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With anxiety building over how humanity will feed itself in coming decades, we have two routes open to us. We can eliminate waste, stop producing crops for destructive uses (in factory farms, for biofuels, in sugary drinks, etc.), stop degrading the soil, water, and atmosphere that undergird our food production, and ensure fair access to nutritious food for all. Or we can keep running with our current global food system, but just run faster, hoping for dramatic increases in crop yields—regardless of how that extra production is achieved or used.
The former, sufficiency-oriented approach offers a lot of “low-hanging” fruit for strengthening food security. Conventional wisdom, on the other hand, has a strong preference for the supply-side approach, because it increases sales of industrial inputs to farmers, while it holds down prices of food- and feed-grains, thereby saving food processors and marketers a lot of money.
But studies like one just published by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for the Environment show that going all-in on increased production, while good for profits, is looking far from adequate for keeping our species fed.
Concern over lagging production has prompted a search for technological tricks that might revolutionize food production. Thus, we have a report published in June by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, entitled “The Age of Plenty.” It featured more than twenty articles whose authors attempted to argue that, in IEEE’s somewhat crude language, “Smart technology and better management policies will let us feed the hungry hordes to midcentury and beyond.”
The age of plenty—of technology
Prominently featured in “The Age of Plenty” is a discussion of genetic engineering entitled “GM Foods Grow Up.” After more or less conceding that such techniques have never achieved much beyond a modifying a handful of single-gene traits that do not affect yield potential (which results from large, complex networks of genes interacting with the environment), the article veers sharply toward a discussion of genomic analysis. But this set of techniques can never substitute for the long, hard process of field-testing large plant populations that is necessary in breeding crops for higher yield.
Then, after acknowledging the US Corn Belt’s continuing rapid loss of topsoil, another article goes on to describe a whole set of “precision agriculture” techniques made possible by global positioning system (GPS) technology: satellite-guided row- and seed-spacing; fertilizer application that gets seed and fertilizer into the same groove; tractor autosteering; and others. The actual causes of soil degradation—growing the wrong crops for the wrong uses, clearcutting of the soil every year to sow feed grains, sowing fencerow to fencerow, flooding the environment with biologically active nitrogen compounds; substituting “oil for soil” as the soil resource continues to degrade—remain largely untouched.
Elsewhere in the report, Africa—home to some of the world’s most badly degraded soils and lowest yields of staple crops—is celebrated as the “Continent of Plenty.” All that’s needed, according to IEEE, are big doses of high technology and a strong export market. And, it is noted, that’s already happening, as “global prices for African cocoa, cotton, and even green beans are at or near historic highs.” The biggest bright spot in this area, according to IEEE, is accelerating production of roses. Yes, roses.
Like many such reports, “The Age of Plenty” is little more than a celebration of techno-capitalism. Nowhere is there an adequate examination of approaches that can improve food security on every continent while, just as importantly, using ecological principles to keep soils, waters, and ecosystems intact and healthy—a direly needed alternative to current agricultural systems that are eating away at their own foundations.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that one-third of the world’s food-producing soils are highly degraded or are being degraded at an unacceptable rate. But many farmers around the world, especially in the Global South, are pushing back against erosion and loss of fertility. Using resources at hand, they’ve built terraces; planted rows of trees and shrubs; built water-breaks with crop residues or brush; interplanted nitrogen-fixing legume crops with cereals, root crops or perennial forage grasses; returned manure or nitrogen-rich leaves and stems to the soil and built field-scale rainwater-harvesting systems.
Often, what farm communities lack in the form of money and labor power they can make up for with “social capital” – their capacity to act collectively to protect their common life-support system, the soil. That has enabled communities to take on even more ambitious soil-conserving projects that bring long-lived, deep-rooted trees and shrubs into agricultural plots – a group of techniques known as agroforestry. Examples can be seen on every continent, including North America.
But the biggest hindrance to creating agricultural systems that maintain or improve soil, water, and biodiversity is humanity’s dependence on weak-rooted annual crop plants and clearcutting of the soil. Given that dependence, even the best strategies of nutrient recycling, agroforestry and agroecology will not be sufficient. That is why groups of plant breeders in several countries are now working to develop soil-conserving perennial cereal and grain-legume crops.
All of those efforts are needed, and more. If we are to have a global soil base that can sustain human civilization over the long term, we will have to create entirely new farm landscapes that are as resilient and productive as natural ecosystems, and we’ll have to ensure fair shares of food for all. And that is the standard by which we should judge any new agricultural technology.
Stan Cox is a senior plant breeder at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. His book Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing was published by The New Press this month. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.