So, here’s an interesting little problem that actually became a problem in 2008, when there were food riots in developing countries and heartbreaking stories of starvation in Zimbabwe. How do we make sure that in a world of 6.75 billion people, nobody goes hungry?
For the last half a century, the answer has been obvious. You use lots of fossil fuels in the form of synthetic fertilizer and machines bigger than a house. You irrigate like crazy and make the desert bloom, even if it means draining aquifers and ruining the natural landscape with your dams. You breed high-yield grains that outperform traditional old strains–that is, as long as you are giving them lots of supplemental water and artificial nitrogen and pesticides and the full complement of products from Monsanto. Then you call it the Green Revolution, though there’s nothing green about it.
Of course, everybody here knows the environmental costs of this kind of farming. But lots of people will tell you it’s necessary…indeed, that the only reason the planet can more or less support 6.75 billion people is because of the fossil fuels we’ve poured into agriculture in this last half a century. It’s hard not to respect this point of view, when a Nobel Laureate like Norman Borlaug says focusing on higher yields is the only way:
If [environmental lobbyists] lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world,
as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and
fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable
elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.
Borlaug is clearly a compassionate person. And I’m sure he has seen the Green Revolution work short-term miracles. And I’ve never been to a developing country, so maybe I am a fashionable elitist. But I wonder if any of these proponents of industrial farming ever had a backyard vegetable garden.
In the garden, I’ve learned that almost nothing artificial is required to grow beautiful food, other than me. The older I get, the less I fuss with the soil, the more I let the worms and the bacteria and the fungi do the work, the cruder my sources of fertilizer become (not bagged any more, but just manure, straw, and leaves left to sit six months), the less I water, the fewer tools I use. Here’s the kicker…the less I do to mess with nature, the more I tap into her cycles, the more successful I am.
Admittedly, I garden in a temperate climate in a super-fertile spot. But there are stories of people farming in truly hostile places who are making things work sustainably–and planting a diversity of tough crops, rather than a fussy high-yield monoculture. The December 4th issue of Nature has a feature titled "Five Crop Researchers Who Could Change The World" that includes an agroecologist named Jerry Glover. Glover is working to turn wheat into a perennial crop with strong roots that can find its own sources of nitrogen in the soil, using just 8% of the energy of annual wheat.
Here’s what Glover has to say: "Agriculture is one, if not the largest, single threat to biodiversity in terms of human behavior. People have to eat–but what can they eat without destroying the environment?"
Nature suggests that the answer is food from farms "that run more like the natural landscape they replaced, acting like a healthy ecosystem and a farm at once."
The great argument for the Green Revolution style of industrial farming is that the world is already using almost all of its arable land, so goosing yield with synthetic nitrogen is the only way to feed a growing population. But I wonder if there isn’t a serious problem with this argument: that the definition of "arable land" is an exclusively industrial one. Can’t land that once seemed useless be improved by sustainable farming? That’s what farmers in the dry Sahel are proving, using nothing more high-tech than manure pits for their seeds. Can’t small plots be brought into use for sustainable farming? Even in America, people are able to make a living farming a few acres of vegetables. Look at all the wasted land around you. Couldn’t much of that support crops?
Couldn’t we feed 6.75 billion people off of farms that behave like healthy ecosystems?
I’m just a dumb, happy gardener, but my instinct is hell yes. It’s 2009! Scientists like Jerry Glover are on the job. We’re not mired in a hopelessly filthy and wasteful industrial past. We can be cleverer, more resourceful, more respectful of nature. We can do better.