A Pre-Columbian Brazilian Practice Teaches World How to Grow Food

Brazil's terra preta or biochar With food riots across the globe in the news, the immediate cause of food shortages is simply this: grain prices have doubled over the last year and poor people can no longer afford to buy enough food. There is no one single cause for the price rise; it is a combination of supply and demand.

Steady population growth means there are about 70 million new mouths to feed every year, and increasing affluence is also spurring more people to buy more meat. Meat is grain-intensive – it takes about seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef.

Biofuels are another new demand on grain stocks, and a potentially insatiable one. The grain used to fill an SUV tank with ethanol could feed one person for a year.

There is more than enough grain to feed every hungry human on the planet, but the poor cannot compete with wealthier buyers of meat and biofuels. Markets are not interested in feeding hungry people – they want to make money, so from a capitalist point of view, the only solution is to increase supply in the hope that it will drive prices down.

However, on the supply side, serious limiting factors are coming into play: dwindling water supplies and increased drought exacerbated by climate change; increasingly degraded land and soils; the rising cost of energy used for everything from water pumping to transport, and the growing cost of fertilizer and other inputs.

The world wants more food – a lot more food – but the planet will not be able to provide it. For this reason alone, more food is not the answer – it cannot be the answer.

Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of the book “Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization,” says that while there have been food price spikes in the past, “This troubling situation is unlike any the world has faced before.”

Brown doesn’t use the term, but it is likely that we have reached “peak food,” the moment when world grain output has achieved its maximum and we will have to work very hard to keep it from declining.

One of the top reasons to believe we have reached peak food is that we have apparently reached peak oil. In his book, “Eating Fossil Fuels,” Dale Allen Pfeiffer shows how utterly dependent modern agriculture is on fossil fuels, not just for the machinery that plants and harvests, but for the energy to irrigate fields, and for fertilizers.

About 30% of farm energy goes to fertilizer, much of which is made from natural gas. Like oil, natural gas is becoming increasingly expensive as production nears peak. Without oil, we might not drive cars, but without fertilizer, we might not eat.

Food and fuel are intimately connected. Not only is fuel essential to produce food, but because food can substitute for fuel, the price of food is now locked into the price of oil – a price that is going nowhere but up.

Timely Report

Globalization has promised to lift every person out of poverty by growing the economy so large that wealth will eventually trickle down to all. But this is a false promise that ignores physical limits to planetary resources.

A groundbreaking United Nations report that presents a serious challenge to the promises of globalization and biotech was released last week at a very timely moment. The IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development) is directed by Robert Watson, a former director of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and it shares some similar features to the UN Climate assessment reports.

Most importantly, the IAASTD report says that agricultural systems cannot go on as they have. They are failing to feed the poor, wrecking ecosystems, exacerbating global warming and are far too dependent on fossil fuels. Just as everything about the way we produce and use energy must change in order to avoid climate catastrophe, so everything about the way we produce and use food must change in order to avoid a humanitarian and ecological disaster.

Watson said, “If we do persist with business as usual, the world’s people cannot be fed over the next half-century. It will mean more environmental degradation, and the gap between the haves and have-nots will further widen. We have an opportunity now to marshal our intellectual resources to avoid that sort of future. Otherwise, we face a world no one would want to inhabit.”

As with climate change, the solution to the food crisis will not be found in some miracle new technology. On the contrary, the report identifies a need to reconsider many traditional crops and methods for maintaining soil fertility and coping with drought. These traditional technologies need to be integrated with modern ones to achieve the best of both worlds. Currently there is little support for this approach to crop science.

British economist Nicholas Stern called climate change the biggest market failure in history. The IAASTD report also indicts markets with failing to eradicate hunger and poverty. Watson said, “The incentives for science to address the issues that matter to the poor are weak … the poorest developing countries are net losers under most trade liberalization scenarios.”

Agribusiness Reacts

The IAASTD study involved more than 400 authors and took four years to produce. However, not everyone stuck with the process till the end. Representatives from the biotechnology industry walked out in protest, complaining that GM (genetically modified) crops were being unfairly overlooked in favor of organic agriculture.

The New Scientist (5 April 2008) presented a point counterpoint between participants Deborah Keith, a manager for Syngenta, one of the world’s largest biotech companies, and Janice Jiggins, a social scientist. Keith complained that the draft document was unscientific and that “too often it treated fears and prejudices against technology and business as fact …” Organic agriculture was not subjected to the same scrutiny, she said.

Jiggins’ account of the process noted that traditional farmers at the table “took deep offense at hearing technologies … building on centuries-old traditions dismissed as ‘anecdotal’ and of no value.”

At heart, the debate is over what is considered “scientific” agriculture. The discussion of biotechnology in the final report summary peels the “anecdotal” label off traditional agriculture and slaps it back on genetic engineering, saying that “assessment of modern biotechnology is lagging behind development; information can be anecdotal and contradictory …”

Jiggins notes that, among other problems, “the capacity to monitor and regulate GM has failed to keep up.”

In reaction to the IAASTD report, some commentators have leaped on the idea that people who are “afraid of science” are irrationally keeping biotech and companies like Monsanto from saving the world.

Oxford professor Paul Collier, writing in The London Times, said that Europe and Japan are “befuddled by romanticism” for subsidizing inefficient small farms. “The remedy to high food prices is to increase supply,” he said, and the only solution to the food crisis is more food produced by “unromantic industrialized agriculture.”

He also said, “The most realistic way is to replicate the Brazilian model of large, technologically sophisticated agro-companies that supply the world market. There are still many areas of the world – including large swaths of Africa – that have good land that could be used far more productively if it were properly managed by large companies. To contain the rise in food prices, we need more globalization, not less.”

Brazil’s Big Agriculture

Taking a closer look at the Brazilian model shows why the IAASTD authors overwhelmingly rejected the big business model as a way to sustainably feed the world.

Brazil’s Mato Grosso region is the world’s most active agricultural frontier. Satellite photos show the relentless push of soybean monocultures and cattle grazing into the Amazon rainforest. Forest ecologist Daniel Nepstad of the Woods Hole Research Center, says that soy agriculture in the Mato Grosso has “greased the skids” for deforestation of the Amazon.

The success of soy farming in Mato Grosso is based on two advantages: the region’s abundant rainfall and the discovery that heavy applications of fertilizer, especially lime and phosphorus, could impart impressive fertility to the tropical soils. Both of these assets are likely to be short-lived.

First and foremost is the rain. Nepstad’s research focus is drought in the Amazon. He has found that after only two years of drought, trees begin to die and the forest fires start. Once a regular fire regime takes hold, a tipping point is reached that rapidly converts rainforest to dry scrub. The consequence is not just losing the rainforest, but losing the rain.

Through a process called transpiration, trees in the Amazon seed the clouds that water the fields and pastures of South America and the Caribbean. Researchers are finding that clouds and air currents that originate in the Amazon can drive weather patterns as far away as the North Atlantic. As the forest evaporates, so does the rainfall.

The second factor, a reliance on heavy applications of fertilizer, is also bound to be a temporary phenomenon. Little noted in the popular press, fertilizer prices have skyrocketed in recent months.

Reuters reported on April 16 that Chinese fertilizer importers have “agreed to pay more than triple what they did a year ago to reserve tight supplies of potash, sending the shares of global fertilizer makers to record levels.”

Phosphorus, like potash, is mostly produced by mining mineral deposits and there is a limit to global reserves – a limit that we are rapidly approaching. Patrick Dery and Bart Anderson looked at phosphorus production data in a report for Energy Bulletin titled “Peak Phosphorus.” They concluded that the world has passed the peak of phosphorus production and is already in decline.

“In some ways,” say Dery and Anderson, “the problem of peak phosphorus is more difficult than peak oil. Energy sources other than oil are available…” But, they point out, “Unlike fossil fuels, phosphorus can be recycled. However if we waste phosphorus, we cannot replace it [with] any other source.”

The main way to recycle phosphorus is to reclaim it from sewage and animal waste. The need to do this will bring us full circle from modern high-tech agriculture back to traditional practices that used animal manure and human “night soil.”

Researchers in Sweden and Australia are already working on a new toilet design that would siphon off human urine to use as a source of phosphate. It would be stored in tanks for supply to farmers.

What will happen to the farms of Mato Grosso when the price of phosphorus doubles, quadruples, and then doubles again? For that matter, what will happen to the fields of Iowa?

Brazil and the New Agriculture

It is the specter of resource limits that has led the authors of the IAASTD study to recommend that traditional practices be studied and adopted where they make sense. One of the most promising traditional practices that is now being studied at Cornell and other major agricultural research institutions has its origins in Brazil.

Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been on the defensive for his government’s role in deforesting the Amazon. Most recently, critics have attacked Brazilian agriculture for diverting capacity from food to biofuels.

Lula has countered the criticism by insisting that Brazil will expand its agriculture without further encroachments on the Amazon. One of the best ways to do that, and conserve scarce fertilizers like phosphorus at the same time, might be to adopt a practice used by an ancient civilization that occupied the Amazon before Columbus.

The practice is called terra preta, Portuguese for “dark earth.” These dark earths are highly fertile soils that were created by burying charcoal along with manure and other organic wastes. Charcoal is a porous material that is very good at holding nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus and making them available to plant roots. It also aerates soil and helps it to retain water.

Some terra preta fields are thousands of years old, and yet they are still so fertile that they are dug up and sold as potting soil in Brazilian markets.

Because making charcoal from biomass releases energy, researchers today are looking at integrated biomass energy and food production systems using “biochar” – the modern term for terra preta. There is a good account of the terra preta in Charles C. Mann’s book, “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.”

Biochar may be the answer that Lula is looking for. Biochar could be a great gift from Brazil to the rest of the world. Charles C. Mann notes that “it might improve the expanses of bad soil that cripple agriculture in Africa – a final gift from the peoples who brought us tomatoes, corn, manioc, and a thousand different ways of being human.”

Biochar is just one of the traditional agricultural practices that a world running out of fossil fuels and cheap fertilizer may be very grateful to rediscover in the coming years. The IAASTD report, if acted upon quickly, could jumpstart this research.

The IAASTD report does not go so far as to provide a road map or an action plan, but the various private-public partnerships that are working to implement its goals are already finding it useful.

Inter Press Service reports that a delegate from Costa Rica said “These documents are like a bible with which to negotiate with various institutions in my country and transform agriculture.”

Benny Haerlin, the representative from Greenpeace, sees the document as a blazing signpost, lighting the way. He said: “This marks the beginning of a new, of a real Green Revolution. The modern way of farming is biodiverse and labor intensive and works with nature, not against it.”

Kelpie Wilson is Truthout’s – www.truthout.org – environment editor. Trained as a mechanical engineer, she embarked on a career as a forest protection activist, then returned to engineering as a technical writer for the solar power industry. She is the author of “Primal Tears,” an eco-thriller about a hybrid human-bonobo girl. Greg Bear, author of “Darwin’s Radio,” says: “‘Primal Tears’ is primal storytelling, thoughtful and passionate. Kelpie Wilson wonderfully expands our definitions of human and family. Read Leslie Thatcher’s review of Kelpie Wilson’s novel “Primal Tears.”


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