Looking at global food production in the mirror of container gardening and vertical gardening (Willem VAN COTTHEM)

Today, I read an article on global food production published by the UN News (see my former re-posting below).

Let us attentively read this text paragraph per paragraph and analyze in the light (in the mirror) of container gardening, a quickly growing universal method, helping more and more people to fresh food in rural and urban areas.

“Global food production is being undermined by land degradation and shortages of farmland and water resources, making feeding the world’s rising population – projected to reach nine billion by 2050 – a daunting challenge, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in a report unveiled today.

Why is global food production an enormous challenge? Because of:

  1. Land degradation
  2. Shortages of farmland
  3. Shortages of water resources

a. If there is progressive land degradation, we should either try to limit, reduce and even stop land degradation, or we should limit, reduce and even stop food production in the soil.  Different methods and technologies have been developed to grow food crops outside the agricultural soil: hydroponics, aquaponics, container gardening, vertical gardening, …

Food production in all kinds of containers, combined with vertical gardening, a sustainable method to save farmland and water resources (Photo Jojo ROM)

b. If there are shortages of farmland, we should stop using farmland and apply food crop production in other substrates, e.g. natural or artificial ones (see above).

c. If there are shortages of water resources, we should radically go for agricultural methods in which less irrigation water is necessary, e.g. applying drought-resistant varieties of classical food crops, or new, less water consuming food crops. One can also apply modern technologies and techniques in which maximal biomass production is achieved with a minimal quantity of water, e.g. container gardening, which is limiting evaporation and water loss by infiltration in the soil.

Successful food production in 5 gallon bottles on a riser (Photo Jojo ROM)

The past five decades have witnessed a significant rise in food production, but in many places the better yields have been associated with agricultural practices that have degraded the land and water systems, according to FAO’s <i><“http://www.fao.org/nr/solaw/solaw-home/en/”>State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture</i> (SOLAW) report.

If a rise in food production is associated with practices that degrade the land and water systems (mineral fertilizers perhaps?), one can only deduce a valid conclusion from this : stop applying these practices on farmland and start producing food crops outside the farmland, e.g. in containers, like sacks, big bags, barrels, buckets, bottles, pots, …  It is clear to anyone that food production in containers is the best protection against practices deteriorating the farmland.  And it goes without saying that leaving the farmland barren for some years is one of the best ways to restore its fertility (rotation of cropland in Medieval times).

Farming systems “face the risk of progressive breakdown of their productive capacity under a combination of excessive demographic pressure and unsustainable agriculture use and practices,” says the report.

Accepting for the time being that it is practically impossible to reduce the excessive demographic pressure on the productive capacity of farming systems, the only way to improve the situation is to radically stop the unsustainable agricultural uses and practices.  This can only be achieved if these uses and practices are replaced by more sound ones, e.g. container gardening and vertical gardening.

Competition for land and water is increasing – including competition between urban and industrial users – as well as within the agricultural sector between livestock, staple crops, non-food crop, and biofuel production.

If competition for land and water is increasing, one can only reduce that competition by convincing farmers and gardeners to replace their traditional production methods by modern ones for which less land and less water is needed.  Container gardening and vertical gardening correspond with this idea.  Moreover, these land and water saving methods are perfectly applicable both in urban and in rural areas.  Should less land and less water be used for agriculture, more of these resources would become available for livestock production.

Climate change is expected to alter the patterns of temperature, precipitation and river flows upon which the world’s food production systems depend, according to the report, which also notes that the problem could be more acute in developing countries, where quality land, soil nutrients and water are least abundant.

Food production systems, depending on temperature, precipitation and river flows, would be influenced by climate change.  How could we avoid a possible reduction of global food production caused by climate change?  No doubt, container gardening and vertical gardening under protection of shelters would be a promising alternative for traditional agriculture on farmland, particularly in developing countries suffering from soil poverty, lack of nutrients and drought.

“The SOLAW report highlights that the collective impact of these pressures and resulting agricultural transformations have put some production systems at risk of breakdown of their environmental integrity and productive capacity,” <“http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/95153/icode/”>said Jacques Diouf, the FAO Director-General.

“These systems at risk may simply not be able to contribute as expected in meeting human demands by 2050. The consequences in terms of hunger and poverty are unacceptable. Remedial action needs to be taken now,” he added.

We agree that remedial action needs to be taken, the sooner the better. But “Which remedial action is the question”!

Between 1961 and 2009, the world’s cropland grew by 12 per cent, but agricultural production expanded 150 percent, thanks to a significant increase in yields of major crops, the report says.

One of the warning signs pointed out in the study is that rates of growth in agricultural production have been slowing in many areas and are currently only half of what they were at the height of the ‘Green Revolution’ – the period between the 1940s and the late 1970s when the world’s agricultural productivity rose dramatically.

Overall, the report paints a picture of a world experiencing an increasing imbalance between availability and demand for land and water resources at the local and national levels.

The report for the first time provides a global assessment of the state of the planet’s land resources.

Let us have a close look at the picture painted by the report mentioned above: the availability of sufficient land and water resources to meet the food needs in the future is the main problem associated with the growing world population.  If the possibilities to find or produce more fertile arable land are limited, we should develop opportunities to grow more on less land.  It has been shown in recent years that a combination of container gardening and vertical gardening offers such opportunities.

A quarter of the land is highly degraded, while another eight per cent has moderate degradation, 36 per cent is classed as stable or slightly degraded and 10 per cent ranked as “improving.”

The rest of Earth’s land surface is either bare (around 18 per cent) or covered by inland water bodies (around two per cent).

Large parts of all the continents are experiencing land degradation, with particularly high incidence noted along the west coast of the Americas, across the Mediterranean region of Southern Europe and North Africa, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, and throughout Asia.

The greatest threat is the loss of soil quality, followed by biodiversity loss and water resources depletion, the report notes.”

Let us again, for clarity sake, list the global problems for food production:

  1. Land degradation (loss of soil quality)
  2. Shortages of farmland
  3. Loss of biodiversity
  4. Shortages of water resources

Taking into account that we do not need the quality soil of farmland to produce food, having a lot of opportunities to realize a daunting amount of food in containers and by applying vertical gardening (more production under controlled conditions in less space);

Taking into account that, if applying the well-known system of rotation, keeping huge areas barren for a longer period (as food is produced meanwhile in containers), a gain in biodiversity will appear;

Taking into account that, if applying container gardening and vertical gardening for food production all over the world, in rural and in urban environment, less irrigation water will be used for production of an even bigger quantity of food;

We conclude that container gardening and vertical gardening should be seriously considered as valid solution for the problems cited above.

This is not a personal message, but a consideration of the multitude of people already applying container gardening and vertical gardening in these difficult times of the universal food crisis.

If a housewife can’t afford anymore to buy the necessary food, she has to produce it herself at home, in her small backyard, on her balcony, on the windowsills, …

That’s what she sees in the mirror.


Jojo ROM’s comment :

“Willem, your messages are all inspiring and based on scientific findings of the observable situations. May the world see the current situation in this kind of lens and understand not only how scientists see things, but also notice the immediate challenges and implications of the scientific data for their eating table. We, on our part, will work  the best way we can to promote the whole idea of democratizing agriculture (letting everyone participate in food production), so that the survival of billions of people (growing number each second) will no longer add more pressure on the environment.

Willem, your work is what I personally call “the social value of scientific knowledge”.  You inspired us with all your blogs.


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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