Image credit National Geographic, Photographer George Steinmetz
When we think about threats to the environment, we tend to picture cars and smokestacks, not dinner. But the truth is, our need for food poses one of the biggest dangers to the planet.
Agriculture is among the greatest contributors to global warming, emitting more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined—largely from methane released by cattle and rice farms, nitrous oxide from fertilized fields, and carbon dioxide from the cutting of rain forests to grow crops or raise livestock. Farming is the thirstiest user of our precious water supplies and a major polluter, as runoff from fertilizers and manure disrupts fragile lakes, rivers, and coastal ecosystems across the globe. Agriculture also accelerates the loss of biodiversity. As we’ve cleared areas of grassland and forest for farms, we’ve lost crucial habitat, making agriculture a major driver of wildlife extinction.
National Geographic’s special feature on Feeding 9 Billion is a good resource, especially for their graphics illustrating key aspects of the challenge. Of the agricultural inputs it is water, land use and energy that get most of my attention. Land and energy collide when you consider how you will substitute low-carbon energy sources for electricity, fertilizers, machinery for 9 billion. Study this graphic of Ice-Free Land, then ask yourself how you would solve these challenges?
To scope the problem a good place to learn the scale of what is required read Our High-Energy Planet, a report produced by The Breakthrough Institute:
“Climate change can’t be solved on the backs of the world’s poorest people,” said Daniel Sarewitz, coauthor and director of ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes. “The key to solving for both climate and poverty is helping nations build innovative energy systems that can deliver cheap, clean, and reliable power.”
If you are wondering if there will be any farmland left after fossil fuels are replaced with renewables, a good place to begin is by studying energy expert Vaclav Smil’s Power Density Primer, and Energy Transitions.
On improving agriculture, these earlier posts should be helpful:
- Bitter Harvest — How Anti-Technology Environmentalists Have Reversed the Green Revolution
- Paul Collier on African Agriculture and Urbanization
Lastly more Vaclav Smil, investigating the materials resources: Will nine billion people exhaust our materials resources?