Sustainable Farming Can Feed the World?

Proponents of contemporary agribusiness style farming claim that the only way to feed the world is to grow more food efficiently in the arable land using the techniques that they know how to use, ie. synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, et al. These techniques have largely served to explode the human population this past century. Coincidentally, most of these chemicals are derived by the oil industry and it’s offshoots. Yes, I’m talking that viscous black and dirty stuff we know as crude oil. The gas we use to power our vehicles is the lesser portion refined from oil. Most of the other constituents are used for other purposes, like plastics.

But, what if the contemporary agribusiness model of oil-based agronomy can’t actually deliver on it’s claims? Well, technically, it hasn’t, despite claims to the opposite. We exist in the most abundant food period in human history, yet we have record starvation.

Bittman blogging at the NY Times reports:

The oldest and most common dig against organic agriculture is that it cannot feed the world’s citizens; this, however, is a supposition, not a fact. And industrial agriculture isn’t working perfectly, either: the global food price index is at a record high, and our agricultural system is wreaking havoc with the health not only of humans but of the earth. There are around a billion undernourished people; we can also thank the current system for the billion who are overweight or obese.

Yet there is good news: increasing numbers of scientists, policy panels and experts (not hippies!) are suggesting that agricultural practices pretty close to organic — perhaps best called “sustainable” — can feed more poor people sooner, begin to repair the damage caused by industrial production and, in the long term, become the norm.

But wait, what does he mean it not “hippies” talking about sustainable agriculture? Aren’t the tree huggers the ones who are always yipping and yapping about Mother Earth and Gaia and the evil oil farmers? Aren’t they the ones who say organic is best and agribusiness is low quality food? Well, not any more. Genuine scientists (yes, those guys in white labcoats) are seeing trend research that is pointing increasingly at contemporary food production as being a bad thing.

Further, by decentralizing production, floods in Southeast Asia, for example, might not mean huge shortfalls in the world’s rice crop; smaller scale farming makes the system less susceptible to climate shocks. (Calling it a system is a convention; it’s actually quite anarchic, what with all these starving and overweight people canceling each other out.)

Industrial (or “conventional”) agriculture requires a great deal of resources, including disproportionate amounts of water and the fossil fuel that’s needed to make chemical fertilizer, mechanize working the land and its crops, running irrigation sources, heat buildings and crop dryers and, of course, transportation.

Well, if the agribusiness model eats up all these resources, then doesn’t it make more sense to decentralize the process of growing food to make it more of a local concern? Community gardens and backyard gardening has taken up a growing interest these past years. We even have one in Edinburg and McAllen. Interestingly, there is such a desire to join the McAllen community garden, that there is a backlog of people waiting to get a plot in it each season! The McAllen Community Garden has successfully demonstrated a working model of local food production using appropriate resources for the terrain and location. They buy their water in bulk and irrigate as necessary, instead of running sprinklers for what seems an eternity on nearly every lawn out there just to keep it green, much less healthy. The growers get to enjoy the benefit of healthy produce grown locally. Local produce is the freshest and healthiest you can buy. It’s just that simple. They even get to grow some nifty varieties which might not keep well on a store shelf after being harvested in Chile and transported to America by plain, train, or automobile.

Bittman correctly points out that:

Agro-ecology and related methods are going to require resources too, but they’re more in the form of labor, both intellectual — much research remains to be done — and physical: the world will need more farmers, and quite possibly less mechanization. Many adherents rule out nothing, including in their recommendations even GMOs and chemical fertilizers where justifiable. Meanwhile, those working towards improving conventional agriculture are borrowing more from organic methods. (Many of these hybrid systems were discussed convincingly in Andrew Revkin’s DotEarth blog last week.)

Leaving aside the Federal Government-approved ($2 BILLION in 2004 alone!) myth of anthropomorphised global warming, Bittman states:

Currently, however, it’s difficult to see progress in a country where, for example, nearly 90 percent of the corn crop is used for either ethanol (40 percent) or animal feed (50 percent). And most of the diehard adherents of industrial agriculture — sadly, this usually includes Congress, which largely ignores these issues — act as if we’ll somehow “fix” global warming and the resulting climate change. (The small percentage of climate-change deniers are still arguing with Copernicus.) Their assumption is that by increasing supply, we’ll eventually figure out how to feed everyone on earth, even though we don’t do that now, our population is going to be nine billion by 2050, and more supply of the wrong things — oil, corn, beef — only worsens things. Many seem to naively believe that we won’t run out of the resources we need to keep this system going.

There is more than a bit of silver-bullet thinking here. Yet anyone who opens his or her eyes sees a natural world so threatened by industrial agriculture that it’s tempting to drop off the grid and raise a few chickens.

Chickens are fine if you live in the outlands, but us city folk have limited space and city ordinances against animals making noise.. Rabbits are a better choice for us.

Bittman continues:

To back up and state some obvious goals: We need a global perspective, the (moral) recognition that food is a basic right and the (practical) one that sustainability is a high priority. We want to reduce and repair environmental damage, cut back on the production and consumption of resource-intensive food, increase efficiency and do something about waste. (Some estimate that 50 percent of all food is wasted.) A sensible and nutritious diet for everyone is essential; many people will eat better, and others may eat fewer animal products, which is also a eating better.

Well, I can certainly agree that sustainability is a high priority. Eating less animal products though… This is certainly arguable. “Less” is a purely subjective term. In place of the Standard American Diet (SAD), odds are good that most people consume a high proportion of animal content in their diet. However, this is misleading. The real culprit in the SAD of today is not so much the animal content, but the processed foods we consume. Sugar, in it’s various forms, and carbohydrates at large like refined flours and starches are largely responsible for the so-called “obesity epidemic” which is also an arguable situation, as the definition of obese has been revised to lower weights over time. Meat consumption is part of our evolutionary diet. We didn’t gorge ourselves on it at every meal, but when we were cavemen we did gorge ourselves on it every chance we got. Imagine hunting down a gazelle with spears and see how often you could manage to bag one. If you killed it, you would feast on its carcass till the bones were clean! I hope Bittman isn’t arguing that we all need to become vegans, because that just ain’t gonna happen. If so, I look forward to my vegan super powers.

Lastly, Bittman states:

No one knows how many people can be fed this way, but a number of experts and studies — including those from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the University of Michigan and Worldwatch — seem to be lining up to suggest that sustainable agriculture is a system more people should choose. For developing nations, especially those in Africa, the shift from high- to low-tech farming can happen quickly, said de Schutter: “It’s easiest to make the transition in places that still have a direction to take.” But, he added, although “in developed regions the shift away from industrial mode will be difficult to achieve,” ultimately even those countries most “addicted” to chemical fertilizers must change.

“We have to move towards sustainable production,” he said. “We cannot depend on the gas fields of Russia or the oil fields of the Middle East, and we cannot continue to destroy the environment and accelerate climate change. We must adopt the most efficient farming techniques available.”

And those, he and others emphasize, are not industrial but sustainable.

which is perhaps the most telling information here. There is not a silver bullet which is guaranteed proof of how to feed the global population. But we have under a century of oil-based agronomy under our belts and several thousand years of traditional farming techniques. Records show that during every other farming period we were healthier because the food we ate was of a higher quality. We didn’t have brittle bones or teeth with cavities like we do today.

So, can a sustainable agricultural system feed the global population? As I said earlier, growing enough food is not the problem. We already grow plenty of food. Much of it goes to waste. The problem for those hungry souls is the distribution network has failed them. Either roving warlords hijack the food we send them, or they are unable to get food from their own internal country supplies, usually due to corrupt officials. Local farming and gardening is probably the best answer to this. However, it will require a redesign of our paradigm of food. We have to take the first few steps into our own history and reopen our own knowledge of growing good food with the techniques of our grandparents and their forebears. If we don’t, we will continue the downward spiral of poor quality food that is lacking optimum nutrition.

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