Monday, November 10, 2008

Agricultural Capacity and Utilization in a Post-Peak World

Agricultural Capacity is affected by a number of important variables; crop variety, water (both rainfall, sub-surface saturation and irrigation), natural soil fertility, artificial inputs, climate, and length of the growing season.

Of the total global land mass, about 35 percent is arable land, 31 percent forested and 34 percent is either desert, tundra and permafrost (permafrost areas are rapidly shrinking under the assault from global warming) or dedicated to other uses such as urbanization and other human activity such as mining. Globally there are about 7.8 billion acres that are potentially arable of which 3.5 billion acres are known to be productively in use producing food.

Subsistence Farming
Statistics are scanty from poor nations (statistics tend to focus on areas that are part of the global industrial/economic system) where the bulk of farming activity is at the subsistence level. The unused potential land is generally in areas lacking essential transport for moving product to market or infrastructure needed for the maintenance of commercial food production.(1)

An unknown portion of this is in use by indigenous peoples for subsistence agriculture. Subsistence farmers have a proud tradition and facility of making the most of often poor farming conditions; poor soil, poor climate, water insufficiency, unstable or even dangerous geopolitical climate and more.

There is a tendency to view subsistence farmers as staunch survivalists focused tightly on the survival and support of only themselves and their family. This is a serious misperception. Subsistence farmers generally are tightly integrated to the surrounding community of kindred subsistence farmers, always willing to lend a helping hand, willing to share with those fallen upon hard times and more. They very much appreciate that their survivability is far more certain as part of a sharing, self-reliant community. Often this cooperation includes some degree of individual crop specialization suited to individual farm potential and reciprocal sharing of the output from this specialization.

Expecting a significant movement toward subsistence farming in western nations ( a new "return to the land" movement) is, in my opinion, unrealistic in the present political climate. Governments and the legislation they pass have consistently moved in a direction that negates that possibility. (See my article The right to pursue powerdown: seeking alternative lifestyles post-peak in my blog Oil, Be Seeing You.) In order for that to happen there needs to be significant grassroots movement to convince all levels of government that the development of alternative, small scale agriculture is critical to our survivability and sustainability on the other side of peak oil.

That, of course, requires that we first get them to recognize, understand and accept the reality of peak oil. My sense is that the recognition is already there. My sense is that there may be a prevalent fear in politics of the implications of peak oil, that it is a crisis that must not be recognized or spoken of, that ignorance or at least publicly professed ignorance is preferable. To openly recognize and accept peak oil will, they probably believe, impose on our politicians an expectation of a solution, a solution they cannot see. The only course they are capable and willing to pursue is to proceed with business as usual, keep the wheels on the bus as long as possible and let the next government deal with the results and realities.

Global utilization of arable land
Of the 35 percent of the total global land mass that is arable or suitable for agriculture, 24 percent or about two thirds is pasture or meadowland used for animal production. Another 10 percent (about 350 million acres) is used for grain and cereal production (75 percent or about 270 million acres), much of that also used for animal production, and for annual root, tuber, vegetable and fruit crops (about 25 percent or 80 million acres). Despite the global attraction of and growth in permaculture, only 1 percent of arable land is dedicated to permanent crops such as fruits and nuts. Essentially, all of human food production, excluding meat, dairy and sea food, is grown on less than 400 million acres. Each of those acres is, therefore, feeding about 15-17 people.

All of our food crops are produced on about 400-million acres out of a total global land mass of about 20-billion acres. That is at once a very discomfiting statistic and a clear sign of hope for the post peak world. It is discomfiting knowing that the entire 6.6 billion human population is dependent on such a small portion this planet for producing its food. And we are systematically destroying the natural fertility of that land through unwise agricultural practices.

It is hopeful in that there are 4.3 billion acres of potentially arable land not currently in use under managed agricultural practices. If, as many experts generally concur, our agricultural productivity will, at least temporarily, be reduced to 10-20% of our current levels with the loss of fossil fuel based agrochemicals, there is cause for hope in that the land currently producing our non-animal foods is less than ten percent of the potentially arable land not currently in use for agricultural production. If we bring all of that land into agricultural production, however, with the same patterns as at present (85%+ for food-animal support) we would net very little additional food-production land (about 600 million acres) to offset the 80-90% drop in productivity on those current 400 million acres. This would barely allow us to absorb the impact of a 25% drop in productivity.

The unused land isn't where the people are
But there is one other simpler and overriding problem. The unused potentially arable land is not in the same place as the 6.6 billion of us for whom it could reduce the impact of soil productivity loss following peak oil. That unused potentially arable land is not sitting there in some undiscovered country which can be populated by billions of food refugees. It exists in pockets within the boundaries of already sovereign nations throughout the world, nations which themselves may be impoverished and unable to currently produce enough food for their own people. Much of it may be in extremely isolated mountain valleys, in need of massive reclamation projects, in national parks and wildlife preserves, in areas where there are extreme water shortages. Much of it is in private holdings intentionally held back from agricultural production in order to facilitate future expansion.

For this land to be brought under agricultural production as a solution to the post-peak food crisis, assuming it is even possible to do so, without some form of global population redistribution, would still necessitate the maintenance of a heavily-energy-dependent global food distribution system (in an environment of declining energy availability) to move that food to the people who need it.

It is this same global food distribution system that is already taxed to the limit moving food from those few nations that can and do produce surpluses to the more than half the planet's countries that are seriously dependent on it for survival. To create and maintain the additional infrastructure that would be necessary to bring these additional lands into productivity would add considerable cost to the global production of food. In all likelihood, based on current patterns, developing these lands would far more likely be focused on high-profit crops such as corn, soy and sugar cane that can be used to produced bio-fuels in a world increasingly deficient in fossil fuel energy.

We are currently only at the leading edge of the conflict between using agricultural and to feed an ever-expanding population and using it to produce the fuels needed as the global production of oil goes into serious decline. As long as money and the economy are the driver of human activity; as long as we persist in trying to maintain our industrial western society; as long as western society attaches a different, much higher value to a life in western society compared to that in poorer, third-world nations; as long as there are greedy, despotic leaders and governments in those third-world nations that can be bought with western money, the demands on that agricultural land to produce fuel will probably trump the nutritional needs of the planet's poor and hungry.

Additional reading:

1. Agribusiness in a Global Environment Comparing Global Agricultural Production Systems
2. Global Water Shortage Looms In New Century
3. To Fertilize or Not to Fertilize .. That is the Question$department/newslett.nsf/all/wfbg7088
4. Global study reveals new warning signals: Degraded agricultural lands threaten world's food production capacity