Thursday, January 20, 2011

It’s Time to Farm! Moving towards a New Paradigm of Sustainable Agriculture

Have you thought about food production lately? Agriculture is directly tied to the social, economic, and environmental well-being of our society. Agriculture directly impacts the health of everyone on the planet, and fixing the flaws in our agricultural production system will go a long ways towards eliminating poverty. As global agricultural production contributes roughly 20% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, agriculture also plays a crucial role in climate change. Much like energy, agriculture is one of those lynchpin factors that cut across boundaries and disciplines to affect almost everything in our society. If we are serious about moving towards a sustainable future, food production must be a central tenet in our work.

But why should we focus on farming? Common wisdom says that the days of the old family farm are over, and that agriculture is something we no longer have to think about. Americans now get almost all of their food from massive factory farms, and thanks to our wonderful technology, we don’t need many American workers to produce the glut of grain overflowing from the nation’s farms. It’s almost unheard of for a college graduate to head back to the farm, as the employment opportunities (if you can find them) are elsewhere.

Furthermore, there is a near global stampede of rural farmers rushing towards the rapidly developing urban areas. Thanks to the breakneck urban growth of the past 50 years, the planet just became an urban world in 2009, the first in history when more people lived in cities than in rural areas. As former farmers flock to the cities, agriculture in the developing world is also rapidly industrializing. All in all, it seems like a very bad time to be a farmer.

Yet, the scents of change (and sustainably grown food) may be in the air. In recent years, alternative agriculture has boomed in the United States, organic food has gone mainstream, and farmers markets have blossomed. Thanks to books like Michael Pollan’s The Ominvore’s Dilemma and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Americans have started to realize the harm that our industrial diet plays to our health and our environment. And many Americans have taken up gardening to grow portions of their own food. While we still are nowhere near the production achieved by Victory Gardens in World War II, the dream of urban agriculture bountiful enough to create self-sufficient cities may not be too far-fetched.

The growing food movement isn’t just confined to the U.S. Internationally, attention is turning away from input-intensive industrial farming methods (a la the Green Revolution) to integrated, holistic production techniques. Governments are finally starting to see that the problems of hunger, malnutrition, poverty, land degradation, water shortages, and climate change are all connected through agriculture. And dozens of reports, such as the Worldwatch Institute’s latest “State of the World” publication, have highlighted ways in which agriculture in developing countries can move forward sustainably.

It’s time for a paradigm shift in agriculture. As World Food Prize Laureate Hans Herren explains, we need a “Brown Revolution” that uses advances in soil science, plant physiology, integrated pest management to improve production in ways that sequester carbon and ensure long term resiliency of agricultural systems. We have already overcome most of the technical problems in sustainable production techniques. The only remaining question is, are we up for the challenge of changing the social norms of food?

It won’t be easy. Agro-business titans like Cargill and ADM utterly dominate market shares in the US, while companies like Monsanto are peddling their GMO “super-seeds” (complete with genes that legally belong to Monsanto) as fast as possible. Washington is in the pocket of Big-Ag, and the corporations will do whatever it takes to keep the public from knowing how their food is produced. By all accounts, it will take a monumental effort to take on the global food industry.

But maybe we do have the political will to fight this battle. With 60 million facebook users “farming” every day, we might be more interested in our food production than we let on. Student farms like the Burning Kumquat at Wash U are popping up on college campuses all across the nation. The surging demand for local farmers market is empowering farmers and limiting the profits of the global food giants. We may have hope after all.

Can this movement grow to a critical mass, and tip the food system back towards sustainable production? No one can yet say, but I plan to do my part to move the agricultural paradigm shift forward. Too much is at stake to not try.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Adam

    Good post.

    Remember our Soil Carbon Challenge, a competition to see how fast land managers can turn atmospheric carbon into soil organic matter