Alternative Radio is a syndicated radio program featuring guest speakers on a multitude of progressive topics around global social issues. They are broadcast by KEXP on Saturday mornings at 6AM. This morning, the hour replayed a presentation given by noted environmentalist Lester Brown, best known for his writing on food security, such as in Full Planet, Empty Plates (W. W. Norton & Company, 2012). Brown addressed a town hall meeting in Seattle in November of last year.
Brown argues that several factors are converging to threaten food security on a global level. Most threatening perhaps is water usage, which is more vital to agriculture even than oil based products such as synthetic fertilizers. Many regions tap “fossil aquifers,” huge naturally occurring underground water reserves which are not replenished. That means their use is inherently unsustainable over the long term. The Ogallala Aquifer in the southern United States is the main American example. Brown relates that peak water, which may have happened already, will end civilization’s ability to continue to increase agricultural yields. That effect will compound other well known challenges. Agricultural practices have evolved over 10 thousand years of extremely stable climate patterns, and experts estimate that even 1 degree of average temperature differential can reduce yields 10%. Soil erosion and the slowing of marginal yield increases from efficiency gains both play their parts as well.
These threats are all within the context of a continuing explosion of population world-wide, including in areas of severe poverty, where days without meals are increasingly common. And of course, the 7 billion souls on this rock are flocking to urban environments.
Sustainable cities and urban food production are vital, of course, and planners understand that. However, the heavy lifting has yet to occur. How many cities are water-independent? What would that even entail? There are likewise structural obstacles to retrofitting cities for truly cyclical ecologies of food production.
One great principle of agricultural land management the old fashioned way is to return everything to the land. Only by decomposing and reabsorbing all unused organic matter does the land retain its productivity. That means that a distributed production system will always interrupt local nutrient cycles. Reconnecting the urban waste stream with the natural resources needed to sustain city life will be a sine qua non of sustainable urban civilization.
San Francisco may be the first city to achieve zero waste. Their stated policy envisions sending nothing to landfills or incinerators. Lehrer’s news hour suggests that they may soon achieve that goal.
What is Seattle’s position? We are fortunate to have rich water resources, as well as the hydroelectric power that comes with it. We are culturally on board with making the hard choices, for the most part. We have a blossoming urban agriculture movement which will doubtless continue to gain momentum. We still need to push support for local food producers, certainly including fighting outdated regulations. We also need to look at the urban waste stream as a natural resource, a potential value not only for urban commerce but also for exurban producers. We need to knit together the nutrient cycle once more.