Back to the Future of Agriculture
2021 is the year when the evidence of the damage that our fuel extravaganza has done to our planet has become undeniable. The recent heat domes, dramatic droughts, and extreme rainfall are a clear indication that a combination of feedback mechanisms caused by excessive greenhouse emissions has started the gears of dramatic climate change. Earth currents like the Jet Streams, the Gulf Stream, and the Atlantic current are either slowing down or changing drastically. The Atlantic current is essential for the transfer of heat from the Tropics to the poles and its disturbance will further imbalance all the others. These occurrences are in turn the results of the melting of the Arctic and permafrost. The machinery of climate uncertainty and capriciousness is turning and its possible reversal is becoming less likely each day.
We had never heard of so many broken heat records that combined with extreme droughts are producing an unprecedented fire season all over the world. At the same time, several places have been flooded and the monsoons are in complete disarray. While a dry place like Oman was flooded, next-door war-torn Yemen was suffering from literal thirst as many people’s wells are running increasingly dry.
The recent IPCC report accepts the direness of the climate situation but concentrates on climate models based on the possible effects of crossing a certain consensus-defined temperature threshold. The report relies on unproven solutions for limiting greenhouse emissions, while ignoring the tons of methane and CO2 that are released daily from the melting permafrost and other areas around the world. The solutions proposed won’t make a dent in reversing the damage that has already been done to the Earth’s systems.
While the IPCC worries about what would happen if a certain temperature threshold is crossed, the events this year clearly prove that we have already crossed the frontier between the beneficial climate that we knew and entered a new epoch of climate unpredictability that will be increasingly disastrous for humans.
It was precisely the epoch of climate predictability that started around 12,000 years ago that allowed us to succeed with agriculture propelling us into a civilizational path that finally led to the industrial revolution. It is quite ironic that it is this boom in technology and the huge amount of energy it required that has altered our climate enough to turn the clock back to before 12,0000 years ago. While our technology has been advancing, the collateral damage of our emissions has been devolving our planet’s climate back to an unpredictable state where food security for our huge population will be increasingly difficult.
This new climate modus operandi is already ruining our well-tended industrialized crops, reminding us that more technology isn’t the answer. Our sophisticated agricultural technology relies on sufficient predictability while requiring tons of energy and producing great quantities of emissions that will complicate even more the climate instability.
Unstable climate is capricious; some areas will be colder or hotter, wetter or less, depending on the new patterns of the disturbed atmospheric currents. These disturbances will continue evolving as they encounter a myriad of feedback mechanisms, changing the climate in unforeseen ways.
Plants are quite resilient but extreme and capricious climate events can easily break that resilience. Each plant can tolerate a certain temperature range but unusual swings and extremes can be quite detrimental to crop production. Temperature determines plant growth cycles by aiding in the obstruction or delay of pollination; heat speeds up the growth process and cold stunts it.
Our morning breakfast routine will be more expensive or in peril, because the climate disturbance allowed the arrival of cold fronts from Antarctica to Brazil’s coffee and sugar regions, ruining them. After that unusual cold spell, the area is now experiencing an unusual heatwave that will compound the problem.
If you like cereal, bread, or bagels for your breakfast, these are also in trouble. According to the US Department of Agriculture, climate variability that combines unusual drought and floods in the US has ruined about 41% of the spring wheat crops while also endangering similar percentages of corn and soy. The European Union has also announced that wet weather just before harvesting has led to disappointing yields all over Europe while Canada is experiencing the same crop losses as the US. If you want to add onions to your bagel, the wild weather in Washington State has ruined 90% of this year’s crop.
The above small sample already provides ample proof that despite the IPCC reports assuring us everything can be solved and our trouble will only begin once the temperature reaches a certain threshold, severe climate instability is already with us. These events will become more frequent and cause more suffering worldwide as the Earth’s systems continue their perturbed trend.
The problems that prevented our ancestors from succeeding at agriculture are nothing compared to the ones we will experience during our climate voyage back to before 12,000 years ago. Our ancestors were not numerous, the Earth was pristine, the aquifers full and the soil rich. We have populated the entire planet and gutted it to fulfill our increasing needs for raw materials, food, and water. Now, we are overpopulated, our Earth’s systems disturbed, the soil and water polluted, our aquifers in trouble, and our industrialized agriculture requires tons of energy.
In this new unpredictable climate epoch, successful agriculture is attacked on all fronts but I will concentrate on the state of our agricultural water sources which are essential for understanding the dire situation we are in.
The San Joaquin Valley produces a high percentage of the food consumed in the US but the water that allowed this bonanza is rapidly dwindling; the water depletion is so bad that much of the land in the valley is sinking. The need for a lot of water is no surprise since this valley is semi-arid terrain and California growers have consistently chosen extensive monocultures of plants that require extensive irrigation.
According to the US Geological Survey, from 1920 to 2013 California drained 125 million acre-feet of groundwater, equivalent to the drinking water required for every person on Earth for 30 years. California doesn’t even consider water a public good, and state authorities have never had a responsible water strategy, not caring how much water farmers pump from the aquifer. A recent law effective in 2022 finally requires farmers to report their water usage, but they have the right to remain anonymous. This law seems to be another political short-term window dressing that will not really deal with the problem.
It would take about 50 years for the Valley’s aquifers to naturally refill if California stopped pumping water now. This is impossible since serious droughts happen often and according to Joseph Poland of the US Geological service, each drought damages the structure of the aquifer reducing its capability to hold water. The less rain that falls, the more water is pumped and after each drought, the aquifers will hold even less water. According to the California Department of Water Resources, groundwater levels are at historical lows and they are now pumping water that is 20,000 years old. Our crops are being irrigated by the same water that Mammoths drank.
The agricultural future of the US is further imperiled by the depleted state of the Ogallala aquifer that feeds the central plains. This aquifer spans 174,000 acres spread amongst eight states and supports one-fifth of all wheat, corn, cotton, and cattle farming in the United States. The invention of center pivot sprinkler technology increased the availability of water in the area but it also allowed for the fast depletion of the aquifer. Some parts can be slowly replenished with a lot of rain, but others will take about 6,000 years. In the 1980s scientists alerted congress about the state of the aquifer but not much was done. The most expedient solution was chosen: go for broke and pump all the water until it is gone. The combination of technology and a mistaken belief in the never-ending supply of water is proving a problem, especially in our new unpredictable climate situation.
The situation around the world is no different. The Indo-Gangetic basin aquifer in the frontier between India and Pakistan is also in trouble. Some of the aquifers are already gone and most estimates calculate that the rest will reach critical condition between 2025 and 2035. This semi-arid area feeds about 1.5 billion people thanks to intensive irrigation which allows the cultivation of rice in summer and wheat in winter. Changing atmospheric currents are making monsoons unpredictable in arrival date and quantity, compounding the situation for this highly populated area.
China, the other agricultural powerhouse that feeds a huge population is also having trouble. The top hub in China is Henan province with 2 million hectares of irrigated lands, followed by Hebei province and the Fuyang River area in size. These are all experiencing drastic depletion of aquifers due to the increase in agriculture and industrial output. In many areas, this is causing soil salinization caused by frequent droughts that don’t allow the aquifers to replenish enough and thus increasing the mineral sediment contents. China’s rapid industrialization dramatically increased water demand, farmers and industry deplete the lower aquifers and industries pollute the upper ones.
The situation in Africa continues the world trend. The continent is mostly dry except for the humid belt around the tropics. The changing patterns of atmospheric currents are increasing the frequency of droughts creating havoc even in areas adapted to droughts, like Madagascar, where famine is rampant. In many parts of Africa, groundwater is the only reliable source of water and 75% of the population relies on it for drinking. Under normal conditions, Africa presents reasonably predictable patterns of precipitation concentrated during one season, peppered by years of less or no precipitation which have usually led to famines. Climate variability will further exacerbate droughts and unusual rain patterns; a few years of lower than average rainfall can be catastrophic for humans and fauna.
If we think that technology is the answer for all these woes, Egypt is a good example of how technology can give with one hand and take with the other. The Aswan Dam was presented as a priority for Egypt to improve irrigation control with modern canals. Before the dam, the normal annual flooding and ebbing of the Nile flushed the surplus salt, but canals are unable to do it and the salt accumulates, gradually poisoning the land. About 35% of Egypt’s cultivated area is suffering from salinity and the government is attempting the largest drainage network in the world to try to flush out the salt. Salinization leads to desertification of the land, so Egypt feels compelled to do something, turning a blind eye to this zero-sum game strategy, very expensive in energy and greenhouse gases.
In Latin America, the presence of the Amazon forest had been a source of climate stability but its rapid deforestation by huge corporate interests in agriculture (soy and corn), mining, and cattle-raising has changed the rain patterns of the forest. The Amazon’s massive collection of trees had always created the rain it needed but that is no longer the case; the more trees we cut, the less rain there is and the more trees die, paving the way for more desertification. This horrible vicious cycle will have even more negative effects on the feedback mechanisms involved in climate change, including the fact that the Amazon forest has transitioned from a net absorber of CO2 to a net emitter.
What affects the Amazon forest, affects other areas in the continent and the world. Nearby Argentina, a top world grain producer is suffering from a drought that has dried rivers turning fluvial transportation impossible. Argentina is home to the Guarani aquifer, one of the world’s largest aquifers, which is heavily used especially in the Western dry areas of the country. This aquifer is marred by the quality of the water that is polluted from either natural or industrial and agricultural refuse.
Next door Chile is suffering from the double attack of unpredictable climate and technology’s growing needs for raw materials. The drought has been worsened by the extraction of lithium for batteries in the Lithium Triangle shared by Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. The process involves the evaporation of deposits pumped from underground into pools on the surface using brine. Two million liters of water are required for each ton of mineral and the water can’t be used for agriculture since it is salty. The pumping of such amounts of water affects the deeper aquifers, reducing the water available for agriculture.
After a whirlwind tour of the state of our world’s water resources, it is not difficult to see that our agriculture is in trouble. The Green Revolution in the 1970s created miracles of productivity by using water as though it were an infinite resource. The problem was compounded by favoring water-guzzling monocultures and using very toxic pesticides and fertilizers without thinking about the ensuing pollution. This strategy helped to turn deserts into highly productive areas, the best example is Saudi Arabia, the first country that has depleted its aquifers near extinction. They had good crops for a while, but now they have to rely on very expensive (in money, emissions, and ocean pollution) desalinized water for their drinking. This means there is little water for irrigation, which has forced the Saudis to buy land in Africa to grow their produce. If both Saudi Arabia and Africa are in trouble, where are they going to get their food? If the whole world is in trouble, where are we going to get our food?
An overused, polluted planet with an unpredictable climate is not a good basis for survival. We had about 12,000 years of comparative bliss that is now disappearing. Rains that we usually expected will not happen, happen somewhere else, or overwhelmingly cause floods of towns and crops at capricious times. Temperatures will vary wildly and their trends will change without warning. The change in Earth’s currents will not bring just warming everywhere; some places will be cooler and then change again and vice versa.
Most of the world is not aware of what is happening. The global climate institutions like the IPCC continue mired in models based on how many degrees the Earth will warm and the possibility to stop this trend if we just go on a plant-based diet, buy electric cars, recycle, plant some trees and implement carbon pricing, and capturing. They refuse to see the empirical evidence that leads to the conclusion that the new climate unpredictability is already imperiling food production for our world and that this trend will continue even if it were possible to cut all man-made emissions right now.
People don’t like to hear bad news, but I think it is better to understand what is going on than to be fooled by illusions. The Earth’s systems will do what they are going to do whether we like it or not. Instead of wasting time with business as usual thinking that carbon capturing and planting trees will save us, we should rethink our priorities and realize that pursuits like never-ending war, extensive mining, and manufacturing (huge users of energy and producers of emissions and pollution) can no longer be our priority. Instead, we should concentrate on accepting reality, and learning to cope while focusing on the present. In this new epoch, our old priorities of consumerism, over-exploitation, and gain at all costs are becoming obsolete, and the faster we acknowledge this, the sooner we will start enjoying what we are lucky to have each day, even though we know it will be fleeting.