Seven Food and Resources Crises on the Horizon

Sustainable Agriculture

There are many aspects of sustainable farming. Not only does this include healthy foods grown, healthy farming practices and systems, but, furthermore, healthy working conditions on the farm. There are a number of solutions proposed on the international scale that have been discussed or even implemented, but in order to achieve true sustainability in agriculture, not only do healthier foods have to reach more people, but so to do farm workers need to be treated fairly.

First, the state of our food industry is in tatters. The quality of our food has reached dangerous levels. The Organic Center, a research institute designed to evaluate the science of organic food and farming, recently published its concerns for the state of the food industry and agriculture. It cited very little change in national policy as one major concern. In the form of seven predictions for the coming year and beyond, the Center highlighted the spread of superweeds, obesity and diabetes, ineffective antibiotics, inflammation from foods, developmental problems, honey bee decline, and global warming as reasons for concern.

The spread of superweeds rests on the herbicide-tolerant pigweed, which, with the help of genetic engineering, has increased despite 380 million pounds of herbicides used since 1996, and a 46% increase in 2007-2008. The Center’s solution is simple: reverse the use of herbicide. The Center also predicts a huge increase in insulin resistance, and suggests a shift of farm subsidies away from high-fat foods to healthier food industries, such as fresh produce and whole grains. Some bacteria are proving untreatable due to increased use on farms and ranches. Organic foods, according the Center, can help stop resistant bacteria. A further prediction foresees increases in diseases tied to inflammation from foods, as well as developmental problems in general, such as increases in autism, ADHD, birth defects and allergies related to exposure to pesticide-related risks in the diet, and the solution lies in banning high-exposure to such pesticides, and to promote consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. The decline in the honey bee population is exacerbated by five seed treatment insecticides, which negatively affect bee immune systems. The last warning, global warning, references the well-known phenomenon of change in climate patterns. (Cruger)

Furthermore, it seems that global agriculture faces difficult times as droughts and inefficient food production measures take their toll. Many analysts have warned of a 20 to 40% drop in agricultural production, depending on the harshness and duration of the current global drought. Two years ago, however, Science published predictions of “permanent drought by 2050 throughout the Southwest” of the United States, and forecast levels of aridity akin to the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s that would envelope swaths of land from Kansas to California. The Hadley Center in the UK reported in November 2006: “Extreme drought is likely to increase from under 3% of the globe today to 30% by 2100 areas affected by severe drought could see a five-fold increase from 8% to 40%.”

This, of course, is a recipe for widespread desertification. The NOAA predicts drought of considerable duress largely irreversible for 1,000 years and identifies the following key regions as facing, insofar as our contemporary purviews are considered, permanent Dust Bowls:

U.S. Southwest

Southeast Asia

Eastern South America

Southern Europe

Southern Africa

Northern Africa

Western Australia

Countries yielding two-thirds of the world’s agricultural output are on the precipice of serious climactic discontinuities reminiscent of the Global Climate Optimum of the 900 to 1300 variety. Food prices will soar, and, in poor countries where food is scarce, millions will starve. (DeCarbonnel)

The California drought is anticipated to be the worst in modern times. Already thousands of acres of crops are fallow, with no sign of slowing. Furthermore, the Northern Sierra snowpack for the winter of 2008 turned out to be 51% lighter than usual. According to the Los Angeles Times, the state is nearly out of water, leaving it with prayers of rain and a dwindling Northern California supply. Los Angeles has already begun allocation of water. (Thill)

In some countries historical relief efforts have been undertaken. The Chinese government has spent 86.7 billion yuan (roughly $12.69 billion) to affected regions, and, moreover, lent a helping hand to its western colleagues during the financial crisis, but also to nature itself. Officials in Beijing blasted silver iodide into clouds over northern China to create precipitation as a means of alleviating the most severe drought experienced by the region in half a century. Although this measures does seem to have promoted rainfall, whether or not it is a sustainable practice is unclear.

Australia has been in the midst of an unremitting dry spell since 2004, as 41% of the country’s agriculture suffers the worst drought in the 117 years of record-keeping. Rivers have stopped flowing, lakes are being eradicated by toxicity, and farmers have left their land. Argentina’s worst drought in half a century has turned that country’s verdant landscapes to dust. The country has declared emergency. Soy plants are scorched by the sun and Argentina’s food production is set to go down a minimum of 50% or greater. 2008’s wheat yield was 16.3 million metric tons, whereas 2009?s is projected to be merely 8.7 metric tons. Africa faces food shortages due to lack of rainfall. Half the agricultural soil has lost nutrients necessary to grow plant. The Middle East and Central Asia, to boot, are suffering from contemporary nadir droughts and food grain production is at the lowest levels in decades. A major shortage of planting seed for the 2010 crop is expected. A wide scale effort, focusing on the development of sustainable farming systems and healthy production of food could help to deter what many see as an agricultural crisis. But, in order to motivate humanity behind a movement for better farming, sustainable farming must have a lucid, and not vague, definition.

The principle of sustainability implies meeting the needs of present without compromising future generations from meeting their needs. We live in interesting times, with huge wealth disparities — one billion people starving — rising food prices, fuel and transportation costs, instability in the global market, pesticide pollution, loss of soil fertility and organic carbon, soil erosion, decreasing biodiversity, and desertification. Although scientific advances have helped us get to distant planets, the contemporary mode of food production has proven ill-suited to feed humans and sustain the ecology. Sustainable agriculture provides us with methods for producing enough food with the smallest amount of damage to ecosystems. Whereas traditional agriculture is profit-driven, sustainable agriculture takes knowledge gained from sciences and the way markets work so as to develop farming practices beneficial to each involved — from the farmer, to the worker and consumer and even the planet. (Borger)

In the aftermath of World War II, industrial farming was developed to make more available food worldwide. This resulted in widespread use and abuse of pesticides, fertilizers, water, fast crop rotations, and monoculture. Increases in yields were quickly neutralized by degradation in soil fertility, and the prevalence of pesticides and fertilizers in the soil and food. The philosophy for sustainable agriculture cites the need to reduce inputs into agriculture, whilst not reducing yields. The population is predicted to increase to 9 billion people over the next 50 years. Therefore, food yields must remain high, while, at the same time, remaining healthy for humans and the environment.

There are many facets of both traditional and sustainable agriculture, among which are included global changes, renewable energies, ecological pest control and biopesticides, organic farming, genetically modified organisms in cropping systems, environmental impact on soil, water, air and biodiversity, risk assessment for food, ecotoxicology, social and economic issues, innovation in farming systems, pollutants in agrosystem.

A definition of “sustainable development” was first outlined in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission, with the solicitation of the United Nations. Elaborated upon in1992 at Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, sustainability became thereafter an increasingly prominent political and social issue. The concept of sustainability has global appeal, because of the international implications, as well as its vague practical solutions. This vagueness, to be sure, might serve to undermine the sustainability movement, downplaying the importance of true sustainability in favor of political agendas. What’s best is an informed public, able to make decisions about collective food policy, with the freedom to pursue their own wants and needs.

While some authors and scientists define sustainability as management strategies, others see it as the ability to maintain crop productivity over a long period of time. Still others maintain that sustainability hinges on flexibility: how agriculture adapts to changes over time. Generally, sustainability entails three aspects, including the economic viability, environmentally safety, and social fairness of the agricultural system.

Sustainable agriculture consists, generally, of two different methods. The first method entails the treatment of the farm as a closed system. This system, consisting of soil, groundwater, renewable energies, and adapting systems to climate change, must be preserved. In the second method includes the large community that lives off of the closed farm system. The system of agriculture must not only preserve itself, but, also, the community it supports; future generations, of course, included. The second method forces agriculture to manage wastes and develop rural employment. ( Lichtfouse 1-10)

All-in-all, there are numerous ways in which to make sustainable agriculture, from simple management adjustments to fundamental changes in the farming system. One course calls for the substitution of products used in agriculture. For instance, toxic chemicals and fertilizers could be substituted for less pollutant alternatives. Many persons suggest the use of Genetically Modified organisms so as to decrease dependence on toxic chemicals and fertilizers. There exists a problem within this logic, however.

The American Academy of Envrionmental Medicine (AAEM) states, “Genetically Modified foods have not been properly tested and post a serious health risk. There is more than a casual association between genetically modified foods and the adverse health effects. There is causation.” The AAEM went so far as to insist physicians advise their patients of the risks of genetically modified foods. The use of genetically modified foods increased dramatically starting in 1996, where after chronic diseases and food allergies have doubled. The effort to avoid genetically modified foods has been made more difficult since President Obama appointed Michael Taylor as Food Czar in his cabinet. Taylor was once a vice president and chief lobbyist for Monsanto, the multi-national agro-industrial corporation. One aim stated in Monsanto’s Mission Statement, is to own the patents for all the food seeds on the planet.

“Among the population,” biologist David Schubert of the Salk Institute in San Diego, California warns that “children are the most likely to be adversely effected by toxins and other dietary problems” related to genetically modified foods. He argues that, without adequate studies, the children are used as “experimental animals.” Genetic Engineering, as practiced by corporations like Monsanto, changes the genetic codes of the DNA in an organism by splicing in other genes from other life-forms, among which are other plants, insects, bacteria and even viruses. These rapidly and artificially mutating genes pose a risk to global health. Further, these practices are unsustainable in the long run, for they fail to consider future food chains. The pollution from genetically modified seeds, also, cause permanent genetic mutations not only in the engineered food stuffs, but also in crops polluted by GMO seeds that travel through the air. (Fassa)

Another strategy of sustainable agriculture calls for the application of ecological concepts to design, implementation and management of sustainable systems of agriculture. Biodiversity in agro-systems promotes nutrient cycling, soil structuration and disease control. Intercropping, rotation, agroforestry, composting and green manuring are all ways of promoting biodiversity. The philosophy of this method maintains that farming yields ought to be increased by the application of ecological principles and fitting them to farming systems.

One way in which to inform ourselves of possible methods is to look to the past. New theories about civilization in the New World argue that, in the realm of agriculture, the people of America far outstripped the descendants of Sumeria. The tomatoes of Italy, the potatoes of Ireland, and the hot peppers of Thailand descended from the western hemisphere. Over half of the crops now grown were initially produced in the Americas. The Indians, for instance, produced a myriad of maize varieties tailored to different growing conditions, thereby enabling the crop to succeed across the planet. Some researchers argue that New World crops led to an Old World population boom.

Indian agriculture helped to sustain some of the world’s largest cities, such as the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, a city larger than Paris. Thousands of miles to the north, John Smith wrote of Massachusetts in 1614: “so planted with Gardens and Corne fields, and so well inhabited with a goodly strong well proportioned people… [that] I would rather live here than any where.” Surely, Smith was marketing in favor of colonization, but there is evidence that his exaggeration was relative. In The Earth Shall Weep, James Wilson writes: “the western hemisphere was much larger, richer, and more populous than Europe.”

By roughly 4,000 years ago, Indians were growing crops. Differing from the Europeans, who planted annual crops, the Indians focused their agricultural practices on the diverse assortment in the Amazon: on fruits, nuts and palms. The Amazonians changed large swaths of the river basin. In 1989, William Balee conservatively conjectured that 12% of the non-flooded Amazon forest was of anthropogenic origin; that is, created directly or indirectly by man. Others believe the entire forest is human-created. Indians achieved this, apparently, by altering the assortment and density of species in the region. The term “built environment,” many argue, describes most, if not all, Neotropical landscapes.

Large swaths of terra preta — a fertile black soil — are thought to have been human-created. This soil makes up perhaps more than 10% of Amazonia — the size of modern France. Scientists believe that terra preta is created by a melange of microorganism resistant to depletion by, for example, tropical rainstorms. Terra preta, it seems, has the capacity to regenerate itself. The value of these lessons has great implications for the future of a sustainable agriculture, one in which large populations can be supported on nutritious foods. (Mann) Such techniques very well could help us avoid some of the many contradictions in producing more food while decreasing pollution; producing fruits and vegetables without pesticides or pest damage.

Although farm work is some of the most important work in society, a farm worker makes on average $11,000 per year. When one considers the abuse a human body takes when exposed to the chemicals, long days, and backbreaking labor, this wage is a pittance. This problem, however, could seemingly be fairly easily improved upon. “Philip L. Martin, professor of agricultural economics at the University of California-Davis, has shown that even a dramatic increase in labor costs — passed fully onto the consumer — would have a very modest impact on the typical American household budget, which spend $322 on fresh fruits and vegetables in 2000. Martin’s detailed analysis of the agricultural industry found that a 40% increase in farmworker wages would increase a household’s annual spending on fruits and vegetables by only 8$ to 330$.” Currently there are 1.2 million farmworkers in the United States. (Burtness)

Over time, fewer farms, but larger farms have produced a greater share of agricultural commodities, such as tobacco, vegetables, fruits, nuts and berries, and horticulture and greenhouse stuffs).

Despite the growth of these large farms, the number of farm workers working in the industry and their wages has not much increased. According to the National Agricultural Worker Survey, farmworkers work fewer weeks per year, and earn on average only $6.18 per hour.

In the industry, there has been a movement towards employing more and more undocumented workers. As a means of alleviating these problems, the U.S. Department of Labor gave these suggestions to Congress in 2000: (Labor Report)

Raise the minimum wage.

Increase resources for stronger enforcement of U.S. labor laws.

Congress should continue to fund “AgWork,” an Internet-based, online job matching system to help connect agricultural employers and workers.

Encourage use of available verification systems for agricultural employers to verify the legal status of workers they hire.

Complete current efforts and continue to streamline the H-2A temporary nonimmigrant agricultural guestworker program without weakening protections for U.S. And foreign workers.

Pursue bi-lateral and (under the terms of the NAFTA labor side agreement) tri-lateral discussions with countries that send farm workers to the U.S. To explore ways in which their legal rights can be better protected.

Such measures would not only provide better lives for those involved in the intensive labor of farming, but would also give them more stake in improving the industry as a whole. For the most part, those people working in the industry do not have any intention of staying in it for very long. Therefore, there is not much motivation to change the unsustainable practices of farming in the United States. A move away from fewer, but larger farms controlling the market would give individuals more stake in food production. Further, it would cut down in often absurd transportation costs. By adopting diets and farming practices suitable to their own regions — as native people of North America once did — individuals could cultivate a healthier farming industry. Once eating a more healthy and nutritious diet based on sustainable agriculture and farming, not only will humans be healthier as individuals, but so too will be there environment.

1.Cruger, Roberta. Seven Food and Resources Crises on the Horizon and What You Can Do About it. Alternet, 12 April 2010.

Accessed at:,_and_what_you_can_do_about_it?page=2

2. Borger, Julian and Jowitt Juliette. Nearly a billion people worldwide are starving, UN agency warns. The Guardian, 10 December 2008.

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3. DeCarbonnel, Eric. “Catastrophic Fall in 2009 Global Food Production.” Global Research, 10 February, 2009.

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4. Thill, Scott. When Will Los Angeles Run out of Water? AlterNet, 4 October 2008

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5. Eric Lichtfouse. Mireille Navarette. Philipe Debaeke. Veronique Souchere. Caroline Alberola. (2009) Sustainable Agriculture. New York: Springer.

6. Fassa, Paul. Why and How to Avoid GMO Foods. NaturalNews, 13 October 2009.

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7.. Mann, Charles. 1491. The Atlantic, 2002.

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8. Burtness, Dayna. Farm Workers Wages: A Real Bargain. Triple Pundit, 7 April 2010.

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9.. U.S. Department of Labor Report

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