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Seven Billion...And They All Need Food!

So, there are now seven billion humans on our Spaceship Earth, eh?  As with all numbers that large, it's hard to relate but I swear most of them were on the I-15 Freeway when I drove to San Diego a couple days ago.  A few billion more and we may have to go back to actually growing corn to eat.


It's fairly easy to see the pressures that a rapidly-growing planet population are creating, coupled with climate changes that threaten to shift and disrupt agricultural zones.  Toss in concerns about the sustainability of chemically-fertilized soils, depletion of ocean fisheries, and nitrate contamination of drinking water aquifers, and some alarmists might say we have a few things to worry about.


We could use a long-term global game plan, preferably one that slows down reproduction rates and conserves the world's resources.  But, I'm not seeing this happening any time soon, so let's think about where the required food going to come from as we become more and more crowded.  (Hey, completely unrelated question - does anyone remember the old Charlton Heston movie Soylent Green?)


How valid are the predictions that applying heavy doses of nitrogen fertilizer to crop soils for decades will ruin them? Certainly, there is a fear that salt build-ups, compaction, depletion of minor elements, and elimination of beneficial soil organisms could cause productive acreages to collapse from being pushed too hard.  I occasionally read some assurances that we can continue NPK routines indefinitely, but the folks giving these assurances often seem to have funding links to the petrofertilizer manufacturers.  Makes me wonder, but I hope they are right.


I see it as a race between production and reproduction.  It's also a distribution challenge to efficiently move food from where in the world it's being produced to where it's most needed, but neither moving large numbers of people closer to agricultural lands nor converting the planet's essentially useless soils to productive farmland seems viable.


Frankly, I'm nervous.  I see a building competition between nations for cropland resources to feed all these new millions of mouths.  For example, China is establishing huge farming operations in Africa, as their own acreage is proving insufficient.  Too many people, not enough productive topsoil in decent climate areas.


I could make the argument that a greater emphasis on researching and using soil biology to grow crops would result in less risk to our important food-producing soil resources and make use of more marginal soils, but as long as yields continue to remain high with chemically-oriented methods there will be little interest in alternatives.


For us in the U.S., costs are a more immediate concern than supplies, and if global warming trends continue then our more northerly zones will gradually become as productive as our heartland today.  Backyard gardens and local farmer's markets are gaining popularity, which removes more cost/supply uncertainty, especially if those growers maintain healthy sustainable soils - easier to do on small plots as compared to mega-farms.


If we can't fix our big long-term problems, then let's each just do a good job with what we do control.


Good growing, my friends,


Don Chapman


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