And here, I think that Greer and I part company – because it seems to me that (a) it’s very much developing countries who are most in the firing line, and (b) that the challenge on extensive farming is every bit as demanding and urgent as the one on intensive farming.
During the 2008 food price spike – in many ways a taste of what we can expect under peak oil – poor countries manifestly had the worst of it. The global total of undernourished shot up, from about 850m to over 1bn. At the same time, malnutrition went off the scale too – humanitarian assistance practitioners I know are still horrified by the fact that an entire generation of kids’ cognitive development was basically stunted for life by missing out on key nutrients in their early years.
Both intensive and extensive agriculture are relevant here. Intensive horticulture is what provides the micronutrients, vitamins, minerals etc. that prevent malnutrition; extensive agriculture that provides the calories that keep people alive.
Now, I don’t disagree with Greer that we’ve got a lot to do on the intensive front; that there’s much to learn here from recent experience in the organics movement; that we’re probably headed for a much more localised model; and so on. But I’m not sure I buy the premise that the revolution we need today is all about intensive, and that the revolution on the extensive front is a task for another day.
True, enough calories are produced today to feed everyone amply, so in that sense the current problem is one of politics, not production. But as population rises and as the world’s middle class gets more affluent, demand is rocketing (the World Bank reckons global food demand will be up 50% by 2030). That’s twenty years to produce half as much food again, during a period in which we’ll face intensifying climate impacts, peak oil, dramatically scaled up water scarcity, intensifying competition for land (food, feed, fuel, fiber, cities, carbon sequestration, conservation), and doubtless wider economic volatility too.
So it looks to me like we need to get cracking right now on the extensive as well as the intensive front. And I’m especially interested in two big questions here.
First: even if we assume that we’re headed for a more localised future for intensive horticulture, do we think the same applies to extensive agriculture? I honestly don’t know.
On one hand, I can see that peak oil might have the effect of reducing trade volumes – especially for bulky, low value-added goods like grain. But on the other, what the hell would that mean for food import dependent countries that have no realistic prospect of feeding themselves? Set aside for a moment import-dependent countries like the Gulf states or the Asian emerging economies, who can afford to land grab their way out; instead, look at West Africa’s vulnerability to price spikes as a result of its dependence on imported rice. The food localisation agenda is worryingly silent about what’s supposed to happen there, it seems to me.
Second: even if we assume that the future for intensive horticulture is organic, can we assume the same for extensive agriculture? As Greer says in his post, after all, most of the innovation and R&D on organics in recent years has been focused on the intensive side of things. So by extension, there’s not much data to back up the argument that we can provide enough calories – as opposed to micronutrients – to feed a world of 9 billion with no fertilisers, just traditional crop rotation.
Of course, peak oil means that fossil-fuel based nitrogen fertilisers are likely to become more expensive; other fertilisers, like phosphorus, look set to become scarcer too. I’m not saying there’s a non-organic panacea here (and n.b. I’m certainly not arguing that “GM crops can feed the world” – if only it were so simple); and of course all of this is as much to do with politics as with food production systems. I’m just not sure that we can be confident that organic agriculture is a panacea either.