When we talk about our planet, its future, and specifically the future of the human race on Earth, a few situations inevitably crop up: the increasing population and climate change. Scientists warn us that as the human population increases (9.6 billion expected by 2050) and global temperatures begin to rise, we’ll be experiencing food shortages like never before. Our modern commercial farming industry is touted as such an efficient tool, but it isn't it showing scalability and solutions to worldwide hunger. In fact, it's actually causing these problems.
Organic Authority recently reported on a study that points to “catastrophic food shortages” by 2040 unless we take major steps now to avert the crisis. In California, where drought is taking its toll across the state, farmers are just beginning to adjust their water consumption. But it’s still not enough. Livestock production, which is often pointed to as the massive resource (and ethics) problem that it is—is a huge consumer of resources including land, water, and grain, about one-third of all these resources. It also contributes a staggering amount of methane into the atmosphere as well as runoff pollution for our limited fresh water resources. Corn, which the majority of livestock animals consume, and makes up a large amount of our processed food products, is not doing the planet any favors either.
While we know by now that most of the U.S.-grown corn is genetically modified, which involves excessive use of herbicides, there’s another issue that Mother Jones’ Tom Philpott points out: "It turns out that the [Midwest] region's farms are likely generating much more nitrous oxide than scientists previously thought,” he writes, citing new research conducted by the USDA, along with the University of Minnesota and Yale.
“Scientists had assumed that most nitrous oxide emissions from farming occurred at the soil level—some of the nitrogen fertilizer applied onto farmland vaporizes into nitrous oxide,” Philpott explains. “But as citizens of Des Moines, Columbus, and the Gulf coast know well, nitrogen fertilizer doesn't stay in soil; a portion of it leaches into streams. And some of that escaped nitrogen, too, transforms into nitrous oxide.”
What this translates to is poorer growing conditions from soil quality to rising air temperatures, to our ever dwindling water supplies needed for crops (and animals). And it reinforces the urgent need for farmers to move away from massive monocrops, gargantuan animal factory farms, and pesticide- and herbicide-dependent crops altogether. It’s a wakeup call of the highest order: our current farming methods are inefficient, dangerous, and potentially disastrous. But they don't have to spell the end of humanity--in fact, they can signal the beginning of new ways, as sign-posts and tools steering us towards healthier and more efficient methods of food production and distribution.
Organic farms aren't immune, either. Recent research points to large-scale organic operations as posing real threats to the environment. Certainly organic farming is a smarter alternative to conventional farming, but the real key lies in small-scale farming operations, local producers, creative urban farming projects, and even your very own backyard.
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Corn farm image via Shutterstock