AboutZoos, Since 2008


Con­sumers ‘tak­ing a big bite out of the Earth’

pub­lished 27 Novem­ber 2012 | mod­i­fied 05 Decem­ber 2012
Every day, the aver­age con­sumer ‘eats’ 4.1 litres of diesel fuel, 29 kilos of soil and 2.2 tonnes of fresh water — in the form of food.

Shine dome“That’s what it takes to feed the typ­i­cal human being — and when you mul­ti­ply it by 7 bil­lion peo­ple, our food sys­tem is cost­ing a huge amount of resources that are increas­ingly hard to replace,” sci­ence writer Julian Cribb will tell the Aus­tralian Acad­emy of Sci­ence in Can­berra today. Mr Cribb, author of “The Com­ing Famine: the global food cri­sis and how we can avoid it” (UCP 2010) says that, for the aver­age per­son, eat­ing is prob­a­bly their largest per­sonal impact on the planet — but most peo­ple are unaware how great it is.

In his paper to the Sec­ond Aus­tralian Earth Sys­tem Out­look Con­fer­ence Mr Cribb warns of a series of ‘tip­ping points’ — points of no-​return — that will be reached by the global food sys­tem in the com­ing half cen­tury, unless there is rad­i­cal change to farm­ing sys­tems, cities and the world diet.

Because these scarci­ties are oper­at­ing in sync, we are likely to reach tip­ping points in the food sys­tem much more quickly and unpre­dictably than many peo­ple realise
Julian Cribb »

Take soil. Accord­ing to the UN Food and Agri­cul­ture Organ­i­sa­tion, half the planet is already degraded, and we’re los­ing around 75100 bil­lion tonnes of top­soil a year, mostly into the oceans. Soil takes thou­sands of years to form, so it is not going to be replaced any time soon.

“Despite progress in places like Aus­tralia, soil degra­da­tion is get­ting worse, not bet­ter. Some sci­en­tists say we could run short of good farm­ing soils within 5070 years. This is what’s dri­ving today’s global land-​grab — which has so far swal­lowed an area as large as West­ern Europe.”

Mr Cribb says the pic­ture is sim­i­lar for water, with more than 4000 cubic kilo­me­tres of ground­wa­ter being extracted — most of it unsus­tain­ably — every year. Places such as north China, the Indo-​Gangetic region, the Mid­dle East and Mid­west USA face crit­i­cal scarcity by the 2030s. At the same time there is a huge world­wide grab by megac­i­ties and gas com­pa­nies of farm­ers’ water — mak­ing the task of feed­ing the world much harder.

“Regard­less of when you think peak oil is or was, world car pro­duc­tion is grow­ing 810 times faster than oil pro­duc­tion — so a major oil shock is increas­ingly likely. Since food accounts for 30 per cent of global energy use, there could be a very large impact on world food prices and sup­ply.”

How­ever, Mr Cribb says, what most gov­ern­ments and com­men­ta­tors on food secu­rity have failed to recog­nise is that scarci­ties of water, land, oil, nutri­ents, tech­nol­ogy, fish and finance are now act­ing in syn­ergy — and being ampli­fied by cli­mate shocks. “Because these scarci­ties are oper­at­ing in sync, we are likely to reach tip­ping points in the food sys­tem much more quickly and unpre­dictably than many peo­ple realise. There is still time to act — but the action must be fast and it must be uni­ver­sal, as glob­al­i­sa­tion means every­body is now affected by food prices, sup­ply and the con­flicts and migra­tory floods that arise when the food chain fails.”

Mr Cribb also says there are oppor­tu­ni­ties for major new devel­op­ments in food pro­duc­tion, includ­ing a 300 per cent growth in world aqua­cul­ture, a mas­sive new indus­try in algae farm­ing to pro­duce food, feed, fuel and plas­tics, a spec­tac­u­lar rise of urban agri­cul­ture and totally new ways to pro­duce low-​cost food sus­tain­ably with bio-​cultures.

Aus­tralia alone has 6100 edi­ble plants of which we cur­rently eat just five or six!

“There are also 25,000 edi­ble plants on Earth, 99% of them unfa­mil­iar to most peo­ple — so we have not yet begun to explore the culi­nary poten­tial of our home planet. This is going to be a very excit­ing time for new, healthy, inter­est­ing and sus­tain­able diets.”

My mes­sage is that the risks to the global food pro­duc­tion and a safe human future are very great — but if we recog­nise them and act soon enough, then the oppor­tu­ni­ties, includ­ing diver­si­fi­ca­tion into alter­na­tive crops, are very great. In Aus­tralia, for exam­ple, we have oppor­tu­nity for new food and farm­ing indus­tries worth $30 bil­lion and employ­ing around 50,000 peo­ple — pro­vided we get our sci­ence, our invest­ment and our act together.

(Source: Sci­enceAl­ert media release, 27.11.2012)
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