Trends & Food Security
The Future of Agriculture is
This page is in
my website to create awareness about the need for a new
way of thinking about the future of food. There
are today and will be ever increasing opportunities in
the future for small scale locally produced agriculture.
To see what we are doing personally about this
Neal Creek Farm.
Most people in the world rely on some
form of grain as their primary food source. In the
USA, Canada and other developed economies, grain is used
primarily as livestock feed. We literally eat high
on the hog.
Modern day American
agriculture is extremely dependent on petroleum for
motive power for equipment, chemical herbicides and
pesticides, nitrogen fertilizer made mostly from natural
gas, and fuels for transporting food over long distances
mostly by truck and airplane. The average meal
travels over 1,500 miles to get to the dinner table.
We are consuming nearly 10 calories
of fossil fuels to produce 1 calorie of food. This
is not sustainable.
We are at or very near (some say we have already
passed) peak oil production. The price of oil will
continue to rise due to increasing demand for energy to
fuel emerging economies like China and India, the two
most populated countries in the world. If world
population continues to increase at the rate of 70
million people a year, the future of agriculture is
clear. Population and energy trends are in direct
opposition to food security.
Background: From Lester Brown's book
Outgrowing the Earth
From 1950 to 1984 world grain production expanded
faster than population, raising the grain produced per
person from 550 pounds (250 kilograms) to the historical
peak of 750 pounds (339 kilograms), an increase of 34
percent. This positive development initially reflected
recovery from the disruption of World War II, and then
later solid technological advances. The rising tide of
food production lifted all ships, largely eradicating
hunger in some countries and substantially reducing it
in many others.
Since 1984, grain harvest growth has fallen
behind that of population, dropping the amount of grain
produced per person to 670 pounds (308 kilograms) in
2004, down 9 percent from its historic high point.
Fortunately, part of the global decline was offset by
the increasing efficiency with which feed grains are
converted into animal protein, thanks to the growing use
of soybean meal as a protein supplement.
Several long-standing environmental trends are
contributing to the global loss of agricultural
momentum. Among these are the cumulative effects of soil
erosion on land productivity, the loss of cropland to
desertification, and the accelerating conversion of
cropland to non-farm uses. All are taking a toll,
although their relative roles vary among countries.
Now two newer environmental trends—falling water tables
and rising temperatures—are slowing the growth in world
food production. In addition, farmers are faced with
a shrinking backlog of unused technology. The
high-yielding varieties of wheat, rice, and corn that
were developed a generation or so ago are now widely
used in industrial and developing countries alike. They
doubled and tripled yields, but there have not been any
dramatic advances in the genetic yield potential of
grains since then.
The use of fertilizer, which removed nutrient
constraints and helped the new high-yielding varieties
realize their full genetic potential during the last
half-century, has now plateaued or even declined
slightly in key food-producing countries. Among these
are the United States, countries in Western Europe,
Japan, and now possibly China as well. Meanwhile, the
rapid growth in irrigation that characterized much of
the last half-century has also slowed. Indeed, in some
countries the irrigated area is shrinking.
The bottom line is that
it is now more difficult for
farmers to keep up with the growing demand for grain.
The rise in world grain land productivity, which
averaged over 2 percent a year from 1950 to 1990, fell
to scarcely 1 percent a year from 1990 to 2000. This
will likely drop further in the years immediately ahead.
If the rise in land productivity continues to slow and
if population continues to grow by 70 million or more
per year, governments may begin to define national
security in terms of food shortages, rising food prices,
and the emerging politics of scarcity.
The Future of Agriculture is Localization:
by Ron Castle
Food crops other than grain face
the same future challenges that Lester describes above.
Since 1950, American corporate agribusiness has
consolidated food supplies into a relatively small
number of companies. This consolidation was made
possible by cheap energy which has also resulted in
relatively cheap food prices.
We use more energy per capita than any other country in
Corporate agribusiness has
resulted in the major demise of the family farm and the
loss of local food supplies. Long distance
transportation has replaced local food resources in many
areas. The days of cheap energy are fading
quickly. The rise in oil prices will directly
impact both food prices and eventually the reliability
Local agriculture for local markets is the trend of
the future, which is history repeating itself.
have collected old books on farming for almost 30 years.
On my shelf is a book written in 1864 titled "Ten
Acres Enough: A Practical Experience" published by James
Miller, Bookseller, Publisher and Importer, 522
Broadway, New York. The author, who decided to
remain anonymous to avoid people pestering him (his
words), sold his small manufacturing business in
Philadelphia in 1855 and moved his family to an 11 acre
farm in central New Jersey. He paid $1,000 for the
land and house, over the course of three years invested
$1,970.86 in inputs and sold $4,658.94 in farm products
while feeding his family of five from the production of
the farm. He raised strawberries, raspberries,
blackberries, peaches, early cabbages and other produce
and sold his crops to the fresh markets in New York City
and Philadelphia which were supplied overnight by train.
we know why New Jersey is named the Garden State?
He also sold berry plants to his
significant source of income. He used no fossil
fuels, herbicides or pesticides. He fertilized his
soil with composed leaves, wood ashes, plaster (a source
of lime) and manure. A typical wage at the time
was about $12 a month and perhaps three times that for a
factory manager. An average income over three
years of $896.02 was well above average.
I use this example because most people have no idea
about agriculture before fossil fuels or how the large
cities of that time got their food. The produce
from the Ten Acres Enough farm was hauled
by a horse drawn wagon to the train station in
the late afternoon and was delivered by rail overnight
to the markets. Compare that to California
tomatoes that have been picked green, stored for months
in refrigerated warehouses, loaded into trailers,
ethylene (a hydrocarbon) gassed to make them turn red
and trucked 1,500 miles to your grocery store. And
we wonder why they taste like cardboard?
Affordable food of the future will be locally
produced and locally consumed. Small scale
agriculture will be profitable again. And, food
will be more seasonal in nature, as it
still is to a large degree
in current day
Italy. Organic agriculture will be the rule rather
than the exception. Weed control, water
conservation, soil moisture retention and ways to
increase agricultural productivity without petroleum and
natural gas will be increasingly important.
There is a competing interest in producing fuels
from food - biodiesel and ethanol. Will this
answer is no, it won't work in the long run, may be
OK for the short term.
If you are not aware of the need for
sustainable products, read my friend Lester
Brown's books Plan B 4.0 and Outgrowing the Earth
available from Lester's web
download William McDonough's tenth anniversary
The Hannover Principles, a remarkable work on
the need for sustainable design, products and
Look at what we are doing with
Off Grid Solar Systems at our solar products
For more information about the
future of local economies, read:
Note that these new rules are not related to author,
comedian and political pundit Bill Mahr of HBO fame.
Read about the Institute for
Local Self Reliance and their
Waste to Wealth programs and recycling as a
Economic Development Tool.