In Search Of A More Sustainable Food System


We have grown accustomed to cheap, plentiful food when, and where we want it. Getting access to produce grown in other continents is a wonder of the modern era. This is all made possible by oil – and well, a little ingenuity by us humans. Let’s take a closer look at how our food system of today came into being and how we can make it more sustainable.

The Haber Process

The German chemist, Fritz Haber, is credited with inventing what is known as The Haber Process, (also called the Haber–Bosch Process) which essentially produces ammonia from readily abundant atmospheric nitrogen, giving us the ability to mass produce nitrate fertilizer.

It has been estimated that if humans were still hunter-gatherers, reliant on what resources they came across in a nomadic existence, the carrying capacity of the planet would be around 100 million people.

Fritz Haber, 1918

Fritz Haber - inventor of the Haber Process

This one invention is responsible for increasing the carrying capacity of the human race more than any other in history (It has been estimated that if humans were still hunter-gatherers, reliant on what resources they came across in a nomadic existence, the carrying capacity of the planet would be around 100 million people. Today, with modern agriculture, estimates range from 2 to 40 billion. – Keith Skene. Contemporary Review, Mar 22, 2010)

The Haber process is important because prior to this discovery, ammonia was difficult to produce on a large scale. Today, ammonia fertilizer generated using the Haber process is responsible for sustaining one-third of the Earth’s population (Wikipedia). Also important is the fact that the majority of the ammonia for this process is derived from petroleum products. Not only is oil responsible for how food is transported to your table, it’s actually in the food we eat, molecularity speaking of course.

Green Revolution

The only agronomist ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize was a man named Dr. Norman Ernest Borlaug. He is referred to as the father of the “Green Revolution“, because of his work to create new food production processes that helped “provide bread for a hungry world.” He revolutionized a new era of high-intensity farming  in the 20th century by introducing high-yielding crop varieties combined with modern agricultural production techniques to Mexico, Pakistan, and India. Mexico went from importing most of their wheat, to becoming a net exporter by 1963. Dr. Borlaug is often credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation.

Borlaug speaking at the Ministerial Methodist Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology in June 2003

As he accepted the prize in Oslo, he issued a stern warning. “We may be at high tide now,” he said, “but ebb tide could soon set in if we become complacent and relax our efforts.”

Our Current Food System Was Born to Break

Our modern day system of food production and distribution is primarily centralized and controlled by a handful of multinational conglomerates (Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and Monsanto, just to name a few). The complexity of today’s distribution system requires millions of lines of software code to manage and run the trains, ships, trucks and storage facilities, that are spread all across the globe. The whole system is only made possible by the existence of cheap and plentiful oil. Once oil prices rise past $200 per barrel and higher, the system is doomed to failure. This is a system that was born to break.

There are a number of factors that are currently taxing our modern system of food production. The following factors are all contributing to a “perfect storm” scenario that puts us on the brink of collapse.

Factors Straining Food System:

  1. Rising affluence of low-income people
  2. Climate change
  3. Lowered food reserves, particularly in the U.S.
  4. Nitrogen Fertilizer Causes Topsoil Depletion, Acid Rain and Lower Crop Yields

1. Rising Affluence of Low-Income People

India, Brasil and China all have growing middle class populations. As these countries reap the benefits of their stronger economies, they also go through the same growth patterns that the U.S. did back in the post-cold war years. A growing middle class, in terms of food consumption means a higher demand for meat, poultry, eggs and dairy.

This change in consumption patterns creates exponentially higher demand for grain. Livestock requires more grain than if the grain itself was eaten directly. In order to produce one pound of beef, a beef steer needs to eat 9 – 16 lbs, of grain and drink approximately 150 gallons of water. In other words, it takes 54 calories of fossil fuel to make 1 calorie of protein for beef.

2. Climate Change

We know that the increase of CO2 in our Earth’s atmosphere to record levels is causing, and will continue to cause, dramatic impacts to the planet’s natural cycles. These impacts include shifting shorelines, declining agricultural productivity, crisis of food supply, availability of water, the health of populations and extreme weather events.

Millions of agricultural peoples are located in the areas due to receive the most severe devastation from the rising ocean levels. Fleeing these arable lands will be a last resort for many in these communities. The impact of reduced crop production will be only one of many.

What is little known however are the impacts of environment related diseases, which could spread rapidly in epidemic proportions with changes in water availability and quality.

3. Lowered U.S. Food Reserves

The United States has historically responded to food shortages by shipping surpluses half way around the world. Under current U.S. food aid policy, the majority of food given to developing countries in crisis must be purchased from U.S. farmers and then shipped overseas on U.S. carriers in order to be distributed or sold at its final destination.

In years past, the U.S. has always had sufficient food reserves to accommodate most food shortages. But, recently starting with the food crisis of 2005 in Niger, this system has been weakened considerably.

Then, world food prices increased dramatically in 2007 and the 1st and 2nd quarter of 2008, creating a global crisis and causing political and economical instability and social unrest in both poor and developed nations. Massive food riots erupted in countries such as Cameroon and Egypt, with Haiti getting hardest hit. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, the global price of food hit a new record high in December, 2010. See: Deglobalization – The Price of Food in the New World Economy.

We now are barely able to keep enough food reserves on hand making us, and the nations who depend upon us, much more vulnerable to shortages in the future.

4. Nitrogen Fertilizer Causes Topsoil Depletion, Acid Rain and Lower Crop Yields

Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers have an unintended adverse affect upon our environment.

Consistent use of petroleum based fertilizers deplete the soil of their organic matter, leave residues and buildups that inhibit microorganisms, and cause salinization. They also strip the topsoil of it’s ability to prevent erosion and runoff in times of heavy rain.

Fossil fuels have been cleverly hidden away under the Earth’s crust for millions of years. When synthetic fertilizers are used, they release this nitrogen on a massive scale. Decades of conventional farming has overloaded the carrying capacity of the Nitrogen Cycle. This overabundance of nitrogen, which is now at twice the level it was before the industrial revolution, has to go somewhere. The excess nitrogen shows up in the form of acid rain, nitrates in the water or nitrous oxide emissions in the atmosphere.

The reduction in healthy topsoil is directly attributable to high-intensity, conventional farming practices that use chemical fertilizers. Less topsoil on farmlands have resulted in lower crop yields and a greater dependence upon synthetic fertilizers made from fossil fuel. This catch-22 puts farmers in a cycle of soil-depletion behavior that is difficult for many to escape.

Multiple Factors Pushing Food Prices Up

Hollygrove Market and Farm allows members to make their own CSA boxes.

A complex combination of poor harvests, competition with bio-fuels, higher energy prices, surging demand in China and India, and a blockage in global trade is driving food prices up worldwide. As prices rise, the need for people to become “food-independent” increases. Fortunately, breaking free of the centralized food system of today requires only modest changes in one’s lifestyle.

Interestingly, Americans on average spend less than 15 percent of their expendable income on food, while globally the average settles around 40 percent or 50 percent of the household income, according to the Associated Press.

Centralized Versus Decentralized Food Systems

Until very recently, the worlds food systems were run by small farmers (less than 10 acres). Most large commercial farms are in the tens of thousands of acres. With this combination of resources; land, equipment, facilities, infrastructure, come inherent weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Crop failures due to flooding, insect infestations, molds and disease are only the beginning of the risks facing mega farms.

The more decentralized the food system, the more capable it is to withstand these devastating events.

A New Distributed Food System On The Horizon

Local honey sold at the Hollygrove Market and Farm in New Orleans, La.

As evidenced by the rise in popularity of urban farms, today’s food production system is undergoing subtle but, transformative change. People that have never grown vegetables before are tearing up their front lawns to provide their family with fresh, hyper-local produce.

Large, corporate run farming operations will still be needed in this new world of food production. The changes here will be less dramatic at first. One factor that will force change for the big farmers will be the rising price of oil. Energy costs alone will push innovation in the production methods and through the entire supply line from farm to market.

Smaller, local and community supported market and farm operations will enjoy a distinct advantage in the years ahead. For example, Hollygrove Market & Farm in New Orleans caters to the needs of their community the way that no agribusiness farm could. They sell freshly harvested, local produce along with locally farmed, organic eggs, honey and other products.

Small, community-based market and farms provide a level of food security that is needed to offset the price shocks and instability of our current food system.

The sooner we come together in communities to begin feeding ourselves, as our ancestors once did, the less suffering we will endure, as the current systems begin to fail. By working together, sharing ideas, seeds, tools, labor and meals together, we will rediscover many forgotten pleasures and become “food-secure” in an age of instability and transformative change.

References:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/05/science/earth/05harvest.html?_r=2
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007%E2%80%932008_world_food_price_crisis
http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/06/05/science/earth/harvest.html?ref=earth

Deglobalization – The Price of Food in the New World Economy


When we think of how low prices for food have been in the United States since the industrial revolution, we mostly congratulate ourselves for our technological and agricultural prowess that made this possible. Our ingenuity of being able to produce more food per acre than ever before is a badge of honor in our collective unconscious. All of us can’t help but take for granted how cheap food really is for the American consumer.

American organizations such as the Red Cross come to the rescue when disaster strikes in various parts of the world. Supported by our huge reserves of grain, wheat, corn and rice, transport planes are loaded with “surplus” grains, flours, milk powders and ready to eat meals. As Americans, we think that we have conquered the food production challenge – a perfect example of humanity winning out over nature.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The world has changed dramatically in just the past 10 years and yet our approach to agriculture has not evolved to meet today’s changing environmental landscape.

World Food Price Crisis

World Food Price Crisis

In July 2008 the price of oil – inexorably linked to the price of food – shot up to a high of $147.30 per barrel. This surge in oil prices (much of it stemming from commodities traders) has a multiplier effect on food prices. First, because fossil fuel is a major source of nitrogen fertilizer used in much of the large farming operations run by the worlds leading agribusiness concerns. Next, the transportation of food is run almost entirely on a system completely dependent upon fossil fuels. The result means increased pricing for food that is a staple for hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people.

This multiplier effect was evidenced here in the United States when, in April 2008 Sam’s Club instituted a limit on how much long-grain white rice restaurants and retail customers could purchase due to world-wide shortages. The U.S. was mostly spared from major price jumps in food commodity prices – but, other developed nations were effected severely with the developing nations being the hardest hit by what has been labeled as the Global Food Crisis.

In India, food riots were reported in the Indian state of West Bengal in 2007 over shortages of food. Haitian food riots caused several deaths and prices for food items such as rice, beans, fruit and condensed milk have gone up 50 percent since late 2007 while the price of fuel tripled in only two months. The Brazilian government reacted by announcing a temporary ban on the export of rice to protect their consumers from shortages.

Many other factors were at work to create this dire scenario that led to the Crisis. The administration of former president George W. Bush was active lobbying Congress to pass the Energy Independence and Security Act that focused on promoting agrofuels and the automobile fuel industry. The act targeted the increase of agrofuels production by more than eightfold from 4.7 billion gallons in 2007 to at least 36 billion gallons in 2022.

Many small and mid-sized farmers were being offered exorbitant prices for their land by those wishing to cash in on the rush to turn corn into ethanol.

Price of Oil Peaks in 2008

Arable lands that once had been utilized for growing corn for consumption, were being diverted to the production of ethanol. This phenomena led to the relatively short-lived boom\bust of the ethanol craze in the U.S. The cost to grow the corn and convert it into ethanol was, as it turned out, a negative sum proposition. Only if the price of oil were to continue to climb past $140 could corn ethanol hope to be price competitive.

So far, just Brazil has proven that sugar cane can be converted into ethanol efficiently. After 30 years of technological innovation, government mandates and public acceptance, Brazil’s mandatory fuel blend is 25% of anhydrous ethanol and 75% gasoline or E25 blend. The combination of vast arable land and superior agri-industrial technology makes this possible.


Bibliography

1. 2007–2008 world food price crisis, Wikipedia
2. Food Wars by Walden Bello and Mara Baviera, Monthly Review (July-August 2009)
3. The price of food: ingredients of a global crisis, Heidi Fritschel (April 9, 2008)
4. Ethanol fuel in Brazil, Wikipedia

Letter to CEPA re Methyl Iodide


July 5, 2010

Chris Ripps
156 Shoreline Court
Richmond, CA 94804
chrisripps@gmail.com

MaryLou Verder-Carlos
Assistant Director
Department of Pesticide Regulation
California Environmental Protection Agency

Subject: Status of Methyl Iodide Approval for Use on Strawberries

Dear Mrs. Verder-Carlos,

I would like to know if a decision has been made on the proposed approval of methyl iodide, after the public comment period ended on June 29, 2010.

I am deeply concerned that the results of the scientific review committee has determined that the State’s approval of methyl iodide is, “inadequate, flawed and (based upon) improperly conducted scientific research.”

Please inform me of any recent decisions you may have made regarding the approval of this harmful chemical.

Regards,

Chris Ripps

Cc:
Charles Andrews
Tom Babb
Leslie Reed

State Department Approves Dangerous Strawberry Pesticide


I am shocked that the State Department of Pesticide Regulation has approved the use of methyl iodide on strawberries. Scientists for the State of California have testified that methyl iodine is, “known to be neurotoxic, as well as developmentally toxic and an endocrine disruptor…”.

For years, conventional farmers injected methyl bromide in the soil, only later to be banned because of it damaged the ozone. Now, this new chemical poses a far more immediate threat because it is a known neurotoxin and endocrine disruptor.

Please read the New York Times article on the subject – http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/20/us/20strawberries.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=methyl%20iodide%20strawberry&st=cse

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