Food and soil. You, geologist, TV celebrity, environmentalist, know the Earth to its very depths. How much food can our planet give us?
We cannot turn the entire planet into a garden or a cultivated field, and therefore the food it gives us is not infinite. On our planet there are mountains, icy poles and deserts and it is good that they continue to do their job. The irrigation projects in the deserts are doomed to fail for logistical reasons, but also for a general reason: because the planet has its own dynamics that cannot be countered or forced in order to produce more food or more fish in the sea. This is something that also brings about chain reaction of damage. If we think about agriculture as serving men and animals, the fertile lands have all been cultivated, even those closest to the sources of irrigation. What remains is the forest, and we cannot continue to cut down sections of forest for farming. The food of the earth is limited and we have to deal with this limit. This planet has a limit to the number of humans that it can accommodate.
Positive downscaling We’re about to interview the philosopher Serge Latouche. Both of you have affirmed that sustainable development is an oxymoron, since there is not one human activity that doesn’t impact the Planet negatively. Is our only chance of survive that of downscaling?
First of all, the downscaling that economist Latouche speaks of is of a positive kind, while ours is not at all positive, in my opinion. It seems to me, that to wish for it to be positive is still one step ahead. From the theoretical point of view, we have already been in decline for several quarters. The only solution, is to limit our resources, be it water or mineral resources, and to progressively reach the number of human inhabitants compatible with the planet, which should be much fewer than what we have today. Of course, you cannot physically remove people, but we must deal with more compatible numbers. Our actual headcount is not compatible with just one planet.
Meat industry. You said, citing the documentary "Meat The Truth", that the climate is harmed more by eating meat than by driving cars. On Earth, there are 1.3 billion heads of cattle. How does the Earth support this weight?
Well it simply doesn't. The problem is not limited to just the industrial farming of cattle, but also involves other types of farms: for example, pig farming in Italy. In other parts of the world, almost ten billion fowl are bred. We are talking about huge numbers that are not sustainable for the planet, for the reasons I mentioned earlier. There is not enough land to for pasture or grains. Above all, the health conditions for producing the meat is not always crystal clear: you have to give antibiotics and anabolic steroids to animals and make them stand in feedlots, not to mention the lives they have. The consumption of red meat, indeed meat in general, is not compatible with the planet because to produce a pound of meat takes thousands of liters of water; it demand the consumption of fuel and involves a whole series of movements and environmental costs that are very difficult to compensate for. This is also true for fish. If today, the people in India wanted to eat all the fish currently consumed by the Japanese, it would take about 100 million tons of fish per year. Keep in mind that the world is catching a total of 100 million fish and it cannot fish for anymore. We are already above the limit, but do not realize it because a part of humanity lives under these limits, while we in the West live above it. This is why the system is maintained, otherwise it could not take anymore. If the Chinese want to eat the amount meat that Americans eat, there will not be enough pasture for all the animals needed to feed them.
Nutrition. You conducted a series of public lectures on the theme of ecological nutrition. What is the most sustainable diet?
On the one hand, we should look to the consumption of water and soil and, on the other, at our carbon footprint and energy consumption. The more sustainable diet is one that involves the least possible distance between those who consume and the place where food is produced (the famous zero kilometer) which includes low - or zero - levels of animal protein. It is a diet that involves the intelligent use of water and wine because these substances must be taken into consideration. The Mediterranean diet, for example, that is the diet of our ancestors that weighed little on Planet because it involved the use of very little very little meat and fish. It was practically a vegetarian diet, made up of various types of carbohydrates, vegetables and fruits. This is the only diet that is compatible with the planet.
Climate change and food. Global warming is changing the geography of agriculture. It is increasingly difficult to cultivate cocoa in Africa, and in France wine production is moving to England and Greenland. What scenario do you see for 2050?
I do not know if wine production can end up in Greenland, but it could reach the northern parts of England and perhaps Scandinavia. This has happened before, during periods of extreme heat in the Middle Ages, when England cultivated vines. The climate will change the course of cultivation, but mostly it will expand swathes of desert, so basically helpful soils will be diminished. If we then touch the rain forest, then we will be in serious trouble; so more than worrying about the movement of wine production, I'd be worried about having fewer forests to breathe, which also depends on the thoughtless use we make of our wood resources.
Oil. You said that fossil fuel resources are not infinite and that it is easier to understand the use of oil to make a plastic material rather burning it in an engine. Even if we use it only to produce plastic, how much would be left?
I do not wish to be taken for an advocate of plastic. Even if fossil fuels are used to create plastic materials, they involve a number of significant problems. Given that in the United States 15 new polymer patents are produced every week, I would say that there is not much remaining of the resource. I would say that to exploit a resource up to that point, with the consequences that this exploitation produces is not the work of an animal as intelligent as we think we are. Remember that burning hydrocarbons produces devastating consequences for the environment.
Oil and food. The food we eat is produced using fossil fuels. Fertilizers are made using oil, tractors use oil as fuel, some food additives (artificial colors and flavors) are derived from petroleum. Are there alternatives?
First of all, there are paths that you can take to make better food and then there are the organic farms that do not use chemical fertilizers and also make use of compost as a sensible way to recover organic waste. Basically, extensive use of pesticides has been seen to cause damage, and while it is true that it can eliminate a pest, it also puts the crop under threat from other kinds of pests. To think about how to grow crops and increase their intensity using chemicals is not really smart. This is not acceptable, as we have already seen in the first green revolution, and the agricultural revolution of the 70’s and post-war, the pesticide and DDT revolution, because plants simply become resistant and we do not gain much by it all. It seems to me that today the productivity of the land has remained roughly that of the Middle Ages: 30 to 40 percent, maybe a little more, despite the use of chemicals. This means that it they are not needed.
GMOs and biotechnology Studies on GMOs began 40 years ago. The problem began when we started to do research on edible plants. How can we tell if research or technology is "over the top" or useless? Is it a matter of cost? Or is the problem the risks?
From a certain point of view, it is a question of costs because these technologies have a cost, but it is also a matter of effectiveness because they are usually not very effective. In the case of GMO’s, the technology speeds up in the plant what it would normally take longer to do. If we think about it, grafts have always been done, man has always selected plants, but over much longer times. Instead, we want to accelerate timing, but we have seen that this can lead to counterproductive results. And let’s not forget the Indian children who need to eat golden rice to fight glaucoma because of its vitamin B content, and for this to happen they should eat a few pounds of rice a day, which is not the case. In fact, there is much more Vitamin B in the spices used in their diet; coriander for example. The illusions of genetics are just forcing Nature’s timing, and this forcing of things is something that since we are not yet gods, we cannot afford.