Modern industrial agriculture needs less efficiency and more resiliency if it’s going to feed billions more people in a world turned upside down by exploding energy prices and climate change.
It sounds counterintuitive, but University of Waterloo Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon warns the current system is too “brittle” to withstand the challenges ahead.
“I hate to say it… but the mono, maniacal obsession with increasing yields is perhaps misplaced,” Homer- Dixon told agricultural reporters and Dow AgroSciences officials here Sept. 21 following a tour of the company’s world headquarters.
“It shouldn’t all be just about productivity. It should be about building agricultural systems that can withstand various kinds of… shocks.”
It’s not a message one would expect from a speaker sponsored by a company that makes its living selling farmers pesticides and genetically modified seeds to boost crop yields and efficiency. But one Dow AgroSciences official said the company wants to be challenged by different ideas.
According to Homer-Dixon, who holds the Centre for International Governance Innovation Chair of Global Systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, economies are a lot like ecologies; as they mature they become less diverse and more vulnerable.
“If you have… all the exact same genome and the genome is not adapted to the shock then you lose everything,” said the author ofThe Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilizationand Environment, Scarcity, and Violence.
“It seems pretty obvious, so I find it kind of remarkable that we insist on building agricultural systems largely centred around mono crops.”
He said more thought needs to go into providing more regional autonomy and capacity for self-sufficiency in the global food system.
Homer-Dixon agrees with those who say producing enough food to feed the nine billion people expected on the planet later this century will be one of the world’s biggest challenges. Food shortages lead to violence, anarchy and chaos “that can produce opportunities for very nasty, extremist groups to take root.”
Half of the 6.8 billion alive on earth now are here because of food produced by cheap oil that’s disappearing, Homer-Dixon said.
Canada’s tarsands won’t make much difference.
“We’ll tear up a good portion of northern Alberta and spend $200 billion to do it and we’ll eke out five million barrels a day, which is half of what Saudi Arabia is producing right now,” he said.
Higher energy costs will have a huge impact on agriculture, he added. Food production will move closer to consumption.
“Stores are going to be smaller and imbedded within communities within walking distance,” Homer-Dixon said.
“Communities and regions… will actually have to produce more of what they need closer to home.”
Grain, because it stores well, will continue to move internationally, but perhaps in sail ships.
“While we want some connectivity of food production around the world, it’s probably not smart for large portions of the human population to rely entirely on food that is produced elsewhere,” Homer-Dixon said.
The planet is expected to warm by 2 to 6 C, which is beyond the range during which human civilization developed, he said. Weather will become more extreme.
By century’s end, average crop yields are forecast to decline by 30 to 82 per cent depending on how fast the world heats up.
If China, which needs about 450 million tonnes of grain a year, comes to the world market for just 20 per cent of its needs, that represents almost half of the world trade in grain.
The impact on food prices would be more dramatic than the price shocks of 2008. “In 2008, we saw prices of wheat double and prices of rice triple. And we saw riots in developing countries, one regime was overthrown and that was a relatively minor shock compared to what could happen if we see some major food-producing regions in the world suffer serious problems with climate change.”
The world needs to prepare by developing crops that can survive volatile weather, and in the case of non-legumes, produce their own nitrogen, he said. Governments need to take the lead because companies focus research on shorter-term goals.
“I really admire the folks at DowAgroSciences,” Homer-Dixon said. “From what I saw today it gets as close to God’s work as you get in a capitalist society. But that issue of resilience… needs to be front and centre.
“More of what we’ve been doing in the past is not necessarily going to improve prospects for our children.” [email protected]