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Is America on the Brink of a Food Crisis?

If we continue our offenses against the land, we will have a problem far more complex than the failure of our economy.

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RJ: What would such a 50-year plan look like? What are the key features?  

WJ: We start by acknowledging the necessity of moving from an extractive, unsustainable economy to one that is renewable and sustainable, and the first place to look is to the production of the most basic commodity -- food. Once we face that necessity, we move to examining the possibilities for achieving this, recognizing that we have to act now while we still have slack, some room to move. Here's a sobering thought: If we don't achieve this sustainability first in agriculture, it's highly unlikely we will in any other sector of the economy and society. That's what makes this so imperative.

RJ: OK, start with the necessity: How is agriculture, as it is practiced today, an extractive enterprise that is unsustainable?  

WJ: All organisms are carbon-based and in a constant search for energy-rich carbon. About 10,000 years ago, humans moved from gathering/hunting to agriculture, tapping into the first major pool of energy-rich carbon -- the soil. It was agriculture that allowed us effectively to mine, as well as waste, the soil's carbon and other soil-bound nutrients. Humans went on to exploit the carbon of the forests, coal, oil and natural gas. But through all that, we've continued to practice agriculture that led to soil erosion beyond natural replacement levels. That's the basic problem of agriculture.  

Added to the problem of soil loss, the industrialization of agriculture has given us pollution by toxic chemicals, now universally present in our farmlands and streams. We have less soil and it is more degraded. We've masked that for years through the use of petrochemicals -- pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers. But that "solution" is no solution and is, in fact, part of the problem. There are no technological substitutes for healthy soil and no miraculous technological fixes for the problem of agriculture. We need to move past the industrial model and adopt an ecological model.  

RJ: This concern about chemicals has led to increased support for organic agriculture. Is that the solution?  

WJ: Organic agriculture is a start but by itself is insufficient. Eliminating the chemicals is only half the problem -- we still have to deal with soil erosion. Remember that we humans had organic agriculture until very recently, when we got industrial agriculture, and we still lost soil all along the way, for the last 10,000 years. There is good reason to believe we started the increase of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere about then (with the carbon compound of the soil being oxidized). It has only become a crisis in our time due to the scale increase of people and material and energy throughput.  

RJ: OK, so organic alone isn't the answer. Isn't that where no-till or minimum-till farming comes in?  

WJ: Those methods help deal with erosion, but as practiced today they require unacceptable levels of chemical inputs and end up eliminating biodiversity. Once again, it doesn't offer a way out of the extractive economy and the problem of contamination.  

RJ: So, where does that leave us?

WJ: Let's go back to basics: The core of this idea is the marriage of agriculture and ecology. As Wendell [Berry] says, we need to take nature as the measure. We need to look to nature for models of how to manage ecosystems in a sustainable fashion. At the Land Institute, we think that leads to perennial polycultures. Instead of annual crops grown in monocultures on an industrial model, we are looking at perennials in mixtures, which we think can solve a number of problems regarding erosion and contamination.