DR. DICKSON DESPOMMIER spent thirty-eight years as a professor of microbiology and public health in environmental health sciences at Columbia, where he won the Best Teacher award six times. In 2003, he was awarded the American Medical Student Association Golden Apple Award for teaching. He has addressed audiences at leading universities including Harvard and MIT, and he has also been invited to speak at the United Nations. In addition, he has been asked by governments of China, India, Mexico, Jordan, Brazil, Canada, and Korea to work on environmental problems. Despommier lives in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Growing Concerns
12/1/2011 5:36:12 PM

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), has just released its 2011 assessment of the state of the world‘s agriculture and it is not a pretty picture. In fact, its down right grim:

ROME (AP): December 1, 2011 — The United Nations has completed the first-ever global assessment of the state of the planet's land resources, finding in a report Monday that a quarter of all land is highly degraded and warning the trend must be reversed if the world's growing population is to be fed.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that farmers will have to produce 70 percent more food by 2050 to meet the needs of the world's expected 9 billion-strong population. That amounts to 1 billion tons more wheat, rice and other cereals and 200 million more tons of beef and other livestock.

But as it is, most available land is already being farmed, and in ways that often decrease its productivity through practices that lead to soil erosion and wasting of water.

That means that to meet the world's future food needs, a major "sustainable intensification" of agricultural productivity on existing farmland will be necessary, the FAO said in "State of the World's Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture."

Things appear to be getting worse and worse, as year after year, the climate continues to change at an accelerating rate, and adverse weather events continue to increase as the result of that acceleration, despoiling huge tracts of arable land and rendering them unusable for the foreseeable future. How much more of this environmental insult must we endure before the world’s agricultural communities stop what they are doing and adopt new methods for growing most of our soil-based crops? Of course, I am referring to vertical farming.

I have been advocating for some years now for all the richest countries to pool a small fraction of their trillions of dollars of resources (ten billion would do the job nicely) and support the establishment of a global urban-based agriculture that takes advantage of the fact that we can easily grow most of what we need inside controlled environment structures. In fact, The Republic of Korea is already ahead of the rest of the world in this regard, having established a vertical farm and nearby seed bank in March of 2011. Successful commercial ventures in Japan (Nuvege), have shown that this method of food production can be highly profitable. A few other vertical farms have been established in other places, but there needs to be a much large investment in this kind of farming if we are to stave off a world food crisis that may already be starting.

In the developed world, trying to save traditional agriculture by allowing large argo-businesses to have their way with the soil has done nothing more than to allow these companies to reap more profits, as food prices increase due to the increase in the price of oil. We need a national policy shift to give a voice to the consumers who continue to demand safe, health food choices that are available year round. This can only be achieved by production schemes that employ high tech greenhouse methods – hydroponics, aeroponics, aquaponics.  Locating large-scale indoor farms next to the largest urban centers solves many problems that now plague the current food system – harvesting before the produce is ripe, shipping and handling, food spoilage – at every step of the food chain from farm to table.

Elections are just around the corner, yet I have heard very little about the food crisis and potential solutions from either side of the aisle. What’s up with that??? Come on America. Lets face up to the situation and solve this problem. Guaranteed that if we do, then lots of other problems will disappear, as well!    

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