The jigsaw of energy, food and land

  •  As population grows, so food demand increases.
  • As population grows, so available farm land decreases
  • As population grows, so energy demand increases.
  • There are solutions to this apparent conflict.

By Bill Butterworth

22 March 15


Canal bridge 1

The tranquillity of an English canal – built 200 years agao. In the next twenty years, the human race has some really interesting situations to face.

“May you live in interesting times.” Chinese proverb

Are we really on a collision course to disaster in the use of land to produce food, energy and places for people to live? The straight answer is “yes” but there are things that we could do to avert a catastrophic collapse. It is about building a balanced, long term, jigsaw puzzle.

As this blog has observed, there is an apparent conflict between population growth and the demand on land. (See 22 February below.) That same post of 22 Feb also pointed out that mineral fertilisers consume enormous energy in their manufacture. Similarly, some of these posts have looked at the alternatives for “renewable” energy such as solar panels, wind turbines. So, how can we put together a balanced use of energy which will deliver what we need?

Well, we certainly need to develop solar power and make it more efficient. That may involve more efficient collection of solar energy in areas where there is a sunshine, such as the middle of the Sahara, and develop a “super-grid”, probably based on DC transmission to areas of population where they have less sun. So power production is inevitably part of the jigsaw. Similarly with wind turbines, hydro, geothermal and so on. Batteries will revolutionise power distribution but they are, and will remain, very expensive. People use energy.

On the subject of desert, the Sahara was covered in trees as little as 5000 years ago. We could reclaim at least some of the deserts using industrial wastes and we may need to kick-start that using mineral fertilisers. There is an argument to use shale gas to make urea fertilisers to start food production in reclaiming such land, use the cropping and imported wastes to raise organic matter in the soils, develop no-till farming to conserve the organic matter, use less water this way and use the cropping to take Carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and grow the soil Carbon sink. People need food.

There is an important set of figures in soil water management and irrigating deserts. Sand holds about its own weight of water. Clay two times. Composts up to 10 times. So, put a layer of compost into the cool layer below the surface and it is possible to cut irrigation need by a factor of 10 and possibly more.

So, all of this is not about a single panacea, nor “horses for courses”. It is about a balanced composite plan which uses what we have got in a long term plan.

Just one basic thought. Running through all of this is the word “people”. Each individual has a right to a reasonable life. To deliver that we really do have to find a way to reduce global population. Slowing down population growth is not good enough. What happens if we do not do this? Read this blog, 4 March 15 or, for more detail, Chapter 1 of “Reversing global warming for profit”, published by MX Publishing.  In the next 20 years, those who survive will be living in interesting times.