Fruit and Nut
The Need for Change
Historically, significant structural changes in agriculture have generally taken decades to fine tune then implement on a mass-scale. Even where producers are already convinced of the need to change, it is rarely just a simple matter of replacing one crop or practice with another. Existing assets have to be wound down, debts cleared, new skills learned, appropriate knowledge gained, capital raised, remedial work carried out and new markets developed. And producers may not be easily convinced: farmers by nature are conservative and tend to stick with what they know.
All existing agricultural policy is geared towards one end: business-as-usual. More of the same. More exports of agricultural products for which there is no local market; more imported animal feedstuff, more imported fertilisers, more imported food for the local population. Officially, global warming is acknowledged as a reality but when it comes to facing up to the likely outcomes in terms of food security there is complete denial.
The debate on future food security needs to be happening now, while there still is the cushion of existing globalised markets.
The Role of Nuts and Fruit in Future Food Security
How large a part of diet could nuts and fruit provide? One indicator - albeit an extreme case - is the diet of hunter-gatherer societies such as the !Kung, who occupy parts of the Kalahari desert in Namibia, Botswana and Angola. Up to 85 percent of the !Kung diet is provided by nuts, seeds and fruit. However, even if desirable, such a diet would not be sustainable in an industrial society: even ignoring the logistical aspects of harvesting and distribution, the land resource required would exceed what is available many times over.
On the other hand, the globalised industrial diet is not sustainable either, being predicated on cheap energy and utterly reliant on the continued availability of finite resources including water for irrigation, feeding of livestock, and food processing.
Somewhere in between the !kung and the modern industrial diet is a modern sustainable diet. It would vary according to local climate, soil quality, and other resource pressures but would be a diverse diet made up of components of most of the major food types; seeds, grains, fruit, nuts, vegetables, dairy, meat and fish. A very modest target for nuts plus fruit would be ten percent of total dietary requirements. In other words, one tenth of all food eaten: the equivalent of 36.5 days food per annum. In a country of five million people, the equivalent of feeding five hundred thousand of them.
Moreover, the production of this ten percent of food requirements could be achieved with a much smaller land resource than that needed to provide an equivalent amount of calories, fat or protein in the form of meat or dairy products. And while not as productive - in terms of calorific output per hectare - as wheat or oats, many of the orchards could be located on land not suited for tillage, for example on steep banks or on ground too stony to plough. In other places, orchards could be combined with low-density livestock, thereby providing two different food outputs from the same piece of land.
The table below gives some indication of the potential of tree crops in helping meet dietary requirements:
Nuts can be used for many things: as a flour substitute (chestnuts), for oil (hazelnuts and walnuts), or as a food in their own right. Even apples, although 85 percent water, have the potential to become a high energy food (by drying) and also could have a role as animal feed and as feedstock for ethanol production.
Below, we examine how agriculture might be reconfigured in order to deliver the nut and fruit yields necessary to provide ten percent of national food requirements.