Major NGO gets it right. Global agriculture faces a challenge. But with will and goodwill we can freeze the footprint of food.

posted in: Syndicated | 22
At last the Pundit is seeing a major NGO (namely the WWF) say many of the things that he has been trying to popularise for several years at GMO Pundit and elsewhere.

As we peer into the future of this planet, globally farm management faces an immense challenge. Indeed we do.

The mindless chants by some NGOs “that we have plenty of food” and that more productive farming methods are not needed are put aside. Better still there is clear advocacy of realistic and constructive action:

Freeze the footprint of food
Jason Clay identifies eight steps that, taken together, could enable farming to feed 10 billion people and keep Earth habitable.

In the past 18 months, members of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academia and the private sector have come together to develop ways to reform the global food system by increasing food production without damaging biodiversity. Groups such as the Global Harvest Initiative (http://www.globalharvestinitiative.org) and the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (http://www.saiplatform.org) are working to freeze the footprint of food.
It is a daunting challenge. An estimated 70 percent of the land that is suitable for growing food is already in use or under some form of protection. For 50 years, farmland has grown at 0.4 percent a year, at the cost of natural habitat. In the past decade, as developing economies have grown, this has increased to 0.6 percent and, with it, more biodiversity has been lost.

Jason Clay
Nature 475, 287–289 (21 July 2011) doi:10.1038/475287a
Published online 20 July 2011

The whole article is a must-read for all environmentalists.

Thank you Jason Clay, you join Patrick Moore, Stewart Brand, Mark Lynas, and Matt Ridley among the rational ecopragmatist turqs. The Pundit prays that you don’t allow belief based ideology cloud the argument once you move away from the professional science journals.

But wait, this just in:
Global Research Coalition Approves Six New Cutting-Edge Agriculture, Food and Natural Resource Programs to Sustainably Boost Food Security Worldwide ‎( from CGIAR Consortium Office)‎
What a great day for sustainable agriculture!

Update

Agriculture network approves $1 billion research programmes – July 22, 2011 (Nature News)
One of the world’s major agricultural research networks, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), has announced progress in a multi-year effort to bump up its funding and overhaul its organization and aims.
CGIAR, which involves 15 global research centres and supports some 8,000 scientists and staff, said yesterday that its donors had given approval for six more research programmes worth around $957 million over three years, adding to the five already approved late last year and in April. (Another four are waiting for approval – full list here)…. continues at link

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David Tribe is an applied geneticist, teaching graduate/undergrad courses in food science, food safety, biotechnology and microbiology at the University of Melbourne.

  • Eric Baumholder

    I like the notion of sustainability standards, even though there doesn’t seem to be a commonly-accepted definition of the term, ‘sustainable’.

    There is, however, a ‘working’ definition, and it involves the WWF.

    Here’s how it works: An industry is targeted by the environmentalists for economic losses. The WWF comes along, and negotiates the terms for a ‘truce’ between the industry and the activists. The terms of truce are called ‘sustainability’, and involves payments to the WWF via a number of different clever arrangements.

    The environmentalists who targeted the industry for economic devastation complain, though not too loudly, that the WWF has ‘sold out’ to the corporations involved.

    The WWF takes the money to the bank.

    That’s ‘sustainability’ in the real world, folks, and it’s not a pretty picture. Pure and simple, it’s activists monetizing activism.

    This is not a credible process for producing credible sustainability standards. It’s a mechanism for green appeasement, with money thrown in to sweeten the pie.

  • Jason

    I have been watching the work of Jason Clay/WWF and the SAI folks for a while now.

    What I gather is much is based on Life Cycle Analysis. At SAI in particular, they are looking for ways to measure “efficiency” of various input/output parameters and then develop an index. Jason Clay promotes very similar use of metrics and associated ag technologies and methods to achieve the goals.

    The problem this work runs into is that different farming systems optimize for different parameters. So deciding which is more “sustainable” does eventually come down to a judgement of what the group believes is most important. In general, the folks mentioned above tend to focus on greenhouse gas emissions and land-use efficiency.

    Other folks may be more interested in persistent organic pollutants, water quality, farm-worker equity, energy and other resource inputs, nutrient cycling, etc., so there are going to always be arguments about this subject.

    I, for example, don’t think agriculture is sustainable in my strict biophysical sense of the word unless the nutrients exported are brought back to farms after use, such as what the Chinese did up until early 20th century. I also don’t believe any fossil fuel use in agriculture is sustainable. The trouble, of course, is that a business will not stay afloat if it adheres to such a view of sustainability, so they do the best they can, so those who care feel better.

    My farm right now is burning loads of diesel and importing chicken manure by the tons to get soil nutrient levels up. I can both hold onto what real sustainability means while doing what it takes practically to stay in business. The truth is, agriculture and the food system can’t be sustainable in the context of a society that isn’t. It all goes together.

    • Richard R

      Hi Jason,

      Just curious, since you brought up the diesel consumption, what do you think about bio-diesel using on-farm grown soybeans? I saw this company that produces a screw-press on a local ag program a year or two ago. Seemed to make sense to me, but I am not a farmer:

      http://www.energrow.ca/

      Is the price of diesel not high enough to justify this type of purchase. Just curious about your experience. We can take this to a forum post if too far off topic (but I do think it speaks to sustainability).

      • Jason

        Liquid fuels are the cornerstone of farming with modern equipment. And only modern equipment removes the high cost of labor needed to be competitive in farming in places like the US.

        The main source of liquid fuels is fossil-based, but I do believe we need to be vigorously looking at and adopting alternatives. Biodiesel can be one of those.

        The main difficulties with biodiesel are:

        1. Doesn’t stay liquid at cool temperatures, so won’t work in some of the main seasons of use, such as spring and a cold fall.
        2. Greater corrosion of parts, especially rubber tubing.
        3. Affordability.

        Affordability is tough in two ways. First, if you are getting biodiesel from a waste oil processor they have high costs of picking up waste oil from various sources and bringing to processing facility. Second, if you are getting biodiesel from virgin vegetable oil you are essentially just harvesting oil from current day sunlight and paying for the land-labor-capital requirements of doing so. And for now, this is more expensive than fossil fueled diesel.

        So, if you go with biodiesel, expect to pay 20% above fossil diesel.

        To overcome some of these issues look into converting engines to run Straight Veggie Oil (SVO), which is less expensive and corrosive. Also, “green diesel” is made from veggie oil and uses a different technique to process, which ends up making something chemically nearly identical to fossil diesel.

        Because nearly all economic decisions are made based on least cost criteria, we won’t do anything about weaning off fossil fuels until it kills our economy. By that point, we will be in such a depression it will be difficult to do anything to pull ourselves back together unless we can organize a severe rationing program (getting fuels to places truly needed, as in combines, and not RVs for retired folks) and hold social cohesion. Probably need a shared enemy, like a space alien invader, to pull this off.

        • Hi Jason,
          Sorry if this is off topic a bit, but I’m curious about how much ground you farm, what you grow, and who you market to. You mention above the idea of optimizing to different criteria and it seems like these factors would be important in such decisions. You also said:

          “My farm right now is burning loads of diesel and importing chicken manure by the tons to get soil nutrient levels up.”

          Do you envision changing this soon or eventually?

          • Jason

            Right now manage 250 acres. Production includes, in order of area: pasture (with sheep, poultry and hogs), wheat, annual rye grass, vegetables (only 3 acres). Vigorously seeking more land.

            Land is in organic transition. Livestock not organic (need agents for worms, etc., or won’t grow/too risky) but marketed as on diverse, well managed, clean pasture.

            Wheat and grass seed is conventional but will go into pasture as part of transition program. Use the pasture to build fertility, then rotate into seed/veggie crops, then back into pasture. Sort of old-school in term of land-rotation, but working with specialized producers for each type of crop/livestock. Coming out of pasture, a small grain won’t need fertilizer. We do need to get soil mineral levels up enough, and have right pH, to feed the grass-legume-forbes in the pasture, but when they mineralize after tillage it is plenty for the annuals.

            I see us having enough resources to do current ag for a long-time (e.g., a few decades), theoretically, and under assumptions of society allocating for ag and away from others. What I don’t see is the financial system holding together well enough to make this run smoothly. Hence, I see problems with supply chains, and effectively high price volatility, periodic unavailability, etc.

            I don’t see trends in consumer wealth going up much longer. They will go down in places with debt crisis, and these will spread globally so that all will consume less. So, the whole notion that the world will get richer and eat more meat, thus multiply population growth by per capita wealth = future GDP = future food demand, doesn’t hold up in my view. (Maybe we eat meat grown in vats from an algal feed stock instead?)

            The emphasis should shift from trying to eek out as much production from unit of land, to lowering external inputs and shifting into perennials in rotation with annuals for the production resilience and soil benefits provided. Perhaps after the crisis, folks will work on the broader nutrient cycling issues.

            • Eric Baumholder

              Jason,

              Man, are you trying to kill yourself with work? It’s been 40 years since I knew a farmer so diversified. He even let the hogs out to pasture, nobody else around here did that. (He did complain that the hogs did a lot of damage rooting around.)

              Seems like you have everything but dairy and poultry. Or do you?

              I’ve always felt bad for the dairy guys. They can’t get sick, they can’t sleep in, they can’t take a vacation… In their own way, dairy cows are tyrants.

              This guy’s farm was very nearly a closed system. The only inputs from elsewhere were gasoline and herbicides. Still more interesting is that he planted and harvested ‘by the signs’ (of the Zodiac). Which I understand is now called ‘biodynamic’. That’s the way his dad farmed. In the end, though, he decided consulting the stars for what to do on the farm wasn’t really very helpful.

              For all I know, the Farmers Almanac still gives guidance on when to plant, when to hoe/cultivate, etc. Last I looked, there was even advice on when to set fenceposts. In one sign, you’d have dirt left over after setting a post. In another sign, you’d have to go and get dirt from somewhere else to fill the rest of the hole. The grave-digger in the next town over (long gone now) swore that the post-hole criteria applied to digging graves. He complained that people didn’t die according to the signs and that it was a real pain to have to find extra dirt to fill the grave.

              Sorry about that divagation, but farming is an endlessly fascinating subject.

              • Jason

                No dairy. Hogs and poultry are on pasture. Am learning about their damage and how to mitigate. The fertility and soil parasite benefits are huge, so a worthy trade-off I believe.

                The biodynamic folks are fascinating because for religious reasons they keep farms diverse, always including animals on the farm. I appreciate the diversity but don’t comprehend the woo-woo stuff. But is it okay if people do the right things for the wrong reasons?

            • Thanks Jason. That’s bigger than I anticipated. Interesting to see someone practicing, not preaching 🙂 .

              “The emphasis should shift from trying to eek out as much production from unit of land, to lowering external inputs and shifting into perennials in rotation with annuals for the production resilience and soil benefits provided.”

              This doesn’t seem likely with the current form of American Ag. Producers are pushed towards production, not resource investment. I found it interesting in the latest CNN poll (pdf here) that “people” were strongly against reducing Ag subsidies, no matter where in the political spectrum they claimed to be.

          • If you are using chicken manure, be careful of arsenic levels. Manure from egg producers is likely low arsenic, manure from meat producers is likely high arsenic (tens of ppm).

            Organic regulations don’t care about the arsenic level of manure, only that it is manure.

        • Richard R

          “Second, if you are getting biodiesel from virgin vegetable oil you are essentially just harvesting oil from current day sunlight and paying for the land-labor-capital requirements of doing so. And for now, this is more expensive than fossil fueled diesel.”

          Agree whole heartedly, but the advantage of on-farm sourced soybean would be using the meal as a feed for livestock (replacing external sourcing – e.g. selling commodity to commodity market, only to purchase processed feed for on-farm use). Added bang-for-the-buck (according to the website) from increased milk production on a dairy farm.

          Anyhow, I see you have a different mix and do not include soybean, so maybe not relevant to you. When you factor in the capital cost for the press, conversion of diesel engines to adapt to cold (also on site – this is a Canadian product and they have adapted), lost commodity/land value maybe it doesn’t add up (but the site does have numbers backing up the value – of course they are selling the product).

          • Jason

            I agree that if you bring animals back to a seed farm and feed them the meal that this is probably a great way to go. It also helps if you own your land outright and don’t need debt for operating capital.

            Been thinking of this for around here too. The seed crops would be canola or Camelina (both Brassicaceae). Canola higher yields but higher inputs and longer to maturity. Camelina would be great for breaking weed cycles since it matures so quickly, but it can become a weed itself.

            • Eric Baumholder

              Growing your own fuel on the farm is not much different from pre-Depression agriculture. Back then, 40-50% of crops was used to feed ‘beasts of burden’.

              So there’s a fundamental question: feed animals, or feed people? Petroleum use is decisive.

              • Jason

                I believe the large farms that do this (internalize biofuels) are using ca. 10-20% of their land to do so.

                I haven’t looked closely, but suspect the improvement over animal power era is that machines don’t have a year-round metabolism and that yields per acre have gone up.

    • Eric Baumholder

      Jason,

      You make some interesting points. Reminds me of the Chinese proverb, ‘Anything that will not last forever will eventually come to an end.’ Perhaps nothing is sustainable.

      • Jason

        Ha! Yes. The sun will run out of fuel some day too.

        As a background, it is interesting to look into the work of Odum and his proposal for a fourth law of thermodynamics called the Maximum Power Principle.

        I find this explains a lot. What living systems do is evolve to exploit resources at the most competitive rate. Efficiency is actually just one factor in this. A highly efficient system tends to perform work slowly, eeking out the most work with the least waste. But systems can grow and out compete others when they maximize power, not efficiency.

        This is why there are great cycles in living systems and economies. Once you appreciate the Maximum Power Principle, you accept that we are going to burn it all, do it fast, then collapse as the resource base can no longer support the rate of consumption we “need.”

        We are at such an inflection point. Hence I don’t think much of the schemes of Jason Clay (logically valid as they are under current economic arrangements), as they are for extending a type of system that won’t last much into the down slope of the resource curve.

  • Jason: Do you think there will ever come a day when organics solely will be able to feed the world’s 9 billion people?

    • Jason

      I am not sure what you mean by this question. There is some background here that I can only infer. I don’t know what it is, but suspect it goes something like “Yields are lower in organic farming, so we can’t afford to use methods like that when we need to feed the world in 2050.” ????

      There are a number of notions I take issue with. I don’t deny that crop yields per acre are lower on average on organic farms when compared to conventional farms in places like the US and Europe. But that is largely beside the point, in my view, and is comparing the wrong things. Note that it is almost impossible to make a fair comparison between many organic and non-organic ag systems and anybody can turn the results around to support their point of view. How does one define yields and efficiency? It can be done in so many ways.

      It also isn’t looking at positive deviants in the organic world and asking how what they do could be used more widely. Given that the dominant ag system has so much research, land, and people behind it, how would one expect a rather new system such as modern organic to compare?

      Also, I don’t think we will have the choice but to adopt more organic-like methods, as well as other systems such agroecological, “Low External Input” techiques, etc. I am not an organic purist, just looking at the whole system and thinking what will be more resilient and still produce well given the contraints and changes I see. Organic farming rejects certain tools (and I don’t necessarily agree fully with those rejections) but uses other tools much more widely than conventional ag and I feel those tools have advantages. One could do a hybrid system pretty well also. I am actually doing that as the livestock aren’t organic but the land is, which is perfectly legal and allows us to use things like antibiotics but not herbicides.

      So I would turn the question around and ask whether you think an agricultural system like today’s can feed 9 billion people in 2050? (I would say it can feed 9 billion people right now, but not sure about the future). If you simply reference Jason Clay et al. then we’d have to get into their assumptions, which I tend to disagree with, but that would take us into topics like economics/finance, demographics, politics, and resource models akin to optimal foraging theory. Not sure anybody wants me to do that again.

  • Eric Baumholder

    “new system such as modern organic”?

    Not to be snarky, but isn’t organic agriculture fundamentally antique? Last I saw, the definition of ‘organic agriculture’ is farming methods prior to the end of WWII.

    • Jason

      There is a lot of innovation in organic farming. I am interested in a blend of some of the past techniques abandoned due to some of the bizzare (and I believe historically temporary) pressures of the 20th century, plus a lot of modern equipment use, plus a lot of the biological knowledge garnered especially since the 1980s. I believe in efficiencies gained from an appropriate scale of operation, as well as specialization in knowledge and equipment, and with the land-base and knowledge+equipment capacity to do land-use rotation more typical of old time farming.

      So I’d be careful about making assumptions about organic farming and whether it is fully luddite or technology averse. Sometimes it is, but more often it is not, and is simply making certain choices about what technologies to use. It just so happens it doesn’t use GMOs (and antibiotics!), which is obviously something of a bother for folks that spend time here, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t adopt “advanced and modern” technologies and improve in many other ways. And some of these are, unfortunately, not used widely on most conventional farms.

      Just an example here. Organic farms are required to plan for watershed protection, air quality and biodiversity protection. This means they will often put in no-till strips in swales, keep riparian zones well vegetated, install hedge-rows, etc. This has some very significant impacts on soil erosion, stream temperature, and species richness on farms. I also believe this helps farms through ecological services. But when consumers are buying organic, they are also trying to encourage the ecosystem services that organic farms typically provide. Of course any farm can do these things, but they tend to be more common when farms are legally required to think about them and try to implement, as spelled out in a plan that is reviewed annually by an inspector.

      That all said, I have no problem with somebody trying to make a go with hand tools and non-hybrid seeds. I think it is wise to have a diverse set of expertise with something as important as food.

  • self defence tips

    I have been watching the work of Jason Clay/WWF and the SAI folks for a while now.

    What I gather is much is based on Life Cycle Analysis. At SAI in particular, they are looking for ways to measure “efficiency” of various input/output parameters and then develop an index. Jason Clay promotes very similar use of metrics and associated ag technologies and methods to achieve the goals.