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Looming global environmental crises

Published:Sunday | May 3, 2015 | 12:00 AMMartin Henry

Even as the minister of water, land, environment and climate change, Robert Pickersgill, was dotting the 'i's and crossing the Ts for his contribution to the Sectoral Debate last week, RJR was reporting online, 'Caribbean reefs in serious decline.'

"The United Nations and conservation groups," the story said, "have warned Caribbean nations that their economies are in peril with the decline of coral reefs."

This is not a local problem; reefs around the world are in sharp decline. We have overfished our parrot fish that cleans reefs of algae and overfished every other food species out there. We are not alone; the North Atlantic cod industry, which fed us with salt fish from slavery days, has spectacularly collapsed years ago from overfishing.

The oceans are a vast place covering 70 per cent of the

planet and at depths greater than the highest peaks, like Everest, on land. Their sheer magnitude has led to the old feeling that the oceans are indestructible. They can take anything we throw at them and bounce right back. But now we are being advised that "subjected to multiple human induced stressors from over-fishing and pollution, to acidification and global warming, the ocean is under the most unprecedented threat in human history," according to The International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO).

Damage to the ocean, IPSO says, is not as immediately apparent as terrestrial destruction, but it is just as serious. All of the stressors we have put on the ocean, from overfishing to pollution, have contributed to its ill-health. The situation is now so severe, IPSO concludes, that humankind is altering the very chemistry of the ocean with significant marine life and the functioning of marine ecosystems.

This is not a problem that picking up garbage off our beaches or planting some mangroves can resolve, although we must take care of our local environment. This is a massive global problem with profound implications for human well-being on the planet.

Farmer Mark Brooks has been doggedly warning for years about sick soil and declining agricultural yields even with heavier and heavier doses of fertiliser. The Government has finally begun to listen and Mark has been made 'consultant' to the Ministry of Agriculture on soil health. But the soil health problem is much bigger than Jamaica. It is global. Mark has sent me links to a mass of material on the Food & Agriculture Organization's response to declining soil health worldwide. In response to the looming crisis, the UN organisation has declared 2015 as International Year of Soils.

soil at risk

For a number of reasons, not in the least, the modern agricultural practices as well as deforestation and overgrazing, the world's soil is at serious risk. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years. And, as a result of erosion over the past 40 years, 30 per cent of the world's arable land has become unproductive. Virtually all of the food products farmed, some 97 per cent are grown on just nine per cent of the Earth's surface. But because of soil degradation, 12 million hectares [30 million acres] of land turn into artificial deserts each year. That's 10 Jamaicas. If this trend is not reversed, two-thirds of the arable land of the world risk losing their current productivity.

In conjunction with the World Economic Forum, Time magazine ran a December 2012 'What if?' interview with soil expert professor John Crawford of the University of Sydney. The question was "What if the world's soil runs out?"

The magazine said some experts fear the world, at its current pace of consumption, is running out of usable topsoil. The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with TIME, talked to Prof Crawford on the seismic implications soil erosion and degradation may have in the decades to come.

Prof Crawford told Time: A rough calculation of current rates of soil degradation suggests we have about 60 years of topsoil left. Some 40 per cent of soil used for agriculture around the world is classed as either degraded or seriously degraded - the latter means that 70 per cent of the topsoil, the layer allowing plants to grow, is gone. Because of various farming methods that strip the soil of carbon and make it less robust as well as weaker in nutrients, soil is being lost at between 10 and 40 times the rate at which it can be naturally replenished.

A broken food system is destroying the soil and fuelling health crises as well as conflicts, Crawford warns. Under a business as usual scenario, the expert warns, degraded soil will mean that we will produce 30% less food over the next 20-50 years. This is against a background of projected demand requiring us to grow 50% more food.

And with soil, water will reach a crisis point. Even moderately degraded soil will hold less than half of the water than healthy soil in the same location. And irrigation water is already a source of cross-national tension with agriculture taking up 70 per cent of global fresh water use, Crawford says.

Famine has been a feature of human history since time immemorial. We have been fooling ourselves that modern agriculture and the massive food industry have banished the risk of widespread famine at least in the now better off parts of the world. But we have quite literally engineered the next large-scale famine which now seems inevitable and with the earth crammed with more mouths to feed now than at any previous time in human history, seven billion of them and counting.

The world is fed in the main by a little over a dozen staple crops. Just 15 crop plants provide 90 per cent of the world's food energy intake (exclusive of meat), with rice, corn and wheat comprising two-thirds of human food consumption. The Big Three are the staples of over four billion people. Roots and tubers like cassava and yam are staples for more than one billion more people in the developing world.

Apart from the soil crisis, the big problem is that the smart guys have intensively bred just a few varieties of these crops wherever they are 'scientifically' grown in big farming systems.

Dionne Jackson Miller discussed superbugs on her programme 'Beyond the Headlines' last Wednesday evening. This is another looming environmental threat for which the stage has been set. Antibiotics have been quite literally a miracle life-saver. But their widespread and persistent use has pushed disease causing bugs to develop resistance. We can't just imagine that we will forever keep one step ahead of these superbugs with newer and better antibiotics. Adding to the bug threat are new types emerging.

An oldish story in The Guardian newspaper [UK] aims to scare the daylights out of us: "World faces threat from new deadly diseases as scientists struggle to keep up, say experts," the paper screamed in 2007. "Infectious illness spreads at fastest rate in history." "World Health Organization calls for worldwide effort to avoid pandemics." And that was before the Ebola crisis of 2014!

We face a worrying future from a whole range of human-created macro-environmental problems, some of which have already passed the tipping point.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and