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Saturday 9 December 2023 Dublin: 10°C
David Cheskin/PA Wire
Read Me

Column: Smart farming needed for the future

Large-scale livestock farming is out of step with food-production needs and the effect of climate change, writes food writer and lecturer Frank Armstrong.

LIKE AN ONION, the subject of food reveals many layers. Peeling them back might even bring you to tears.

For the most part it is a remarkable story of human achievement. In 1800 the global population stood at one billion. Today it surpasses seven and is set to reach nine by 2050. We have life expectancies that exceed seventy in many countries. Crucial to this has been the delivery of food.

Today we consume more calories than our ancestors despite vastly increased numbers. Farmers, industrial workers and scientists all take credit for extraordinary achievements. Thomas Malthus’s grim analysis that food production increases at an arithmetic rate while populations rise geometrically has not been borne out.

But we could yet face the shortages Malthus predicted. The dangers emanate from scarce resources, a culture of over-consumption and, most worryingly, climate change. All of these problems could be alleviated by reducing the production of farm animals.

Without oil and natural gas most of humanity would starve. We depend on it at almost every stage of production from farm machinery and fertilisers to transport and refrigeration. As fossil fuels are finite, we need to alter the way we consume and farm.

A 2010 BBC documentary A Farm for the Future weighed up the options beyond peak oil and concluded that forest-gardening and permaculture offer viable alternatives in temperate climates. These practices harness biodiversity in place of oil to increase yields and decrease workloads.

“Many more of us may become involved in agriculture”

The ‘smart’ farms of the future will be very different from today’s. Contrary to employment trends over the past two centuries, many more of us may become involved in agriculture, at least on a part-time basis.

Smart agriculture demands the abandonment of large-scale livestock farming that began in earnest in the middle of the nineteenth century. Dwindling oil supplies decree that livestock should only be kept on mixed farms or in some marginal locations and that the disproportionate cultivation of crops for livestock consumption should cease.

Farm animals also place huge demands on water resources. At present, globally we derive 20 per cent of our protein from animal-based sources but in order to take account of declining water supply this figure must drop to 5 per cent if we wish to feed the population of 2050 according to new research: But the most pressing issue we confront is climate change. This year’s failure of the maize crop in America offers a foretaste of catastrophes that will afflict the Third World disproportionately.

Weather conditions in Ireland could also become increasingly problematic for farmers as summers become monsoon-like. Our own government should take note of this and desist from the wildly irresponsible targets of Harvest 2020.

After writing my last article for I was contacted by Jeff Anhang, an environmental specialist for the World Bank. He, along with a former World Bank colleague Robert Goodland, authored an article which showed that livestock account for at least 32.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, or 51 per cent of annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. This is far worse than the 18 per cent which the UN report Livestock’s Long Shadow estimated in 2006. Curbing livestock production is the most important issue in the battle against climate change.

“Grass-fed cattle produce four times more methane than their feedlot cousins”

Dishearteningly for Irish agriculture, grass-fed cattle produce four times more methane through enteric fermentation than their feedlot cousins. We must start looking for agricultural alternatives.

We desperately need more trees to absorb the emissions that drive us towards a tipping point where negative feedback will leave us powerless to halt global warming. We have to curb depletion of rainforest but also restore some forestry to agricultural land.

It may sound paradoxical that with a rising global population I should advocate reducing the amount of available farmland, but that is what we need to do. The way to achieve this without causing widespread starvation is to move towards plant-based nutrition. This will produce more food using a fraction of the land that is presently devoted to livestock: up to half of all US corn is now fed to animals; less than 20 per cent is destined for human consumption.

That brings me to my last point which is the crisis of over-consumption in the West. Obesity is considered a disease of affluence, but that is not the case. Mexico, a relatively poor country, is dominated by cheap US food making it the second fattest country in the OECD. Those living in poverty where the Western diet predominates cannot afford nutritious food, subsisting instead on refined sugars and saturated fats. In part, this can be attributed to an agricultural system dedicated to livestock rather than diverse and healthy crops for human consumption.

“We need affordable proteins for human beings”

We must acknowledge the ultimate failure of the Western model of agriculture and diet. But often the antidote lies next to the poison. I remain hopeful that Western societies can develop smart solutions.

Rethinking our agricultural model requires us to consider which crops are best suited to human consumption and where we can grow them. We need affordable proteins for human beings. Plant sources require far less land and there is compelling evidence that human populations would be healthier with a greater proportion of them in our diet. We also need to start educating the smart farmers of the future, but what we need most urgently is to plant more trees.

Frank Armstrong is a food writer and lecturer and will teach an open access course on the Politics of Food in the Adult Education Centre in UCD beginning at the end of September.

Read more pieces by Frank Armstrong >

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