Land ing in trouble

  • 30/10/1996

 Land ing in trouble DONELLA H MEADOWS

at a meeting of the Forestry Market Transformation Initiative, in Underwood, us, held in August this year, everyone was enthusing about fibre that does not come from forests. Proud entrepreneurs were handing around kenaf paper, boards made from wheat straw and cardboard made from hemp. These products, they said, can stop deforestation.

Over the last 50 years, one-fourth of the world's forests have disappeared. Each passing year records the growth of human population by 90 million and world paper demand is doubling every 20 years. Some companies at the meeting were already facing wood shortages. The folks who make pencils, for example, said that they were running out of incense cedar which provided the pencil stock for decades. Paper companies are fooling around with bamboo, flax, sugarcane waste and fast-growing tropical trees which are sown and fertilised like corn fields and harvested every seven years. With such plantations, I was informed, we can grow all the world's paper on an area the size of Sweden.

I would find this news cheerful, if I knew there were enough chunks of unused tropical farmlands to add up to a Sweden (and in 20 years, two Swedens) and if I had not also been listening to the energy industry. Low oil prices may be lulling consumers, but suppliers know how many oil fields are nearing the end of their productive life, and they are watching global conferences get serious about cutting back fossil fuel burning to ease the greenhouse effect. We will need substitutes for oil, coal, and gas later or sooner.

One alternative they are talking about is biomass. The us company making kitchen cabinets from straw, may have to compete with the Danish company making boilers that burn straw by the bale to make electricity. Sugarcane waste is already a major fuel source used in sugar mills. Those fast-growing tropical trees have to be grown for village cooking.

Are there enough farmlands to relieve depleting forests and depleting oil-wells at the same time? And depleting fisheries? Thirteen of the 15 major ocean fisheries are in decline, primarily because of overfishing. That industry too has thought of a substitute: aquaculture. The trouble is, the feed for fish farms comes not from the ocean's food chains any more, but from grain raised on land.

So we are planning to transfer the burdens currently borne by the forests, the oceans, and the oil wells to the farmland, while feeding 90 million extra people each year, though we are not feeding everyone sufficiently now. Meanwhile, in one of the least noted and most historic shifts of this century, total food raised per capita worldwide peaked in the mid-1980s and has gone down ever since. There are many reasons for that turnaround, but one of the big ones is the loss of cropland.

In the last 10 years, us has buried around 1.5 million ha of prime soil under buildings and pavement. Over the same period, booming Asia lost 10 per cent of its cropland to urbanisation. Erosion, salinisation and other forms of bad management have destroyed, according to Lester Brown's State of the World 1996 , 16 per cent of global cropland, with another 52 per cent "moderately degraded' and showing "greatly reduced productivity'.

The agriculture sector is planning to solve these problems, of course, by using more fossil fuel for fertiliser, by expanding forests to renew water supplies and control erosion, and by composting straw and other fibrous wastes to bring back the humus content and water absorptive capacity of the soil.

Something here does not compute. I have no doubt that we can increase crop yields, make fish and fibre plantations, turn almost any plant into fibre board or paper, recycle massively, run cars on biofuels, and use the earth's resources with much higher efficiency and more careful stewardship. I hope we will. I just do not see how we will get there, if the managers of every resource plow heedlessly through it, assuming they can turn to some other resource when this is also gone.

Maybe we should set up a simple rule: before you try to impress us with your brilliant plans for invading some other resource base, please show us how efficiently and sustainably you can manage your own.

Donella H Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College, us

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