Humanity at the 4th Agricultural Crossroads: A Choice of Cleverness or Wisdom

Harvard University Extension School

Humanity at the 4th Agricultural Crossroads:

A Choice of Cleverness or Wisdom

ENVR-120 Environmental Ethics & Land Management

Department of Environmental Management

BY

Chris Oestereich

 

St. Louis, MO

December, 2011

“Homo sapiens found a hunter’s paradise in Australia and the Americas.  All three continents were chock-full of toothsome herbivores utterly inexperienced in defending themselves against human aggressors, providing the newcomers with seemingly inexhaustible quantities of protein, fat, hide and bone.” -Alfred Crosby

“We’re really in the middle of a perfect storm with three forces: the kind of trade liberalization policies the World Bank, IMF & World Trade Organization have pushed which have created the food insecurity in the first place and put food in the hands of speculators in the future commodity markets where the investors are seeking 25% returns on food commodities and they’re only going to get it with food prices rising, the second is climate change and the third is the diversion of food to biofuels.” -Dr. Vandana Shiva

As we try to imagine the decline of Easter’s civilization, we ask ourselves, “Why didn’t they look around, realize what they were doing, and stop before it was too late? What were they thinking when they cut down the last palm tree?” – Jared Diamond

“And at that very moment, we heard a loud whack. From outside in the fields came the sickening smack of an axe on a tree. Then we saw the tree fall… the very last truffula tree of them all. No more trees. No more thneeds. No more work to be done.” -Dr. Seuss

“The American food system rests on an unstable foundation of massive fossil fuel inputs. It must be reinvented in the face of declining fuel stocks.” -Richard Heinberg and Michael Bomford

“Given that current production systems leave nearly one billion people undernourished, the onus should be on the agribusiness industry to prove its model, not the other way around.” -Barry Estabrook

“In the United States of America, where the means of subsistence have been more ample, the manners of the people more pure, and consequently the checks to early marriages fewer, than in any of the modern states of Europe, the population has been found to double itself in twenty-five years.  This ratio of increase, though short of the utmost power of population, yet as the result of actual experience, we will take as our rule, and say, that population, when unchecked, goes on doubling itself every twenty-five years or increases in a geometrical ratio. Let us now take any spot of earth, this Island for instance, and see in what ratio the subsistence it affords can be supposed to increase. We will begin with it under its present state of cultivation. If I allow that by the best possible policy, by breaking up more land and by great encouragements to agriculture, the produce of this Island may be doubled in the first twenty-five years, I think it will be allowing as much as any person can well demand. In the next twenty-five years, it is impossible to suppose that the produce could be quadrupled. It would be contrary to all our knowledge of the qualities of land.” -Thomas Malthus

The Problem

Humanity finds itself at a Malthusian crossroads. The United Nations (UN) estimates that there are now seven billion [1] co-pilots on this Spaceship Earth (Fuller, 1968), each operating a unique set of controls as we journey through space together. (Appendix A)  This presents a challenge, the enormity of which we’ve not dealt with before.  The scientific and technical challenges we face are dwarfed by the level of maturation we as a species must quickly arrive at.  The way we feed ourselves must change, or future crises will force change upon us.  We have faced similar choices in the past and have opted for clever solutions.  Neither temperance nor wisdom has been our strong suit, but scientific advances have armed us with knowledge from which we might begin to make wise choices.

Conventional agriculture is based on non-renewable resources which are being rapidly depleted.  This cannot be part of a sustainable future.  Wes Jackson, President of The Land Institute, credits former UC Berkeley professor Dan Luten with saying:

We came as a poor people to a seemingly empty land that was rich in resources, and we built our institutions for that perception of reality.  Poor people, empty land, rich.  Our economic institutions, our political institutions, even our religious institutions are predicated on that assumption. (Jackson, 2008)

Our food systems were built on the same assumptions.  These systems sacrificed diversity in the name of efficiency.  Commoditization is good for profits, but it saps systems of resilience.  Peter Meyer, Director, Center for Environmental Policy and Management at the University of Louisville, suggests that:

Optimization of any objective induces a tendency toward standardization of economic activities and outputs in the optimizing system. A loss of diversity will be the inevitable outcome of the application of an efficiency logic to the evaluation of economic activities and institutions. More specifically, I contend that the pursuit of monetarily valued outcomes in an industrial society produces monopoly and life-style uniformity which seriously weaken the adaptive capabilities of the socioeconomic system. (Meyer, 1976)

Image source: Lorne Mitchell

As Mr. Meyer suggests, we have chosen the canon developed by products of the University of Chicago’s vaunted economics department, which looks to commoditize the world for the benefit of the few.

Wes Jackson states the following about our food systems and the capitalist system which helped evolve them:

All capitalistic language involves rationale within the production/consumption cycle. Outside this cycle are forests and prairies and the atmosphere and more. The code for economic behavior does not include them until they are needed. So we discount them. The atmosphere has been a good place to externalize costs and now we see the consequences with climate change. The rule is that nature is ignored, subdued and abused. So here we are. We are clever, but we are not very wise. The abstractions we created as we created capitalism are abstractions of the pump; that’s cleverness. Being mindful of maintaining the well is the signature of wisdom. (Jackson, 2008)

The well which Mr. Jackson refers to is our common heritage, the collective natural resources of the planet.  The cleverness of the pump is our extractive economy.  Being mindful of the well is living within the means afforded to us by nature’s bounty.   The decisions which established our food systems made sense at the time, but they are no longer justifiable.  We must change these systems, or they will surely change us.

The Neolithic Revolution

Neolithic Tools - Image by: Wessex Archaeology

Humankind came to the first agricultural crossroads roughly 10,000 years ago.  With the end of the last ice age, climatic conditions favored population growth.  Prior to this time, our ancestors had survived solely as hunter-gatherers.  Population levels in hunter-gatherer societies were limited by the food which was naturally provided by their surrounding environment.  If a group depleted an area’s resources faster than nature replenished them, they eventually had to move to a new area to continue to subsist.

With the ice age over, proliferation of hunter-gatherer groups grew to the point where they, “Stressed the resource base causing these groups to adopt tactics to relieve the stress.  The alternative tactics were emigration, diversification of the resource base, and storage.  If the population continued to grow, either behaviors that limit reproduction became advantageous or a change in subsistence strategy to food production had to occur.” (Redding,

“Literacy, metallurgy, stratified societies, advanced weapons, and empires rested on food production. In addition, smallpox and the other crowd epidemic diseases of Eurasia could evolve only in those dense, sedentary human populations living in close contact with domesticated animals, whose own pathogens evolved into those specialized pathogens afflicting us.”-Jared Diamond

1985)

Thus the choice presented itself, “Homo Sapiens needed, not for the only time in the history of the species, to become either celibate or clever.  Predictably, the species chose the latter course.”  (Crosby, 1986)  One can assume that this was a bit of an unconscious choice as hunter-gatherers could not have known the path they were putting us on, so a bit of leniency may due, but UCLA’s Professor Jared Diamond asserts that this transition from hunter-gatherer societies, to agrarian ones, was the worst decision in history, stating that what was “supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered.” (Diamond, Collapse, 2004)  He then adds, “With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism that curse our existence.” (Diamond, 1987)  We as humans were infants from the perspective of scientific knowledge.  We lacked the capacity to make wise choices.

The Agricultural Revolution

The second agricultural crossroads occurred when European farmers of the eighteenth century met with new circumstances that resulted in the same problem.  Rather than hitting the outward limits of space, these farmers were met with a trend of declining yields due to decreased soil fertility.  Humanity was once again faced with Crosby’s question of celibacy or cleverness.  We again chose the latter as, “scientifically inclined reformers taught traditional English farmers… to rotate their fields between arable and grass to improve livestock husbandry and augment their manure supplies, and to cultivate root crops such as turnips to feed their cattle and legumes such as clover to add nitrogen to the soil.” (Friedman, 1974)  Farmers also put the horse and plow to work in this time frame, greatly increasing the work they were able to accomplish and the food they could produce.  These changes fueled expansion as European colonists radiated out across the globe.  Once again, decisions were made with little understanding of their impacts.  Professor and author Raj Patel suggests that this time period also saw the transition of ownership of land to the wealthy, from what had been a shared resource.  Peasant farmers “who remained on the land worked for a wage and only after-hours worked to feed themselves.”  This turn from a collectivistic to an individualistic approach to society is a pervasive blight on society to this day.

Image by: donnamarijne

The agricultural revolution might have led to a shared prosperity where we learned to live within the constraints placed upon us by nature.  In hindsight, it appears somewhat predictable that we ignored these limits in beginning to leverage the past, in the form of fossil fuels, against our shared future. We were then but children, still bereft of the knowledge needed to be wise.

The Green Revolution

Around the middle of the last century, we reached the third agricultural crossroads.  The global population lurched forward in the wake of World War II as the World Health Organization tackled diseases in newly formed countries. “One of the results of the preventive medical measures set afoot was a drastic decrease in the mortality rate of the developing countries. And it was not until the 1960s that the prospects of a population explosion constituted a menace, not only to the developing countries but to the whole world.” (Nobelprize.org)  Agricultural yields did not keep pace with population growth in developing nations.  Again we were faced with the question of celibacy or cleverness.  Given the circumstances, who could stop the post-war party?

Dwindling yields and fear of out-groups led Sir William Crookes to state the following.

The fixation of nitrogen is a question of the not-far-distant future.  Unless we can class it as among certainties to come, the great Cuacasian race will cease to be foremost in the world, and will be squeezed out of existence by races to who wheaten bread to whom wheaten bread is not the staff of life.

More cleverness was surely in order.

Three 20thcentury scientists delivered changes to our food systems which would mightily alter the trajectory of human population.  In the early part of the century, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch were awarded Nobel prizes for work which allowed us to fix nitrogen from the air via industrial processes.  Their work freed humanity of the limits of the Nitrogen Cycle.

Dr. Norman Borlaug - Image by: khalampre

Much of the world’s conventional agricultural practices have their roots in the Green Revolution, “a period from around 1960 to 1990 when there was a tremendous boom in agricultural productivity in the developing world.” (FAO, 2011)  Norman E. Borlaug, an American plant scientist who worked to improve agricultural yields in developing countries, has been “credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives,” (Gillis, 2009) and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work on the Green Revolution.  Appendix B shows the change in the level of production and prices of three of the most critical grains: Rice, Maize and Wheat, from 1960 to 2000.

While Mr. Borlaug’s work has been widely lauded, support for it is not universal.  Some of his supporters suggest that the Green Revolution has benefitted the planet by minimizing the amount of land needed for production, thereby leaving virgin forests as a carbon sink.  Environmentalists decry the impacts of the Green Revolution’s petrochemical intensive methods, “The ingenuity that has been used to feed a growing world population will have to be matched quickly by an effort to keep the nitrogen cycle in reasonable balance.” (Delwiche, 1970)  Others suggest the methods are unsustainable due to their dependence on our fast depleting reserves of fossil fuel and worry that we are setting ourselves up for a population collapse of cataclysmic proportions.

Mr. Borlaug admitted the potential dangers of his methods stating that, “If the world population continues to increase at the same rate, we will destroy the species,” but he believed population growth to be the problem which necessitated his methods.  One might then assume that Mr. Borlaug intended his methods as a bridge to prevent mass starvation, as the world struggled towards more natural agricultural options and sustainable population levels.  The Green Revolution helped feed a larger percentage of a fast growing population, while the absolute number dealing with hunger dipped a bit, but we never came close to eliminating the problem.  In 2009, a newsletter published by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization claimed that “925 million people do not have enough to eat and 98 percent of them live in developing countries.” (FAO, 2010)  Food security is a growing issue with economic and climatic forces conspiring to swing the fates of over 100 million people into undernourishment over the past five years.  This might not seem surprising given the rise in the price of oil and the spate of extreme weather, which have combined for lower yields and higher food prices.   Interestingly, increases in grain production have outpaced population growth throughout the time in question. (Appendices D & E)  As such, we’ve allowed our population to mushroom, while putting our ecosystems at peril, but we’ve done little to reduce the number of people suffering from hunger.  If the Haber-Bosch process created the population bomb, the Green Revolution set it off.  As a species, we had become adolescents, aware at times of the consequences, but still deferring the opportunity to make wise choice.

The Sustainability Revolution?

We now find ourselves at the next great crossroads.  One path leads to the doubling down of petro-intensive and genetically modified options which are headed towards failure.  The school of thought says we just have to continue to pursue the scientific means to conquer nature and all will be fine.  It is the classic Technocentrist argument and it is a false hope.  The other path takes us to a Malthusian world where we attempt to live within nature’s limits.  Which path we choose remains to be seen.

Ethical Concerns

Our scenario raises a host of serious ethical questions.  The first is a direct question which stems from the inability to feed our people, by systems which are known to destroy the environment, and which also deliver chronic obesity in some parts of the world.  The year 2011 saw record cereal grain harvests, while at the same time the FAO “estimates indicate that 33 countries around the world are in need of external assistance as a result of crop failures, conflict or insecurity, natural disasters and high domestic food prices.” (FAO, 2011)  The second is a more fundamental question of what the role and responsibilities of business is to respond to changes in circumstances.  When science advances a discovery that raises a specter on a firm’s operations, what are the firm’s obligations?  Should demographic changes and environmental issues become inputs to strategic planning?  Finally, what is the role of government?  If firms are expected to optimize their financial returns, regardless of their impacts to the whole, should government have a hand in providing balance?

Prevailing agricultural practices carry a host of both practical and ethical concerns.  Jared Diamond lays out the historical reasons for societal collapse along with a few more recent ones:

The process through which past societies have undermined themselves by damaging their environments fall into eight categories, whose relative importance differs from case: deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems (erosion, salinity, and soil fertility losses), water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth and increased per capita impact of people.

The environmental problems facing us today include the same eight that undermined past societies, plus four new ones: human-caused climate change, build up of toxic chemicals in the environment, energy shortages, and full human utilization of the earth’s photosynthetic capacity.” (Diamond, Collapse, 2004)

Lester Brown reported in 1968 issue of Foreign Affairs that the Green Revolution was helping to feed the developing world, but he did warn that, “This agricultural revolution is not the ultimate solution to the food-population problem, but it does buy some much needed additional time in which to mount effective family-planning programs.”

In 1968, R. Buckminster Fuller penned the Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, in which he recognized the need for mankind’s maturity, “To begin our position-fixing aboard our Spaceship Earth we must first acknowledge that the abundance of immediately consumable, obviously desirable or utterly essential resources have been sufficient until now to allow us to carry on despite our ignorance.”  We were but adolescents then, possibly knowing better, but not yet ready to be wise.

Spaceship Earth - Image by: NASA

The Tapestry and the Patterned Mosaic

When viewed from a great distance, our planet’s biota takes on the appearance of an immense tapestry.  Beautiful and diverse, flora and fauna vary greatly from region to region.  Zoom in a bit, and it more closely resembles a patterned mosaic with each life form filling a specific ecological niche.  Both the tapestry and mosaics are continuously changing.  Individual species change via evolution and the mix and concentration of species change due to external forces.  Most of the time, these changes are imperceptible due to the glacial pace of both evolution and natural climate cycles.  Occasionally, extreme circumstantial changes caused by external forces lead to mass extinctions.  “Paleontologists characterize mass extinctions as times when the Earth loses more than three-quarters of its species in a geologically short interval, as has happened only five times in the past 540 million years or so.   These periods tear apart the fabric of the tapestry.  The survivors patch it back together, but it is never the same.  The loss of a keystone species could ripple through a food chain causing successive layers to disappear.   Biologists now suggest that a sixth mass extinction may be under way, given the known species losses over the past few centuries and millennia.” (Barnosky, et al., 2011)  Knowing that, what do we make of the recent discovery of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) experienced by honey bees?  Over the winter of 2007-2008, “between 0.75 and 1.00 million honey bee colonies are estimated to have died in the United States.” (Engelsdorp, 2008)

The Fossil Fuel Problem

The undisturbed state of nature is a polyculture, but conventional agriculture eschews polyculture in favor of economically favorable monocultures.  Herbicides and pesticides are used to sterilize the soil so that a field can be planted with a single crop.  The intent is to turn the field into the outdoor equivalent of the high-tech clean room.  This is an expensive and counter-productive endeavor.  Soil is eroded and depleted of nutrients through this model.  (Appendix C) The only reason yields are not severely reduced is the heavy use of nitrogen fertilizers which create eutrophic conditions in our waterways.  The fertilizers which help induce crops to grow, also increase water-based life, which leads to reduced aquatic oxygen levels. (Appendix D)

Reduced oxygen levels exist in over 400 sites around the world and many of them have expanded over the past couple of decades.  One study found, “Paleoindicators in dated sediment cores indicat(ing) that hypoxic conditions likely began to appear around the turn of the last century and became more severe since the 1950s as the nitrate flux from the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico tripled.”  Another study states that the following questions remain unanswered about our impacts to the Nitrogen Cycle:

Where is it going? How much is stored? How much is denitrified? We will not be able to determine the impact of Nr mobilization on human and environmental systems until we can account for its fate. Another critical topic for research is how can we manage Nr more effectively? Specifically, how can we eliminate the creation of Nr by energy production? How can we decrease the amount of nitrogen released during food production? (Galloway & Cowling, 2002)

The Parties

Given the interconnectedness of global food systems, one could say that everyone has an interest in one form or another.  Three categories are examined here: Business, Government and Communities.  The categories are not exhaustively detailed, but the greatest effecting and effected groups are represented.  The members of each of the studied groups are far from homogenous.  Their needs from, and interests in, global food systems fall along a broad spectrum.

Business

Farmers have structured their businesses to be profitable under prevailing conditions and need to deliver the products demanded by the market.  Policy changes could affect their profitability and possibly even their solvency.  Farmers may also be concerned with worker and animal health on their farms and the long-term ability to sustain their farming activities. Farmers range from smallholding subsistence farmers to agricultural giants.  Smallholders look for assurance that a bad year will not cost them their farms and the opportunity to provide for a comfortable retirement.  Large corporate farms are beholden to Wall Street and must continuously look to profit maximization.  The smallholder’s focus tends toward the ongoing viability of their farm, which includes aspects such as the long term health of their farm’s soil, while the large farm is maniacally focused on quarterly earnings.

Food processors that are public firms that want to buy commodities goods for the smooth transactions they provide, both from financial and production perspectives.  They are concerned with policies that would impact their share price and profitability as well as those which might limit a firm’s size.  Smaller processors are concerned with policies which might limit or obviate their ability to compete.

Suppliers come in many forms and thus have a wide range of concerns.  They could be impacted by changes in government regulations, farming approaches and consumer preferences.  Some have sought monopoly control of aspects of the market (and the resulting exaggerated profits).  Producers have succeeded in this approach by patenting technology in their seeds. Efforts to patent life forms are deliberate attempts at hegemonic and monopolistic control over out groups.  Financial constraints created by this spurious paradigm subjugate smallholding farmers to the vagaries of the market.  Patent laws allow seed producers to sue farmers for patent infringement if their products are found to be growing on farms where the patented seeds were not purchased for that year’s planting.  Farmers can no longer save seeds; the basis of agriculture’s inception.  Seed producers have also succeeded in buying or squeezing out their competition, which severely limits biodiversity.  Commoditized products replace regional varieties, ratcheting up the potential of widespread famine as a single mutation of a plant disease or the introduction of an invasive species could devastate crop yields due to their homogenous nature.

Government

All firms seek to at least sustain themselves, but how they go about this varies greatly.  The greater freedom they are given, the greater their opportunity to achieve financial success, but this is a double-edged sword.  Failing to create adequate protections invites businesses to externalize costs on the commons.  In a world where businesses are tasked with profit maximization as their focus, higher authorities must act to ensure these entities do not optimize the parts at the expense of the whole.  Governments have the unenviable task of balancing these competing interests while seeking to bring our consumption patterns within the constraints placed upon us by nature.  Adding complication to this matter is the fact that this is truly a global problem, but no global authority exists which can create binding solutions.  Thus far, negotiations have been held by representatives of nations, who in attempting to protect national interests subvert the goal of collective action.  The problems are not national ones and thus cannot be resolved by state actors.

Community

Food security is fast becoming the key concern for many communities around the globe.  Millions of people are currently struggling for subsistence in the Horn of Africa.  Climate change is expected to lower yields with parts of the world drying out, as other receive increased precipitation.  People want clean air and water for their families and they don’t want to be exposed to toxic chemicals from production processes.  They also want fresh, healthy food options and the capacity to hand off a healthy environment to future generations.

Principles

This paper was written with the assumption that businesses are created in such a way that their strategic make up is ethically justifiable.    Given that assumption, the question then arises, as circumstances change, how should they be expected to react, if at all?  Should businesses be expected to monitor scientific advances and adjust to findings which cast new light on their operations?  Are they beholden to a higher ethical standard, or is the impetus purely to make money?  If not, can society function in the long-term when businesses position themselves for exponential growth in finite systems?

Theory of Community

In a seemingly infinite world where there is enough room for those with differing views to spread out, we can afford to perceive multiple, simultaneous communities.  In a crowded, resource constrained world, we do have that luxury.  We must begin to look at the world as a single human community and likely as a single community of all life on the planet. Only then will we respond appropriately as a collective international community.

Theory of System

Our current perception of systems relating to food production and distribution are myopic at best.  The extractive economy places no value on the ecosystem services we disrupt with our take-make-waste outlook.  We need to integrate cyclical systems thinking into our strategic planning processes which will then allow us to develop integrated solution.

Theory of Authority

The nations of the world need to pass decision making authority for intractable problems to a diverse epistemic community.  This community could provide direction to nations on their responsibilities and how to fulfill them.  Failing this arrangement, we’ll continue down the path of near agreements and watered-down results.

Theory of Agency

Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman famously wrote,

“In a free-enterprise, private-property sys­tem, a corporate executive is an employee of the owners of the business. He has direct re­sponsibility to his employers. That responsi­bility is to conduct the business in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible while con­forming to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom.”

If this line of thinking is to be believed, than we must assume that the aim of business is to optimize their parts of the systems they interact with.  Optimizing the parts without the consideration of the whole is inefficient at best and destructive at worst.

Theory of Change

Government regulation of business has waned since Ronald Reagan’s the ascendance to the Presidency in 1980.  The laissez-faire approach he advocated led to the pervasive belief that the market functions best when left to its own devices, but this approach also affords companies the opportunity to externalize costs.  Much like the agency problem, if businesses are in charge of driving change, they will optimize systems for their own benefit.

Theory of Time

Can we delay changing our food systems?  Ignoring the potential impacts of climate change, there’s still plenty reason to act now.  Should we wait until we start running out of fossil fuels, we will have sentenced the world’s poor to starvation.  Should we continue to let the market drive production, our burgeoning health issues will continue to mount unabated.  Therefore, the maximum timeframe we should be looking at is the time we have until we reach peak oil production.  From a health perspective, there’s no time to waste.  Unfortunately, we don’t know when peak production will occur, or if it has already happened.  This puts us in a situation of needing to heed the precautionary principle to avoid the potential pitfalls of inaction.  We must act as if every day is our last opportunity to right the ship of our food systems for the faster we act, the lesser the impacts of peak production.  In fact, if we were successful in completely removing fossil fuels from our food systems, then the occurrence of peak oil production would have no direct impact.

Prescription for Change

In a way, the answers to our food system problems seem fairly simple.  We have to stop fighting nature and learn to work with it.  Fortunately, brilliant people around the world are piloting potential solutions.   We need to remove barriers to their successes and put wind at their sails.  We also need to ensure more options are being proposed and tried.  We need to create financial incentives which put a premium on the value of ecosystem services and for optimizing the balance between ecosystem services and food production.  Slanting too heavily towards restoring ecosystems would ensure famine, and we’re well aware of the problems of fully prioritizing food production.

In a way, we have to work backwards from the present, towards the systems which prevailed prior to the Green Revolution, but that alone won’t solve our problems as a direct reversion would lead to significantly decreased yields.  What we need is a balanced approach which appreciates the need for diversity as well as efficiency.  We need to place a number of small bets and then judiciously select options for greater investment.

Policy Recommendations

I recommend that we take the fork in the road which leads towards ethical, sustainable food systems.  To get there, we need to follow a two pronged approach.  First we must transform our food systems to set them in concert with nature.  The faster we do that, the more time we’ll have to deal with the second problem which is population.  Of course, there are ethical issues with attempting to directly control population, but I do believe we can have the intended effect through incentives.  We’ll also need to determine what the carrying capacity of a food system based on our solar income rather than our geological inheritance.  We’ve already spent too much of the latter and must learn to live within our means.  We need to understand what our solar carrying capacity is and whether we can quickly ramp up our conversion of sunlight to food and energy to support our burgeoning numbers.  If we cannot do so, then we must deleverage our use of resources through a measured draw down of our numbers.  Hopefully, this will not be necessary, but the longer we wait to find out where we stand, the greater the possibility of the need.  We must learn how many of us can our systems sustainably support and then decide how near or far we should we be from that cap.  As things stand, UN estimates suggest the possibility that our numbers could double by the end of the century. (Appendix E)  This does not seem possible given the current circumstances, but I’m certain the same was said fifty years ago.  Finally, we must try to be sensitive to cultural factors and the desire to maintain identities.  We must also admit that we are all part of the patterned mosaic which will continue to change despite our best efforts.

Scions

The following are snippets of four important reports which point towards hope for a future based on sustainable food systems.

1. The Land Institute’s 50-yr Farm Bill

“Long-term food security is our issue. We begin with the knowledge that essentially all of nature’s ecosystems feature perennial plants growing in species mixtures and that they build soil. Agriculture reversed that process nearly everywhere by substituting annual monocultures. As a result, ecosystem services—including soil fertility—have been degraded. Most land available for new production is of marginal quality that declines quickly. The resulting biodiversity loss gets deserved attention, soil erosion less.”

2. Manifestos on the Future of Food & Seed

“We live in a world where of the 80,000 edible plants used for food only about 150 are being cultivated, and just 8 are traded globally.  A world where we produce food for 12 billion people when there are only 6.3 billion people living, and, still, 800 million suffer from hunger and malnutrition and many more suffer diseases that could be eliminated easily with better food. A world where food is modified to travel long distances rather than to be nutritious and flavorful.”

3. UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

“The right to adequate food is realized ‘when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement. The right to adequate food shall therefore not be interpreted in a narrow or restrictive sense which equates it with a minimum package of calories, proteins and other specific nutrients. The right to adequate food will have to be realized progressively. However, States have a core obligation to take the necessary action to mitigate and alleviate hunger even in times of natural or other disasters.”

4. Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial (Rodale Institute, 2011)

“The hallmark of a truly sustainable system is its ability to regenerate itself. When it comes to farming, the key to sustainable agriculture is healthy soil, since this is the foundation for present and future growth.

Organic farming is far superior to conventional systems when it comes to building, maintaining and replenishing the health of the soil. For soil health alone, organic agriculture is more sustainable than conventional. When one also considers yields, economic viability, energy usage, and human health, it’s clear that organic farming is sustainable, while current conventional practices are not.

As we face uncertain and extreme weather patterns, growing scarcity and expense of oil, lack of water, and a growing population, we will require farming systems that can adapt, withstand or even mitigate these problems while producing healthy, nourishing food.

5.  “Energy Smart” Food for People and Climate (FAO, 2011)

“Becoming energy-smart will require a transformation along the food chain that involves:

  • relying more on low-carbon energy systems and using energy more efficiently
  • strengthening the role of renewable energy within food systems
  • providing greater access to modern energy services for development, and at the same time supporting the achievement of national food security and sustainable development goals.”

The Perennial Revolution

The keys to sustainable agriculture appear to be: the domestication of perennial crops and planting in poly-cultures.  Perennial crops grow deeper roots, which hold soil better than annual crops and require fewer inputs.  They also do not require annual tillage, which leads to much of the soil erosion occurring in conventional agriculture.  Groups like the scientists of The Land Institute are working to improve the yields of perennial grains so that we can employ them to begin rebuilding the quality and quantity of our soils.  The nature of perennials means fields need only be planted once every several years, thereby greatly reducing the need for soil cultivation and tillage.  Perennials grow deeper roots and thus are better able to protect the soil and utilize the resources within.

Patenting life

We must invalidate all patents on life.  The concept of ownership of a species is unconscionable.  We must move to a model of sharing of stock and work together to conserve our shared heritage of biodiversity.  We cannot undo all of the damage we’ve done, but we can put an end to our reign of terror.

“The impact of agriculture on the biosphere is well documented. Agriculture has transformed entire continents and in the process driven massive changes in the physics, energy flows, and biogeochemical cycling of the planet.” [Foley et al., 2005]. Documentation of agricultural impacts is therefore crucial to global change science and to securing human well being in a transformed biosphere.” (Monfreda, Ramankutty, & Foley, 2008)

Michael Pollan, author of “In Defense of Food” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” sets the tone for the overarching answer to our food system issues, “American farmers are incredibly inventive, innovative and accomplished.  They can do whatever we ask them, we just need to give them a new set of requirements.” (Brand, 2011)

Native Americans are famed for their long term approach to life on earth.  One tribe advocates the concept of leaving things intact for the next six generations.  Stuart G. Harris, of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, suggests the following:

“The tension between hoarding for individual gain and giving for community well-being is always with us. Traditional tribal structures focus more on the family, band, or tribe as the unit of survival because the distribution of workloads and resources was and is especially important for community balance. The mainstream society values independence and being able to survive economically on one’s own. Traditionally, a deliberate and delicate balance is applied by tribal elders and leaders while mainstream society assumes that the market system will balance things for us. A traditional person is responsible to the family (human and nonhuman), which is emphasized more than in American society, and our traditional economies and status systems still reward generosity and responsibility.” (Harris)

It’s time to let go of our individualistic leanings and embark on the journey to our collectivist future.  For 10,000 years we’ve played an exponentially accelerating game of musical chairs with our food systems.  We know the music will eventually stop, but we don’t know when, nor how many chairs will be taken away.  At prior crossroads, we’ve chosen clever solutions which extended the music and added chairs.  We can look for another clever solution, or we can wisely choose to stop playing the game.

Appendix

A. World Population Estimates (UNEP, 2011)

B. World Food Production (1960-2000) (Khush, 2009)

C. Soil losses – Organic vs. Conventional

D. World Hypoxic and Eutrophic Coastal Areas (World Resources Institute, 2008)

E. World Population All Variants 2005-2100 (Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat , 2011)

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“The use of nature as measure proposes an atonement between ourselves and our world, between economy and ecology, between the domestic and the wild. …
The reunion of nature and economy proposes a necessary democracy, for neither economy nor nature can be abstract in practice. When we adopt nature as measure, we require practice that is locally knowledgeable. The particular farm, that is, must not be treated as any farm. And the particular knowledge of particular places is beyond the competence of any centralized power or authority.
Farming by the measure of nature, which is to say the nature of the particular place, means that farmers must tend farms that they know and love, farms small enough to know and love, using tools and methods that they know and love, in the company of neighbors that they know and love.”

–Wendell Berry


[1] UN News Service

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