Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Plan B, Chapter 9 Highlights

For notes on Chapter 8, check out my other blog.

Chapter 9 of Lester Brown's book is titled "Feeding Eight Billion People Well." It's a big issue. My friend JLC shared a blogpost by someone today while I was reading the Brown chapter; this post talked about how our huge population is a blessing and not a problem. This made me angry and I shared it and my response to it via googlereader (which I think you can check out through this very site). Anyway, on to Chapter 9, which shows that it's all connected, baby.

So, how do we feed all the people in the world? Here's Brown's Plan, sometimes with my interjections:

1. Increase Food Productivity. Granted, we have been doing this, through using more fertilizer (but at what cost to the environment, ecosystems, and other life forms?), through improved irrigation, and through different crop breeds (a lot of the arguments against GMOs are overzealous and ridiculous, as humans have been hybridizing plants manually for thousands of years, but we should still be cautious of how, why, and how thoroughly we research the effects of some of the more invasive splicings). However, productivity cannot grow forever. Crop yields in corn, wheat, soy, and rice have pretty much all hit their peaks. Brown talks specifics in the beginning of this chapter, and if you want to argue the science, I encourage you to read it.

2. Increase Water Productivity. Drip irrigation is really good for this. Brown also argues for giving more power and responsibility to the locals and taking it away from central governments. This can be a good or a bad thing, depending on the infrastructures provided by the government for the common good. This suggestion of Brown's is fascinating to me but brings up questions of how to balance the government's role (in providing security, liberty, infrastructure, etc.) with local and personal sovereignty.

3. Produce Protein More Efficiently. "World meat consumption increased from 44 million tons in 1950 to 260 million tons in 2007" (226). "In every society where incomes have risen, so has meat consumption" (ibid). So, what can we do? Well, on the supply side, we can use crop residues instead of specially allotted grains to feed dairy cows, as they do pretty darn effectively in India right now. Eat less meat, and eat smaller animals. If you must eat meat, go with sustainably raised chickens and fish rather than cows. Brown also seems to nod a little at Derrick Jensen, noting that salmon aren't particularly sustainable as far as fish go. They're carnivorous, after all. If you're going to eat fish, consider carp, tilapia, and catfish. Brown likes to talk pragmatically as much as he does moralistically, but he doesn't forget that, either. The easy answer is to reduce consumption: "Meat consumption is growing almost twice as fast as population" (230). He makes a nuanced argument later in the chapter about how much protein we really need anyway. He doesn't make the point very strongly, but he does point out that a moderate amount of protein does lead to longer lifespans. Relying mostly on grain for calories as they do in India and other nations is correlated to shorter lifespans, but so does relying more on too much protein as we do in the U.S. Brown loosely suggests a Mediterranean-type diet, which falls somewhere between the two extremes, as being closer to the ideal.

4. Localizing Agriculture. Well, this often results in lowering the carbon required in transportation costs. Arguments have been made that producing and shipping stuff in bulk is more carbon efficient than individuals driving their SUVs (or Priuses) and purchasing small amounts in farmers' markets, but I don't quite buy it, and I think that local is good for a lot of things. There's also the idea that localized agriculture, at least when compared to ridiculously huge agriculture, provides better opportunities for nitrogen fixation and general nutrient recycling as farmers who are less removed from their land are more aware of how composting, using animal waste, and growing legumes alongside their cash crops can help productivity and reduce long-term monetary and ecological (which eventually become monetary) costs. Again, please bug me more about this if you like, or read Chapter 9. And, while I'm at it, check out Farmer John's blog. He's an actual farmer'n'stuff. :-)

5. Reduce Demand (233).
     a. Stabilize the Population (See this blogpost on why feminism is awesome.)
     b. Move down the foodchain, especially in first world countries like the U.S. This means eating less meat or at least smaller, more grain-efficient animals.
     c. Reduce the use of grain to fuel cars. I'm not sure if ethanol still has a big push in the U.S. and other countries, but here are some numbers:
"The estimated 104 milliion tons of grain used to produce ethanol in 2009 in the United States is the food supply for 340 million people at average world grain consumption levels" (235).

Brown finishes up the chapter with the idea - perhaps the book's theme - that it's all connected. If it keeps getting hotter and sea levels rise while deserts grow, food productivity will decrease. "With water, as with energy, the principle opportunites now are increasing efficiency on the demand side, not in expanding the supply side" (236-237).

There is one more chapter left in Lester Brown's Plan B. It's titled "Can We Mobilize Fast Enough?" and will probably be less full of the facts, which he's brought in good measure throughout the rest of the book, and more a direct call to urgent and immediate action. I'm not sure what I suggest that individuals do, but one of the first answers seems to be to Educate people, demonstrating that the problems outlined and elucidated are real and imminent. Then we can Empower them. Not just to change the bad behaviors but to engage in good, sustainable, community-building, soul-enriching behaviors, routines, and rituals [about which I need to write later].


Kimberly said...

Great informative post - thanks! I think GMO's might not be so bad, but GMO companies suing other farmers when the GMO plants pollinate someone else's plants - and winning the lawsuit - is kind of ridiculous. Definitely on the reducing meat consumption - I'm taking a page from John on that - he's weekday vegetarian, I'm trying to reduce my meat consumption to a pound a week, and watching cheese and eggs too, though not as strictly. Though I thought that wild-caught Pacific salmon were sustainable because of the regulations on fishing them. Atlantic salmon is totally overfished - I won't buy salmon unless I know it's Pacific. But tilapia is my favorite fish, so yay for that :-) In reducing meat consumption, I've rediscovered beans - overall more filling for me than grains, and more protein too. (Not all amino acids, but if you don't give up animal products entirely, that's not as much of an issue). I think local farming is good - I'd have to drive whether to farmer's market or grocery store, so no increase in CO2 there, and decrease with stuff transported shorter distance - and I can buy grass-fed meat, which is better for the animals, the environment, and me. I don't do farmer's market exclusively - though I try really hard for chicken and beef - but I do like to support small farmers - for the sense of community as well as the ecological reasons. Ethanol to fuel cars is a bad idea - takes more oil for growing and harvesting the corn - not a solution at all - would be better off focusing on electric cars for short distances and hydrogen fuel cells for long distances - even using electricity to produce hydrogen would be better than internal combustion engines because power plants are more efficient than cars - and could work it out to charge fuel cells during non-peak hours. This is more of an extra post than a comment. That's what happens when you have an interesting post and I'm tired and have been drinking - whee grapefruit screwdriver :-)

Emily said...

Thanks for your comments, Kimberly! The longer, the better. I'm excited for electric cars to get big. Of course, I think like Evan and recognize that public transportation and living much closer to everything (like in a city) is more energy-efficient in a lot of ways. Some day, my friend, some day. One more blogpost about Brown and then it's on to the next book. :-)