- by Graham Holton
- The Guardian
- Issue #2073
Is new technology the solution to feeding the world? In The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World Amanda Little examines the problem of producing enough food to feed the world’s population, at a time when we face devastating climatic changes. Little describes the promise of technology for food production as well as various problems caused by the use of that technology, but ultimately comes down on the side of ‘technology will fix it.’ Recently India banned the export of rice and onions to ensure there is enough food at home. Last year China purchased huge supplies of surplus foods to ensure its population is fed.
This year’s climatic changes have caused widespread crop failures, resulting in food shortages in the Middle East and Africa. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reported in 2014 that droughts, floods, and invasive pests were hurting food production. The situation has only worsened. Little travelled the world interviewing innovative farmers and scientists to see what new technology is doing to improve food production. She did not interview the peasants who are impacted adversely by these new technologies. Is new technology the solution, as Little argues?
In the 1950s the Green Revolution, which used new agricultural technology, was seen as a solution, but it required massive amounts of artificial fertilisers, pesticides, and high-yield plant varieties to create a food surplus for global markets. This technology was immediately used by industrial countries, which could afford the great costs involved.
In the US, cheap abundant calories, and a system that places corporations ahead of people mean that 40 per cent of the population is obese while diabetes has increased by 700 per cent since the 1970s. Green Revolution food production methods have produced crops that contain less protein, calcium, potassium, iron, and Vitamin C than older varieties.
Today’s industrial farms produce 17 per cent more calories than farms did in the 1990s. Industrialised farming is capital intensive, meaning that poor farmers in developing countries cannot compete with intensive farming methods, creating a rural-urban migration problem. The result is that in the world’s poorest countries 800 million people face hunger every day.
GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) crops are grown in 13 countries covering a total of 162 million hectares, with the US growing 73 million hectares. GMO seeds are banned in many countries, even though the World Health Organisation (WHO) finds that they do not pose a health threat to humans. Furthermore, experiments in GMO grain crops, such as rice and maize, have not produced the medical benefits hoped for. Monsanto genetically engineering plants for drought tolerance, but it was unsuccessful. GMO crops were designed to use Roundup Ready (glyphosate is carcinogenic) but the overuse of petrochemicals only produced weeds tolerant to weedicides, such that these weeds now cover 28 million hectares in the US. The US also consumes 454,000 tonnes of pesticides each year to control the pests that have become resistant to these poisons.
The Earth has lost a third of its arable soil to erosion because of mechanical tillage and chemical fertilisers. Tractors churn the soil to suffocate weeds, but also dry the soil and cause erosion on a massive scale. This method also destroys the microbiome which are important for healthy soils. “No-tilling” farming methods spread weeds, but lock carbon in the soil. Scientists have resorted to robots that deliver the required amounts of fertiliser and pesticides to each plant, rather that covering the whole ground. This technology is expensive and needs trained technicians to run the machines and software. Another solution Little examines is “vertical farms”, indoor growing factories that use high-intensity lights to grow perishables such as lettuce. In 2018 Jeff Bezos spent US$200 million in Plenty, a San Francisco vertical farm. The technology is far more energy intensive than traditional farming, and is prohibitively expensive for small farmers.
Sea food is the main protein for 3 billion people, as the seas and oceans cover 70 percent of the Earth. The UN has calculated that the demand for sea food will grow by 35 percent over the next 20 years. Little considers salmon aquafarming. It’s a major industry worldwide, but it is threatened by plagues of jellyfish, algal blooms and sea lice. A dozen sea lice can easily kill a grown fish, forcing some companies to resort to robots to delouse their fish stocks. These losses have cost the industry tens of millions of dollars. Aquafarming creates massive pollution problems, caused by faecal and feeding waste as well as spreading diseases throughout the region. The populations of the world’s wild fish species are depleting due to overfishing, climatic changes, and polluted environments. Warmer sea temperatures impact shell fish and crab populations. Although new technology has been adapted to try and fix aquafarming problems, it is not a long-term solution.
In the 1970s I was an applied science student. The solution was the Green Revolution with Industrial Farming feeding the worlds billions in grains, aquacultures and livestock. These massive farms have produced 20 per cent of all greenhouse gases. The solution has only worsened the problem.
At the time we studied Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as If People Mattered and Mollison’s Permaculture. They argued for the benefits of natural ecosystems rather than huge industrial farming systems, which destroyed these ecosystems through their use of massive amounts of petrochemical fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. The environmentalist Paul Hawkens says that: “the most complex ecosystem in the world is a square inch of soil.” Soil is the “soul of food.”
I grew up on a small farm near Landsborough, north of Brisbane, Qld. The food we produced was far tastier and more nutritious than what we buy from supermarkets today. I see the problems inherited from the Green Revolution and Industrial farming will not be solved by adding even newer technology. It will not improve the world’s nutrient depleted soils, nor will GMO crops create a magic fix, when such food is nutrient depleted and is not long-term disease resistant. These problems require a major rethink on improving our soils, as Capitalist monoculture farming has created a major environmental problem. Little asks some important questions, but the lack of interest in the people who make the food now is very telling. New technology will not fix the system that brought us to this point.