The Coming Population Problem
Environmental, agricultural, and climate thinkers the world over keep moaning about the “population problem.” What many people fail to recognize, however, are the consumption habits of our worldwide population. With a global population of over 7 billion and growing daily (and exponentially), consumption is arguably what the population problem is about: how can our Earth continue to support all those people? How can we expect to feed more people, even while we face rising food shortages due to increased global temperatures?
It is widely accepted that climate change is a direct result of human activity, and that agriculture is a major contributor – accounting for as much as 25% of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions. Many farmers, however, deny their role in climate change, and understandably so: to acknowledge climate change would be to incriminate themselves and disparage their very livelihoods. Beyond that, the solutions to mitigating climate change are complex, and would require a drastic upheaval of agricultural method as we know it.
Even though vegetarian and vegan diets have been shown to leave a greatly reduced carbon footprint, it may not be reasonable to ask the world to radically change their diets to procure food from only plant-based sources. However, we must recognize that while we are clearing vast swaths of forest in the Amazon to make room for ever more farms and livestock, we are also leaving an indelible mark on the surface of our planet. What can be done?
Fortunately, there are a few people that have begun to theorize on how we can use agricultural technology that already exists to reduce, and perhaps even reverse the effects of climate change.
Michael Pollan, popular food writer author the 2006 best-seller The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has some ideas that may help agriculture work for people and the planet alike. Some of his (and others’) suggestions:
- Advocating for low-till or no-till farming. Many farmers are already trying this method of planting seeds. While plowing, the traditional method of planting, releases carbon into the atmosphere, low- or no-till farming means that farmers plant seeds by using a small drill, leaving the soil largely undisturbed, keeping carbon sequestered in the soil.
- Reverting to the Earth’s natural systems: photosynthesis and grazing, or “bio-mimicry”. Pollan believes that plants and animals can work together to achieve natural carbon sequestration via photosynthesis. Plants convert the sun’s energy into plant growth – leaves and roots. When a ruminant (a cow) comes along and grazes the grassland, it trims the plant down to roughly 2-3 inches. The plant will respond to this by killing off a portion of it’s root system equal to that of the lost leaf and stem. Discarded root matter is then used by underground organisms (earthworms, nematodes, etc) to turn the carbon in the roots back into soil. Note that this requires meat to be naturally grazed, grain-fed and free-range; stricter policy against greenwashing would need to be implemented in order to assure consumers of this low-carbon footprint method of raising meat and restoring soil carbon.
- Helping farmers deal with weather variability, whether they believe that “climate change” is the cause or not. Regardless of what a farmer may say he believes about climate change, chances are he is already using some “green” methods – like reducing tillage to keep soil from blowing away during dry spells. Helping farmers improve their farms’ productivity will encourage climate adaptation.
- Encouraging crop diversity. Moving away from a monocultural model of farming, while encouraging a mix of small, rotating crops, will help prevent the spreading geographical range in which pests can thrive, and will also restore nutrients to the soil, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers.
- Fostering an arena for open-source genetic modification. While some people are quick to denounce GMO food products, there is little hard evidence that they the anathema that many make them out to be. In a world plagued by a warming worldwide temperatures, increasingly inclement weather, and spreading pathogens, we need our agriculture to be innovative. We need GMOs to be able to produce more food on less land. But why leave it in the hands of mega-corporations like Monsanto? The genetic map of rice is already available publicly. Why not allow public access to further crops – cassava, millet, or teff – crops which, if genetically modified, could provide huge opportunities for the world’s poor?
It’s true that we will not be able to continue eating and growing food forever as we do today; our planet will give out before too long. But if we apply innovative thinking, and realize the reinvention of old technologies, we may begin to see some proposed solutions come to fruition.