The Looming Consequences of Industrial Agriculture’s Biodiversity Crisis

Proponents of industrial agriculture tend to claim that it is the only method that’s going to feed nine billion people. In reality, industrial agriculture has triggered a biodiversity crisis in our most popular crops that threatens to wipe out agriculture altogether.

In the process of increasing yields, introducing disease-resistant genes and creating optimal crops for industrial harvest, strains of the same crop indigenous to cultures that practice traditional agriculture are typically lost.

The 20th century has been characterized by a dramatic loss in biodiversity in the plants we cultivate. To give some numbers, 90% of the wheat varieties used in China in the last century are now extinct, while 93% of all seed varieties sold in the United States in 1903 were extinct by 1983. The introduction of genetically modified crops has merely made the global biodiversity crisis even worse.

Why is biodiversity so important? The problem we face is that pathogens like stem rust adapt to plants. If all of our domesticated plants are genetically rather similar, it’s easy for a pathogen to spread from one plant to another, decimating our entire food supply.

This is what happened to our bananas. Before we began to grow the currently popular banana race, we used to grow a banana known as the Gros Michel. Low genetic diversity allowed a fungus to practically wipe out this strain and the industry moved on to an inferior tasting substitute.

Until the 20th century, the world consists of small communities where people preserved their own strains of plants for generations. Biodiversity, along with relatively infrequent travel made it difficult for a pathogen to spread throughout our entire global food supply.

The few crops we grow today are typically themselves the benefactors of the massive biodiversity that once existed, yet threaten to annihilate it. In wheat, stemrust resistance gene 21 was inherited from einkorn wheat, a primitive form of domesticated wheat, that looks very much like its primitive ancestor and inherits a number of its disadvantages (low yield) that led it to lose ground in the 20th century.

Stemrust resistance gene 31 in wheat was inherited from rye, wheat’s rebellious cousin. Rye commonly used to grow voluntarily in fields of wheat, resulting in the mixture of wheat and rye that medieval Europeans typically used to produce bread, until humans transitioned to industrial agriculture.

If our food’s biodiversity has disappeared, how come we don’t see massive epidemics of fungal infections that decimate our crops? The answer here is that industrial agriculture manages to keep most of these outbreaks under control, by using a continually growing arsenal of chemical pesticides.

By keeping our farmland a sterile place devoid of life, where crops are grown in the absence of any species that might harm them, we can continue to grow crops that are maximized for yield and ease of mechanical harvest at the cost of genetic diversity.

There are certain disadvantages of course, including the fact that plants grown in a sterile environment tend not to produce the various compounds like salicylic acid that protect them against pathogens and have been shown to improve human health, but as long as the consumer is not aware of this unfortunate side-effect, he will happily continue to chow on his sterile food devoid of nutrients.

It is now estimated that the average Dutch potato is sprayed with a total of 36 different pesticides. The farmers often have little choice and are well aware of the burden it places on their own health, they do what’s necessary for their company to remain economically viable.

Although it might be possible for you and me to grow potatoes and other crops on our small plots of land (and we certainly should), the industrial scale of modern agriculture, necessitating massive plots of land covered with the same crop for year upon year necessitates spraying pesticides to avoid providing a home to any of the pathogens that would like to turn a farmer’s crops into its home.

And these pathogens learn quickly. In 1978 there were 49 known pathogens that infected chickpeas, by 1995 we were looking at 172. It should thus come as no surprise that the amount of pesticide sprayed on our crops continually grows as well.

There’s reason to believe that our growing reliance on pesticides may play a role in a growing number of health problems. Glyphosate is a prominent pesticide used on our crops. It was thought to be safe, but concerns are growing about its impact on health. Glyphosate is thought to negatively alter the balance of gut bacteria in our intestinal tract, benefiting pathogenic species as the cost of benevolent species.

Those who first began to raise the alarm bells were typically people in the farming community, who noticed that their animals were having difficulty getting pregnant and giving birth to deformed babies, until they switched over to glyphosate free food. It’s thought that the use of Glyphosate may play a role in the growing epidemic of wheat sensitivity.

What solution is there to this problem? Just as with most big problems, there exists no simple solution. It’s possible to reduce pesticide intake by eating more fruit and vegetables from your own environment. I often eat wild berries and grow various kinds of berries in my own garden.

Of course this is not an option with staple foods for most people. Fortunately, there is a different solution possible here, in the form of fermentation. Bacteria and fungi gradually break down the glyphosate found in our bread. After one hour of yeast fermentation, 21% of glyphosate is degraded. Sourdough fermentation involves allowing strains of wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria to ferment dough for multiple days.

Within agriculture, it’s important to understand that plants benefit from symbiotic relationships with fungi. Plants form symbiotic connections with ectomycorhizal fungi, which involve the release of substances by the fungi that prohibit pathogenic fungi from infecting the plants, thereby reducing the dependence on pesticides.

Plants of course can only form such symbiotic relationships with fungi if given ample time to grow, in health undisturbed soils. In contrast, many of the fruits and vegetables we eat come from greenhouses, where plants are never even exposed to soil but simply grow with their roots directly in the water.

Most pesticides we use depend on petroleum. Those who will have to grow crops in the post-pesticide era after we run out of petroleum will have to cope with an epidemic of plant pathogens that are perfectly adapted to the limited genetic spectrum of our crops. It would be wise for people to hold onto rare varieties of wheat and other crops as these plants should stand a better chance of surviving without the use of pesticides. A switch away from wheat to more niche and hardy crops like rye is also recommendable.

 

Plants versus solar panels: Who can cope better with a changing climate?

If I had to make a projection, I would expect that solar panels will start performing worse in the future, while plants will start doing better. To understand why, first we have to note something interesting about how plants and solar panels use sunlight. In solar panels, we notice a linear dose-response relationship. As the amount of sunlight increases, the amount of electricity generated increases linearly too. A cloudless day may produce 100,000 lux, a cloudy day may produce just 10,000 lux. Hence we see huge variation in power generation per day in Germany.

In plants on the other hand, we notice they become saturated at relatively low levels of light. A plant won’t fixate 10 times as many carbon atoms on a cloudless day as it would on a cloudy day. Responses vary per plant, but diminishing returns tend to set it rapidly above 10,000 lux. After a certain point, plants photosynthesis actually starts to drop, as the molecules used for photosynthesis are damaged. Important to note, is that plants ability to utilize low levels of sunlight improves drastically as carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere increase, with the biggest increases seen at the lowest levels of sunlight.

The question to ponder here is what happens to clouds as the climate changes, but there exists no strong consensus here yet. On the one hand it’s thought that plants will release less water to the lower atmosphere, thereby reducing cloud formation. On the other hand, plants regulate their local climate, to their own benefit. If temperatures increase, plants benefit from more clouds. It’s thought that the amount of volatile compounds that plants emit will increase, leading to enhanced cloud formation and thus reduced warming.

There have been efforts to project what will happen to solar irradiation as the climate changes, but projections for the future on this subject per definition have a large margin of error. Still, the projections are not entirely reassuring. One estimate is that parts of Northern Europe will see a reduction in total generation capacity throughout the year of around 10% by 2100 under a business as usual scenario.   The supplementary material gives further food for thought, as the biggest decrease in total capacity is seen in winter, where reductions of around 20% would be expected by 2100 under business as usual, in large areas of mainland Europe.

For a solar energy based civilization, the capacity during winters would be the bottleneck. With the very tight energy margins a renewable civilization would have to cope with, such a reduction in output during winter due to a changing climate could have an important impact.

 

The desolated buildings of the Netherlands

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Soon coming to a town near you.

In the Netherlands we have a tendency to meticulously document every development in our nation. This has led to the awkward situation where our economy continues to grow on paper, while every relevant indicator seems to point in the exact opposite direction. Today I’d like to showcase an example of data that painfully contradicts the official story of a supposed continuing economic recovery: Empty shops and offices. Here we observe an accelerating trend towards economic collapse.

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As can be seen in the images above, a sharp increase in the percentage of vacant offices and shops started around 2009, back when the economic crisis began in the Netherlands. Something interesting happened a few years later, when the total surface area of office space in our country reached a peak and began a decline that has continued until this day.

This decline in total office space is caused by the demolition of office buildings. Municipalities have started to finance the demolition of office buildings, because the epidemic of vacant office space has become problematic for the municipalities themselves. The private organization that own the offices would like to demolish them but often can’t afford the costs by themselves. The increase in demolition of office buildings is not sufficient however so far to decrease the vacancy rate, as the amount of utilized office space continues to contract rapidly.

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What we see in the image above is the time offices spend unoccupied. Important to note here is that the increase almost entirely comes from offices that have not been used for at least three years. In other words, there seems to be a structural crisis here, one that oddly enough does not seem to keep businesses from continually building new office space.

Why do businesses continue to construct new office space, despite the growing abundance of unoccupied office space? A peculiar faith in perpetual economic growth seems to be responsible. Note for example that in a document from 2013, Rotterdam seems to assume that an extra 652.000 m² of newly constructed office space will be needed by 2020.  This despite 20% of office space being unoccupied in Rotterdam right now.

Where is this new demand going to come from? There is no clear answer apparent. It seems to me a severe case of normalcy bias.