I listened to the Chairman of Fine Gael which, as the largest party in the Irish Parliament, is the senior partner in the governing coalition, talking to Will Faulkner on Midlands Today this morning (18th May 2012). (The programme is re-broadcast at midnight BST tonight, that's 17:00 PDT). Charlie Flanagan also happens to be one of my local TDs (Members of Parliament; in the Irish electoral system each constituency has more than one representative). “Growth is like motherhood and apple pie,” he said, “everyone thinks it is a good thing.”
And I suppose he is not far wrong. Most people do think that growth is a good thing. But, as I argued in my previous post, there are many who disagree. I ended that piece with a promise to explore some of the ways in which it could be possible to provide for all our needs without destroying the planet in the process. But first I want to add some more food for thought for those, like Deputy Flanagan, who still need to be convinced.
I was thinking about the idea that water might be the next big source of conflict in certain parts of the world and it occurred to me that we in Northern Europe import significant quantities of fruit and other agricultural produce from such areas, notably the Mediterranean region. That produce is made up principally of water. So, whilst it is true that fruit juices are concentrated before being transported thousands of miles, it is also the case that a lot of fuel is used transferring water from a part of the world that can ill afford to lose it to one where it is relatively abundant.
Population decline is inevitable
I tried to find statistics for the quantities involved and was unable to do so. The closest I came to it was in a study carried out a few years ago by the UK conservation charity WWF. This looked into the whole question of the effect of British food imports on the planet’s most vulnerable environments. What is clear from my reading of this report is that the issue is far more complex than I had supposed. And, for me, the most startling fact to emerge was this: there is a vital resource that we all take for granted, far more so than we do water, that is disappearing at an alarming rate. That resource is soil!
Allow me to quote: world-wide, soils under agricultural management are eroding 10 to 100 times faster than they are being formed meaning that agriculture is unsustainable over relatively short historical time frames – 100 to 1,000 years. This simple constraint on the lifespan of agricultural soils explains reasonably well the pattern of the rise and decline of historical civilisations. … [worldwide we are losing] 5-10 million ha of arable land each year. Much of this soil is removed from agricultural land and ‘entombed’ in deposits that cannot be used for productive purposes. For the UK food economy, erosion of soils in the Mediterranean used for fruit and vegetable production is particularly significant.
Our diet is destroying the environment
The report also has a lot to say about the original question of water usage, generally confirming my suspicions. Here are some more quotations:
The Mediterranean Basin comprising the land draining into the Mediterranean Sea … includes some of the most intensively farmed land in the world such as the Rhone valley in France, the valley of the River Po in Italy, and the Nile Valley that supplies vegetables to the UK. It includes much of the Spanish fruit and vegetable production areas, and the Middle East, including Israel. The UK is a major and growing consumer of the relevant crops – vegetables, fruit, wine and olives.
Water is the key constraint to production ... Water demand in the Mediterranean countries doubled between 1950 and 2000, and irrigated agriculture accounts for 65% of water consumed (Nostrum 2006). The irrigated area doubled between 1960 and 2000 … with the biggest increases in absolute terms in Spain and Turkey. The food exporters to the UK are Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey. Morocco is in more recent years the focus of significant investment in intensive agricultural production, including for the UK market. This has caused extensive and irreversible environmental degradation.
There is much more but the above should be enough to illustrate the problem. Although the report focuses on the UK’s food economy, Ireland’s pattern of consumption of similar produce is comparable to that of the UK’s, only lacking in significance by virtue of its relatively small size. In simple terms, we cannot carry on like this without further irreparable damage to the planet, notwithstanding the over-arching issue of climate change.