Making the World Sustainable

IRELAND - In a lecture by Mae-Wan Ho, Biophysics Group, Dept. of Pharmacy, King’s College, at the Food Security in An Energy-Scarce World international conference, the idea's behind sustainable food systems is explained.
calendar icon 30 June 2005
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Making the World Sustainable - IRELAND - In a lecture by Mae-Wan Ho, Biophysics Group, Dept. of Pharmacy, King’s College, at the Food Security in An Energy-Scarce World international conference, the idea's behind sustainable food systems is explained.


Decades of an "environmental bubble economy" built on the over-exploitation of natural resources has accelerated global warming, environmental degradation, depletion of water and oil, and brought falling crop yields, precipitating a crisis in world food security with no prospects for improvement under the business as usual scenario.

There is, nevertheless, a wealth of knowledge for making our food system sustainable that not only can provide food security and health for all, but can also go a long way towards mitigating global warming by preventing greenhouse gas emissions and creating new carbon stocks and sinks.

One of the most important obstacles to implementing the existing knowledge is the dominant economic model of unrestrained, unbalanced growth that has already failed the reality test. I describe a highly productive integrated farming system based on maximising internal input to illustrate a theory of sustainable organic growth as alternative to the dominant model.

Current food production system due for collapse

World grain yield fell for four successive years from 2000 to 2003 as temperatures soar, bringing reserves to the lowest in thirty years [1]. The situation did not improve despite a ‘bumper’ harvest in 2004, which was just enough to satisfy world consumption. Experts are predicting [2] that global warming is set to do far worse damage to food production than "even the gloomiest of previous forecasts." An international team of crop scientists from China, India, the Philippines and the United States had already reported that crop yields fall by 10 percent for each deg. C rise in night-time temperature during the growing season [3].

The Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted in 2001 that the earth’s average temperature would rise by 1.4 to 5.8 deg. C within this century [4]. In 2003, a Royal Society conference in London told us that the IPCC model fails to capture the abrupt nature of climate change, that it could be happening over a matter of decades or years [5]. In January 2005, a group based in Oxford University in the UK predicts a greater temperature rise of 1.9 to 11.5 deg. C when carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere, currently standing at 379 parts per million, doubles its pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million sometime within the present century [6].

The "environmental bubble economy" built on the unsustainable exploitation of our natural resources is due for collapse [7] said Lester Brown of Earth Policy Institute. The task of turning our food production system sustainable must be addressed at "war-time" speed.

He summarised the fallout of the environmental bubble economy succinctly [8]: "..collapsing fisheries, shrinking forests, expanding deserts, rising CO2 levels, eroding soils, rising temperatures, falling water tables, melting glaciers, deteriorating grasslands, rising seas, rivers that are running dry, and disappearing species."

In too many of the major food-production regions of the world, such as the bread baskets of China, India and the United States, conventional farming practices including heavy irrigation have severely depleted the underground water [7, 8]. At the same time, world oil production may have passed its peak [9]; oil price hit a record high of US$58 a barrel on 4 April 2005, and is expected to top US$100 within two years [10]. This spells looming disaster for conventional industrial agriculture, which is heavily dependent on both oil and water.

Our current food production system is a legacy of the high input agriculture of the green revolution, exacerbated and promoted by agricultural policies that benefit trans-national agribusiness corporations at the expense of farmers [11, 12]. Its true costs are becoming all too clear (see Box 1).

Box 1: True costs of industrial food production system

  • 1 000 tonnes of water are consumed to produce one tonne of grain [13]

  • 10 energy units are spent for every energy unit of food on our dinner table [14, 15]

  • Up to 1 000 energy units are used for every energy unit of processed food [16]

  • 17% of the total energy use in the United States goes into food production & distribution, accounting for more than 20% of all transport within the country; this excludes energy used in import and export [17]

  • 12.5 energy units are wasted for every energy unit of food transported per thousand air-miles [18, 19]

  • Current EU and WTO agricultural policies maximise food miles resulting in scandalous "food swaps" [20, 21]

  • Up to 25% of CO2, 60% of CH4 and 60% of N2O in the world come from current agriculture [22]

  • US$318 billion of taxpayer’s money was spent to subsidize agriculture in OECD countries in 2002, while more than 2 billion subsistence farmers in developing countries tried to survive on $2 a day [11, 23]

  • Nearly 90% of the agricultural subsidies benefit corporations and big farmers growing food for export; while 500 family farms close down every week in the US [11]

  • Subsidized surplus food dumped on developing countries creates poverty, hunger and homelessness on massive scales [11]

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Source: Institute of Science in Society - 30th June 2005

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