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Farmegeddon: Factors Affecting Agriculture and Food Supply Part II
11/15/2008 - Previous | Next | Issues Home
Mark Jeantheau -- Part II of the Dirty Baker's Dozen series on worldwide food supply covers factors 7-12, most of which make clear that this is also an agriculture crisis.

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In Part I of our food crisis series, we covered the first six items in our list of 13 factors that are converging to push the world towards a global food crisis. Today, in Part II, we cover factors 7-12, most of which make clear that this is also an agriculture crisis.

1. Energy shortages and prices
2. Biofuels
3. Global warming
4. Fresh water shortages
5. Economic chaos
6. Higher population levels
7. Bad agricultural policy
8. Soil degradation
9. The honeybee problem and loss of native pollinators
10. Loss of crop varieties and genetic contamination
11. Farmer shortages
12. Fish declines
13. General ignorance of food

Part III covers factor 13 and offers strategies you can implement to limit the impact of any crisis affecting agriculture and food on you and your family.

Crisis affecting agriculture and food

7. Bad agricultural policy

Leaders since Roman times have known that the surest way to get thrown out of office (or off a cliff) is to let the masses get hungry. Therefore, modern politicians all support a policy of cheap, plentiful food. On its face, this is a pretty good idea. After all, who wants to starve just because the wheat crop was a bit off this year?

But what's good for the public and its food supply is not necessarily "good enough" for corporate profits, at least in the minds of corporate executives and shareholders; so Gucci-shoed agri-lobbyists ply politicians with intoxicating sums of campaign cash, paid trips, and other favors to shape agricultural policy in a way that is favorable to their products, their future plans, and their bottom lines. University agriculture departments are similarly showered with research funding, as long as the research supports corporate interests.

This sort of back-room dealing has brought us the reign of industrial agriculture -- a system of farming that was polluting by design and unsustainable from the outset. This rise came at the expense of organic and other agricultural techniques that give us healthier food and a healthier environment -- but with less potential for corporate monetization.

One emerging problem is the issue of centralized control vs. local control. Farming is an inherently local business. Weather and soil conditions, which plants grow best, farming tricks and tips—all are factors that are mainly local in nature. The county extension agent has been the guru, but increasingly we are seeing unwanted corporate-driven policies being imposed by Washington politicians and bureaucrats. For instance:

-- Field trials of genetically modified crops are pushed by federal bureaucrats whether locals want them or not. Contamination of non-GM crops with genes from GM plots reduces the value and safety of the non-GM crops.

-- The National Animal ID system, a band-aid fix designed to compensate for bad animal rearing and slaughtering practices, threatens to eventually push small and part-time farmers out of the animal-raising business. Having local suppliers of meat—most of whom would be small farmers—will be important in a post-Peak Oil world.

-- Central planners have generally encouraged a nationalized (even globalized) commodity-based food system at the expense of growing and selling food locally. Via the machinery of the WTO and World Bank, this philosophy has been widely exported to other countries, with unfortunate consequences for local food security. As the need for relocalization rises, all of that will have to be undone.

The USDA does run some good programs that benefit local agriculture—the farmers' market program and the conservation/buffer zone program, for instance—but many USDA programs and policies belong on the scrap heap of bad ideas.

8. Soil degradation

Soil is the basis of land-based plant life. It's not just "dirt" -- it has an ecosystem all its own, and the health of that ecosystem is important to how easily roots penetrate the soil and take up nutrients.

Good soil health is one of the tenets of biodynamic agriculture and is a central feature in organic farming. But good soil is built slowly, and any farmer-applied improvement must also offset any loss of topsoil via water and wind erosion. Poor soil health itself actually increases the risk of soil runoff since a sub-par level of organic matter reduces the soil's capacity to hold and slowly release water. Lack of organic matter in the soil thus also reduces plants' ability to resist drought.

The big problems here are over-plowing (that is, overexposing soil to wind and water erosion) and the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, which degrade the soil's ecosystem. This approach to farming is much like an athlete using steroids -- the effect is initially impressive, but over time the drug threatens general health, and the end result is worse than the result one gets by sticking with more natural, sensible approaches.

The crop yield increases brought to you by the trick bag of the Green Revolution have begun leveling off. It remains to be seen whether the few new tricks they have left will be able to keep up with the negative effects of soil burnout and topsoil loss. That seems unlikely -- the loss of cheap, plentiful sources of basic nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous are going to add to the woes of industrial farmers. But even if yield increases do keep coming for a while, all the charlatans of the Green Revolution will have succeeded in doing is building the cliff higher, ensuring that the industrial-agriculture crash, when it comes, will be that much worse.

Dropping yields are not the only problem associated with soil burnout. The USDA has been monitoring the nutrient content of US farm crops for many decades now and has noted double-digit losses in the nutrient content in many staples. In the future, as food from our industrial farm fields gets more expensive and less plentiful, its nutritional value will continue to fall -- a double -- whammy.

9. The honeybee problem and loss of native pollinators

Many mainstream food crops, including almonds, peaches, apples, and blueberries, are highly depend on honeybees' pollination services for success. Many other crops partially depend on honeybees. Overall, one-third of US agricultural crops use honeybees for pollination.

But this oh-so-important little creature is suffering. A mysterious catastrophic die-off phenomenon in honeybee colonies, known as "colony collapse disorder," has had the honeybee population on a steady and substantial slide downward for the last couple of decades, and the trend is worsening.

There are a number of theories on why this is happening:

-- exposure to pesticides -- direct toxic effects and indirect stresses to the bees' immune systems;

-- attacks by various mites, viruses, fungi, and other pests -- and the side effects of treatments with chemicals to control them;

-- the stress of constantly being moved (to arrive at the correct place and time for pollinating each particular crop);

-- artificial diets of sweetener and soy protein between pollination gigs;

-- exposure to genetically modified crops;

-- navigation-disrupting high-frequency electromagnetic radiation from cell phone systems.

The fact that beekeepers who avoid most of these practices suffer significantly fewer losses suggests that investigators are on the right track with this list, and that most or all off these things are combining to do in the honeybees. But getting the bees off their knees by using better management practices costs more money, and most beekeepers and farming experts are still looking for cheap silver bullets rather than accepting what's obvious -- that industrial agriculture itself is killing honeybees. If beekeepers, farmers, and agricultural potentates don't arrive at a mutually acceptable solution soon, the honeybee crisis will become a food crisis.

One bit of semi-good news is that long before the honeybee came along, native pollinators were doing a darn fine job of pollinating gardens and modest-sized farms with diversified crops. These helpful insects include wood- and ground-nesting bees; butterflies; some types of flies; butterflies and moths; even beetles and ants.

The need for massive, portable honeybee colonies was necessitated by the move to large-scale monoculture farming, where a single crop is grown over vast acreages, with any original natural habitat plowed away and non-market plants excluded by neglect or by design. Without available habitat and a variety of flowering plants, native pollinators died off or went elsewhere. Suburban sprawl further exacerbated habitat and biodiversity losses.

Native pest predators that control bugs without the use of chemical insecticides -- these include birds and bats; some rodents; praying mantises, ladybugs, dragonflies, damsel flies, and many other predatory insects -- have suffered much the same fate at native pollinators. As farmers start planting crops on marginal lands and buffer zones to keep up with the growing biofuels bonanza, even more wild habitat will be lost.

So, farmers (and, to a lesser extent, suburban gardeners) find themselves with the worst of both worlds. They have largely lost the services of native pollinators and pest predators -- or set up their operations in a way that makes it impossible for the remaining natives to keep up -- and now they are also at risk of losing their technological fix, the honeybee.

10. Loss of crop varieties and genetic contamination

In historical terms, humans have eaten a much wider variety of plants and animals than they do today. We don't mean just that they ate the occasional meal of wild yak and mauve chard in addition to the more standard chicken and broccoli; we mean that there were many, many more varieties of edible plants and animals, each having carved out its own niche based on climate requirements, drought tolerance, and resistance to pests and predators.

Through the eons, as agriculture expanded and progressed, humans began focusing on a smaller number of crops and animals to exploit positive taste, growing, and storage characteristics. In the last century, this trend went into overdrive, first with selective breeding and hybrid strains, and now with genetically modified crops and cloning.

We currently eat a tiny fraction of the varietals that were once available. For instance, most people in the US are familiar only with one type of turkey -- the Broad-Breasted White that graces most plates at holiday meals -- but many other strains of turkey have been eaten throughout history. These other strains were (and are) yummy, but they lacked the Broad-Breasted White's high proportion of white meat sought by consumers and the high meat-to-total-weight ratio that's important to growers. Similarly, we think that the few types of potatoes available now in grocery stores represent "variety," but thousands of varieties of potato exist (or have existed), with most surviving strains now relegated to the diets of indigenous populations.

In terms of volume, what we Westerners eat today depends on a relatively few [number of] plants and animals. Why is this bad? Because genetic concentration increases risk. To misquote the proverb, genetic concentration is choosing to put just a few eggs in a very large basket.

All species and strains have their own individual resistance (or lack thereof) to specific diseases and pests. Today's modern varieties are no exception. Farmers use copious amounts of pesticides and antibiotics to keep trouble at bay, but it's a constant arms race between the chemicals and the pests' ability to develop resistance to them.

By relying on a few varieties and producing them in tremendous volume, we increase the chance that extended drought or the sudden onset of uncontrollable disease or pests could decimate a significant portion of the food supply. The Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century is a perfect example of what happens when a single, heavily-relied-on variety fails. Since then, genetic concentration in crops has increased far more, raising the stakes still higher.

Some farmers and gardeners recognize this problem and are now including in their growing plans a broad variety of "heirloom" plants and vegetables. These varieties are non-hybridized, non-GMO strains that have been around for a long time but fell out of favor during last century's move to fewer varietals based on market characteristics and qualities other than taste and food security. Even this nascent effort faces a couple of threats:

-- Genetic Contamination: Pollen blows around or is carried by animals and insects. Genetic material from one plant strain can sometimes end up getting incorporated in the genome of a similar plant strain. This is a natural phenomenon -- it's part of how we ended up with so many varieties in the first place. But genetically modified crops, with their inherent risks, are now being grown practically everywhere, at least in North America. Heirloom and other non-GM varieties are at risk of being contaminated with genetic material from GM and hybrid crops, and could lose their unique characteristics and possibly their safety and survivability.

-- Control of Seeds: Attention, farmers and gardeners! Agri-business corporations want your business. Not just some of it -- all of it. They want you to come to them for seed, feed, fertilizer, pesticides—every single thing you need to grow every single crop. If it's part of the food producing stream, corporations are trying to monetize it. The biggest threat is to seed saving, which has been a part of farm life since the dawn of agriculture. Now, farmers using GM varieties such as Bt corn or herbicide-tolerant soybeans must sign contracts promising not to save seeds from the previous year's crop, but rather to go back to the supplier and buy a fresh batch. For now, farmers and gardeners using non-GM varieties can still save seeds -- though seeds saved from hybrid crops cannot be used reliably -- but farmers saving and using their own seed is contrary to long-term corporate business plans, and if history is any predictor of the future, seed saving is in jeopardy.

-- Klebbing the planet to death: Some scenarios are almost too horrific to contemplate, but contemplate them we must! Nanomaterials and genetically modified (GM) organisms can end up having unforeseen lethal effects in general, and effect in agriculture are no exception.

For instance: A strain of the bacterium Klebsiella planticola was found to have beneficial properties in the lab, and it was scheduled to be released into production. But when a grad student field-tested the strain (without permission), it was found to suppress the activity of mycorhizal fungi, which are essential to most plant growth. A widespread general release of this GMO could have devastated the planet, not just food supplies.

Here's another example of GMO insanity. Corporations can now use plants to grow pharmaceuticals, and they want to do so in open fields. This so-called biopharming might have some usefulness if it used only non-food crops, but the Franken-maniacs want to do their biopharming using crops that are also used for food, thus risking contamination of the food supply with unprescribed pharmaceuticals.

Whereas GM technology works at the genetic level, nanotechnology works at the molecular level. Messing around in the Big Sandbox of Basic Building Blocks may be a fine idea for lab experiments, but it's a scary and stupid idea to put such technology into products when we don't know the long-term effects of nano-components in the environment once those products are discarded or flushed. Nano-stuff is already out there on store shelves -- and in the landfills and local streams.

Wait -- the scenarios get worse! Richard Heinberg points out that some experts believe that genetic engineering combined with nanotechnology could lead to self-replicating robots the size of bacteria -- too tough, small, and rapidly spreading to stop -- manifesting as a "gray goo," efficiently disassembling and obliterating all life.

There is a relentless push from the biotech and nano industries to get products to market fast. This, coupled with the generally lax regulatory environment in these areas, means that the time bombs are ticking.

11. Farmer shortages

Twentieth century farming trends were all about efficiency -- more machinery, more specialization, and more pressure from corporations and middlemen to keep crop prices low, thus ensuring a relentless push for ever-greater efficiency. One of the results was the move from small- and mid-sized family farms that grew a wide variety of crops and animals to mega-farms, with a single farm family often growing just one crop on thousands of acres. New high-tech farm machinery and farming systems have greatly reduced the "hours per acre" needed to tend farm fields and produce food.

That sounds good -- it certainly has enabled us to keep food prices low. But reframing living systems (farm fields) as industrial systems, with plants and animals acting as mere assembly-line parts in the operation, was a dubious choice. The added pollution from the chemicals, fuels, and overcrowded animal conditions are notable downsides to the current farming regime. The reduced nutritional value of the food coming from these semi-sterile fields is another. But perhaps the worst downside was the vast reduction in the number of farmers.

For a variety of reasons, we are beginning to see industrial agriculture reach the limits of its "success." As communities tire of the pollution, as farm yields finally begin to suffer from the years of soil abuse, as consumers begin recognizing the blandness and nutritional insufficiency of conventionally grown food and the dangers of genetically modified foods and pesticide residues, the inevitable shift back to non-chemical agriculture has begun. Tightening energy supplies will put further pressure on the current ultra-distributed, fossil-fuel-dependent approach, and we will be seeing more small, local, organic farms again growing a wide variety of crops.

Small, diverse farms produce a much better overall result, with higher total food yields per acre, but they are more labor intensive. That means we're going to need more farmers. A lot more farmers. It remains to be seen whether the 20th century migration from rural to urban life can be reversed in this century.

12. Fish declines

Scientists and fisherman agree on one thing -- catches aren't like they used to be. Many of the large ocean fish species have declined significantly, and the fish that are being caught are much smaller in size than those caught a decade or two ago. A number of things are to blame -- primarily overfishing, but also pollution, bycatch (waste), and destruction of coastal and ocean-floor breeding habitats.

Without better management of fish stocks and implementation of more marine reserves -- areas where fishing is completely prohibited, giving remaining stocks a safe have to breed and grow -- wild-caught ocean fish will continue to decline.

To supplement the fish available from wild sources, fish farming has increased dramatically in the last decade. Some fish-farming operations are well run, but many are not, polluting the ecosystems near the operations and spreading disease to wild species that pass by. Left to its current trend, fish farming will ultimately become nothing more than the sea-going version of that land-based abomination, industrial agriculture.

In the cases of both overharvesting of wild fish and poor management of fish farms, in the end, the bad practices will mean less fish for food.

Wild-caught tuna and shark are contaminated with high levels of mercury. Some ocean-farmed salmon show elevated levels of PCBs. But ocean fish are not the only fish with a "BO problem." Fish caught in rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds may also contain toxins -- most U.S. states now routinely issue fishing advisories. Stocks of fresh water fish are also declining, so there's already trouble from a food-crisis perspective, even if these "local fish" were 100% clean.

American Rivers notes the following:

-- Thirty percent of the native freshwater fish species in North America are threatened, endangered, or "of special concern."
-- Nearly 40% of the rivers and streams in the U.S. are too polluted for fishing.

Agricultural crisis...

That's all for now.

In the third and final article in this series, we will cover the 13th factor in the coming food crisis, General Ignorance of Food, and offer strategies you can implement to limit the impact of any crises affecting agriculture and food on you and your family. Get it here: Food Security

Mark is a writer, financial analyst, Web developer, environmentalist, and, as necessary, chef and janitor. Grinning Planet is an expression of Mark's enthusiasm for all things humorous and green, as well as a psychotic desire to work himself half-to-death. Hobbies include health foods, music, getting frustrated over politics, and occasionally lecturing the TV set on how uncreative it is. For jokes, cartoons, and more great environmental information, visit http://www.grinningplanet.com. If you're not already on it, you can sign up for our free mailing list so you don't miss anything. Also please forward this Food/Agriculture Crisis article on to those you know who might find it interesting.

© 2008 Mark Jeantheau

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