By Arielle Golden
On Thursday, June 28, the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project and the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition will release Eating Planet–Nutrition Today: A Challenge for Mankind and for the Planet in New York City. Today, Nourishing the Planet highlights a contributing author of Eating Planet, and shares his views on how to fix the broken food system. If you live in NYC, you can register to attend for FREE by clicking HERE, or tune in on the 28th via livestream. We will be taking questions in real time from the audience, from the livestream, and from Twitter and Facebook.
Paul Roberts argues that water, oil, and fertilizer shortages could greatly disrupt the food system. (Photo credit: Vermont Public Radio)
Paul Roberts, author of The End of Oil (2004) and The End of Food (2008) , discusses the main reasons that the global food system is not working properly: increasing risks to agricultural inputs like energy, fertilizers, and water.
When the global food system was designed in the 1960s, oil cost less than USD$30 a barrel, around a quarter of the current price. Currently, agriculture is increasingly under pressure due to rising oil costs, which make it difficult for producers to keep costs down without compromising quality or safety. The risk of using oil as an input is only one piece of the puzzle. Water use adds another level of complexity to the global food system. Soaring crop yields, a result of rapid growth in irrigation technologies, have compromised regional water sources, which are being depleted quickly. According to a National Academy of Sciences report, about one-sixth of China’s population is being fed with irrigation that cannot be sustained.
Inputs like oil and water are not the only factors affecting the food system. Climate is the largest input, which impacts global food from harvest to consumer. The effects of climate change are already wreaking havoc in sub-Saharan Africa, which is suffering from a succession of droughts and forcing millions of people into chronic food insecurity. The United States, Africa, and Asia are expected to face more dramatic changes in climate, with new rainfall and temperature patterns, as well as “extreme weather” events, such as severe droughts and storms. An increase in temperature also brings the risk of tropical pest migration into temperate zones in Europe and North America. This kind of unpredictable weather increases crop vulnerability, which decreases yields.
Many developing countries do not have the resources to take part in industrialization, and therefore cannot compete with more developed countries. This forces developing countries to import a large share of their food, directing their capital to purchase externally instead of back into their own economies to bolster internal development.
Roberts reminds us that the key to a sustainable food system is diversity of crops and diversity of agricultural models. Our agricultural system currently has only two models: very large-scale and very small-scale. While large scale is low cost, it has high “external costs” like pollution and excessive water use. Very small-scale is better suited to high-quality foods but is often inefficient. We must develop a mid-size model that can produce food both sustainably and affordably.
Diversity of agricultural models is as important as diversity of crops, according to Roberts. This helps restore soil fertility and controls pests with less need for synthetic inputs. To fill the gaps that industrialized agriculture cannot, urban agriculture must become a mainstream feature of cities.
As we begin to innovate to create these changes, says Roberts, we must also invest in research and development to discover food crops that require less water or fertilizers, more efficient irrigation systems, ways of producing foods that are less vulnerable to food-borne pathogens, and a more sustainable model of aquaculture.
More diverse agricultural models will also help to limit food price volatility. Models that are ill-fitted for the communities they serve make world food markets more prone to price swings, especially as biofuel demand increases and weather patterns become more extreme. And when prices are volatile, they are more attractive to speculators. The complexity of our world food system undermines a hope for a simple solution. We must work together to develop a complex answer.
Arielle Golden is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.
If you live in NYC, you can register to attend for FREE by clicking HERE, or tune in on the 28th via livestream. We will be taking questions in real time from the audience, from the livestream, and from Twitter and Facebook. You can also purchase your own copy of Eating Planet for $3.99 on Amazon or iTunes.