Population Growth, Climate Change Degrade African Soil, Threaten Millions With Starvation: Worldwatch

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photo: oneVillage Initiative/Creative Commons

It's always good to get some independent confirmation you're heading in the right direction: Last week Worldwatch Institute released the 2011 State of the World Report, focusing on Innovations that Nourish the Planet. It's a long read, but opens with a startling simple summation of the where humanity is now in regards to food production: Can We Produce Enough Food Without Destroying Biodiversity?

Nearly half a century after the Green Revolution, a major share of the human family is still chronically hungry. In addition, much of that revolution's gains have been achieved through highly intensive agriculture that depends heavily on fossil fuels for inputs and energy--and the question of whether the world's croplands can yield more food is being trumped by the question of whether they can do so without compromise to the soils, fresh water, and crop diversity the world depends on.

It's worth remembering that the focus since World War 2 and the spread of industrial agriculture has been nearly solely on producing greater quantities of food, with the environmental impact of that largely relegated to an ancillary thought.

The whole report is worth going through, with countless examples largely from Africa on ways that we can simultaneous address hunger, poverty, food security and climate change, without further degrading the ecosystems on which agriculture and humanity depends. There are two things through that I think are particularly worthwhile in highlighting for TreeHugger readers.

First, what I alluded to above, while there is no single solution for these issues, the spectrum of solutions are all perennial TreeHugger topics. Second, one example from Malawi, brings together population and agriculture in a novel way, which makes perfect sense once you hear it, but hasn't been much publicized.

Past Attempts to Alleviate Hunger Crippled by One-Size-Fits-All Approach
The solution spectrum: The SOTW report not only reinforces the notion that a one-size-fits-all approach won't work in the future, but it also hasn't worked in the past:

Past attempts have failed because they squeezed out diversity or depended too much on chemicals and other inputs that farmers could not afford. They also stumbled because they ignored women farmers or neglected to consider food culture as a way to change how they farm. Although a slightly smaller share of humanity is hungry, what the world has been doing about hunger has not really worked. And because attention has been focused relatively narrowly--on a few types of crops, on a few technologies--entire regions and ecosystems, not to mention myriad varieties of crops and rural ways of life, have been ignored.

So what will work? A combination of three things:

1) Stop focusing just on better seeds and rebuild soils and aquifers. It may be profitable for seed companies to develop, tout and sell new seed varieties but the fact of the matter is that a better long-term investment agriculturally speaking, albeit one which is harder for corporations to profit directly from, is healthy soil and water.

2) Make better use of the food that is produced, reduce waste, and produce the right types of food. That is, produce less meat, produce food with fewer fossil fuel inputs, and (re)develop more local and regional food distribution. In places where food distribution infrastructure is lacking (much of Africa, for example), development of this is crucial.

3) When it comes to food aid, donor countries and organizations need to start buying more or all of their food locally in the countries or region they are trying to help. The World Food Programme has begun doing this, but the United States has yet to do so, instead sending US-produced food overseas, supporting domestic farmers but undercutting the ability of the people receiving it to grow food themselves.

Population Growth Has Led to Degraded Soils, Possible Mass African Famine
Here's the link between population growth and soil degradation in Africa:

As population has risen, and continues to grow, four main factors are coming together to create a situation that author Roland Bunch (the pieces in the SOTW report are individually authored) says could bring deaths from malnutrition and outright starvation across Africa into the tens of millions.

1) Most of the small-scale farms in Africa use animal manure as fertilizer, but because of human population growth there is now a shortage of it. As the numbers of people grow, the amount of land that each family can farm has declined and with it the numbers of animals that can be raised on it. Now many families just have space for 2-3 animals, when you need at minimum about 15 well-fed, healthy cattle to produce enough manure for fertilizer.

2) Land isn't being left fallow long enough for the soil to replenish itself. This too is driven by population growth reducing the amount of land each farmer has. In the 1970s the average time a piece of land was left fallow was about 15 years, adequate enough to maintain soil health. By the 1980s this dropped to 10 years; by the 1990s this was down to 5 years. Today it has dropped further to just 2 years, with many farmers unable to do even that with the land available to them. It's an obviously vicious circle, leading to ever-decreasing soil fertility and crop yields.

3) The era of cheap energy, and therefore cheap chemical fertilizer is over. Though oil prices may have dropped back from the highs seen a few years ago, compared to the $20 per barrel prices a decade ago it still means that small-scale farmers can't afford chemical fertilizers which could help alleviate some of the problems resulting from manure shortages and lacking of ability to leave land fallow. Bunch says, "Farmers who spend $40 on chemical fertilizer will probably not increase their harvest of basic grains even by $35."

That said, Bunch argues convincingly that simply subsidizing chemical fertilizer is not a long-term solution. Rather he advocates for a more ecologically sustainable approach using green manure and cover crops to replenish soil and improve yields.

4) Climate change, it's upset agricultural traditions and knowledge. "For centuries farmers had planted their crops every June 24, because they for sure the rainy season would start within a week or two. now they have no idea whether the rains will start in May, June, July or even August." This variability is even more devastating than if overall rainfall just declined 10-20% but fell in predictable ways that are more easily adapted to.

Read more: State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet
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More on Sustainable Agriculture, Food Security:
The World Needs a Farming Revolution! Declares UN Report
Organic Agriculture Could Stop Global Climate Change
Is Industrial Monoculture the Real Path to Sustainable Farming?
How Will Food Security Be Affected by Climate Change, Energy Constraints & Water Availability?
Afghanistan & Sub-Saharan Africa Have World's Greatest Food Security Risk

Tags: Africa | Agriculture | Farming | Global Climate Change | Population Growth

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