Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Warnings, Warnings, Warnings

It was possibly one of the biggest yawners in recent years when the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned that, globally, mankind had about 60 years of soil fertility remaining. 60 years and most of the productive farmland on our planet would be useless, infertile, incapable of producing crops. And what happened? Sweet Fanny Adams, that's what happened. Within a week the warning was straight down the memory hole.

Let's try that again. This time the warning is coming from Britain's Tory government, environment minister Michael Gove to be exact. He's warning the UK is just thirty to forty years away from "the fundamental eradication of soil fertility" in its farming regions.

“We have encouraged a type of farming which has damaged the earth,” Gove told the parliamentary launch of the Sustainable Soils Alliance (SSA). “Countries can withstand coups d’├ętat, wars and conflict, even leaving the EU, but no country can withstand the loss of its soil and fertility.

“If you have heavy machines churning the soil and impacting it, if you drench it in chemicals that improve yields but in the long term undercut the future fertility of that soil, you can increase yields year on year but ultimately you really are cutting the ground away from beneath your own feet. Farmers know that.”

Of course in Canada we don't discuss such things. Wouldn't be polite. The environment, climate change and all that, why that's for other people.

Maybe you imagine we're not drenching our fields in agri-chemicals - fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides - that cut the ground away from beneath our own feet.  The smoking gun is seen in the algae blooms that beset Lake Winnipeg and Lake Erie and the dead zones along our coasts.

The collapse of farmland is a crisis and it's global. However to frame it as a crisis on its own is to miss the point, a very important point that we fail to comprehend at our certain peril. This is a crisis but it's also a symptom of a far greater problem. We are pushing our planet beyond its limits. We are pushing our planet to its breaking point.

Only yesterday I posted about the existential threat of ocean acidification now underway and nearing the point of no return.  Consider the steadily degrading state of our essential renewable resources: air, water and biomass.  Close to 800 million people lack access to clean water. 2.5 billion don't have access to basic sanitation, toilets.  The air Londoners breathe can now rival that of Beijing's.  We've killed off half of the animal life on Earth, terrestrial and aquatic, in just 40-years.  Insect populations are collapsing.

We turn to on our planet's basic stocks. We fell our forests. We collapse our fisheries. We drain our aquifers. We exhaust our farmland, transforming it into sterile desert. We've put the Earth store into a giant "going out of business" sale. You know it's true. It's visible to the naked eye from space. And, as stocks of so many things run low, we respond with new technologies and systems to make our depredations even more efficient, ever more rapacious.

We know that greenhouse gas emissions pose a threat to humanity as great as opioids to an addict and yet we continue to extract and burn fossil fuels when alternatives exist. In Canada we pimp the world's highest-carbon, toxin-laced ersatz petroleum and we do it with pride.

Visit your legislature or, better yet, our parliament. Look down from the visitors' gallery during Question Period and all you will see are legislators dedicated to pushing our planet beyond its limits because they can't envision anything else.  They don't know that beside that gas pedal is a brake or that they can turn that steering wheel. And they're taking you for a ride.


Toby said...

Agricultural policy has been out of whack since the fifties. I'm sure that after the problems of the Depression years and the shortages of WWII that corporate solutions looked to be good. Certainly, farms became more productive. The first loser was the small, multi crop family farm. Until the corporations moved in family farms had been sustainable. Animal manure and plant leftovers went back in the ground. Crops were rotated. Soil was maintained. Many farmers kept some of their land wild which allowed feral life to continue along side the farm. Corporate mono-crop culture has one goal: profit.

Since Free Trade with the Americans I have watched Okanagan orchards be ripped out and replaced with vineyards to supply the wine industry. Many of the Okanagan wine labels you see in the liquor store are actually owned by an American Company. There's more profit in grapes than apples, peaches, pears, cherries, apricots, plums, raspberries, strawberries, etc. This is an area that used to be a major supplier of food for Canada and now we're just a niche in the corporate monster. It's skewed.

Yeah, I'm a grumpy old guy.

BTW, I picked up a used copy of James Lovelock's The Revenge of Gaea. He writes quite a bit about the misuse of agriculture.

The Mound of Sound said...

Smallholders, as the Brits call them, have been an endangered species at least as far back as the 70s as industrial agriculture transformed the entire agricultural economic model. My grandparents on both sides raised their families (one had 8 children) on 100 acre farms. One focused on dairy, corn, tomatoes and peas (Green Giant and Heinz were in that neighbourhood).The other grew/raised hogs, poultry, wheat and tobacco. Around the farm houses were fruit trees and small gardens for the family's needs. Since farmers couldn't afford combines, etc. for such small farms they would hold threshing bees where the men would go from farm to farm to get in everyone's crops. I also remember a barn-raising bee on my maternal grandparents' farm. A gaggle of farmers showed up Saturday morning and by dinner on Sunday the barn was up. And the food that was laid on for those guys by the wives. They were well fed. Those days are long over.

The Mound of Sound said...

Oh yeah, I forgot. Outside the dairy barn all the manure and straw would be mounded up and, after harvest, it went right into the honey wagon and onto the fields along with the season's corn stalks, silage and anything else left over.

subunit said...

Having desperately pined for the kind of 100-acre farm you describe above for about ten years before finally giving up on the idea, I have to say it's not really clear what the "brake" consists of. At this stage, in order to make smallholding agriculture a meaningful contributor to any kind of solution, the scale of land reform and social upheaval required to get a meaningful number of working age people to take on this project brings to mind Maoist programs. I think the likelihood is that a return to smallholding will be a symptom of disorderly collapse rather than any kind of active choice, and that it will likely occur in the context of the big factory farms becoming something like neofeudal holdings- probably only the very well off or connected will have the luxury of 100 acres for their own "yeoman" families.

The Mound of Sound said...

Sub, I too worry about the evolution of some neo-feudalism if our societies don't change course abruptly. You foresee upheaval to make that occur and I wholly agree. There's going to have to be some sort of redistributive process or else democracy is finished. To keep its democracy healthy the Athenian city state was known to simply cancel all debt and redistribute land once every 50 years.