By Anika Molesworth
I am the daughter of two people who love the land. Over the course many years they have held the land as if a delicate ornament – fragile, beautiful, and unique. A one off gift to bestow their children. A place that will nurture them as they nurture it. A landscape that will produce food. A backdrop for family milestones. A panorama with endless horizons where one can breath deeply and feel peaceful.
Yet, I am troubled.
I am troubled by the challenges that come with this gift.
As the weatherman tells me from the TV screen that daytime temperatures will not dip below 40 degrees this week, I feel the crease of anxiety furrow my forehead. The sky outside is azure blue. A colour so beautiful to the eyes, yet troubling for the soul.
The heat is oppressive. And the knowledge that this part of the world – my little spot – will become even hotter and drier worries me deeply.
I am a future farmer. But this land that I cherish will bring many challenges. The intoxicating heat on the other side of my window juxtaposed with food sitting cool inside my fridge offers up an enigmatic and perplexing scenario. A confusion met with deafening silence on these issues that ripple across the world.
One of my favorite writers popped up in my inbox this week. His concern is palpable, and one I share for our common future.
“The trouble begins where everything begins: with soil. The UN’s famous projection that, at current rates of soil loss, the world has 60 years of harvests left, appears to be supported by a new set of figures. Partly as a result of soil degradation, yields are already declining on 20% of the world’s croplands.
Now consider water loss. In places such as the North China Plain, the central United States, California and north-western India – among the world’s critical growing regions – levels of the groundwater used to irrigate crops are already reaching crisis point. Water in the Upper Ganges aquifer, for example, is being withdrawn at 50 times its recharge rate. But, to keep pace with food demand, farmers in South Asia expect to use between 80 and 200% more water by 2050. Where will it come from?
The next constraint is temperature. One study suggests that, all else being equal, with each degree Celsius of warming the global yield of rice drops by 3%, wheat by 6% and maize by 7%. This could be optimistic. Research published in the journal Agricultural & Environmental Letters finds that 4°C of warming in the US Corn Belt could reduce maize yields by between 84 and 100%.
The reason is that high temperatures at night disrupt the pollination process. But this describes just one component of the likely pollination crisis. Insectageddon, caused by the global deployment of scarcely-tested pesticides, will account for the rest. Already, in some parts of the world, workers are now pollinating plants by hand. But that’s viable only for the most expensive crops.
Then there are the structural factors. Because they tend to use more labour, grow a wider range of crops and work the land more carefully, small farmers, as a rule, grow more food per hectare than large ones. In the poorer regions of the world, people with less than 5 hectares own 30% of the farmland but produce 70% of the food. Since 2000, an area of fertile ground roughly twice the size of the United Kingdom has been seized by land grabbers and consolidated into large farms, generally growing crops for export rather than the food needed by the poor.
While these multiple disasters unfold on land, the seas are being sieved of everything but plastic. Despite a massive increase in effort (bigger boats, bigger engines, more gear), the worldwide fish catch is declining by roughly 1% a year, as populations collapse. The global land grab is mirrored by a global seagrab: small fishers are displaced by big corporations, exporting fish to those who need it less but pay more. Around 3 billion people depend to a large extent on fish and shellfish protein. Where will it come from?
All this would be hard enough. But as people’s incomes increase, their diet tends to shift from plant protein to animal protein. World meat production has quadrupled in 50 years, but global average consumption is still only half that of the UK – where we eat roughly our bodyweight in meat every year – and just over a third of the US level. Because of the way we eat, the UK’s farmland footprint (the land required to meet our demand) is 2.4 times the size of its agricultural area. If everyone aspires to this diet, how do we accommodate it? …
When I say this keeps me up at night, I mean it. I am plagued by visions of starving people seeking to escape from grey wastes, being beaten back by armed police. I see the last rich ecosystems snuffed out, the last of the global megafauna – lions, elephants, whales and tuna – vanishing. And when I wake, I cannot assure myself that it was just a nightmare.
Other people have different dreams: the fantasy of a feeding frenzy that need never end, the fairytale of reconciling continued economic growth with a living world. If humankind spirals into societal collapse, these dreams will be the cause.”
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 11th December 2017
The dirt track I head down to become a food producer of the future is littered by rocks and obstacles. So I must keep my footing and my eyes keen. I am woefully underprepared to meet these challenges. Despite foraging for new knowledge, skills and ideas each and every day – I do not feel properly equipped. Yet, these are the hands, head and heart that will be growing food, fighting for the land, and roaring these issues into the hot summer winds.