Interviews with experts on the science, politics, and culture of food
“Before we go back to organic agriculture, somebody is going to have to decide what 50 million people we are going to let starve.” Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture under the Nixon Administration.
Fred Kirschenmann, a long-time leader in the sustainable agriculture movement, Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and a third-generation farmer (an organic farmer himself), completes his thoughtful reflections upon the future of agriculture from his talk at the Organicology conference in Portland, Oregon.
According to Fred Kirschenmann, the two remaining elephants in the room, Climate Change and Ecological Degradation also threatens the future of agriculture unless we change our farming practices. 92% of the farmland in the State of Iowa produces only two crops, corn and soybeans. This is an extreme example of the incredible efficiencies that result from the production of mono-crops, and yet as we enter a new long-term period of unstable climate, Kirschenmann contends that this lack of crop diversity is not economically, or ecologically viable. Nature favors biodiversity; as conditions change, only the hearty (from a diverse gene pool) thrive.
Ecological Degradation applies particularly to our soils. Over the past 60 years, Kirschenmann explains that we have treated our farm soil not as a living organism, but as a vessel to hold chemical nutrients that we supply (as needed); we have damaged the soil’s native capacity to regenerate itself. In effect, we have killed the living soil.
Concern for the state of our farmland soils, takes on further weight from a recent Iowa State University study: Iowa has lower-quality topsoil than 50 years ago. In this report, the soil fertility in Iowa has declined over a 50 year period of time, mostly attributed to the practice of farm tillaging. Over time, and as a result of the ongoing tilling, mixing, and plowing of soils, the soil has become more dense, more tightly packed together, making it less able to move water and air through it.
The 4 elephants in the room, taken together, may signal the beginning of the end for the modern industrial agriculture system, and the dream of its once most powerful champion, Earl Butz.
See Related: Fred Kirschenmann: The Future of Agriculture- Part 1; Fred Kirschenmann: The Future of Agriculture— An Introduction; Paul Roberts: The End of Food; and Paul Roberts: The End of Food-Part 2