Ever since Thomas Malthus came up with the idea that humans are going to run out of resources on Earth causing unthinkable catastrophe, Earth’s growing human population and finite resources have been cause for concern. One of the main resources of concern is food. Malthusian concerns regarding lack of food were temporarily stalled by the second green revolution, which greatly increased food output. However, the second green revolution was driven by increased chemical (pesticide, fertilizer, etc.) use, and an increase in gasoline powered machines, which raises questions about sustainability (McMichael, 2012). I believe that we should explore as many possible solutions to lack of food, and sustainability of food production, as we can. Here are just a few examples.
One solution that has been put forward to sole the world’s food problems is genetically modified (GM) crops. In a policy paper from the Environmental Working Group, Emily Cassidy argues that these crops, especially genetically engineered crops, have failed to improve agricultural production (2015). This is a highly contentious topic, and further research should be conducted, preferably by an independent source, that is not part of the fight between Monsanto, Cargill, etc. and environmental groups. However, Cassidy also gives many alternatives to genetic engineering. These include: growing more crops that require less fertilizer, and using more fertilizer in regions that require fertilizer for agriculture as opposed to further fertilizing already relatively fertile areas. Reducing the use of biofuels such as ethanol, which use corn that could be consumed by humans. Changing the diet of richer humans to decrease the prevalence of meat, and reducing food waste (2015). You have probably heard two of these ideas before, even though you did not know it, from your high school biology teacher, and your grandmother. In high school biology your teacher probably taught you about trophic energy levels in ecosystems. The bottom level is producers, including grains, soy, etc. The second level is herbivores, including cows. Between each levels, approximately ninety percent of the available energy is lost, which means only ten percent is transfered. Most beef cattle today are grain fed. That means we could greatly increase the energy in biomass available to us if we just ate the grain or soy we feed to cattle, instead of eating beef. Now to your grandmother. If she is anything like mine, probably encouraged you to clean your plate and refused to throw out any food. It turns out your grandmother has been doing her part to help feed the world this whole time.
Now I will move from policy and consumer behavior to specific methods of producing food. The first is aquaponics. This is a process of farming fish and plants in the same process. Some benefits of this system include the excretion of fish being high in nitrogen, which the plants need (increasing nitrogen availability is the goal of fertilizer). One problem with aquaponics is that plants and fish generally do best at slightly different pH’s (acidities).To this end a group of German scientists and engineers has designed a new aquaponic system with fish and plants in separate tanks, and a filter in between through which the water flows. The whole process is contained in a greenhouse powered by solar panels. the greenhouse also has a water condenser to reuse evaporated water (Kloas, et al., 2015). This is a great example of an idea for sustainable food production that should be encouraged. Fish could become a more sustainable source of nutrients and especially protein than terrestrial animals such as cows. Although most fish humans eat, such as tilapia, which was the fish used by the aforementioned scientists, are at or above cattle in terms of trophic level, fish are cold blooded, while traditional livestock are warm-blooded. Warm-blooded animals require more inputs of energy to regulate their temperature. As a result, fish may require less input of biomass for greater output. One problem with this system, however, is that it requires significant inputs to get started, fish tanks, a greenhouse, filters, water condensers, etc., that may not be possible for many people, especially in poorer states.
The next, and last, two examples come from developing countries. The first comes from Eastern Africa. Farmers, who occupy land that was previously deforested are being encouraged to plant trees. By restoring trees, farmers improve their soil, and prevent it from eroding, which improves grazing for their livestock. These farmers generally cannot afford to buy fertilizers, and “Many tree species are nitrogen-fixing species”(Kibet, 2016). The last example comes from India. Farmers in very dry parts of India have found that traditional flood irrigation was insufficient. In addition, conventional arid irrigation such as drip-irrigation lost too much water to evaporation. To prevent this, scientists devised an irrigation system that collects rainwater and keeps it covered from the sun. The water is taken to the plants and then dripped into the soil underneath the plant, underground. Using this system, much less water is lost to evaporation. Currently, farmers have to have some wealth to put the system in place that is out of reach of many small farmers. NGOs and the regional government are helping many such farmers by subsidizing the cost of installing the new irrigation, but most are still left behind (Suchitra, 2014).
The main point of this blog post is to show how many diverse ideas there are to increase sustainable food production. in my opinion we should not try to rely on just one solution as if there is a miracle cure to providing food for the whole world. There is a multitude of solutions, and all of them should be explored.
Cassidy, Emily (2015). Feeding the world without GMOs. Environmental working group. retrieved from:http://cdn3.ewg.org/sites/default/files/EWG%20Feeding%20the%20World%20Without%20GMOs%202015.pdf?_ga=1.125164044.787018383.1430404353
Kibet,Robert (2016). East African farmers rewarded for letting grass grow under their feet. The Guardian. retrieved from:http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/mar/18/east-african-farmers-rewarded-for-letting-grass-grow-under-their-feet
Klaos, Werner, et al. (2015). A new concept for aquaponic systems to improve sustainability, to increase productivity, and reduce environmental impacts. Aquaculture Environment Interactions. retrieved from: http://www.int-res.com/articles/aei2015/7/q007p179.pdf
McMichael, Phillip (2012). Development and Social Change:A global perspective (5th ed.). Washington, D.C.:Sage Publications, Inc.
Suchitra, M (2014). Orchards in Desert. DownToEarth. retrieved from: http://www.downtoearth.org.in/coverage/orchards-in-desert-46915