Food for Stuff: 21st Century Land Use

21st Century Land Use
Soybean aphids. Credit: Jeff-o-matic, FlickrCC

According to projections by the UN, the global population could surpass 9 billion by 2050. That’s a whole lot of mouths to feed. Now, with about 7 billion people on earth, 800 million remain undernourished and a staggering 2 billion suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. Simultaneously, global wealth per capita is increasing, fueling higher demand for meat, refined fats, sugars, alcohols, and oils – all foods that carry high agricultural demands while yielding relatively low nutritional values. Food demand is increasing. Where will food come from to feed those undernourished now, as well as to sustain future populations?

Agricultural sprawl 

We are at capacity regarding our agricultural land use. About 40% of all ice-free land on earth is dedicated to agriculture. Crop land constitutes acreage approximately equal to the entire landmass of South America; pasture lands consume an area equal to the size of the entire continent of Africa. Expansion is impossible.

Environmental impact

Between 1980 and 2000,  over half of expanded agriculture came from the destruction of intact forests. Deforestation results in devastating biodiversity losses while reducing our planet’s ability to capture carbon dioxide and create biomass. With ever-increasing carbon emissions facilitating climate change, cutting down natural processes of carbon conversion is nonsensical.

Suburban Land                                                                

Historically agricultural land is being used for commercial and residential expansion. In the U.S. between 1982 and 1997, more than half of new developments were built on farmland. Rather than ripping down forests to make way for agriculture, shouldn’t we stop building on land that is already being farmed? There is enough livable space; we need not continue building mansions and strip malls.

Food for Thought: Ethanol 

Agricultural expansion isn’t an option for feeding the world, now or ever. Nor is it necessary. Sufficient arable land already exists but is being used inappropriately. Much of the ‘food’ being produced today is not food at all. Immense agricultural effort goes to the production of things like biofuels, timber, palm oil, and plastic, perpetuating waste production, while bypassing the mouths of the hungry.

An example of this phenomenon is ethanol. In 2006, 14% of corn crops went to the production of ethanol, yielding about 5 billion gallons fuel. This process places high demands on water and land resources, doing nothing to feed the 800 million undernourished people globally. Some estimates indicate that in 2013, the production of ethanol required 4% of global farmable land and consumed over 215 billion cubic meters of water.

Furthermore, ethanol isn’t a sustainable substitute for fossil fuels. Although dubbed as ‘renewable’, in aggregate biofuels emit more greenhouse gasses than fossil fuels. Producing ethanol from corn demands dedicating vast acreage to a single crop, a practice referred to as monoculture, which causes significant ecological problems.

Soybean aphids provide one example of the monoculture effect. This bug is a pest of soybeans but appears disinterested in corn. More corn growth means fewer other crops. So, as corn production in Midwestern states increased, soy farmers saw greater depletion of their crops due to aphids. Agricultural biodiversity is critical to recovery from increasing climate disasters, because it is the biodiversity of an ecosystem which enables adaptation to changing environmental conditions.

A huge amount of our corn is being used for the production of ethanol. Producing 1 terajoule of ethanol requires the amount of corn that could feed 110 people. Over 200 million people, a quarter of those hungry globally, could be fed by this corn. We can’t continue using precious agricultural resources to perpetuate our reliance on fuel.

Money Talks

Ethanol subsidies come at a high cost to American taxpayers. Biofuel blending tax credits come $1 a gallon, totaling billions. These tax exemptions and subsidies were designed to encourage the development of renewable energy in the interest of environmental protection, but ethanol isn’t an eco-friendly energy source. Redistributing these financial incentives to stimulate the planning of diverse, healthy food products is a crucial step in reshaping our agricultural system.

When it comes down to it, farmers grow what is profitable. We must aggressively tax agricultural emissions, deforestation, and land degradation. Production of harmful non-food products from food should be too expensive to make production worthwhile. Simultaneously, we can provide financial incentives to those who farm sustainable and diverse products.

The future of agriculture

Ethanol provides only one example of misuse of agricultural land and products. We can utilize the land we do have in immensely better ways. Shifting the world’s agricultural efforts onto currently farmed land will allow us to feed more people without suffering devastating agricultural expansion.

We don’t have a land problem; we have a land use problem. No longer is growing food to create non-edible, unsustainable products an option. Instead, we must use currently farmed land to grow healthy and genetically diverse food.