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One of the live oaks that bless my home

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The last chapter: Industrial agriculture

As I have argued in the previous three blogs, industrial agriculture is the largest human project that impacts the Earth more broadly than any other human activity.  One needs to keep in mind that compared with the global environmental impacts of industrial agriculture, a Macondo well-like blowout is a child's play.  I know it, because I co-wrote a book on this subject with the famous historian and archeologist, Joe Tainter.  For example, in the Amazon forest the underbrush fires set by humans affect 3 million square kilometers, an area of India.  See NASA for a summary of this global catastrophe.

Researchers for the first time mapped the extent and frequency of understory fires across a study area (green) spanning 1.2 million square miles (3 million square kilometers) in the southern Amazon forest. Fires were widespread across the forest frontier during the study period from 1999-2010. Recurrent fires, however, are concentrated in areas favored by the confluence of climate conditions suitable for burning and ignition sources from humans (who were burning the forest for soybean or sugarcane plantations). Image credit: NASA's Earth Observatory.
From an ecological point of view, industrial agriculture creates open, permanently immature ecosystems, most of which are reset by humans each year. To make things worse, the simplified single-plant species agricultural ecosystems are doomed to fall prey to the ever-evolving pests and weeds.   One can prove this gaping vulnerability using thermodynamics, regardless of what Monsanto claims. Because agriculture usually creates baby, mostly barren ecosystems, agriculture is subject to huge soil erosion rates. Soil then becomes yet another depletable fossil resource. In a previous blog, I told you that industrial agriculture cannot be sustainable, because it is continuously subsidized with depleting fossil resources, including fossil water. If you want to check what we are doing with water, go no further than Australia.

Speaking of fossil fuels, humanity extracts one cubic mile (4 cubic km) of fossil petroleum per year, and 150 cubic kilometers of water per year.  Most of this water is irreplaceable on human time scale, and can be regarded as another fossil resource.  Most of groundwater in the world is extracted for agriculture.

So just how big industrial agriculture is?  It is difficult to quantify agriculture's impacts on the Earth, but an analysis of the FAOSTAT data can illuminate some aspects of it.   So here is what I did:  I looked at the world's largest agrofuel and  livestock feed crops: maize (corn in the U.S.), soybeans, sugarcane, and oil palms (rapeseed in Europe).  I have accounted for all countries in the Americas, Asia, Africa, Europe, and Oceania. Separately, I looked at wheat and rice paddies.  The bottom line is shown in the three figures below.

To grow agrofuel crops, humans have taken out from the Earth's most productive tropical forests and savannas (prairies and steppes) an area equal to the Indian subcontinent.  The permanent damage to the health of the planet has been staggering, and humans will pay dearly for this insanity with their lives and health.  The two main food crops, wheat and rice, now span an area equivalent to that of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Please remember that these are just the field areas.  Now think about access roads, human settlements, working the land, moving this stuff around, moving the fertilizers in, storage and processing facilities, transport from the tropics to moderate latitudes, and so on.
The total area of the largely agrofuel crops, maize, sugarcane, soybeans, and oil palms (also rapeseed) has almost tripled over the last 50 years, and now it exceeds the area of India.  The total area of wheat and rice paddies has almost doubled to the size of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The agrofuel crops thrive in the U.S. and the tropics and have had an enormous negative impact on the environmental health of the planet.

An area of equivalent to the Indian subcontinent has now been taken out of the Earth's forests and savannas to grow mostly agrofuel crops.  Do you still think that slaughtering the most productive ecosystems on the planet is good for her (and our) health?

The area of wheat and rice paddies is now equal to the total area of one of the largest countries in Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is neither democratic nor a republic.

With this fourth installment, I am ending - for the time being - my analysis of the multiple and complex influences of industrial agriculture on the state of the planet.  I hope that by now you understand that industrial agrofuels are a sure recipe for humanity to commit suicide faster and more completely.

Agriculture does not stop at land's edge.  Here is a large algal bloom on a beach in Qingdao, China (July 6, 2013). A central factor is the high supply of nutrients from agricultural runoff and wastewater, but nutrients injected by seaweed farming are also a contributor.  This green tide, spread over 7,500 square miles, is thought to be twice the size of an outbreak in 2008 that threatened sailing events during the Beijing Olympics,
In closing, please drive less, use less of everything, pester your "representatives" for electrical mass transit systems, and start buying locally.  Soon, you will have to use your friendly light rail or electric train, and buy local food.  And please do not pretend that I did not tell you for the nth time to start behaving like a responsible citizen of a living planet, and stop being a Pac-man-like consumer robot.

Here are the global areas of the crops included in my analysis.  The source of all the data is the FAOSTAT, and I wrote MATLAB programs that read the data in for all the countries on the planet and analyzed the crops I have considered.

By far the largest crop on planet Earth is maize, followed by rice paddies, soybeans, and wheat.  The sugarcane and oil palm plantation areas are much smaller but also grow fast.
In the last 50 years, the total area of maize agriculture has doubled to the area of Iran.
In the last 50 years, the area of rice paddies has increased by 30% to almost the area of Iran.
Over the last 50 years, the total area of soybean agriculture has increased 5-fold to the area of Venezuela. In the Americas, the soybean agriculture area has increased nearly 8-fold.  For an explanation, please look again at the NASA image of the permanently burning Amazon forest.

Over the last 50 years, the total area of wheat agriculture has not quite doubled to the area of Venezuela.  The jump in 1991, follows the fall of the Soviet Union, and jumps of wheat production in Ukraine and Russia.

Over the last 50 years, the total area of sugarcane agriculture has doubled to almost the area of Poland.
Over the last 50 years, the total area of the oil palm plantations has grown 6-fold, to almost the area of Poland.
P.S.P.S. April 6, 2015.  And U.S. prairie continues to be plowed for biofuel crops, emitting as much carbon dioxide as 23 coal-fired power plants operating for one year.

P.S.P.S.P.S.  April 8, 2015. There is no such thing as cheap agriculture.  Trillions of dollars per year of hidden costs of environmental devastation?


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