Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Fight Over the Future and Sustainability of Food Production

The number of articles exploring how we are going to feed a growing human population -- while at the same time reducing agriculture's devastating impacts on the very ecosystems (and people) that support food production -- continues to tick up.

The latest is a major article by way of Reuters titled, "The Fight Over the Future of Food."  It begins with the story of the owner of a sustainable farm in Italy:

A charismatic 40-year-old, he dropped out of an agricultural school after growing disillusioned with the farming methods being taught there. Today, he lets nature run its course as he grows cereals and legumes on his small family farm in Belcreda di Gambolo, about 20 miles southwest of Milan.

He does not use any chemical, or even natural fertilizers or pesticides. He does not weed his fields. "All you need to do is observe nature, listen to it, do what nature suggests and it will take care of everything," he said.

His fields, in a low-lying plain that has a long history of growing rice used for risotto, replicate patterns found in nature. For example, clover and millet grow together, feeding each other with necessary minerals.

Oglio said his farm is eco-sustainable. He has slashed operating costs by eliminating expensive commercial products like herbicides and by reducing the use of agricultural machinery to a minimum. Such cheap and low-maintenance farming could be adopted in Africa and other regions hit by poverty and hunger, he said.

Just earlier this week, my colleague, Jamie Reaser, posted this article to her FaceBook page -- reporting on farming methods that can dramatically increase carbon storage in soils, while at the same time reducing the need for expensive agricultural inputs like fertilizers and pesticides:

Rich-soil farming increases soil organic matter and microbial life by maintaining a balance between the organic matter removed from the land as crops and that returned to the land as compost or manure. Nitrogen-fixing crops are used to fertilise the land and support soil life, and their high growth rates rapidly sequester carbon. Natural pest controls avoid poisoning microbes and promote insect and animal diversity, in turn sequestering more carbon dioxide because the very bodies of Earth’s life forms are made of carbon. Maintaining soil cover and adopting minimal tillage avoids the oxidisation of carbon from the soil and keeps microbes alive with a constant supply of food from plant roots.

The prototype growers’ carbon calculator showed that even on a small scale a farm employing rich-soil practices can sequester so much carbon that even if the farmer uses diesel tractors and four-wheel drive vehicles and engages in other fuel-intensive activities, soil sequestration will still make it a net carbon sink.

Further calculations suggest that on a global scale, rich-soil farming could have a sequestration potential so powerful that it could turn back the carbon clock. These figures are backed up by the latest science. A 2007 study for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that if world agriculture adopted best practices to increase soil organic matter content, it could mitigate 6 to 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2030, which is between 20% and 35% of current annual global emissions (29 billion tonnes per year). As the world has approximately 5 billion hectares of agricultural land, this equates to a sequestration rate of between one and two tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare, which, considering the growth rates of many plants, could be conservative. For example, recent research has found that forests can absorb over 8 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare every year for hundreds of years, and if very best practices were adopted, rich-soil farming could potentially match this.

These are exciting times in which the solutions to many of our major crisis -- in food production, climate disruption, unsustainable land use, energy, economy, and even terrorism -- are merging.  It's tough just to keep pace with the latest developments.  They are as inspiring as the problems we confront are frightening. 

The trick, as we emphasize here, is to motivate people to change to more sustainable practices... 

Will  politics bring down this civilization, or will we pull through in overtime?  It's getting very very late in the game...

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