A friend of mine recently made a useful observation about the food waste we’re seeing right now. Crops left to rot in the fields, milk poured out, and so on, and yet there’s not currently a major increase in Americans going hungry – not at the scale suggested by the food being thrown away. So what’s going on? Well, this is probably the same amount of food we always throw away, but with distribution and distributed demand both down, that waste is now centralized at sites of food production, rather than being spread out among tens of thousands of restaurants and grocery stores around the country.
This ties into two issues. The first is the oft-repeated point that we grow more than enough food to feed the world. Hunger exists because there’s not profit in distributing the food based on who needs it, because those most in need are least able to pay for it. If we further adjusted that calculation based on the resources needed to raise meat, vs the equivalent amount of plant-based protein, the number of people who could be fed by the current level of food production increases even more.
The second issue is that of carbon capture and sequestration. While there are numerous projects studying ways to use technology to suck carbon out of the air, the best option available to us at this point is still photosynthesis – using plants to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, and then drying and storing that plant matter in some form to keep the carbon from returning to the atmosphere.
First, I think it’s important to state that no carbon capture program will be sufficient if we don’t cut emissions, and stop using fossil fuels. If we’re still putting billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere ever year, then it’s highly unlikely we’d ever be able to capture enough to break even, let alone reduce concentration. That said, I still believe this “carbon farming” is our best path toward reducing CO2 levels in the atmosphere, once we’ve stopped driving them up. I also think that doing so will be important for counteracting the warming influence from various natural feedback loops triggered by the warming we’ve seen so far.
As a species, we’ve been tracking our food waste for a long time. If we shifted away from our current profit-obsessed paradigm, and began distributing food based more on need, we could alleviate a great deal of poverty, reduce the kind of desperation-driven hunting that increases our collective exposure to novel viruses like the one behind the COVID-19 pandemic, and get a better accounting of how much food we actually need to be growing when it’s based on what’s used, rather than what systems are profitable.
The expansion of new farmland, through the destruction of wilderness, is also driven by profit over need. Forests are destroyed, and their stored carbon is released into the air at a massive scale, increasing the greenhouse gas problem. Mature forests tend to pull in a limited amount of CO2 compared to what the emit, and compared to new growth, but their destruction can release centuries of stored carbon very quickly. Slash-and-burn agriculture, driven by interests like the palm oil industry are unnecessary and destructive, absent the drive for endlessly growing profits.
Furthermore, the farmland currently used to grow the excess could be turned to carbon farming. Cultivate fast-growing crops, ideally ones that will improve the soil in some way, and have the harvest be carbon for storage in the form of dehydrated plant matter. In addition to helping with air pollution and greenhouse gas levels, if done right this could also improve the soils being used. Combining this with crop rotation would reduce the need for artificial fertilizers. It would also keep the land available for farming if there was a sudden need to increase food production in one area to respond to a drought, flood, or blight in another area, and it would maintain many of the skills, tools, and infrastructure needed for such changes.
This wouldn’t solve everything. It likely wouldn’t even wholly solve the problems it’s designed to address, but as has been pointed out many times, our environmental problems are cumulative – they’re the result of generations of farming and industry all across the entire planet. Any plan to respond will also have to be cumulative in nature. No one power source can easily replace everything we do with the various forms of fossil fuel we currently use. No one crop will solve all of our food problems, and no one carbon capture strategy will necessarily make all others meaningless. This is one way we could start making a difference with very little change in existing infrastructure, if we just had the will to do it. Our society already spends a great deal to subsidize farming, and that’s one “special interest” we could use to our advantage, as we continue pressing for something like a Green New Deal.
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