04/26/2012 08:52 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Food and Environment Smorgasbord

Crossposted with

Our cup runneth over with foodie concerns.

Herbicides Blowin' in the Wind

Remember the kerfuffle over a new line of transgenic crops that would dramatically increase the amount of 2,4-D (the number one herbicidal chemical used in U.S. homes and gardens) that could be sprayed on crops without doing them in? The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group based in New York, wanted the Environmental Protection Agency to limit the use of 2,4-D because of concerns about its toxicity and related health effects, but EPA wouldn't bite.

But there's another side to this story. Ever wonder what it's like to try to raise crops on a small farm adjacent to an industrial farm where the use of transgenic crops allows indiscriminate use of herbicides like 2,4-D? That's the theme of the documentary Raising Resistance, one of the many excellent environmental movies screened at Durham's Full Frame Festival earlier this month.*

The film follows the plight of Paraguayan farmers attempting to live on homes that are increasingly being encroached on by huge industrial farms growing genetically modified soybeans.

The extensive use of herbicides, a key part of the industrial practice, is having devastating effects on small local farmers -- what happens in Las Vegas may stay in Las Vegas, but what is sprayed on industrial farms does not necessarily stay on those industrial farms. Some of their herbicides take to the wind and waft over to nearby farms, settling on crops that are not genetically modified to withstand the herbicide, and so guess what happens? Lots of dead crops in the soil. Suffice it to say, the Paraguayan farmers, none too happy about such goings-on, try to do something about it. What do they do? Are they successful? Track down a DVD of the film or go to the film's website to find a screening near you, and find out yourself. (Meanwhile you can watch the trailer.)

The plight of the local farmer losing his crop because of an herbicide-happy, transgenic industrial farmer is not limited to South America. For a made-in-the-USA version of this story, check out Andrew Pollack's piece in today's New York Times.

Recent Items on Sustainable Food

And speaking of the New York Times, if you are a regular reader, you may have noticed some point-counterpoint on the sustainable food movement.

On the one side Nicholas Kristof has lamented the appalling conditions under which the eggs most of us Americans consume are produced, and questioned why recent studies have found arsenic and antihistamines showing up in the broiler chickens many of us eat.

And on the other, James E. McWilliams, an outspoken opponent of the locavore movement, argued on the Times's opinion pages that, if we're going to eat meat, it makes far more sense from a climate/carbon perspective to eat meat produced using industrial rather than local, sustainable practices.

Not surprisingly, not all have agreed with McWilliams's take. Check out this response by Joel Salatin, an outspoken Virginia farmer/rancher, whose sustainable practiced are questioned in the McWilliams op-ed. And then there's Wendell Berry's 2012 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, which offers up tasty morsels of insight into and compelling arguments for small, local farming.

Global Warming

But food and food production are about much more than the issue of local versus industrial farming. When thinking about agriculture on a global scale, the topic of global warming arises. And this was the topic of a paper by Noah Diffenbaugh of Stanford University and colleagues published last week in the journal Nature Climate Change. The authors found that the price volatility in corn will increase over the next few decades with rising global temperatures and that this climate sensitivity will be enhanced by a government biofuel mandate.

Feeding the World

In the broadest sense questions about food and food production are about feeding the entire globe. Pertinent questions include: How much arable land do we need to feed the world? How has that changed over the years? And what has driven those changes? These are the questions posed by Thomas Kastner of the University of Groningen, Netherlands, and colleagues in a paper published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The authors considered three drivers:

  1. Population, which has increased from about 3 billion to 7 billion since 1961 and drives increasing land needs;
  2. Diet, whose improvements have also trended upward -- with many shifting from a subsistence diet to one with more calories and more protein -- also leading to an increased demand on land; and
  3. Technology, which has boosted crop yields, and thus lowered land needs.

The authors estimate that between 1961 and 2007, the amount of land harvested for crops increased by almost 40 percent. The greatest driver in this increase? The world's burgeoning population.

But there are signs this may be changing: "Comparing the first and second half of the study period," the authors write, "reveals that, at the global level, the contribution of population declined while the impact of dietary change increased: dietary change contributed 24.6 percent to the sum of the impacts of diet and population change from 1963 to 1984; this value increased to 28.1 percent from 1984 to 2005."

This dietary shift is also reflected in how we divvy up cropland for different food categories. At the beginning of the study period, cereals had the largest per capita cropland requirement (of our globally averaged diet), but by the end of the period, diet had shifted so that animal products had the largest per capita cropland requirement. In other words, we now devote more cropland to growing feed for animals than we do to growing grains to feed ourselves. The crossover happened in the mid-'80s.

The authors further note that "supplying the projected global population of more than 9 billion people in 2050 with the present diet and agricultural technology of Northern America would mean that cropland area had to be almost doubled." Western Europe's diet would require a more than 70 percent expansion.

Can we realistically expand that much? What are the alternatives? Well, we could keep human populations below 9 billion. But I think the cat is already out of the bag on that one. We could push really hard on improving technologies that increase crop yields -- by, you know, making agriculture even more industrial than it is today with more transgenic crops and more herbicides and such that lead to more scenarios like those mentioned above. That doesn't exactly float my boat. Or we could take a serious look at diet. Could be that the notion of 9 billion people eating like we North Americans is a nonstarter.

That's the general message implied by Eric Davidson of the Woods Hole Research Center in a recent paper in the journal Environmental Research Letters. He estimates that in order to stabilize emissions of nitrous oxide, one of the most important greenhouse gases, by 2050 (as laid out in the next report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), average per capita meat consumption in the developed world will have to be cut by 50 percent.**

And while we're on the subject of eating meat, I guess y'all read the bit about that red-blooded American cow testing positive for mad cow disease.

A lot to think about the next time I visit my friendly supermarket.


End Notes

* Chasing Ice, the story of photographer James Balog's quest to capture receding glaciers on film, received the award from the Nicholas School for best environmental film.

** Stabilizing nitrous oxide emissions would also require about a 50 percent reduction in emissions from other sources, including industry, transportation and biomass burning.