A global nutrient plan

Julian Cribb writes:

Ours is the most profligate generation in history. We waste food and, even more important, nutrients as if they were infinite and inexhaustible. As if there were no hungry people in the world and as if there were no coming famine. We act toward food and the land in ways that would utterly appall and horrify our ancestors, accustomed as they were to husbanding and recycling precious forms of ‘waste’ in order to turn it back into food.” (p.69)

“Shockingly, the immense global waste of food is but a fraction of an even more colossal squandering of nutrients, another of the principal drivers of the coming famine.
Simple nutrients support all life on Earth. From microbe to plant to human being, every living organism relies on the molecule ATP (adenosine triphosphate) as the essential energy carrier in its cells. This makes the element phosphorous indispensable to all living things.
Fertilizers made from essential nutrients such as phosphorus have powered the farming miracle that has tripled world food production in the past half century. Their use on high-yielding crops developed in the Green Revolution prevented starvation in countries such as China and India and doubled harvests in many countries. Just as oil has been the fuel of the transportation revolution, fertilizers are the fuel of the global food miracle.
Yet humanity today hemorrhages nutrients at every link in the chain. They bleed from the farm itself in soil, water, and wind. They are lost when food perishes in transit or storage. They are sacrificed when grains, fruits, or livestock are processed into food and inedible ‘waste’ [-p.72] is discarded. They are squandered all along the food chain from factory to supermarket to home. They are lost in cooking. They go in our garbage bins. And when we dispose of our sewage, the nutrients it contains often go out to sea, to fertilize the deep oceans or to pollute rivers, estuaries, and coastal waters, causing choking blooms of algae, which in turn smother, starve, or poison fish and edible sea life along our fertile continental shelves.” (pp.71-72)

An alternative way to view today’s megacities is as vast collecting points for water and nutrients. In order to sustain their inhabitants, cities gather water and harvest nutrients locally, across their continent, and all around the world. Then, having concentrated and consumed both nutrients and water, they mostly throw them away, often horribly polluted with toxins.

Having half the global population, cities already concentrate more than half the world’s food nutrients. And within a generation they will also concentrate half the available freshwater, leaving insufficient water to spare for the farmers who are being asked to double food production.” (p.79)

“…it is important to recognize that [-p.84] traditional methods of farming used for centuries may not be able to produce food for all humanity sustainably into the future, and certainly not in all regions of the world. As a result we may have to develop alternative food-production systems that make far less use of land, water, and energy and rely instead on recycled urban nutrients, smart technology, and human labor.

Such systems already exist. Scientists have long grown cultures of plant and animal cells and microbes in the laboratory, and this procedure is capable of being scaled up to produce food in large vessels known as bioreactors. Just add warmth, water, and the right nutrients and you can produce edible, nutritious food by the ton from microbial, vegetable, or fungal cultures. Although this may sound fairly distasteful to the gourmet, one should never forget that fine wines, cheeses, salamis, and beers are all the products of microbial processes. In any case, many of today’s savory snacks – especially sausage (into whose mysteries few dare to inquire) and surimi seafood – are made from recycled food ‘wastes,’ so this is merely an extension of the transformations the food manufacturing industry already performs. …

A tantalizing new form of food production is ‘artificial photosynthesis’ artificially mimicking what plants do naturally, which is use sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide into sugars and carbohydrates. …At least in theory, artifical photosynthesis offers the potential to produce nutritious food in large volumes from a limited area and by reusing waste carbon emissions.” (pp.83-84)

One of the easiest ways to lower our dependency on artificial fertilizers would be to voluntarily reduce our intake of meat, dairy, and other livestock products. …Vacliv Smil has calculated that if affluent consumers lowered their intake of these foods by 15-35 percent, it would save between 5 and 15 percent of the phosphorus now used to grow the grain crops that feed the animals.” (p.83)

A global plan for tackling the looming nutrient crisis is no less essential and far more pressing even than a plan to deal with climate change. Yet it is not on the agenda.

To some extent, the planetary machinery for global warming is now in motion and – owing to the long residence time of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and lags in the Earth system – cannot be put into reverse on a timescale shorter than centuries, although it may perhaps be slowed down. The nutrient crisis, by contrast, will be on us within a generation and is completely avoidable, though it will require strenuous measures to stave it off. At the moment the words that best describe the attitude of world and civic leaders to this issue are ignorance and apathy, so any change must be driven by the people.

The mindless depletion and waste of the planet’s nutrients would make no sense to any of our ancestors. At the time of our greatest numbers and demand for food, it makes no sense for us.

It is time to end the waste.

What can I do about it?

The following are ideas for reducing your individual waste of nutrients.
1. Eat less meat, dairy, sugar, and oils; eat more vegetables.
2. Favor foods produced using low inputs of artificial nutrients or best-practice use of fertilizers. Support food labeling of this.
3. Waste less food and compost all plant material.
4. Support large-scale recycling of urban organic waste into food production.
5. Use more compost and less fertilizer in your home garden.
6. Declare your independence: install a composting toilet.” (p.85)

Ref: Julian Cribb (c2010) The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. CSIRO Publishing: Collingwood, Vic., Australia.

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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