Can Individual Action Save the Planet?
Editor’s Note: Among the looming crises that the new Republican-dominated U.S. Congress is sure not to address is global warming. After all, to tackle this existential threat to mankind would violate Ronald Reagan’s beloved dictum, “government is the problem.”
So, government inaction and corporate greed will mean that the industries of America and other nations will keep pumping tons and tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, leaving the hope of saving the planet in the hands of the rest of us, says Don Monkerud:
Recent figures indicate that 2010 tied 2005 as the hottest year on record. Indeed, nine of the ten warmest years occurred since 2001 as climate chaos creates havoc around the world.
Last year, frigid snowstorms blanketed the U.S. and Europe, floods ravaged Pakistan, Australia and the U.S., and scorching heat led to forest fires and deaths in Russia as humans continue to dump carbon dioxide into the air.
The resulting climate chaos bodes ill for the food supply. The most recent projections indicate this will likely be the worst year since 2008 for grains. Corn stocks will likely be at the lowest supply since 1995, and soybeans will be at their lowest levels since becoming a major crop in the U.S.
Observers predict food riots over higher prices around the world, similar to those in 2008. Such developments will increase world hunger.
According to the UN, 925 million people around the world go hungry every day. A third of these live in sub-Saharan Africa. Meager agricultural investments haven't helped; they've fallen from 16 percent of total development investment in 1980 to four percent today.
With slum dwellers increasing one percent a year -- 14 million people -- and urbanization increasing four percent a year, one out of seven people in the world face a grim future.
Speculation exacerbates hunger by driving food prices higher. Climate chaos disrupts harvests, and wars and political strife dislocate populations. Current agricultural policies are sadly out of date because genetically-modified seed offers a short-term solution that exacerbates long-term environmental problems and does little to help small farmers rise above poverty.
In an effort to tackle such problems, Worldwatch conducted a two-year study on ways to eliminate world hunger. The State of the World report, "Innovations that Nourish the Planet," focuses on the small landholders who produce 70 percent of the world's food.
In sub-Saharan Africa, small owners produce 90 percent of the food. Historic land ownership patterns, culture, and lack of investment will prevent corporate farming from changing these figures any time soon. In the meantime, people are working on their own solutions.
Teams of experts visited 25 African countries to study agricultural innovations that are protecting the environment, reducing poverty and meeting basic human needs. The report focuses on 15 environmentally specific projects that currently work to alleviate hunger and poverty in Africa.
According to Worldwatch, assistance programs for official development assistance in Africa amounted to $1.7 billion in 2008. Investments neglect to take into account environmental destruction, global warming trends and such problems as soil destruction, distribution and storage, and small-scale irrigation.
"The international community has been neglecting entire segments of the food system in its efforts to reduce hunger and poverty," said Danielle Nierenberg, co-director of the project. "The solutions won't necessarily come from producing more food, but from changing what children eat in schools, how foods are processed and marketed, and what sorts of food businesses we are investing in."
Current agri-business practices are tremendously destructive of soil, use large amounts of fossil fuel in production and distribution, poison the land and water with fertilizer and insecticides, contribute to species destruction, and ultimately augment climate change.
More than 33 percent of global greenhouse emissions can be traced to current food production practices.
Moreover, the Green Revolution focused on staples of rice, corn, cassava and wheat, which do little for the one billion people in Africa who have nutrient deficiencies.
Worldwatch looked at alternatives to agribusiness practices and found abundant examples in Africa. Some 530,000 farmers use green manure, crop rotation, composting and biological pest control to grow organic produce.
Over 417,000 farmers mix trees and shrubs with croplands and pasture to absorb nutrients, recycle water, promote wildlife and moderate microclimates. Some 350,000 families practice zero or minimal tillage, permanent soil cover, and topsoil management to increase food production by 30 to 100 percent.
Water is a major problem in many areas and innovative approaches such as human-powered pumps, affordable drip micro-irrigation, and effective use of rainwater is increasing yields. School breakfast and lunch programs blend community gardens, food preparation and nutrition information to feed hungry children.
Scientists are currently working with farmers to cultivate local seed stocks that will increase crop diversity and drought resistance. For example, after root rot decimated the bean harvest in the 1990s, scientist
developed 245 new disease-resistant bean varieties and distributed them to 35 million farmers.
Such projects represent a new approach to agricultural development and slow the dire progression of climate chaos. Americans can learn from methods that promote biodiversity, work within natural limits, target root problems, improve soil quality, and lead to sustainable solutions.
It's an uphill battle against globalization and monoculture, as our energy-intensive agriculture poisons the air and soil, leads to the loss of topsoil, and becomes increasingly reliant on genetically-modified Frankenfoods, not to mention speeding up climate change.
However, it's a battle millions are joining, as Americans seek healthier alternatives in organic food and local markets.
Don Monkerud is an Aptos, California-based writer who follows cultural issues and politics and writes occasional satire.
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