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land conservation and food production

a briefing document

Land conservation and food production is part of a series of briefing documents on housing and making living systems ecological.
This grouping is contained within a set of documents on global concerns at abelard.org.
comparing fertility rates and populations in europe and beyond tragedy of the commons land conservation and food production On housing and making living systems ecological
sustainable manufacture GDP and other quality of life measurements ecologically collapsing and retrenching civilisations: written sources global warming briefing documents
pressure on water resources power, ownership and freedom energy briefing documents
there is no global warming - population is no problem - please do not worry!
earth management in agriculture
the advanced science: food production, genetic engineering and ecology
how to avoid or delay difficult political decisions—transgenic crops
norman borlaug and the green revolution
     on genetic modification
pessimism and optimism - yin and yan of our small planet
on the recovery of land by managed grazing - eat meat and die
from livestock production: energy inputs and the environment


site map


Agri-business looks to make profits from farming customers who are often poor people in still to be developed parts of the world. Generally, agri-business looks to its profits, not to the negative consequences for the local population and their environment, of the so-often inappropriate technology that is being sold.

Collected together here are a series of items which show how to feed populations, without ruining the planet and while enabling the populations concerned to become self-sufficient and to escape, at least to some degree, the poverty trap caused by high death rates and low education levels.

there is no global warming - population is no problem - please do not worry!

There were seven lean years, or will it be ten, or twenty, or more this time round?

Warning: do not confuse stocks with production.
Do not confuse ‘cereal’ with wheat, nor wheat with corn.
These are forecasts in a spot market that keep adjusting to latest information.

Understand market fundamentalism. It is as mad as socialism.

“For the fifth year running global cereal stocks are forecast to fall in the new 2004/2005 marketing season, despite an expected increase in cereal production for 2004 to 1,956 million metric tons, a substantial increase from the previous year, said the FAO.”

“The last time stocks were this low, in 1972-74, wheat and rice prices doubled. Now, a generation later, a similar scenario is unfolding. After nearly tripling from 1950 to 1996, growth in the world grain harvest came to a halt. In each of the last four years world grain production has fallen short of consumption, forcing a drawdown of stocks.

“During this period, expanding deserts, falling water tables, crop-withering temperatures, and other environmental trends have largely offset the positive contributions of advancing technology and additional investment in agriculture.”

“All countries are affected by the rising world price of basic food commodities. The American Farm Bureau marketbasket survey, which monitors US retail prices of 16 basic food products in 32 states, shows a 10.5 per cent rise in food prices during the first quarter of 2004 over the like period in 2003.” [Quoted from foodqualitynews.com]

[Note: this is in a period of near stable reported Consumer Price Index (CPI) figures. [In the UK the CPI is called the RPI (Retail Price Index).] CPI is, of course, rigged by governments. See also The mechanics of inflation]

“Food prices are rising almost everywhere. In Russia, bread shortages pushed the price of bread in February up 38 per cent compared with February 2003. This so alarmed the government that it restricted wheat exports by imposing an export tax of 35 roubles per ton.”

marker at abelard.org

“The International Grains Council (IGC) sees global wheat production in 2005/06 at 608 million tonnes, down from 624.5 million last season. World wheat stocks are forecast to fall to 133 million tonnes, down five million from the end of 2004/05.”

“ In Europe, Spain and Portugal are suffering their worst drought on record and in the major wheat importing countries of north Africa, much lower harvests are expected.” [Quoted from planetark.com]

Updated February 2008, see also wheat prices near quadruple in two years:

graph showing the rise of wheat prices. Source: Bloomberg

In the last year, the world population has risen by approximately 70 million people and, as incomes rise, so rises the market for grain-consuming animal products; some of which take as much as ten times the grain calories to produce one calorie of meat product.

earth management in agriculture

“The researchers studied three different methods of soybean farming: conservation (no-till drilling); conventional tillage, and organic farming. Their findings showed that the conservation method produced the highest crop yield, 15% more than conventional tillage and 110% more than organic farming. It also held the most carbon in the soil--41% more soil carbon than conventional tillage and 48% more than organic. This catching and holding of soil carbon, called sequestration, keeps carbon from being incorporated into carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.return to the index
the advanced science: food production, genetic engineering and ecology
highly recommended Four GoldenYak (tm) award

“So now ask a question: Who is the natural constituency for earth-friendly biotechnology? Who cares enough to lobby governments to underwrite research - frequently unprofitable research - on transgenic crops that might restore soils or cut down on pesticides in poor countries? Who cares enough to teach Asian or African farmers, one by one, how to farm without ploughing? Who cares enough to help poor farmers afford high-tech, earth-friendly seed? Who cares enough to agitate for programs and reforms that might steer displaced peasants and profit-seeking farmers away from sensitive lands? Not politicians, for the most part. Not farmers. Not corporations. Not consumers.

“At the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank in Washington, the molecular biologist Don Doering envisions transgenic crops designed specifically to solve environmental problems: crops that might fertilize the soil, crops that could clean water, crops tailored to remedy the ecological problems of specific places. "Suddenly you might find yourself with a virtually chemical-free agriculture, where your cropland itself is filtering the water, it's protecting the watershed, it's providing habitat," Doering told me. "There is still so little investment in what I call design-for-environment." The natural constituency for such investment is, of course, environmentalists.”

The item should mention the energy problem but does not.

It is also pointed out that a huge industry is awakening in education; and countries would do well to develop it quickly, not only as a means of maintaining competitive economies but as a means of modernising the rest of the planet.

This would lower friction, lower population pressure and lower the spread of both destruction and environmental contamination.

January 2009: sustainable food production comes.
return to the index

how to avoid or delay difficult political decisions—transgenic crops

“The scientific panel, while pointing out areas of uncertainty that need further research, voiced no fundamental objection to transgenic agriculture.”

“ Some senior plant-biotech researchers have already announced plans to leave Britain this year. "Public opposition has caused industry to bleed away, which reduces funding opportunities and options for the future employment of students," says Mark Tester of the University of Cambridge, who is shortly to join the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics at the University of Adelaide. One company, Bayer CropScience of Hauxton, near Cambridge, suspended its field trials of GM crops late last month, complaining that its experimental plots could not be guaranteed protection from protesters intent on their destruction.”

a map giving the present advance of transgenic crop farming is available at this link.

It makes no sense to be be for, or against, transgenic species.
Each modification should be examined on its individual merits.

on genetic modification

“GM [genetically modified] crops now grow on 114 million hectares of land, with no scientific evidence so far of danger to human health or damage to the environment. Quite the opposite is true: By reducing the amount of pesticides and herbicides farmers spray on their fields and enhancing crop yields, GM varieties have dramatically curbed water pollution, biodiversity loss, and spared much forested land from being turned into farms. In China, for instance, the introduction of insect-resistant GM cotton cut pesticide use by 156 million pounds in just four years, lowering poison-related illness among farmers to a quarter of previous levels.”

114 million hectares is equivalent to
over five times the area of Great Britain
one and two-thirds the area of Texas.return to the index

norman borlaug and the green revolution

An American, Norman Borlaug was awarded a Nobel Prize for Peace in 1970, “primarily for his work in reversing the food shortages that haunted India and Pakistan in the 1960s”.

Borlaug’s mission was to cause the environment to produce significantly more food. “Borlaug's leading research achievement was to hasten the perfection of dwarf spring wheat.” “Borlaug's majestic accomplishment came to be labeled the Green Revolution.”

The World Bank, and the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations no longer sponsor Borlaug’s work, having been heavily influenced by fallacious environmental arguments than high-yield farming damages the eco-system and encourages human over- population.

“In developing nations where population growth is surging, high-yield agriculture holds back the rampant deforestation of wild areas. Waggoner calculates that India's transition to high-yield farming spared the country from having to plough an additional 100 million acres of virgin land -- an area about equivalent to California. In the past five years India has been able to slow and perhaps even halt its national deforestation, a hopeful sign. This would have been impossible were India still feeding itself with traditionally cultivated indigenous crops.”

“[...] statistics suggest that high-yield agriculture brakes population growth rather than accelerating it, by starting the progression from the high-birth-rate, high-death-rate societies of feudal cultures toward the low-birth-rate, low-death-rate societies of Western nations. As the former Indian diplomat Karan Singh is reported to have said, "Development is the best contraceptive." In subsistence agriculture children are viewed as manual labor, and thus large numbers are desired. In technical agriculture knowledge becomes more important, and parents thus have fewer children in order to devote resources to their education.”

Having further achieved the Green Revolution in China and in Mexico, at over 80 years old Borlaug was working to do the same in Africa.

return to the index

pessimism and optimism - yin and yan of our small planet

yin-yan at abelard.org A rather pessimistic but interesting essay by a “the world is coming to an end and you are all dooooommmmedddddd merchant”: museletter.com

“Over all - including energy costs for farm machinery, transportation, and processing, and oil and natural gas used as feedstocks for agricultural chemicals - the modern food system consumes roughly ten calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food energy produced.”

yin-yan at abelard.org and some remedial reading that discusses the manipulation of enclosed bio-environments. The following is from an ecology e-book (24 sectioned chapters) : kk.org

“I once had a tiny living planet stationed on my desk. It even had a number: world #58262. I didn't have much to do to keep my planet happy. Just watch it every now and then.

“World #58262 was smashed to smithereens at 5:04 P.M., October 17, during an abrupt heave of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. A bookcase shook loose from my office wall during the tremor and spilled over my desk. In a blink, a heavy tome on ecosystems crushed the glass membrane of my living planet, irrevocably scrambling its liquid guts in a fatal Humpty Dumpty maneuver.

“World #58262 was a human-made biosphere of living creatures, delicately balanced to live forever, and a descendent of Folsome's and Hanson's microbial jars. Joe Hanson, who worked at NASA's Advance Life-support Program in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, had come up with a more diverse world than Folsome's microbes. Hanson was the first to find a simple combination of self-sustaining creatures that included an animal. He put tiny brine shrimp and brine algae in an everlasting cosmos.” [In chapter 8]

Biosphere2 in New Mexico
image credit: Biosphere 2

The full-scale version of this self-contained living ark is Biosphere2, now up for sale. Columbia University has taken over the Bio2 project.

“Unlike NASA, the Synergians wouldn't rely on technology as the solution. Their idea was to stuff as many biological systems-plants, animals, insects, fish, and microorganisms-as they possibly could into a sealed glass dome, and then rely on the emergent system's own self-stabilizing tendencies to self-organize a biospheric atmosphere. Life is in the business of making its environment agreeable for life. If you could get a bunch of life together and then give it enough freedom to cultivate the conditions it needed to thrive, it would go forever, and no one needed to understand how it worked.” [Quoted from kk.org]

marker at abelard.org

“The intentions behind Bio2 were certainly noble. Caught in the wake of the 1970's warnings of global environmental apocalypses and the hairy-chested humanism that would dominate the 1980's, Bio2's founders figured the latter could solve the former. This planet may be becoming a dank, pollutant-soaked hellhole but we can always just live on the moon. Yet somewhere in its path to glory, the Bio2's well-intentioned arrogance dissolved into farce, a situation with a whole new set of lessons entirely.” [Quoted from dartreview.com]

return to the index

on the recovery of land by managed grazing [44-page .pdf]

Comparing well-managed land with over-grazed land; Image: soilcarbon.com.au
Comparing well-managed land with over-grazed land. Image: soilcarbon.com.au

Comparing well-managed land with over-grazed land. Image: soilcarbon.com.au

“THE PROBLEM: An increase in carbon dioxide levels in the air, contributing to global warming.

“THE SIMPLE SOLUTION: Put the carbon back in the earth where it belongs. Degraded soils can store up to 5 times more organic carbon in their surface layers than they currently hold if the soil management approach changes. Through the application of these types of management methods, Soil Carbon Australia can make an impact on global warming.

“THE NATURAL SOLUTION: Carbon is naturally sequested in topsoil via biological processes surrounding actively growing roots of pasture grasses and cereals. Encouraging these processes is cheap, efficient, and ecologically beneficial.

“THE ACHIEVABLE SOLUTION: Soil carbon levels can be increased by adopting forms of carbon farming, including time-controlled grazing management, pasture cropping and biologically beneficial farming practices.”

eat meat and die

Wellll - too much meat really.

Lightweight, easy listening, 20-minute film on diet, land degradation and green house gases.

related material
Table of wealth distribution and food securityreturn to the index


from livestock production: energy inputs and the environment
By David Pimentel - press release, 7 August 1997


  • WHERE'S THE GRAIN? The 7 billion livestock animals in the United States consume five times as much grain as is consumed directly by the entire American population.

  • HERBIVORES ON THE HOOF. Each year an estimated 41 million tons of plant protein is fed to U.S. livestock to produce an estimated 7 million tons of animal protein for human consumption. About 26 million tons of the
    livestock feed comes from grains and 15 million tons from forage crops. For every kilogram of high-quality animal protein produced, livestock are fed nearly 6 kg of plant protein.

  • FOSSIL FUEL TO FOOD FUEL. On average, animal protein production in the U.S. requires 28 kilocalories (kcal) for every kcal of protein produced for human consumption. Beef and lamb are the most costly, in terms of fossil fuel energy input to protein output at 54:1 and 50:1, respectively. Turkey and chicken meat production are the most efficient (13:1 and 4:1, respectively). Grain production, on average, requires 3.3 kcal of fossil fuel for every kcal of protein produced. …

The phrase “in terms of fossil fuel energy” looks confused or confusing.

I do not think Pimentel is claiming that much fossil fuel input, but an equivalent if it is an equivalent it will include energy inputs from the sun.

You will/should know that

  1. there is now increasing competition for feedstocks from the bio-fuel industry;
  2. the USA is one of the granaries of the world and exports foodstuffs widely. It is, therefore, in effect exporting its water and soil resources (through erosion) to the likes of the Middle East, which is now long past able to feed itself;
  3. that world grain production is moving into deficit for the first time for a decade or two, and that reserves have been falling year by year recently;
  4. that global warming and associated droughts are expected to interfere with crop production in many areas of the world, particularly poor areas.

… The U.S. now imports about 54 percent of its oil; by the year 2015, that import figure is expected to rise to 100 percent.

Nor will the USA import 100% of its oil. It will form oil products and substitutes from its huge coal resources, or from nuclear and other power sources, including the feedstocks mentioned above.

  • THIRSTY PRODUCTION SYSTEMS. U.S. agriculture accounts for 87 percent of all the fresh water consumed each year. Livestock directly use only 1.3 percent of that water. But when the water required for forage and grain production is included, livestock's water usage rises dramatically. Every kilogram of beef produced takes 100,000 liters of water. Some 900 liters of water go into producing a kilogram of wheat. Potatoes are even less "thirsty," at 500 liters per kilogram. [See also review of When the rivers run dry.]

  • HOME ON THE RANGE. More than 302 million hectares of land are devoted to producing feed for the U.S. livestock population -- about 272 million hectares in pasture and about 30 million hectares for cultivated feed grains.

  • DISAPPEARING SOIL. About 90 percent of U.S. cropland is losing soil -- to wind and water erosion -- at 13 times above the sustainable rate. Soil loss is most severe in some of the richest farming areas; Iowa loses topsoil at 30 times the rate of soil formation. Iowa has lost one-half its topsoil in only 150 years of farming -- soil that took thousands of years to form.

  • PLENTY OF PROTEIN: Nearly 7 million tons (metric) of animal protein is produced annually in the U.S. -- enough to supply every American man, woman and child with 75 grams of animal protein a day. With the addition of 34 grams of available plant protein, a total of 109 grams of protein is available per capita. The RDA (recommended daily allowance) per adult per day is 56 grams of protein for a mixed diet.

  • OUT TO PASTURE. If all the U.S. grain now fed to livestock were exported and if cattlemen switched to grass-fed production systems, less beef would be available and animal protein in the average American diet would drop from 75 grams to 29 grams per day. That, plus current levels of plant-protein consumption, would still yield more than the RDA for protein.
Web abelard.org
Related further reading
population GDP and other quality of life measurements
sustainable manufacture power, ownership and freedom
tragedy of the commons energy briefing documents
ecologically collapsing and retrenching civilisations: written sources

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