Space and food (for thought)

Space. Whether you see it as the final frontier or the ultimate resource, how we use space is a challenge that will ultimately determine the destiny of the human race—not to mention the future of every other living thing we share this big round rock with.

Not so much because we’re exploring the outer elements of it—our understanding of that side of space, for all its impressive achievements thus far, is still in its absolute infancy, as I’m sure all aspirational astrophysicists and cosmologists would agree—but because we’re fast running out of the stuff down here.

Or at least we think we are. Perhaps it’s just the profligacy of the way we use terrestrial space that creates the illusion of scarcity, generating a subsequent sense of panic about finding a new planet to scurry off to if and when we finally exhaust this one altogether.

True enough, the population of the globe has ballooned somewhat over the last few millennia. When the dawn of agriculture broke—sometime after the Neolithic Revolution, around 12,000 to 10,000 years ago—there were about 5 million human beings rummaging around in the dirt, mostly in the aptly named Fertile Crescent, evolving green opposable thumbs and discovering how to make plants grow where they wanted them to.

These plants would then be consumed directly, or used to bribe various animals to stay still, get fat and produce young, milk, eggs and base clothing materials until our canny ancestors got around to killing and eating them. Techniques developed around the most productive practices, and various strains of flora and fauna were selectively bred to create the best results, in a form of slow-motion genetic engineering.

For thousands of years, the number of Earthlings increased by less than 0.05% per annum, until you fast forward to the Industrial Revolution. Then the global population exploded, hitting a billion in 1800, 2 billion by 1930 and then racing to 6 billion in time for the year 2000.

In June this year, according to data provided by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, you were one of 7.4 billion people constantly checking your smartphone and whinging about the weather and your weight—or scrambling around trying to find enough to eat, depending on how your numbers came up in the lottery of life, which determined your birth location.

The big birth bang is slowing down a bit, with the latest predictions saying we won’t now hit 10 billion until the year 2056, but suffice to say—although life is far from easy for many people—it doesn’t look likely humans will to go on the IUCN’s Red List of endangered species anytime soon.

And chances are, if you’re reading this, then you’re not too worried about where your next meal is coming from. It’s already in the cupboard, fridge or freezer, either at home or in a supermarket or food outlet, waiting for some heat and H2O to be applied to make it edible in easy lumps.

Many species and plenty of people, however, aren’t quite so lucky. Because while we have been learning how to live long and prosper (whilst still populating the planet like rabbits), instead of coming up with smart new methods of ecologically sensitive agriculture, we’ve basically just supersized ancient ones.

Having it large: around 11 percent (1.5 billion hectares) of the planet's land surface (13.4 billion hectares) is currently used for crop production.
Having it large: around 11 percent (1.5 billion hectares) of the planet’s land surface (13.4 billion hectares) is currently used for crop production.

In the affluent West, processes were intensified, mega-sized and mechanised after World War II. Crops were liberally doused in pest-killing chemicals and the scale of both livestock and cereal farming went super industrial. An ever-shrinking number of big producers now have miracle-like powers to feed the thousands. But of course, this comes at a cost.

Prominent among the problems caused or aggravated by modern mass agricultural practices are topsoil depletion, groundwater contamination, loss of biodiversity (which threatens to makes our staple foods weak and vulnerable amid a fast-changing climate), the decline of family owned farms (with multiple knock-on affects across rural communities), and heavy usage of land and that other increasingly rare commodity: water.

According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), modern farming methods mean that it takes 70 litres of water to produce one apple; 75 litres to generate a glass of beer; 140 litres to create a cup of coffee; 184 litres to make a bag of crisps; 2400 litres to magic up a hamburger; and a whopping 16,000 litres to get 1kg of beef. Sounds expensive hey? That’s because it is—horrendously so. In terms of cost to Earth’s ecology and greedy domination of land, the bill is huge.

Produced by IFAD, via the BBC
Produced by IFAD, via the BBC

In 2014, a study conducted by Bard College in New York state and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that (pound for pound) red meat requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, and 160 times more land than potatoes, wheat, and rice, while churning out vastly more climate-warming emissions.

Professor Mark Sutton from the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology explained the situation to The Guardian: ‘The US and Europe alike are using so much of their land in highly inefficient livestock farming systems, while so much good quality cropland is being used to grow animal feeds rather than human food.’

Another study, led by scientists at the University of Minnesota and published in Science, found that over 4 billion people could be fed with the crops we currently devote to fattening livestock, and existing farmland could feed an extra 3 billion people if it was used more efficiently.

All this has prompted Professor Tim Benton from the University of Leeds to observe that giving up red meat will have more of an affect on your carbon footprint than getting rid of your car.

Having a cow. The production of 1kg of beef requires 16,000 litres of water and takes up 160 times more land than potatoes, wheat, and rice.
Having a cow. The production of 1kg of beef requires 16,000 litres of water and takes up 160 times more land than growing an equivalent amount of potatoes, wheat, and rice.

Meanwhile, in the developing world (where some of that food could be put to very good use if we weren’t so wedded to big fat burgers) the major problem is slash-and-burn agriculture.

This method of growing food sees large tracts of wild or forested land being raised to the ground and burned. Besides opening up the space for farmers, the layer of ash produced by the fire is fantastically rich with nutrients, which fertilise crops. However, this first flush of goodness is almost completely exhausted by the very first harvest, leaving the land barren and degraded for farmers and wildlife alike. All then must move along to the next patch, literally leaving scorched earth in their wake.

Burn, sow, eat, move, repeat.

Slashed and burnt. Apocalyptic scenes in the Amazon, near Manaus.
Slashed and burnt. Apocalyptic scenes in the Amazon, near Manaus.

This process has been widely used for thousands of years, from Africa and Australia to the Mediterranean and Mesoamerica. Even when the world’s population of people was comparatively thinly spread across the globe, these practices still changed the landscape of entire continents over time. Vast swathes of woodland and wilderness across Europe, for example, have disappeared almost without trace during the short period of time humans have been top dog on Planet Earth.

In the context of the modern world, where the process is still happening on a large scale—even at the conservative end of recent estimates, some 250 million people eek out a living like this—it is a complete disaster. Slash and burn agriculture devastates the natural habitat of thousands of species, contributes to massive deforestation and desertification of sensitive areas around the planet, dramatically increases the level of our collective carbon output, and helps perpetuate a cycle of poverty and transience for subsistence farmers.

In Brazil alone, around 500,000 small farmers are thought to be clearing 1 hectare a year using these methods. This loss of habitat, (compounded by large scale commercial logging), is potentially apocalyptic for the Amazonian ecosystem, with fires often burning out of control, creating what NASA describes as the most dangerous threat the world’s biggest rain forest has ever faced.

There are far more sustainable alternatives to the slash and burn method of agriculture. Increasing crop diversity improves the retention of nutrients, and some degraded land can eventually be reclaimed by reforestation, but the biggest advance of recent years has come in the form of alley cropping.

With this agroforestry technique, food crops are planted alongside strips of trees, which act like ‘green manure’. This preserves the fertility of the soil, and means crops can be grown year after year, without the release of carbon into the atmosphere that burning involves, and with no risk of the mass destruction fire brings with it.

The method was pioneered by the Cambridge University Geography Department decades ago, after researchers including Tim Bayliss-Smith, Bryon Bache and Michael Hands secured EU funding for a trial in Costa Rica. The project proved that crops such as maize and beans could be grown in cultivated ‘alleys’ between managed hedgerows, which eliminated weeds and had a positive affect on nitrogen and phosphorus cycles. The best performing of these hedgerows were the ones comprised of inga, a tree that thrives even in degraded, acidic and nutrient-poor soils.

Convincing large numbers of impoverished planters to adopt new methods is far from easy, but initiatives such as the Inga Foundation and Ecologic are attempting to help people in Central America and beyond make the transition to a more sustainable form of farming.

If they fail, and if we in the West won’t stop feeding our faces full of steaks and fries, then perhaps we really will be forced to turn our attentions and techno green thumbs to the development of agriculture in outer space.