One-third of Earth's soil is degraded because of unsustainable farming methods, which could lead to a major food crisis. 25 per cent of the world's food-producing soils are highly degraded or are rapidly being degraded. Add to that other soils which they say are degrading "moderately", and the area under threat amounts to one-third of the Earth's endowment of cropland. Loss of productive soil, FAO reported, is most severe in the Himalayan and Andean regions; semi-arid tropical regions of Africa and India; rice-growing lands of Southeast Asia and areas of intensive and industrialised farming in Western Europe, North America, eastern China, India, Brazil and New Zealand. In just 10 countries - India, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Thailand, Mexico, Philippines, Democratic Republic of Congo, Vietnam and Burma - more than 530 million people are feeling the impact of land degradation directly. Worldwide, 1.5bn people are feeling it.
We now grow two-and-a-half to three times as much food as we did in 1960 while cultivating only 12 per cent more land area. It's an extraordinary achievement, but the cost has been high. Tilling, fertilising and irrigating year after year damages the soil's native structure, and the water that runs off into streams or percolates into groundwater can be laced with dangerous quantities of nitrates, pesticides or other pollutants.
The fate of the Earth's agricultural lands is closely tied to the fate of its waters. Expansion of irrigation has been the biggest factor in increasing food production over the past half-century, and improving irrigation will be a key to boosting yields between now and 2050. But irrigation can deplete local water resources and disrupt the soil's chemical balance. Furthermore, flooding of reservoirs has already driven tens of millions of people off of perfectly good forest and cropland around the world.
No matter how soil-friendly the cropping system, each year's harvest pulls essential nutrients off the land. Even back in the nineteenth century, it was becoming clear that the way food systems worked - harvesting food grains rich in essential elements, carting them away to villages and cities and then failing to return human and animal wastes to the land - could not be sustained indefinitely. The soil would gradually be depleted of nutrients, and crop yields would drop.
Justus von Liebeg, who first figured out the chemistry of soil fertility, referred to such removal of nutrients through crop harvest as "robbery".
Karl Marx explains that "The capitalist mode of production completes the disintegration of the primitive familial union which bound agriculture and manufacture when they were both at an undeveloped and child-like stage. But at the same time it creates the material conditions for a new and higher synthesis , a union of agriculture and industry on the basis of the forms that have developed during the period of their antagonistic isolation. Capitalist production collects the population together in great centres , and causes the urban population to achieve an ever-growing preponderance. This has two results . On the one hand it concentrates the historic motive power of society ; on the other hand , it disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth , it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing ; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil . Thus it destroys at the same time the physical health of the urban worker , and the intellectual life of the rural worker . But by destroying the circumstances surrounding that metabolism , which originated in a merely natural and spontaneous fashion , it compels its systematic restoration as a regulative law of social production, and in a form adequate to the full development of the human race. Moreover , all progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art , not only of robbing the worker , but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility . Capitalist production , therefore , only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth - the soil and the worker."
If we are to have a global soil base that can sustain human civilisation over the long term, we will have to create entirely new ways of farming that emulate natural ecosystems to achieve their degree of resilience. As fossil fuels become more deeply depleted and (perhaps) their use becomes more restricted, we will become more and more dependent once again on soil, water and sunshine for our lives and livelihoods. And we should be ready for the more modest way of life they are able to provide.
Extracted from an article by Stan Cox, research coordinator at The Land Institute
Nearly half the calories consumed around the world come directly from grain, with grain-fed animal products making up part of the remainder. Three grains dominate the world harvest: wheat and rice, which are primarily eaten directly as food, and corn, which is largely used as a feedgrain for livestock.
The world's farmers produced more grain in 2011 than ever before. Estimates from the US Department of Agriculture show the global grain harvest coming in at 2,295 million tonnes, up 53 million tonnes from the previous record in 2009. Consumption grew by 90 million tonnes over the same period to 2,280 million tonnes. Yet with global grain production actually falling short of consumption in seven of the past 12 years.
Wheat was the largest of the world's grain harvests until the mid- 1990s. Then corn production surged ahead in response to growing demand for grain-fed animal products and, more recently, for fuel ethanol. Despite a drop in the important US harvest due mostly to high summer temperatures, global corn production hit 868 million tonnes in 2011, an all-time high. The harvests of wheat (689 million tonnes) and rice (461 million tonnes) were also records. Carry-over grain stocks - the amount left in the world's grain elevators when the new harvest begins -now stand at 469 million tonnes, enough to cover 75 days of consumption at current levels. Between 1984 and 2001 grain stocks hovered around the more comfortable level of 100 days.
Three countries produced nearly half the world's grain in 2011: China at 456 million tonnes, the United States at 384 million tonnes, and India at 226 million tonnes. Together the 27 European Union countries harvested 286 million tonnes of grain. The United States is far and away the world's top grain exporter, sending 73 million tonnes abroad in 2011. This is a quarter of all grain trade. It is followed by Argentina exporting 32 million tonnes of grain; Australia and the Ukraine, each at 24 million tonnes; and Russia and Canada, each topping 20 million tonnes.
A growing number of countries are relying on imported grain to meet their needs. Japan continues to be the world's largest grain importer, buying more than 25 million tonnes of grain from abroad in 2011, much of it to be used as animal feed. Egypt, Mexico, South Korea and Saudi Arabia round out the list of countries importing more than 10 million tonnes of grain. Saudi Arabia now relies on imports for 90 per cent of its grain consumption. As the country has nearly pumped dry its underground water stores, it is abandoning its desert wheat farms. China imported a net five million tonnes of grain in 2011, the most significant inflow since the country declared a national grain self- sufficiency policy in the mid-1990s. China's soybean imports hit 56 million tonnes in 2011, close to 80 per cent of the country's total soybean consumption and nearly 60 per cent of all the soy traded internationally. Most of the high-protein soy is used in livestock and poultry feed.
With little arable land around the world left un-farmed and with ever more mouths to feed, farmers face an uphill climb in their efforts to feed the world's people. The animal protein and food-based biofuel production systems are two areas where fields could be re-appropriated to grow food directly for people instead of for livestock or for cars.