Algae and Food Security with Resource Wars
by Dr. Mark Edwards
ountries go to war when the vital resources needed to produce food become extinct locally and world market food prices are too high. Extinction occurs when natural resources become unavailable or unaffordable. In the Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources, Michael Klare shows that resource depletion is accelerating much faster than research reports anticipated. He chronicles how as resource extraction becomes more complex, the risk of environmental catastrophes becomes more severe. The Deep-water Horizon is only a preview of disasters to come. The scramble to extract the scarce remaining resources is igniting disputes over boarders on land and under the sea.
Numerous scientific and popular books and research reports predict war over scarce resources. The consensus is that humans are living beyond the means of the earth’s natural resources, and the consequence will be famine and war. Unfortunately, too often, war leads to horrific community starvation and population decline.
Industrial agriculture is among the most gluttonous consumer of resources. Unsurprisingly, several of the vital resources needed to grow modern foods are becoming increasingly scarce and expensive.
In addition to the resources agriculture consumes directly, many other elements are used in agricultural technologies, such as lithium batteries and rare earth elements such as cerium for oxidizers and ytterbium as chemical reducing agents.
As climate changes the regions in which crops grow, countries will fight for control over fertile cropland. Fertile soil serves as the foundation for crops. Unfortunately, many farmers see their precious topsoil blowing in the wind or flowing away in the water.
The FAO reports that 33% of the world’s cropland has become so degraded it has been abandoned in the last 30 years. Abandoned cropland continues globally at 29 million acres a year. The U.S. net cropland losses from 1982 to 1992 covered an area the size of New Jersey. American farmers lose about 3.2 million acres a year of fertile agricultural lands. Development and city expansion claim some of the land but the remaining loss comes from industrial agricultural methods that:
- Wear out the soil by extracting the nutrients and humus.
- Erode the soil by cultivation, which makes it vulnerable to erosion.
- Increase soil salinity from fertilizer or irrigation salts.
When fields become unfertile, they must be abandoned because the soil does not support crops. Half the remaining cropland globally is so degraded it takes twice as much fertilizer and three times more irrigation water to achieve normal crop yields. Nearly all – 94% – of Iran’s agricultural land is severely degraded from erosion or irrigation salt invasion.
Nature requires about 500 years to replace 25 millimeters (1 inch) of lost topsoil. The minimal soil depth for agricultural production is 150 millimeters (5.9 inches) but many crops need deeper soils. Fertile soil is a nonrenewable, endangered ecosystem that with degradation diminishes crop yields until the soil become unfertile.
The Environmental Working Group collaborating with the USDA found that the rich, dark soil in America’s Heartland is being swept away at rates many times higher than official estimates. In some places in Iowa, recent storms have triggered soil losses that were 12 times greater than the USDA average for the state of 6 tons per acre a year. A single storm can strip 64 tons of soil per acre from cropland, according to researchers using the new measurement techniques.
The current popular solution for cropland scarcity, land grabbing, is neither ethical nor sustainable. China, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and United Arab Emirates have bought huge tracks of land to produce food for export back home. Incredibly, the croplands are in countries that receive emergency food aid. Land leases run for 25 to 99 years, often for less than $1 per acre per year.
Independent agencies have charged politicians with corruption in the land leases. Farmers and indigenous people that have lived on those lands for generations often find out about deals only as they are forced from their land. In 2012, more than one million Ethiopians were forcibly relocated by their government.
Modern industrial agriculture improved human societies but its Achilles’ heel is that food production depends on massive consumption of fossil resources – fertile soils, freshwater delivered at just the right time, fossil fuels, inorganic fertilizers and agricultural chemicals and poisons. When just one resource became extinct locally, entire civilizations perished. History will repeat wars and community starvation as regions and countries run out of critical inputs for modern food production.
Elizabeth Kolbert, in Field Notes from a Catastrophe, chronicled a list of sophisticated cultures that sustained themselves for hundreds of years and then crashed when their soils no longer supplied sufficient food, including:
- Tiwanaku, Lake Titicaca in the Andes – crash: A.D. 1100, drought
- Classic Mayan civilization – crash: A.D. 800, drought
- Old Kingdom of Egypt – crash: 2200 B.C., drought
- Akkadian empire – crash: 2200 B.C., drought.
Droughts amplify the need for irrigation. Irrigation systems designed for normal years are unlikely to deliver sufficient water in hot years when crops may need two or three times more water. Heat also intensifies soil salts. Irrigation water evaporation leaves a white crust of irrigation salts that diminish and eventually destroy soil fertility.
Food crops are voracious water consumers. A ton of grain consumes 1,000 tons of water. The U.S. is the largest exporter of wheat, corn and soy to the world. When the U.S. exports a ton of wheat, buyers are effectively buying 1,000 tons of water. When the U.S. exports a ton of beef, buyers are buying 22,000 tons of water.
Large sections of the Heartland’s aquifer, the Ogallala, will run dry, probably about 2030. At about the same time, aquifers are predicted to crash in California, India, China and other countries. What will our children do for food?
Jared Diamond, in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, describes similar eco-meltdowns that caused the Anasazi of the U.S. Southwest and the Viking colonies of Greenland to collapse. He shows how patterns of population growth combined with drought, over-farming and destruction of natural resources lead to deforestation, erosion, food price increases, war and starvation.
At a time when the world needs more food – in 2012 – the U.S. Midwest suffered its worst drought in 56 years. The USDA cut its corn forecast to 274 million tons, a six-year low. The heat and drought in Russia caused crop losses that are likely to result in a 20-year low. The loss of U.S. and Russia grains will push up prices on global markets.
A new green path
A Green Algae Strategy to prevent resource wars employs peace microfarms in order to preserve critical natural resources.
Growing crops and other forms of energy on non-cropland using non-potable water can save millions of acres of cropland and trillions of gallons of water. Land and water have many valuable alternative uses. Using recycled nutrients not only preserves those resources but also avoids the massive waste and pollution currently imposed on communities by industrial agriculture.
Developing peace microfarms will have trivial cost compared with war. We estimate that microfarm R3D, (R&D, demonstration and diffusion) will cost under $5 million. A single day of modern war can cost multiple billions.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the next time policy leaders consider war over natural resources such as cropland and water, they change direction and use peace microfarms to make food, not war?