepal
a little less than 2. In each case
output was found to fall as soon as the size of the farm increased beyond these
most productive form of food production is undoubtedly horticulture.
In the UK, according to Kenneth Mellanby, (47) an English vegetable
garden can produce as much as 8 tonnes an acre. Significantly, during the war,
40% of Britainís food and vegetables were derived from just over 300,000 acres
of vegetable gardens and allotments. Unfortunately
most of these allotments were situated close to urban centres and have since
been ìdevelopedî. Clearly they
must urgently be replaced.
One reason why productivity is so high in a small farm or garden is that,
the most important input, as Dr Schumacher always put it, is TLC - ìtender
loving careî, and this, small farmers, who totally depend on their land for
their livelihood, are more likely to bestow on it than large-scale commercial
farmers who are only in it for the money. With climate change, of course, ever
more TLC will be required.
of Crops and Varieties of Crops
A localised, largely self-sufficient farming system largely made up of
small farms necessarily cultivates a wide variety of different crops and even
different varieties of these crops as traditional farmers have always done. In
addition, some farmers, as Peter Rossett notes, often intercrop, using the empty
space between rows which would otherwise produce weeds and combine or rotate
crops and livestock. (48). Jose Lutzenberger, who was once Minister of the
Environment in Brazil, (49) tells us that the Italian and German peasantry that
established itself in South Brazil cultivated sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes,
sugar cane, cereals, vegetables, grapes, all kinds of fruit, and also silage for
their cattle, as well as rearing chickens, pigs and cows.
The total production of each small farm amounted to at least 15 tonnes of
food per hectare, incomparably more than is produced on a modern soya-bean
monoculture in the same area, all of which use the usual chemical inputs.
What is more, there is a strong synergic relationship between the
different crops cultivated by these traditional farmers.
Thus in a well-planned inter-cropping system early established plants
tend to reduce soil temperature and produce the appropriate microclimate for
other plants. Plants also complement each other in terms of nutrient cycling,
thus deep-rooted plants can act as ìnutrient pumpsî bringing up minerals
from deep down in the sub-soil. Minerals
released by the decomposition of annuals are taken up by perennials. The high
nutrient demands of some plants are compensated for by the addition of organic
matter to the soil by others. Thus cereals benefit by being grown in conjunction
with legumes, which have deeper roots, permitting a better use of nutrients and
soil moisture as well as possessing root nodules, which host bacteria
specialised in fixing nitrogen. Crop diversity thereby plays a significant role
in the metabolism of a traditional agricultural ecosystem and thereby
contributes to its productivity. However, if traditional small farmers plant
such a wide diversity of crops, it is not primarily to maximise yields, but to
reduce vulnerability to discontinuities such as droughts, floods and plant
As James Scott, who was an authority on peasant agriculture writes,
ìthe local tradition of seed varieties, planting techniques and timing was
designed over centuries of trial and error to produce the most stable and
reliable yield possible under the circumstancesî......Typically, the peasant
seeks to avoid the failure ìthat will ruin him rather than attempting a big
but risky killingî, (50) and this he largely achieves by cultivating a
carefully chosen diversity of crops and crop varieties, whose exact composition
he is well capable of adapting whenever
necessary to changing environmental requirements. (51) As with climate change,
nobody knows in advance which crops or crop varieties are capable of surviving
the predictable heat waves, floods, droughts and invasions of exotic pests, it
has never been more important for farmers to cultivate a well chosen diversity
of traditional crops.
Needless to say, a deindustrialised world in which people live in small towns and villages, and produce locally much of their own food and artefacts, would be largely unaffected by the oil shortage that faced us today. It would also be an incomparably healthier, sounder and more sustainable world and there would be far less poverty, far less hunger and far less wars, as the majority that have been fought in the last fifty years are above all wars to obtain access to markets and resources that only a globalised industrial society requires. Nor of course would its economic activities transform the chemical composition of the atmosphereís body to climatic destabilisation.
artificial fertiliser : a solution multiplier
Every measure that serves to bring our agricultural methods closer to the
natural ones used by traditional farmers is a solution multiplier.
It might be worth considering the host of problems created by the use of
artificial fertiliser. By replacing them with natural fertiliser as suggested
above we would be solving a corresponding number of serious problems - quite
apart from drastically reducing the contribution of agricultural activities to
the destabilisation of world climate.
us look at some of these problems:
Artificial fertiliser can reduce the capacity of the soil to absorb
carbon dioxide by disrupting soil ecosystems and according to P.A.Steudler this
also applies to the absorption of methane gases.(52)
Artificial Fertilisers wash away into our rivers and estuaries where they
stimulate the often massive growth of algae, which,
when they die, consume the oxygen in the water, suffocating fish and other river or sea-life (i.e. eutrophication).(53)
The algae often form huge algae masses which emit dimethyl-sulphide, a
chemical, which oxidises in the air to form sulphur-dioxide, the principal
source of acid rain.(54)
Fertilisers are the largest source of pollution of our ground water and
hence of our drinking water, the latter being a major problem throughout the
Fertilisers applied to the soil increase nitrate levels in vegetables and
plants, which when too high, can cause health problems.(55)
Nitrates are transformed by bacteria into nitrites which bind to
haemoglobin and reduce the ability of blood to transport oxygen, often giving
rise to methaemoglobinaemia, a blood disorder of young children.(56)
Nitrates when combining with amines in the gut can be further transformed
into highly carcinogenic nitrosamines.(57)
Available studies reveal that food produced with artificial fertiliser is
inferior on a number of costs. In addition to reducing exposure to potentially
harmful pesticide residues, nitrates, GMOs and artificial additives used in food
processing, organic food and food produced without fertilisers has a
higher Vitamin C content, and some studies show that it also has a higher mineral
content. Organic crops also contain
an increased range and volume of secondary plant metabolites or phytonutrients
which increase the capacity of plants to withstand external challenges from
pests and diseases. What is more, feeding trials have shown significant
improvements in the growth, reproductive health and recovery from illness of
animals fed organic feed. (58)
Studies at the Obervil Institute in Switzerland have shown that wine
grape yields can be increased by maximising nitrogen applications but only at
the cost of reducing their sugar content, which prevents them from ripening
at the Biodynamic Research Station in Sweden found that the same was true of
potatoes whose yield could be increased by 15% if enough fertiliser was applied
but which drastically increased post harvest losses during storage.
Sri Lanka a traditional farmer (Mudiyense Tennakoon) told me that Sri Lankan
farmers used to have no difficulty in keeping traditional strains of rice for
3-4 years, however the hybrid varieties using artificial fertiliser get mouldy
in 3 months. (59)
reason seems to be that higher nitrate applications create a problem for the
plant by increasing the osmotic pressure on the affected cells and to deal with
this, the plant must take up more water.
Thus, not surpassingly, the yield of a compost grown plant was found to be 24%
lower, but itís dry matter, was 23% higher. In other words the fertiliser did
not increase the dry weight but simply added more water to the crop. As a result
of course, the use of artificial fertiliser leaves the crops very much more
vulnerable to fungal infestations correspondingly increasing post harvest
losses. To avoid this, a higher use of poisonous pesticides is regularly made
Such studies suggest that the much-vaunted benefits provided by the use
of artificial fertilisers are largely illusory. This is not altogether
surprising as artificial fertilisers were not developed in the first place
for the purpose of providing people with cheap, plentiful and healthy
food. They were originally designed as explosives (TNT), and the IRA in Northern
Ireland has consistently used fertiliser bombs.
The Green Revolution imposed by America on the Third World was above all
part of a campaign to sell more fertiliser and keep the armaments industry
afloat after World War II in spite of a falling demand for their lethal wares.
The Green Revolutionís high yielding varieties (HYVs) should in fact be
referred to as ìhigh response varietiesî (HRVs) i.e. varieties designed to
be highly responsive to fertilisers. Significantly, many traditional varieties
can provide equally high yields without the use of fertilisers.
the ìGeneî revolution is above all a means of selling more herbicides. Some
60% of genetically modified varieties marketed so far have been designed for
resistant to herbicides such as Monsantoís best-selling Round-Up, rather than
to the diseases themselves, drastically increasing the markets for these
poisonous substances that can now be used on crops (soya, beet, etc.) which
would not previously have tolerated them. It can be argued of course that the
overriding goal of the Biotech companies is to control the worldís entire food
production process. How better to
do this than by controlling the seeds on whose nature that of the whole process
must clearly depend.
Fertilisers are not just used on their own but as part of a package deal
that includes hybrid seeds, increasing genetically and modified patented seeds,
pesticides, heavy machinery, and water derived from modern perennial irrigation
systems all of which create serious problems of their own.
The Hadley Centre. Modelling Climate Change: 1860-2050.
Met Office, February 1995.
Peter Bunyard, ìMisreading the Models: Danger of Underestimating
Climate Changeî. Special Issue The Ecologist, Vol. 29, No 2, March/April 1999,
See IPCC. Third Assessment Report. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Peter Bunyard, ìHow Global Warming Could Cause Northern
Europe to Freezeî, p 79-80, The
Ecologist, op cit.
Peter Bunyard, ìIndustrial Agriculture - Driving Climate
Changeî, The Ecologist, Vol 26, No
6, Nov/Dec, 1996,
Peter Bunyard, ibid, p290-8
7. Moser, A. et al, ìMethane and nitrous oxide fluxes in native fertilised and cultivated grasslandî, Nature, Vol 350, March 1991.
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C.Payer, The World Bank, A Critical Analysis. Monthly Review
Press, New York, 1982
World Bank ,Accelerated Development in Sub-Saharan Agriculture.
World Bank, ibid.
Jason McKenney, Artificial Fertilising in Kimbrell op cit
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Andy McKillop by Pluto Press, London,
Leach, ìThe Coming decline of Oilî. The Pacific Ecologist, Summer 2002/3,
Wellington, New Zealand, pp34-6
FAO. Sequestration de carbone terrestre pour une meilleure gestion du
sol. rapport de la FAO 2001, quoted by Corinne
Smith, LíEcologiste, No 7, Vol.3, June 2002,
19. Rachel Carson, ìSilent Springî, Hamish Hamilton, London 1963, p48
Jules Pretty, ìRegenerating Agriculture Policies and Practice for
sustainability and self-relianceî. Earthscan, London, 1995
M Bonsu, Organic residues for less erosion and more grain in Ghana in M
el Swaify et alia eds. Soil Erosion and Conservation, Soil Conservation Service,
Ankery - Iowa, quoted by Jules Pretty, ibid.
FAO op cit 2001
IPCC op cit, 2000
Pretty and Ball, op cit.
John C Farrell, ìAgroforestry Systemsî, in Miguel M Altieri, ìAgro
Ecology, The Scientific Basis of Alternative Agricultureî, University of
California, Berkeley, 1985.
David Pimental. ìGlobal Climate Change and Agricultureî.College
of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Cornell University,1998.
Cynthia Rosenweig and David Hillel, îClimate Change and the
Global Harvest : Potential impacts of the Greenhouse Effect
on Agricultureî. Oxford University
Press, 1998, p29, quoted
by Peter Bunyard in A Hungrier World,
The Ecologist Special
Issue - Climate Crisis, Volume 29, No
2, 1998, p87.
Martin Briscoe, Water the Overtapped Resource in Andrew Kimbrellís
ìThe Fatal Harvest Readerî, Island Press, Washington DC, 2002, p182.
Marc Reisner, ìCadillac Desertî. Penguin Books, 1986 quoted by
Briscoe, ibid, p190.
Briscoe, ibid, p184.
Peter Bunyard, ìA Hungrier Worldî. The Ecologist Special Issue,
Climate Crisis. Vol 29, No 2, 1998, p89.
Vandana Shiva. ìWater Warsî. India Research Press, New Delhi, 2002
See Edward Goldsmith and Nicholas Hildyard. ìThe Social and Environmental
Effects of Large Damsî. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1984.
Rahul and Jacob Nellithanam, ìReturn to the Native Seedsî, The
Ecologist, Vol.28 No.1, Jan/Feb 1998, pgs 29-33.
Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain, ìTraditional Systems of
Water-Harvesting and Agroforestryî, in Geeti Sen Indigenous Vision -
People of India Attitudes to the Environment, India International
Centre, Sage Publication, New Delhi, 1992
Tim Lange and Colin Hines. ìThe New Protectionism. Protecting the
future against Free Tradeî. Earthscan 1993, quoted by Andy Jones, p20, Eating
Oil. Food Supply in a Changing Climate. Sustain and Elm Farm Research Centre,
Andrew Sims, et alia. Collision Course : Free Tradeís free ride on the
global economy. New Economics Foundation, 2000,
quoted by Andy Jones op cit.
Jones, ibid, p10.
Chris Hewett, ìClean Air. Green Futuresî. May/June 2001 quoted by
Andy Jones p29, Forum for the Future.
Brendon Sewill. ìTax Free Australiaî. Aviation Environment
Federation. December 2000, quoted by Jones p30.
Andy Jones, Shortened version - ìEating Oilî, p43, 2001
John Madeley, ìDoes Economic Development Feed People?î
The Ecologist, Vol.15, No.1/2, 1985
See The Ecologist, Special Issue on the FAO, Vol 21, No 2 March/April
FAO Report on the 1980 World Census of Agriculture,
Census Bulletins quoted by Vandana
Shiva, ìYoked to Death,
Globalization and Corporate Control
of Agricultureî, p 13.
Kenneth Mellanby, ìHow to Feed Britainî.
Peter Rossett, ìWhatís so Beautiful about Small?î Food for Life -
Summer 2000. www.futurenet.org/14foodforlife/rosset.htm
Jose Lutzenberger, personal communication.
James Scott, 1978, ìThe Subsistence Ethicî. The New Ecologist, No 3,
For consideration of the extraordinary ability of African traditional
farmers to improvise and thereby adapt to new conditions see the writings of
Paul Richards - for instance - ìCultivation, knowledge and performanceî.
P A Steudler, R.D.Bowden et alia, ìInfluence of Nitrogen fertilisation
on methane uptake in temperate forest soilsî.Nature, Sept. 1989, Vol 341, pp
John Ashton & Ron Laura, ìThe Perils of Progressî, Zed Books,
Ashton & Laura, ibid.
H.D.Junge & S.Handke, ìNitrate in Vegetables ñ Unavoidable
Risk?î, Industrielle Obst - und Gemusewerwertung, 1987,
Vol 71, No. 8, pp 346-8.
ìFertiliser Risks in the Developing Countriesî, Nature,
21st July, 1988, pp 207-208.
Soil Association. Organic Farming Food quality and human
health : A review of evidence, 2001.
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