Can Organic Farming solve Peak Food?

May 27, 2009 · Filed Under news · 1 Comment 

We are probably close to the time when the amount of food that can be grown for each person in the world will peak and then go in to decline as the population continues to grow and the problems of energy, water and land shortages get worse. In addition, global warming will cause extreme weather related crop losses from time to time.

Our modern farming system is now totally reliant on oil and gas for power, nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides and is therefore vulnerable to energy shortages caused by depletion or disruption. Phosphate, potash and other nutrients have to be mined and applied as the natural soil nutrient cycle has also been broken.

Advocates of organic farming believe that it is the only sustainable method of farming, but can it feed the world in the future?

Organic farmers do not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Instead they use animal manure together with crop rotation that usually includes nitrogen fixing legume crops, to build soil fertility. They claim that healthy soils produce healthy crops that are less vulnerable to disease and can thrive without chemical fungicides and insecticides. They use mechanical hoeing, hand weeding and other techniques to control weeds.

As a conventional farmer growing wheat and vegetables, I have gone along with all the latest methods to increase yields and reduce labour as they have become available, but I have the greatest admiration for those farmers who are able to work with nature and produce good food in what they say is a sustainable way. In the future we will have much to learn from these people as we build a sustainable, high yield agriculture.

But can organic farming resolve peak food and feed the world? Sadly, I think not. Unfortunately, the once and for all binge of abundant cheap fossil energy that we conventional farmers have been able to convert to huge amounts of food energy has allowed the world population to go way above what it’s carrying capacity would be without oil and gas.

In organic farming systems, yields are usually much lower and depend on high numbers of livestock to provide manure. Organic farmers usually use tractors, combines and other machinery powered by diesel and the very effective crop covers that protect crops from pests such as carrot fly, cabbage root fly etc are made from oil. Effective weed control in field scale crops is very difficult without weed killers especially in slow growing crops such as onions and carrots.

If we still had a 1930’s population of 2 billion, I think a sustainable organic system with minimal fossil inputs would work well, but to feed the 8 billion expected by 2025 would be impossible.

So, is there any way 8 to 9 billion people can be fed in 15 to 30 years time with dwindling energy, water and land resources?

I believe it is unlikely, but if there is any chance, we need to be making plans now to work out how we can collect more solar energy through plants and use it in a sustainable way.

We will need to use part of the cellulose portion of the crop for our power needs and use low till methods to leave remaining crop residues close to the surface to protect soil from erosion.

We will need to eat less meat so that arable crops can feed humans directly and restrict livestock to land unsuitable for crops. Animals can also be used to convert waste in to meat.

Research should be done to breed improved legume crops such as peas and beans that can provide vegetable protein and at the same time fix nitrogen to improve soil fertility, and we must find ways to return all nutrients to the soil, even by putting human waste through a digester to provide bio-gas and fertilizer.

There is much that can be done to devise a sustainable food system by combining the best principles of organic farming with non damaging, low energy input methods that include some help from inorganic fertilizer and low toxic pesticides. But we need to start now.

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Sir David King on Climate Change

May 24, 2009 · Filed Under climate change · 1 Comment 

With newspapers and T.V. full of trivia, it would seem that the public are not worried about the factors that will cause severe food shortages if urgent action is not taken. Climate change, peak oil, rapidly rising population, soil losses and water shortages are mentioned but there is not the demand for action that should be expected when the survival of our children is at stake.

The most likely explanation is that people feel powerless to do anything meaningful and also they do not want to risk actions that would reduce the fossil energy powered way of life we enjoy. So they put it out of mind or believe any sceptic that argues we have nothing to worry about.

So far as one of the peak food factors , climate change goes, it is frightening to read a book co-written by no less a figure than Sir David King, the previous chief scientific adviser to the U.K. government.

Sir David explains the situation in a way that is easy to understand and he is unequivocal.

For example, he says, “ Human activity is to blame for the rise in temperature over recent decades, and will be responsible for more changes in the future. There are plenty of areas for debate in the global warming story but this is not one of them. If anybody tells you differently they either have a vested interest in ignoring the scientific arguments or they are fools.”

Sir David believes that the only choice we have is to keep greenhouse gasses below 450 ppm CO2eq. He believes that that is still possible because many of the technologies that we will need are already available or are in the pipeline, but we will have to act fast.

The sad fact is that most governments agree with what him and other prominent scientists are saying, but there is no urgent action and critical years are going by.

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The Recession – an opportunity?

May 17, 2009 · Filed Under news · 1 Comment 

Not many people would welcome a recession, but we must ask if it is possible to continue with economic growth forever, especially now that Asia with it’s billions of people, has joined the party. As we have said before, our prosperity and our food supply has been built on finite fossil fuels, the use of which is causing climatic change. If we continue on the present path of continuous growth, we will be hit by energy, water and land shortages causing food supplies to peak and then go in to rapid decline.

We do have an alternative, but without public understanding, it would be unpopular.

We need to put a proper price on fossil fuels, reflecting their finite nature and damaging effect, by moving the tax burden from income and sale taxes to a massive carbon tax to encourage innovation and invention at the speed needed to transform our society to using the abundant solar energy reaching us each day

New industries need to spring up to provide goods that use much less energy and other resources, and to collect much more solar energy through water, wind, photovoltaic panels and the plant leaf.

The present recession has caused a very small reduction in oil consumption. It will be tragic if we quickly go back to rapid growth in consumption of all recources until disaster hits.

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Pesticides – the Pests fight back

May 17, 2009 · Filed Under news · Comment 

Over the past 60 years, food production has kept up with the population explosion partly due to the oil based pesticides that control diseases, insects and weeds. But now the whole world depends on the continuous development of new pesticides that are effective against pests that have become resistant to existing pesticides through selection. We kill most of the targeted pests but in time, the most resistant organisms survive the pesticide and pass on their genetic traits to their offspring.

These resistant offspring have less competition and become dominant. It’s man made survival of the fittest and can happen very quickly.

An example of the way we are losing the chemical war against pests is blight in potatoes.

In England in the late 1950’s, most potato varieties were fairly resistant to blight and were not usually sprayed with fungicide. Then farmers began to use a single application late in the growing season to keep the crop growing for a few weeks longer and thereby increase yields. We then began to apply odd sprays earlier in the season if there was a period of warm moist weather that favoured the spread of blight.

It seemed to many of us that blight was beaten, but instead we caused it to evolve quickly. The stronger strains that had survived now needed spraying every three weeks to keep the crop healthy and better fungicides needed to be constantly developed to keep on top.

We have now reached a situation that farmers of 50 years ago could not have imagined, this year we are being advised that we should start spraying as soon as the crop has emerged and then apply a spray every 7 days for the rest of the season, dropping to every 5-6 day intervals in high risk periods. This could mean up to an unbelievable 18 fungicide applications. How much worse can it get?

The new blight populations are more aggressive and more severe at lower temperatures and are more difficult to control. In just 3 years, the A2 Blue 13 strain, which is present right from the start of the season and completes it’s life cycle faster, has become the dominant strain across Britain.

Farmers are being told to use a combination of different fungicides in a robust programme to attack the blight pathogen at various points in it’s life cycle to reduce the risk of an evolving strain developing complete resistance to these fungicides.

Potato blight is just one example of the ongoing battle that pests seem to be winning. A few years ago, septoria tritici fungal populations in cereals became resistant to the highly effective strobulin fungicides. If alternative fungicides had not been available, we would have seen big reductions in yield.

The big danger is that our use of pesticides will cause the selection of a super strain of disease in a major crop such as wheat for which we do not have an effective pesticide. This could spread rapidly causing big yield losses or even crop failure and therefore food shortages.

Just another reason why our food supplies are on a knife edge and we are getting closer to Peak Food.

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Soil – our most precious Resource

May 5, 2009 · Filed Under solutions · Comment 

Soon, we will need to move from an oil economy to a bio-economy if we are to fight the challenges of climate change and oil depletion. So, as we devise methods to obtain much more of our energy from the sun mainly via the original solar panel-the plant leaf, it is vital that we do not do so by degrading our soil, something that is happening much too quickly anyway.

Until around 70 years ago, in Europe at least, cereal crops such as wheat, barley and oats were harvested intact by binding, with most of the above ground biomass removed from the field. After threshing, the grain was used for human and animal feed and the straw for animal bedding.

The animal manure and human waste was returned to the soil in due course and so the soil nutrients were constantly recycled.

That cycle has long been broken. The nutrients are now flushed down the sewers of the great cities or treated as a waste product at huge feedlots, hundreds of miles away from their origin, but at least some of the straw remains on the soil to help organic matter levels.

In modern farming we now replace the lost nutrients with fertiliser made, or mined and transported, using finite fossil fuels. This oil and gas (for N fertiliser) dependent farming system is plainly doomed to fail as oil and gas supplies deplete and as their use causes climatic change severely disruptive to farming.

A new farming system that again removes most of the above ground biomass to produce the food, fuel and chemicals needed in the post oil era will need to be carefully planned.

By removing the entire crop, just as was done in the past, crop residue levels would be low making no-till or minimal till easier. Keeping the roots and stubble near the surface helps prevent erosion and slows decay, compared with energy hungry deep tillage, so soil structure remains good.

So far as soil nutrients go, they don’t generally disappear and the trick is to return them to the soil.

Ideally, crops should be used locally by being processed at a local integrated bio refinery where all of the components are used to produce food, fuel, chemicals and process heat.

If some of the grain were used for ethanol production, the brewers grains would be fed to animals, then the manure would produce biogas, leaving a residue containing soil nutrients that would be returned to the soil. Even sewage sludge should be digested to provide energy and fertiliser.

As nitrogen fertiliser production is the biggest use of energy in most farming systems, heavy government investment should be made in to high yielding legume plants that can fix nitrogen and be an important part of maintaining soil fertility as well as providing vegetable protein to partly reduce our meat consumption.

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