Commercial agriculture needs to be achieved at a massive scale to feed a growing world population. Every year approximately five billion acres[i] of land around the globe are cultivated and planted or used to raise livestock. While the amount of land used to support commercial agriculture shrinks through overuse, degradation, pollution, and chemical contamination every year, these impacts pale to Big Ag's more significant issue. Climate change is fast becoming the number one concern facing the future of large-scale agriculture[ii] . With no means of halting its devastating effects, are we seeing the beginning of the end of outdoor agriculture?
A recent study by Stanford University stated, "Climate-fuelled temperature increases generated an estimated $27 billion in insurance payments to farmers between 1991 and 2017. Those losses accounted for nearly 20% of the program's total payouts over that period."[iii] These insurance payouts, in many cases, were related to crop failures, but the increasing severity of drought and floods can have a far greater impact on agriculture.
Arable farmland is often located along the edge of river systems where natural flooding over millennia has added precious minerals and nutrients to the soil in these areas. While they present as prime areas for growing crops and raising livestock, they are also the first to be affected by floods. The size and severity of floods are increasing around the globe, and these larger flood events not only destroy farms and infrastructure but also remove much of this vital soil. While flood events are incredibly damaging to arable farmland, their impact is relatively short-lived compared to the devastation presented by drought.
A new article by Oxford Research states, "Droughts may be the biggest threat to food security and rural livelihoods globally"[iv]. The growing severity of drought events experienced worldwide has rewritten the record books in many agricultural-based countries and economies. Australia recently experienced its most severe drought on record that affected much of the country.[v] This drought event impacted crop and livestock production and saw many farming families leave their farms and move to city areas for employment. Whole towns and regions were negatively affected, and many simply ceased to exist.
How do these realities impact the future of outdoor agriculture?
It would seem difficult to imagine a scenario where outdoor agriculture can continue to provide the world's food supply and increase production outputs, given the issues mentioned and the myriad of other problems it now faces. One possible solution could be the greater adoption of Protected and Controlled Environment agriculture (PCE). These systems require the building of structures that protect and control the environments of the crops and livestock produced within them. Building a structure that could house several thousand acres is not a plausible reality. Still, these structures can be created at scale and are far more productive than typical outdoor farmland on an acre vs acre basis.
Already many countries are adopting PCE, with countries like Denmark and Spain leading the way. In Almeria, Spain[vi], the region presents an intensive example of PCE with over seventy-six thousand acres of land covered by PCE type structures that produce over thirty-one million tonnes of fruit and vegetables each year. In fact, food production in Almeria is believed to be thirty times greater than the equivalent area of farmland in the UK. While falling a long way short of being considered sustainable due to their unchecked use of plastics as structure coverings and the exploitation of low paid labour, they point to the possibility of PCE as a solution to global future food security.
The real benefits of PCE structures are that they can be positioned on cheap non-arable land and well away from flood-affected areas. They also have the advantage of harvesting and storing the available rainfall for future use. They are also protected by drought as that water storage can be used later and targeted specifically to individual plants within entire crops, radically increasing water efficiency. In many cases, that water can be recycled and have essential organic nutrients and amendments added to it. These PCE structures also reduce potential wind damage and make pest management more manageable.
The opportunity to have a PCE structure that covered a one-acre area but with an outdoor production output of thirty acres would be an incredible advantage to both developed and developing communities. Practices like organic and regenerative farming[vii] are far more achievable with a PCE structure because you have a far smaller area to maintain and manage. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of PCE agriculture is the ability for all of us to have a small structure in our own backyards capable of producing an abundance of nutritious organic fruits and vegetables. Outdoor agriculture already faces many complex issues that will dramatically affect its functioning now and in the future. Perhaps we will see people not only moving food production indoors but also much closer to home.
About The Author
Terry Memory is the author of "The Smart Veggie Patch" which will be available through Pan Macmillan in July 2022. He lives with his wife Gemma, and their six kids live on a forty-acre organic farm in the Huon Valley in southern Tasmania, Australia. Terry and Gemma produce most of their food requirements for their family with a two hundred square meter Protected and Controlled Environment garden that also thermally heats their home. As a successful health food entrepreneur, Terry co-founded the 13 Seeds Hemp Food and Tasmanian Tea Companies on his farm. Terry is a passionate sustainability and self-sufficiency advocate with over twenty years of practical experience.
TAGS: Veggie Patch, Vegetable Garden, Raised Garden Beds, Growing Your Own Food, Self-Sufficiency, Sustainability, Homegrown, Homesteading, Off-Grid, Organic Food, Backyard Garden, Community Garden, Urban Garden
[i] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2020). Land use in agriculture by the numbers. [online] Available at: https://www.fao.org/sustainability/news/detail/en/c/1274219/#:~:text=Global%20trends.
[ii] IPCC (2021). Climate change widespread, rapid, and intensifying. [online] IPCC. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/2021/08/09/ar6-wg1-20210809-pr/.
[iii] News, A.E., E&E (n.d.). Climate Change Is Hitting Farmers Hard. [online] Scientific American. Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/climate-change-is-hitting-farmers-hard/.
[iv] Pourzand, F. and Noy, I. (2022). Catastrophic Droughts and Their Economic Consequences. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science.
[v] www.climatecollege.unimelb.edu.au. (n.d.). Recent Australian droughts may be the worst in 800 years | Climate and Energy College. [online] Available at: https://www.climatecollege.unimelb.edu.au/recent-australian-droughts-may-be-worst-800-years.
[vi] www.foodunfolded.com. (n.d.). The Environmental Impacts of Greenhouse Agriculture in Almería, Spain. [online] Available at: https://www.foodunfolded.com/article/the-environmental-impacts-of-greenhouse-agriculture-in-almeria-spain.
[vii] Farmland LP. (2020). Organic vs. Sustainable vs. Regenerative Agriculture: What’s the Difference? [online] Available at: https://www.farmlandlp.com/2020/12/organic-vs-sustainable-vs-regenerative-agriculture-whats-the-difference/#.YmD4KtpByUk [Accessed 21 Apr. 2022].