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Can Industrial Agriculture Provide Global Food Security?

John Ikerd, University of Missouri
The prevailing agricultural ideology seems to be that “industrial agriculture” – meaning large, specialized, mechanized farms – will be necessary to meet the food needs of a growing global population. The logic or reasoning supporting this ideology is: Global population is destined to grow from the current seven billion to at least nine billion people by the middle of this century. More people obviously will require more food. And, industrial agriculture is the only logical means of increasing global food production.

The basic flaw in this logic is that industrializing global agriculture – meaning replacing the remaining small, diversified farms with large, specialized farms – is not the only means of increasing global food production. In fact, with greater scarcity and rising costs of fossil energy and the progression of global climate change, industrial agriculture is becoming less productive and may not even survive the twenty-first century. As we have seen in recent years, the global economy has no nationality, no sense of social responsibility, or concern for the future of humanity. Nations that depend on industrial agriculture for their food security face a future of growing dependence on a few large multi-national food corporations that have no allegiance to anything other than maximum profit and growth.

The blind faith in the future of industrial agriculture is based on its record of increasing productivity over the past 50 to 60 years. Admittedly, yields of crops per acre or hectare of farmland production of meat, milk, and eggs per bushel or ton of feed have increased during this period. However, virtually all of these increases have been linked directly or indirectly to an increased reliance on abundant and inexpensive fossil energy. Cheap nitrogen fertilizers were readily available because of an abundance of natural gas. Climate-controlled buildings for livestock were economically feasible because of low-cost fuel for heating and ventilation. Fossil fuels provided energy not only for traction but also for manufacturing of machinery. Deep-well irrigation likewise depends on low cost energy to pump and distribute water. Most pesticides are also fossil-energy based materials. Industrial agriculture is inherently fossil-energy dependent.

Energy experts differ on their estimates of how much recoverable fossil energy is left to be extracted from the earth. Some experts claim that most economically recoverable fossil energy reserves will be depleted within fifty years while other believe there is enough fossil energy for another 100 to 150 years. However, there is no disagreement that the remaining reserves of fossil energy will be more difficult and costly to extract, as we are seeing with the “fracking” process required to extract shale gas and the costs and risks of deep-sea oil drilling. Beyond some point in each extraction process production will peak; there will be less fossil energy available each year thereafter. Each time demand increases relative to supplies, prices of fossil energy will rise – and eventually will rise dramatically. An agriculture that is dependent on fossil energy quite simply is not sustainable.
(April 2013) 

Dutch greenhouses are rapidly tapping into the geothermal opportunity
Staff, nextgen
And the research predicts further increasing geothermal energy use as a major and relatively cheap step towards achieving the Netherland’s renewable energy goals and a means to improve the financials and the stability of the Dutch greenhouse industry.

According to analysis, geothermal energy could replace an estimated 2 percent (22pj) of national natural gas consumption at an estimated investment cost of EUR 1.6 bn.

"The sector is currently facing declining profit margins, two of the main reasons being its high energy demand and rising natural gas prices. As a highly energy intensive industry, the sector accounts for 10% of the country’s total natural gas consumption.
(30 July 2013)
(You can read about an American example of this here).

Container City: The Colombian Food Court with Personality
Karen Attman, Sustainable Cities Collective
In recent years they have popped up around the world, from Mexico to Tokyo, Scotland to Costa Rica, South Africa to Germany, and all over the United States. They have been used for everything imaginable: homes, computer labs, studios, cafes, farms, parks and hotels. Even Starbucks and Tommy Hilfiger have joined the band wagon and opened stores in them.

What are they? Shipping containers. Yes, those large metal containers that are used to ship things overseas. Using these structures for construction gives them a second, and more permanent, life.

Container City opened to the public in February of 2013 in one of the finest business neighborhoods of Bogota. Twelve shipping containers, each one occupied by a gourmet restaurant, are set around an internal courtyard, with an additional external dining area on one side and at the back.
(24 September 2012)

Rooftop Farming Is Getting Off The Ground
Eliza Barclay, the salt
From vacant lots to vertical "pinkhouses," urban farmers are scouring cities for spaces to grow food. But their options vary widely from place to place.

While farmers in post-industrial cities like Detroit and Cleveland are claiming unused land for cultivation, in New York and Chicago, land comes at a high premium. That’s why farmers there are increasingly eyeing spaces that they might not have to wrestle from developers: rooftops that are already green.

The green-roof movement has slowly been gaining momentum in recent years, and some cities have made them central to their sustainability plans. The city of Chicago, for instance, boasts that 359 roofs are now partially or fully covered with vegetation, which provides all kinds of environmental benefits — from reducing the buildings’ energy costs to cleaning the air to mitigating the urban heat island effect.

Late this summer, Chicago turned a green roof into its first major rooftop farm. At 20,000 square feet, it’s the largest soil-based rooftop farm in the Midwest, according to the Chicago Botanic Garden, which maintains the farm through its Windy City Harvest program.
(25 September 2013)

Food poverty is an attack on society
Anne Perkins, The Guardian blog

Food banks are now helping three times as many people as they were a year ago. Oxfam and the Red Cross are both supporting food programmes. Another British charity, Save the Children, has launched a UK campaign expressly to raise awareness of the issues behind the steep rise in numbers of young people caught up in poverty. This cannot be what David Cameron’s "big society" was supposed to look like.

The government is in denial. Ministers talk of chaotic families, of individuals making bad choices. They suggest the underlying reason for the trebling of the numbers receiving food parcels from the Trussell Trust in the six months to September – to an astonishing 355,000 people – was a spread in the number of food banks. Of course, each of these is a factor. But even taken together, they don’t begin to account for the surge of desperation represented by the figures.

People on the ground tell a different story. Roughly a third of their clients are driven to desperation by delays in benefit – no change in proportion, only in the numbers. The new factor is the impact of changes in benefit, as the bedroom tax and sanctions bite, and councils get to grips with ever tighter budgets and smaller crisis funds. That now accounts for a fifth of those entitled to food parcels (which are only available to those with a formal referral).

There is a second significant factor. The combination of low pay and uncertain hours means more and more families are finding themselves tipped into poverty despite being in work. Today’s figures show average pay is only rising at 0.7% while inflation is running at 2.7%. These are some of the rapidly growing number of families who live without any margin for error.
(16 October 2013)