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Food and warming~II

When economists claim that Malthus neglected the potential for technological advance, we note that economists on their part neglect the environmental damages caused by modern farming. Yes, the global farm system feeds the planet, but it does not do so in an environmentally sustainable way. Until the global farming system itself is a sustainable activity, we should not be too quick to brush Malthus aside

JAYDEV JANA | New Delhi |

There are several other stages in system directly or indirectly responsible for carbon emission load in the atmosphere:

1. Like the Arctic tundra, the great forests of the world contain large amounts of CO2, in the tree and plants themselves, in the soil beneath them, and forest litters that cover it. Felling forests to make way for farms and pastures removes the major carbon sinks and thus indirectly contributes to the emission load in the atmosphere. The scale of losses in the areas being deforested is unprecedented, according to experts, and as a result, enormous quantities of CO2 are being released.

2. Running machinery on fossil fuels to manufacture agrochemicals and fertilisers too emits greenhouse gases.

3. Empirical evidence suggests that with economic development, as income of people goes up, there is a proportionate shift from vegetarian to non-vegetarian diets. Though India has the world’s second-lowest rates of meat consumption, which currently stands at 4.5 kg per capita, globally per capita consumption of meat has increased by 20 kg since 1961. The rate indicates that total meat production has been growing at a much faster rate than the rate of population growth.

The problems with meat consumption is that ruminant livestock ~ cattle, sheep, buffalo, goat, deer and camels ~ produce methane as a by-product of digestion and the methane so produced is released to the atmosphere by the animal. Methane is a stronger greenhouse gas than CO2 because it has much higher heat trapping quality.

Methane on a weight basis has 21 times the global warming potential of CO2. The vital foodprint measures the environmental impacts associated with the growing, producing, packaging, transporting, storing and retailing of food from natural resources consumed to the pollution produced to the greenhouse gases.

Today’s modern agricultural systems are the single largest source of the human-induced environmental changes. As agricultural modernisation progresses, the ecology-farming linkage also gets threatened. Cycle of nutrients, energy, water, and waste have become open, rather than closed as in a natural ecosystem. In many areas, agricultural waste has become a liability rather than a resource. Heavy reliance on monoculture instead of mixed planting and crop rotation, prevent the natural restoration of soil health.

Moreover, monocultural cropping resulted in genetic similarities of plants grown over areas weakening the resistance of crops to pests and increased the risk of plant diseases and negative mutations; new varieties of weeds and pests emerged, which upset the natural balance. Humanity has become so numerous and so productive that anthropogenic pressures on the Earth Systems have reached a scale where abrupt global environmental change can no longer be excluded.

It means that we are crossing boundaries of Earth’s carrying capacity, thereby threatening our nature vis-à-vis our survival. In 2009, the world-leading environmental scientist Johan Rockstrom introduced (both identified and quantified) a new concept of ‘planetary boundary (PB)’ framework to ascertain ecological or environmental thresholds and assess level of consumption of nine biophysical resources related to precarious Earth-system processes within which humanity can safely operate.

The concept challenges the belief that resources are either limitless or infinitely substitutable. If we cross these limits, abrupt or irreversible environmental changes can occur with serious consequences for humankind. The status of each boundary was updated in 2015.

The nine PBs as identified are: (1) Climate change; (2) Ocean acidification; (3) Stratospheric ozone depletion; (4) Biogeochemical flows (Nitrogen and phosphorus cycle); (5) Freshwater use; (6) Land-system change; (7) Change in biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and species extinction); (8) Atmospheric aerosol loading and (9) Chemical pollution.

Almost each of these is related to agriculture. Coalescing 27 indicators, all pertaining to Sustainable Development Goals (except-SDG-17), accompanied by their corresponding boundaries or preferred social thresholds, the analysis shows that India has already crossed the PB of freshwater use, nitrogen and phosphorous fluxes. Also, at the existing rate, India is going to cross the remainder of boundaries by 2045-2050.

When economists claim that Malthus neglected the potential for technological advance, we note that economists on their part neglect the environmental damages caused by modern farming. Yes, the global farm system feeds the planet, but it does not do so in an environmentally sustainable way. Until the global farming system itself is a sustainable activity, we should not be too quick to brush Malthus aside. We do not want Malthus to have the ‘last laugh’, the specter will loom large until world population is stabilised (or declines) and our production methods are environmentally sound.

However, a report entitled ‘Food in in the Anthropocene’ published in February 2019, by the Eat-Lancet Commission has set global targets for food systems that are environmentally sustainable and benefit human health. Since all of the 14GTCO2e from the food system cannot be eliminated by 2050, as they are intrinsic to the biological processes in plants and animals, the commission has set the PB for food production emission, or carbon budget, at a maximum of 5 Gt CO2e.

The remaining 9 Gt would need to be mitigated through activities like shifting diets, change in production practices, decarbonizing food value chain and reducing food loss and wastes. However, to face the greatest challenge of the 21st century humanity can hardly afford to ignore the sage advice of Mahatma Gandhi: “The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed.”

(The writer is a retired IAS officer)