Currently showing: Food security > Farming


27 Sep 13 06:11

The most striking element of the second Swiss Re Regional Day, this time in London, was the way in which agriculture was singled out by two of our Firestarters--Johan Rockstrom and Allan Savory--as being at the front and centre of our global problems. Of course, it is at the centre of the issue of food security (Duh, as Bart Simpson would say). That makes us think we want more of it. But from the point of view of climate change, and wider issues of environmental degradation, agriculture is villain number one. There, according to Allan Savory, we don't want more of it, per se, but we want a different sort of agriculture: more livestock farming.

More livestock farming? Surely we are all worrying about the pressure that will be put on the planet when billions of people in the emerging economies start to be able to afford to eat meat? Well, yes and no. Yes, there's a question of how to satisfy that demand. But the point Allan Savory emphasised was the role that livestock farming can play in stopping desertification, by making soil more efficient at absorbing rain and by promoting the very process of photosynthesis that the planet depends upon if it is to carry on sustaining life.

The point of telling this story is not just to focus on farming nor on livestock (what about all that methane emitted by cows? some asked). It is to focus our thoughts on unintended consequences and trade-offs. We have to think not just about direct solutions, but about the consequences of our solutions, in the extraordinarily complex system that is our planet.

If, as many sometimes argue, high carbon taxes were to be imposed worldwide on fossil fuels, one effect would be to raise the cost of food, potentially pushing millions over the edge into starvation. If, as a few argued during the food security discussions in London, "urban farming" were to be encouraged, with more people in cities growing their own vegetables and even keeping chickens in their homes, one potential risk could be of encouraging pandemics, the risk of which is highest when humans live closely together with animals, permitting viruses to jump species and to mutate. And so on: with all sorts of solutions chosen to meet specific objectives, there are other consequences--not just "side-effects", which make them sound minor--that we need to take into account.

Perhaps, in the light of such warnings and provocations, I should be surprised at the general level of optimism and positive thinking that was present in London. But I'm not. There we were, on the site of the hugely successful and complex London Olympics, so we were bound to feel positive. Yet also the attitude of those who took part seemed, to me at least, to be a largely positive one: of seeing the need to take responsibility, both at personal and professional levels, and of seeing the opportunities presented by 2050, by longer lives, by technological change, and above all by the globalisation of economic and social development. We may have problems to solve, was the prevailing feeling, but they are problems of success. Unintended consequences, you might say.


Category: Food security: Farming, Climate/natural disasters, Sustainable energy, Other

Location: London, United Kingdom


8 Comments

blindspotting - 30 Sep 2013, 4:45 p.m.

"Problems of success"? Was this group fed too much and challenged too little?!

Allan Savory's interesting work applies to deserts not agriculture, though a connection might be that prevailing agriculture treats the soil like a desert. I'd like to show this group the difference between typical farm soil and genuinely "successful" soil that could be expected to feed them also in the future.

I'm not sure if the discussion of complexity was constructive. Following threads of details through the jungle of complexity you can always find trade-offs that make change seem hard and limited. That's the default approach to complexity, explaining why transformative change hasn't happened.

The other approach would be to offer the group some tangible "stretch goal" to get everyone thinking beyond the system as it is. More livestock farming is not such a goal since it's happening anyhow. Try for example making agriculture carbon-negative. Then demonstrate biochar-making and advanced composting. Map the complexity that arises and look for synergies not just roadblocks.

When the issue of high carbon prices comes up the discussion can consider how price correction is a two sided tool; the cash raised is spent addressing the problem. This might mean support for those struggling with food prices and fueling farms with anaerobic digestion using wastes that currently get burnt or turn to methane in the soil.

This sort of effort could allow us all to remain well fed in future. The field opposite my office was yesterday sprayed with herbicides to clear the second failed crop of the year in soil that has no life. This is no recipe for cheap or sustainable food - we can do better!

Ben Dansie - 2 Oct 2013, 11:03 a.m.

There was certainly a thread of positivity running through our fish bowl session which I found surprising given the evidence that came out pretty much simultaneously to the event saying global warming is, unsurprisingly, man made.

I think we have to hold on to the notion that human beings have an amazing ability to survive and thrive and overcome adversity. Mr Emmott's previous employer last week published an excellent article http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2013/09/nuclear-control-and-command about Eric Schlosser's excellent book "Command and Control" about the number of near disasters averted. And there's the famous Stanislav Petrov who deployed common sense when his machines were telling him multiple nuclear warheads were descending on the then Soviet Union http://rt.com/news/soviet-nuclear-petrov-stanislav-221/.

So it does look dire right now. But technology has a huge part to play. And positivity is an energy force all of its own.

blindspotting - 7 Oct 2013, 12:28 p.m.

Positivity as an energy force will drive whatever thinking we're into, whether wishful finger-crossing technofixes or brain-stretching policy options to reverse entrenched system dynamics. This choice determines the way things go ;-)

Gavin Montgomery - 7 Oct 2013, 1:50 p.m.

The sad truth is that the most likely outcome is that resource pressure will lead to geopolitical conflict. According to the UN, world food production will have to rise by 50% by 2030 while at the same time climate change and land degradation is impacting crop yields and many of the promises of GMO foods have proven to be empty.

China, which has almost a fifth of the world's population but only 9% of its land, is already positioning itself for a more restricted global food market by acquiring 3 million hectares of farm land in Ukraine on top of the 2 million hectares of foreign land holdings it already owns. Food shortages are already spurring immigration and social unrest, notably during the Arab Spring.

And we don't just have to worry about food. Water rights are a growing concern. For example, China and India have yet to reach agreement over the Brahmaputra River, which is of massive strategic importance to India. Water demand in both countries is expected to rise by 30% by 2030, which implies both countries would be "water stressed": http://www.theforeignreport.com/2013/06/27/india-water-security-at-risk-as-agreement-with-china-fails/

We tend to discount the possibility of war for resources, largely because we have enjoyed a period of prolonged abundance under the protection of a global super-power supported by the international institutions formed after the last world war. But we only have to look at how demand for oil has led to global conflict in recent years for a flavor of just how bad things could get. If developed countries are prepared to go to war to secure oil supply, imagine what they would do to secure water and food for their electorate.

Just think about what would happen if rising food prices and shortages persuaded Ukraine to block food exports to China, or India and China or India and Pakistan (all nuclear powers) fail to reach agreement on water resources. That opens the distasteful possibility of anthropogenic self-regulation in which the human race deals with its over-population problem by wiping out a large percentage of our species. Sadly, that scenario is increasingly looking like a certainty rather than a likelihood.

blindspotting - 7 Oct 2013, 7:23 p.m.

If it helps to set out what's possible (rather than just likely), here's a NATO-published set of 'policy switches' for global security. It's a swiss army knife for solving a complex web of problematic issues. http://blindspot.org.uk/seven-policy-switches/

Allan Savory - 8 Oct 2013, 8:10 a.m.

My I please correct your statement that my talk only concerned deserts not agriculture. I spoke of agriculture - the production of food & fibre from the world's land and waters. About the one simple cause of our inability to address the social/cultural, environmental and economic complexity that agriculture involves.

Policies are formed unknowingly using a profoundly simple genetically embedded way common to all tool-using animals. Even the most sophisticated integrated team of scientists is unknowingly doing so. While this way is incredibly successful with everything that we make from a cell phone to spacecraft - involving expertise and technology - it is failing to address the inevitably complexity involved with agriculture.

I explained that when millions of brilliant knowledgeable people involved in agriculture are producing such dismal results (over ten tons of eroding soil per year for every human alive and causing climate change as much or more than fossil fuels) ther has to be an underlying systemic cause. It was that simple single cause that emerged from the desertification work.

In a post on another site on the failure of economist Jeffrey Sack's theories to address poverty, I had this to say "One day people will understand that we will not end man-made droughts, floods, poverty, violence, recruitment to dissident organizations, save rhino, pandas, elephants, produce scientifically sound financial and economic systems, or address climate change until policies, development projects and management is holistic. At that point all the many good people, trying to do their best but paddling their own canoes competing for validity, will paddle in one direction - using the amazing amount of knowledge available to allow the human spirit to thrive in that better world all desire. Just as fast as we can create public awareness to a level where the public demands that management and policy formation be done holistically we will be amazed at what humans can do. We did have a man on the moon within 70 years once the principles of flight were discovered, and we will do the same now that we know how to manage holistically and how simple it is. I doubt anyone today would argue - management needs to be holistic embracing all sciences, traditional and other sources of knowledge. That we discovered how to do 30 years ago and we need to get moving releasing human creativity with a policy framework that ensures policies are socially, environmentally and economically sound in our own self-interest. We have the money but time is running out."

One of the "wicked" problems (almost impossible to solve) of complex human organizations is that they cannot institutionally adopt new scientific insights no matter how much evidence, data, facts, or how many people dying until societal opinion changes at which point they too change. A difficult task as we shift from centuries of a mechanistic world view to a holistic world view.

blindspotting - 8 Oct 2013, 10:02 p.m.

Thanks Allan, very glad to read this correction. I wonder how this strong analysis got diluted into "more livestock farming" and relaxed optimism about "problems of success"?

Shifting to holistic (non-reductionist) problem-solving habits is a wicked problem though, compared to other wicked problems such as the raging feedbacks of climate change, more akin to a collective change of mind. World views among the public and institutions don't as you say respond to piles of evidence, data or bodies but systemic errors can respond to systemic change. Eg a change in how we learn, http://blindspot.org.uk/second-policy-switch/

Alicia Montoya - 14 Oct 2013, 8:19 p.m.

Interesting! And while I agree that policy can help reverse many of the behaviors that are, as you say, leading us to a social, environmental and economic cliff, I think it may be hard to agree and implement global policy changes (despite the fact that I agree with many of the principles you outline). In fact, it can be grueling to even get agreement in one's own country (the US being a case in point due to this month's furlough but it's certainly not alone when it comes to party politics).

But I agree that policy changes will be required in order to change the incentive structure which currently is all focused around short-term goals (the next election for the government, the next results for corporations, the next comfort for consumers). It would actually be against all their interests to act in a manner that produces results long term. We need to change that and policy could definitely help.

However, don't you think the solutions are more likely to be local / urban (where, according to the UN, more than 60% of the world's population will be living by 2050)? Seems to me that like the more local and therefore relevant policy changes / incentives are, the better chance they stand to win local support?


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