Food production: the balancing act

Since the beginning of times, feeding a population has always been about balance.

When mankind was still in the stage of hunting, fishing and gathering, survival was about keeping resources at a level that would allow the group to keep on feeding from its close environment.
When agriculture started, followed by the domestication of what became farm animals, the idea was clearly to have more control on the resources and insure that they would be available on a more regular basis. Of course, there were times when this did not happen, but the principle has remained.
For many centuries, agriculture was a local activity. Farmers would grow a diversified group of products that insured a sustainable balance at local level. The different products were a reflection of seasons and of land diversity. They also would offer different activities, and some revenue, through the different times of the year.
Their productions were part of a cycle. For instance, farm animals would eat crops coming from the farm to produce meat, milk, eggs which are all related to the reproduction cycle and the continuation of their species. What would not be digested, as well by the farm animals as by the local human population would return to the land as manure (usually mixed with a crop by-product such as straw to provide and insulating litter), fertilizing the next round of crops. So basically, what was extracted from the Earth was returning to it, thus insuring the continuity of the system, for as long as the climate would support it.
With the growth of world population and the increasing mobility and later globalization of markets, this very local and sustainable system has evolved. Products are sold far away from their area of production; many farms have specialized and replace the manure cycle by purchase of fertilizers. Animals are fed with raw materials originating from the over side of the world. Genetics, crop engineering, technical progress have also allowed yields to sharply increase as well as the speed of the production of foodstuffs, vegetal and animal. This has benefited mankind on the shorter term because it provided more food at relatively cheaper prices, so more accessible to a larger group. This has benefited trade and business, but it has brought its toll on the balance that is the cornerstone of any biologically related activity.
For example, intensive animal husbandry was developed in poor regions, allowing farmers to have a decent revenue in areas were they could not have stayed, but as the animals were fed with non-indigenous feedstuffs, they produced massive amounts of manure that were much higher than the local ground could process. This has led to loss of soil fertility, as a result of excess phosphates in the ground, among other things. Water resources have been polluted with high level of minerals, such as nitrates making it risky to use for infants and pregnant women. The exclusive use of chemical fertilizers in crop areas, as a result of the disappearance of a mixed farming also led to lower levels of organic matter (which is crucial to fix minerals and make them fully available for plants) and has caused some severe erosion of very fertile soils. While these problems were growing in the West as we were putting too much back on the land, on the other side of the world the opposite situation was happening with an exhaustion of soils to produce crops aimed for export only, which resulted in taking more out of those soils and not returning it in the right form. Further, these regions developed very often these commercial crops on land that had been won from ecosystems such has tropical forests, which have very sensitive soils to rain, erosion and oxidation of metals such as aluminum and iron.
By bringing the natural cycles out of balance, we have weakened the Earth from providing us optimally with what feeds us. Our future and our sustainability will depend of our ability to manage this balancing act. As usual, what seems a challenge can also offer new opportunities!

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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