Is America on the Brink of a Food Crisis?
Continued from previous page
RJ: Before I ask about the details, a basic question: Is that feasible, given the 6.5 billion people on the planet? Can such strategies focused on perennials produce enough food?
WJ: First, let's recognize that without fossil fuels, the industrial-agriculture strategies we have now could not feed even the current population, and population growth makes these changes more important than ever. As populations grow, there's increasing pressure to put more and more marginal land into production, which increases the rate of degradation. A new model is essential.
At the Land Institute, we've been working on perennializing the major crops and domesticating a few promising wild species. By increasing the use of mixtures of grain-bearing perennials, we can not only better protect the soil but also help reduce greenhouse gases, fossil-fuel use and toxic pollution. Carbon sequestration would increase, and the husbandry of water and soil nutrients would become much more efficient.
RJ: Let's assume that natural systems agriculture and similar projects hold the promise you suggest. Those practices will have to be implemented in the real world, which is structured by the larger extractive economy in capitalism, at a time of crisis -- some would say, even, a time of collapse. What has to happen to make that possible?
WJ: You're right that it's not just about plants and science; it's also about people and society. We think that protecting the soil is not only an ecological imperative but an opportunity for positive economic and cultural change as well. The proposals we're discussing would increase employment opportunities in agriculture -- sustainable farming will require more "eyes per acre," and replacing fossil-fuel energy with human energy and ecological knowledge makes good economic sense. With the reduced need for the hoe or plow, and land management relying more on fire and grazing, we draw on the naturalist instinct in nearly all of us, rather than presenting farm work as nothing but the "sweat of the brow" amid "thistles and thorns." This will be necessary to counter the longstanding denigration of the countryside and rural communities, which has been a feature of our so-called cosmopolitan culture.
We're seeing that on a small scale now, with more young farmers staying on the land, with creative new endeavors in community-supported agriculture. People recognize that life is more than working in a small cubicle and consuming in a big-box store. People are hungry for good food, and they're also hungry for a good life. People are ready to explore what it would mean to come home, not to a romanticized vision of the past but to a sustainable future.
RJ: How would a farm bill that you and Wendell might write differ from what we see today?
WJ: The farm bills we've had largely address exports, commodity problems, subsidies and food programs. They all involve here-and-now concerns. A 50-year farm bill represents a vision that stresses the need to protect soil from erosion, cut the wastefulness of water, cut fossil-fuel dependence, eliminate toxins in soil and water, manage carefully the nitrogen of the soil, reduce dead zones, restore an agrarian way of life and preserve farmland from development. The best way to accomplish most of these goals is to gradually increase the number of acres with perennial vegetation, first of all through rotations and increase in the number of grass-fed dairies sprinkled about the countryside, and second, through progress toward perennializing the major crops. A good bill could help farmers accomplish those things.
RJ: It's also likely that many people reading this will dismiss you as idealistic, as unrealistic. How would you answer that?