Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Post-Peak Agricultural Capacity

Agricultural Capacity is affected by a number of important variables; crop variety, water (both rainfall and irrigation), natural soil fertility, artificial inputs, climate, and length of the growing season. Of the total global land mass, about 35 percent is arable land, 31 percent forested and 34 percent is either desert, tundra and permafrost or dedicated to other uses such as urbanization and other human activity such as mining. Globally there are about 7.8 billion acres that are potentially arable of which 3.5 billion acres are known to be productively being used to produce food. Statistics are scanty from poor nations where the bulk of farming activity is at the subsistence level. The unused potential land is generally in areas lacking essential transport for moving product to market or infrastructure needed for the maintenance of commercial food production.(1) An unknown portion of this is in use by indigenous peoples for subsistence agriculture.

Of the 35 percent of the total global land mass that is arable or suitable for agriculture, 24 percent or about two thirds is pasture or meadowland used for animal production. Another 10 percent (about 350 million acres) is used for grain and cereal production (75 percent or about 270 million acres), much of that also used for animal production, and for annual root, tuber, vegetable and fruit crops (about 25 percent or 80 million acres). Despite the global attraction of and growth in permaculture, only 1 percent of arable land is dedicated to permanent crops such as fruits and nuts. Essentially, all of human food production, excluding meat, dairy and sea food, is grown on less than 400 million acres. Each of those acres is, therefore, feeding about 15-17 people.

All of our food crops are produced on about 400-million acres out of a total global land mass of about 20-billion acres. That is at once a very discomfiting statistic and a clear sign of hope for the post peak world. It is discomfiting knowing that the entire 6.6 billion human population is dependent on such a small portion this planet for producing its food. And we are systematically destroying the natural fertility of that land through unwise agricultural practices. It is hopeful in that there are 4.3 billion acres of potentially arable land not currently in use under managed agricultural practices. If, as many experts generally concur, our agricultural productivity will, at least temporarily, be reduced to 10-20% our current levels with the loss of fossil fuel based agrochemicals, there is cause for hope in that that land currently producing our non-animal foods is less than ten percent of the potentially arable land not currently in use for agricultural production. If we bring all of that land into agricultural production, however, with the same patterns as at present (85%+ for food-animal support) we would net very little additional food-production land (about 600 million acres) to offset the 80-90% drop in productivity on those current 400 million acres. This would barely allow us to absorb the impact of a 25% drop in productivity.

But there is one other simpler and overriding problem. The unused potentially arable land is not in the same place as the 6.6 billion of us for whom it could reduce the impact of soil productivity loss following peak oil. That unused potentially arable land is not sitting there in some undiscovered country which can be populated by billions of food refugees. It exists in pockets within the boundaries of already sovereign nations throughout the world, nations which themselves may be impoverished and unable to currently produce enough food for their own people. Much of it may be in extremely isolated mountain valleys, in need of massive reclamation projects, in national parks and wildlife preserves, in areas where there are extreme water shortages. Much of it is in private holdings intentionally held back from agricultural production in order to facilitate future expansion.

For this land to be brought under agricultural production as a solution to the post-peak food crisis, assuming it is even possible to do so, without some form of global population redistribution, would still necessitate the maintenance of a heavily-energy-dependent global food distribution system (in an environment of declining energy availability) to move that food to the people who need it. It is this same global food distribution system that is already taxed to the limit moving food from those few nations that can and do produce surpluses to the more than half the planet's countries that are seriously dependent on it for survival. To create and maintain the additional infrastructure that would be necessary to bring these additional lands into productivity would add considerable cost to the global production of food. In all likelihood, based on current patterns, developing these lands would far more likely be focused on high-profit crops such as corn, soy and sugar cane that can be used to produced bio-fuels in a world increasingly deficient in fossil fuel energy.
1. Agribusiness in a Global Environment Comparing Global Agricultural Production Systems
2. Global Water Shortage Looms In New Century
3. To Fertilize or Not to Fertilize .. That is the Question
4. Global study reveals new warning signals: Degraded agricultural lands threaten world's food production capacity

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