Look After The Earth


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[image, unknown] HOW TO FEED THE WORLD
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3 - Look after the earth
Illustrations: Alan Hughes

[image, unknown] The problem

Each year there are about 80 million more mouths to feed. That we have managed so far is a tribute to the world’s farmers. Grain production rose from 623 million tonnes in 1950 to 1,447 million tonnes in 1983. Much of this increase has come from Western-style ‘high tech’ farming, using oil-based fertilizers and new hybrid seeds in huge monocultures. The USA has been dominant, providing 90 per cent of net grain exports and about half of all agricultural produce on the international markets. But since 1973 output has only just managed to keep pace with population - whilst particularly in Africa, there have been severe shortages.

However despite the productivity of th.e ‘high tech’ farming, it is also destructive. First there is the soil loss. The US has lost a third of its best topsoils. Second, the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are responsible for over a half of all US water pollution, costing approximately $500 million a year. Third, farmers have been forced into debt. The average debt of an American farmer - $70,000 - means they are forced to garner ever bigger harvests whatever the long-term environmental costs, to meet the interest on loans.

On the one hand nearly half the crops are lost to resistant pests and bad storage while on the other, there are milk lakes and butter mountains. In the rich world good land is used to grow animal feed destined for the over-rich meat-heavy diets. While in the poor world countries become increasingly dependent on food imports and the gap between the well-fed and the hungry widens. This is not an agricultural system that has any long-term future.

More monoculture
An increasing amount of the world’s fields are planted with identical crop strains. This erosion of genetic diversity means the uniform seeds are all vulnerable to the same bacteria and fungus. Disease and pest infestations can sweep through monocultures like bush fire. Only four varieties of wheat produce 75 percent of Canada’s prairie harvest, just one variety of wheat is responsible for half the crop.

New dust bowls
Each year the world loses farming land equivalent to just under half the size of the United Kingdom (42.500 square miles). The loss comes from · erosion · desertification ·chemical poisoning · highway and building construction. If the trend continues to 2000 AD, we will lose 18 per cent of all arable lands. Such soil destruction is a once-and-for-all loss of farmers’ capital.

Fuel costs.
High-technology modern farming is fuel thirsty. The fuel can be diesel for tractors, petroleum for transporting the harvests or aviation fuel for crop spraying. If every country used as much oil per farming person as the US, world reserves would be exhausted in a dozen years.

Chemical resistant insects
Indiscriminate spraying of pesticides can do more harm than good. It has produced new insect mutants resistant to the common chemical sprays. And the natural predators of the crop-eating insects - the birds, spiders, fish and small rodents - are being killed off by those same sprays. Without these predators, the natural forms of control, even higher doses of chemicals must be used. Up to a third of the world’s harvests are now destroyed by bugs.

Wasteful eating habits.
Nearly 40 per cent of the world’s grain is used as animal fodder to supply the unhealthy meat-rich diet of the West. The average American consumes 2.2 kilos of grain a day (800 kilos a year), nearly all in the form of meat. Better-fed Africans eat 0.43 kilos of grain a day (160 kilos a year). If Americans and other Western people were prepared just to revert to their diets of twenty years ago, this would reduce grain consumption by a fifth.

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[image, unknown] The way forward

Modern farming has been devoted to ‘bending’ the environment to suit the crops; through glasshouses, irrigation or fertilizers. Now we can bend the plants instead - finding the right crops to flourish in harmony with their environments. But if ecologically sympathetic agriculture is to work in the South, priorities must change and food come first.

Instead of government encouragement of factories in the cities, more finance and staff have to be devoted to farming. And agricultural schemes should not encourage export crops for fickle overseas markets but more humble food crops for local diets. Nor should agricultural schemes look to the large commercial landowners for implementation - priority should go instead to the more efficient small farmers and peasants.

Practical ‘food first’ policies would include: cheap agricultural loans; better prices for government-bought crops; help with transport and marketing; useful and relevant research on small farmer crops like sorghum and millet; and improved security of tenant farmers on decent agricultural land.

The best model for developing countries has been China, The country has largely eliminated malnutrition, both producing a great quantity of food and ensuring it is fairly shared. The Chinese also lead in ecological farming - wasting nothing. They recycle much of their crop residues, pig manure and human waste in bio-gas stoves which can provide up to 40 per cent of a commune’s electricity. The country now feeds 22 per cent of the world’s people on 7 per cent of the world’s arable land. Whether China will continue environmentally sound farming is an open question.

Conservation ploughing
In the developing world there should be far more concentration on improving the efficiency of ploughing by draft animals than on importing tractors. Draft animals are cheaper, do not use foreign exchange, cost little to maintain, are less likely to break down’, and provide extra benefits like manure.  Elsewhere minimum tillage farming is more energy efficient and protects the soil. Stubble left in the fields retains nutrients and prevents erosion.

Soil conservation.
Soil loss could be reduced in three ways. Terracing. Hilly areas are particularly likely to be eroded. Terracing stops the earth being washed away. Tree and shrub planting. Such planting along the roads and fields provides windbreaks to reduce soil erosion and shelter for the natural predators of pests. Appmpriate livestock. Drier grazing land should be stocked with hardy, disease-resistant sheep and cattle. Although they do not generate as much meat or milk as the high-yielding livestock varieties, they cause a lot less damage to the environment.

Natural pest control.
Trials of integrated pest control systems look promising. The aim is not to wipe out all pests but to respect the cycle of nature by keeping insects at tolerable levels. This means applying natural’ restraints like planting mixed crops in the same fields, cleaning up insect breeding grounds like mosquito swamps and introducing natural predators.

Mixed cropping
The interplanting of different crops, and the rotation of crops in the same soil helps maintain the balance of nutrients and chemicals in the earth. It also reduces pest invasions and by providing green cover below higher standing plants like maize or coffee bushes, prevents moisture evaporation and soil erosion.

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New Internationalist issue 151 magazine cover This article is from the September 1985 issue of New Internationalist.
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