Industrial agriculture and the future of humanity

Within a modern city like London or New York over ten million people exist, literally living atop one another in hyper dense concentrations of life perhaps only rivalled by termites and microorganisms living in colonies.

The city is a relatively new creation of homo sapiens, and its creation can be traced back to a region in Syria as the fertile crescent. Here around 10,000 years ago the first cities began emerging. One might have thought the city a social invention, but it seems to be intimately tied to agriculture. Just a few centuries before these early cities a new strain of wheat emerges in the genetic record, plumper, giving a greater yield, but also less suited to wild living. A domestic species.

The discrete change from nomadic hunting to agriculture dramatically altered the population density of man, as land could suddenly provide an enormous bounty of food in even a humble farm.

The ancient city of Çatalhöyük was one early city in this region, it supported 7000 individuals per square km with a total population of around 10,000, while hunter gatherers subsisting on the land existed at a ratio of 8 individuals per square km.[1]

The ability to extract more calories per square kilometre of land was the driving force of urban environments, and with it the culture, society and political world we know today. The additional free time the farming lifestyle provided lead to the development of science, which has been applied to further improved the efficiency of agriculture, until you have today’s situation, in the west many people can buy a week’s worth of food with a single hour of work.

Yet man’s preference for animal farming has lead to a marked drop in the efficiency of land relative to the optimum level. A thousand calories of beef uses approximately 160 times the land that 1000 calories of rice would provide. Laws of physics put a hard limit on the efficiency of animal farming, as mammals have to expend considerable energy on keeping warm and building highly complex proteins to make eyes, hearts, brains, etc. In essence we grow an entire skeleton, with these complex organs, and the conscious creature, to consume incredibly simple amino acids which exist in plants. For all the wonders of agriculture, this is an astoundingly inefficient way of obtaining food.

There are several arguments in favour of doing so. One is that meat is more nutritious than plant based foods, which will be addressed further down. Another is that it is more pleasant to eat, and if we can afford it, why not?

Addressing the latter we need only look at the fact 70% of the available agricultural land is already farmed. Some half of all the habitable land on the planet is farmed, a staggering 51 million square kilometres. For reference, all of Europe is around 10 million square kilometres.[2]

Again, one might remark, so?

Several issues are arising fairly rapidly for humanity with regards to food. Topsoil is being depleted, and once it is in certain areas it will be forever. Estimates place 10% of so being barren by 2100, which is no joke, because once barren they cannot be retrieved[3].

Climate change is threataning yields of crops already, and as we move deeper into the century this will increase. And finally, Earth’s population is growing rapidly, as is the demographic consuming meat. Our appetite for land has just began, with the giants of India, China and Brazil all jostling to join the ranks of people enjoying a western diet rich in animal products.

Our options for growing more food to meet demand, and make up for topsoil losses & climate change collateral is quite obvious from the above graphic, we have to raze forests to the ground and replant them as farms. This is already happening, the Amazon rainforest is being enroached upon and burned to ashes at 150 acres a minute, all day, all year.

It’s being razed in large part for western meat, as the land is used to grow soy which is then exported to Europe and the USA to feed chickens and cattle. These appetites have violent ends.

For starters, the forests are finite, once they’re gone, what next? And that’s ignoring the disaster that would be the extinction of much of Earth’s colourful and incredibly species, along with the further emmission of more CO2, accelerating climate change even further.

Crop Failure

Meanwhile the new climate of the century set 1.5-3C above baseline will dramatically alter the temperature extremes crops will be exposed to. Even in 2022 the extreme temperatures in many countries caused crop failure, and the IPCC project these long dry periods will become up to 10 times more frequent by 2050. Scientists project a substantial affect on crop yields[4], with an overall fall of 25% by the end of the century according to the IPCC.

Temperature extremes will likely be commonplace moving into the century according to the IPCC, leading to extreme events like summer 2022 in the UK.

This raises an important ethical question that is often left out of the agriculture debate. With 800 million people on Earth today in food poverty, can we justify occupying vast swathes of land for animal produce, when so many die of hunger?

Land area is a limitation on our food output. Occupying it for luxury animal products drives the cost of land upwards, and reduces its overall productivity. If we consider the extreme heatwaves and falling yield of crops by 2050, that 800 million figure could absolutely balloon into the billions.

If humanity was to scale back animal product use, the additional land available for crops would be vast, we could grow over ten times the amount of food in calorie and nutrient content, and not only could we feed those in poverty more easily, but we’d also be able to withstand the growing population and future crop failures due to climate change far more easily. Is the difference between eating a plant based diet, and one rich in meat and dairy, worth the life of another born into a less fortunate country?

Can we subsist on Plants?

Arguments are bandied around that animal products are required for a healthy diet, but this has been shown to be untrue in scientific studies. Can’t build muscle with plants? The record for the greatest weight ever lifted by a man, Patrik Baboumian, over 1200lbs, was done so on not only a plant based diet, but one Patrik has followed for 15 years. Swathes of gold medallist olympians are plant based, and swear by it. A meta study on over 700,000 people indicates show plant based diets are healthier, with massively reduced incidence of heart disease, reduced chances of almost all cancers, and a longer lifespan[5]. Without considering the particulars, the extended lifespan ought to be sign enough that such diets are beneficial to all around human health. This huge study mirrors very closely the science being done at smaller scales, with unanimous agreement that animal fats are detrimental to health.

All gold medalists and champions who ate a plant based diet. Carl Lewis, one of the greatest olympians of all time with 9 gold medals, placed great emphasis on his diet as a source of success: “I’ve found that a person does not need protein from meat to be a successful athlete. In fact, my best year of track competition was the first year I ate a vegan diet”. This is not uncommon among athletes, Dotsie Bausch, the oldest medallist in the team pursuit event in olympic history, puts a huge emphasis of her unusual success as a 39 year old to a change in her diet to exclusively plant based sources.

I think it’s fairly clear that one can be healthier on a plant based diet while also performing at a high athletic level. These are both fallacious arguments that have been levied against those who shirk animal products for well over a century, however it seems those notions had no basis in science and have now been outright contradicted.

If plant based diets bring health benefits to the individual, enormous benefits to climate change, earth’s biodiversity and the survival of a large population, then it’s hard to see a good reason not to adopt them at a global scale. There is in fact another decisive advantage we’d obtain by cutting animal foods from our diets.

Water scarcity and plant based foods

Water scarcity is becoming an issue in various parts of the world, due to the enormous freshwater consumption of animal agriculture.

Water use per kg of produce shown above. Bovine meat uses an extraordinary amount of water, twenty times the usage of cereal crops. A single hamburger requires 2,400L of embedded water. Various places on earth are now water scarce due to agriculture, Ica valley in Peru was retrofitted for mass avocado production and has experienced huge depletions of ground water, water levels in some wells were falling by as much as two metres a year. Local wells have dried up and the population has risen up on numerous occasions, bullets have even been fired over the issue, as landowners export avocados to the west for huge profits and squeeze the region of its natural water sources. In this scenario the locals are powerless and the farmers who live in the region are seeing their harvests decimated, as they are simply out competed by the western food market.[6]

Studies estimate this kind of issue will expand with climate change, and we could see water scarcity in 84% of croplands worldwide as water availability falls. [7][8][9]

It’s difficult to see how humanity will cope with these challenges. At present the agricultural system is largely a product of the free market, with some minor state intervention. It is a huge network of imports and exports, not designed for longevity, it is causing rapid topsoil depletion, deforestation, drought and water insecurity, and vast amounts of CO2 emmissions.

The most worrying aspect of this is that with our population set to reach 10 billion by 2050, and crop yields to drop substantially, and farmable land to drop due to topsoil degradation, it’s hard to see how we will feed people without disruption or food shortages. The IPCC has stated that the effects on agriculture could be grave indeed, and worse than projections, as extreme heat waves can decimate swathes of crops as they already do on occassion.

And by all accounts our need for food is rising. Projections put the Earth’s population at 10 billion by 2050, and studies found that with current habits, that is an appetite for animal produce, we’d need to clear an additional 593 million hectares of land for agriculture[8], or two Indias. This would entail clearing all remaining forest from the planet, releasing gigatons more of CO2 into the atmosphere and making thousands of species extinct.

Solution

Supposing Earth had some central government for a moment, it seems like it would be reasonable on the basis of these figures to adopt a cautious attitude to agriculture. At a practical level that would surely mean a buffer, whereby we might produce more food than we should need, population increases taken into account.

Yet our land is maximally used, so how is it possible for us to attempt to avert mass famines that could kill millions, while feeding billions more mouths?

The solution hopefully jumps out at this point, we shift most of our agriculture to a purely crop based model. Animal calories are using a factor of ten more freshwater at least, a factor of ten more land, at least; and every physical indicator points toward this sacrifice not being teneable in the near future.

If much of this land was freed up as we made a shift to plant based diets there would be huge swathes of free land. It could be left fallow and allowed to regenerate its topsoil, ready to be planted in the future should we need it. Forests could be replanted, capturing CO2. Large farms could be set up by wealthy western nations purely to produce food for those in need, both within their own nations and abroad. This would be especially useful as climate change ramps, and poorer equatorial regions bear the brunt of intense heatwaves, crop failure and water shortages.

By moving to a plant based diet we’d have a healthier population, with greater longevity and lower incidence of disease. Earth would be able to comfortably support 10 billion people, or even multiples of this amount.

Is there an alternative? It’s hard to see one. The data seems quite clear, Humanity will either be forced into altering it’s agricultural practices eventuality by horrific famines and food shortages, or many, many people will perish, while the others continue enjoy their brie and bacon sandwiches unperturbed. A peace that would be short lived, as the topsoil from the overarmed land will inevitably begin to decline in this scenario too, leading to further food shortages and famines whittling the population down to a mere fraction of what it is today. Competition will be the name of the day, the richest and most powerful will continue to hold their huge land ownership in animal farming, and the rest will starve.

Or we can pave the way to a future of ample space, better health and longevity for all, far less food poverty and death due to starvation, and the restoration of Earth’s natural forests. A future in which we are equipped to tackle climate change and keep our people alive, and to reverse climate change itself by fixing the carbon back from the atmosphere into natural systems, improving both the beauty and balance of our planet.

[1] https://whc.unesco.org/uploads/nominations/1405.pdf

[2] Source: Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, Aug. 31, 2020

[3] https://ourworldindata.org/soil-lifespans

[4] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0095069621000450

[5]https://www.bmj.com/content/370/bmj.m2412

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/sep/15/peru-asparagus-british-wells

[7] https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/05/1118722

[8] Click to access WGIIAR5-Chap3_FINAL.pdf

[9] https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2021EF002567

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