Technocynics Go Home


A "farm" beside Route 5 in California’s Central Valley

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.


  1. If companies and banks from the wealthy parts of the world were not promoting mono-crops for export in third world countries, a lot of people would be a lot less hungry because they would be growing food to feed themselves instead of working for rotten wages to provide our overfed selves with cheap coffee, bananas, beef, soya, sugar etc etc.

  2. Oh yes, and if the munitions industry was not such a big contributer to GNP, then perhaps there would be less war, rape, disruption of people from their lands leading to massive landless populations and starvation.

  3. I might also add that if we de-emphasized the meat and dairy in our diets, we would overall have more food. More energy and water is lost through the transfer from animal to plants as opposed to just eating the plants in the first place.
    I’m not for total veganism, because I think even becoming vegetarian is hard to do, but maybe we shouldn’t be consuming pounds upon pounds of ground beef and chicken breasts at every meal.

  4. A study done years ago, as relayed to me by a friend with a Ph.D. in Soil Science, took two acres. One was treated with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the other was organic. For the first 7 years, the chemically treated acre outperformed the organic, though its yield decreased over time while the organic’s yield increased. By year Seven, they were even. After that, the yield of the organic increased until its production surpassed the highest production every reached by the chemical acre. The chemical acre continued to decrease in production, below a point worth maintaining. My friend told me this around 15 – 20 years ago. Why are we still using poison to farm? Why are we still allowing these for-profit, multi-nationals to create land dependent on chemicals which slowly kill it, simultaneously using up a resource – oil – which gets that food to the starving? It’s a new year, a new century. We’re far enough into the 2000’s we can finally push the bad back into the 1900’s. We shouldn’t forge. We cannot allow more repetitions of mistakes; at the worst, let’s try new actions which may also be wrong, but a push forward.

  5. I totally agree – there seems to be a common misconception that sustainable farming/food production = lower yields when a lot of the case studies I’ve seen point to the opposite (eg Salatin’s model, permaculture forest gardens, silvaculture grazing and the absolutely fascinating possiblitites of aquaculture (tai haku’s tip for ’09-10? backyard tilapia aquaponics becomes the new eglu)).

    This information however seems to not get out there for some reason.

    One final point I’d like to make is how well KJ made a point I totally agree with – if this were a post on grist, a number of vegangelicals would have told us all the only way to live sustainably is to be vegan in such an irritating way it would have made me crave a hamburger just to annoy them.

  6. Michele,

    Maybe there is a way to replace high-intensity high-yield agriculture, and maybe there isn’t. Proper caution should be exercised. New facilities should be brought online and proven in before old facilities are taken offline.

    Anything else is literally suicide by starvation.

    It is my humble opinion that our homes do more damage than our farms. In particular, the fertilizer and water we waste on our yards.

    Plant more natives and investigate permaculture and gardening. Thats really the best thing, and it is something we can do as individuals.

    Although, I think most people don’t really want to do much, as individuals. They want it to be done as a society, so that they personally don’t have to do anything. That sort of something-for-nothing attitude is the biggest environmental problem.

  7. To extrapolate from backyard gardening to the difficulties of food production in most of the world is very naïve. I think it is very hard for people in the West to comprehend the challenge faced by farmers in developing countries. To say that you should ‘farm with nature’ is easier when nature has been good to you. Many developing countries have soils that are naturally poor, and weather patterns that are naturally harsh. Are there opportunities for soil improvement? Yes. Are there options for more sustainable food production? Probably. Are they ready for widespread adoption? Not yet. It is important to keep in mind the concept of risk. I think this is part of Dr. Borlaug’s concern.

    For those of us in the West, especially those that garden primarily for pleasure, there is little or no risk to adopting a new agricultural practice, even an untested one. If a crop fails, comfortable with the knowledge that we and our families will not go hungry, we can try again next year, tweaking endlessly with varieties, timing, rotations, etc. For those living on the margin, a crop failure or even a poor yield, can mean disaster. There may not be a next year. So the challenge for sustainable agricultural systems in the developing world is that they have to be productive in the short-term and in the long-term.

    I also think it would be useful to separate in our minds the idea of chemical fertilizers from chemical pesticides. Chemical fertilizers are not inherently bad for soils; it’s a lack of organic matter that causes soil fertility to decline not fertilizer use per se. In the West we have a relatively abundant supply of organic materials with which to amend our soils, and relatively slow organic matter degradation rates. In much of the developing world, organic amendments are harder to acquire and it is extremely difficult to maintain soil organic matter levels in the typically warm climates. If your objective is to provide plant essential nutrients to crops, it is much easier and cheaper to ship and apply nutrient dense commercial fertilizer than bulky organic materials.

    Just one final thought on chemical pesticides. Nobody ‘wants’ to apply pesticides for food production. They cost money and thus have to provide some benefit. So, from a market and an ecological perspective – the best approach is to use less, preferably none. This concept has been incorporated into Western agriculture via Integrated Pest Management. The ability to avoid chemical pesticides is, at least for the time being, a Western luxury. Unconvinced? If an application of Sevin was the difference between having a harvest and not, who among us is willing to watch our children starve, or even go a little hungry, for the cause?

  8. National Geographic had an issue all about soil sometime last year. Very informative, of course I cannot remember what issue, read it at the doctor’s office. What I do remember was the part about an African talking to his granparents and others and incorporating practices that had followed for generations until the western ideas came in. And they work. One was little rows of stones the size of your fist across the field to slow down the once a year rain run-off. Silt would be deposited, enriching the soil.

  9. The surest way to increase production on our limited arable land is to increase the eyes-to-acres ratio. This has been established in many studies in settings ranging from subsistence farms in China to Russian dachas.

    If we were truly concerned with feeding the world we’d be getting more skilled people on the land. But as a country, we seem proud that less than 1 percent of our people are farmers. Until we recognize that growing skills are as important as computer skills, that trend will likely continue.

  10. Great discussion. But one point is being ignored. While discussing what is needed to feed 6.75 billion people we are ignoring the fact that this population number keeps going up and up. What might work for 6.75 billion might not work for 10 billion or 20 billion. We need to recognize that this planet is only capable of sustaining a limited number of humans and work to cap the human population at a sustainable level. It’s not a popular subject but if you look at environmental issues they all seem to bump into it sooner or later (too much impermeable surface leading to water pollution and flooding, less wilderness to sustain our wildlife, crowded national parks as people try to get in contact with nature, heck even road congestion and the price of oil, etc. etc.). I know this is a bit of tangent to the current post but I think it is something that needs to be considered.

  11. Food First (The Institute for Food and Development Policy) has an excellent backgrounder on these issues: “Can Sustainable Agriculture Feed the World” —

    It’s a good overview of the related issues of hunger and sustainable agriculture.

    I also recommend Francis Moore Lappe’s classic “World Hunger: 12 Myths” for some debunking of the myth that the so-called green revolution was good for eradicating hunger.

    Thanks for the post – good to have these issues out there being discussed!

  12. “But I wonder if any of these proponents of industrial farming ever had a backyard vegetable garden.”

    I’m an industrial farmer and a Master Gardener who has had a backyard vegetable garden for over 25 years. So do all the industrial farmers in our Midwest county. It is part of their heritage and lifestyle to have a vegetable garden.

    I’m also an avid (some would say obsessive) composter. What works sustainably for my flowers and veggies would not work for the 2100 acres my husband, son and I farm. If you compost, you know the incredible volume of organic matter that is required to make enough for home gardens. There isn’t enough to even begin to supply all the acreage farmed in the US. There is not enough manure. There is not enough water to support the livestock necessary to generate the manure.

    Also, a word about industrial farmers. We used to be called family farmers. My son is the 7th generation on the same home place. Yes, we’ve added acres over the generations as others left. Our neighbors incorporated for tax reasons, but they are still the same grandfather, 2 sons and 1 grandson farming the same land. Are they no longer a family farm because they are a corporation?

  13. Starving Africans aren’t our fault. They rule their country the way they chose. They don’t want our help. South Africa has an ideal growing climate.
    The bottom line begins at home.
    In the USA we are free to make choices.

  14. Kim- South Africa isn’t the entire continent, just the end tip and the only nation that is taking in starving refugees from various wars from the African continent.

    One of the problems no one is addressing is water; the world is running out of it at an alarming rate, and many third-world countries didn’t have fresh water to begin with, so how would they grow anything? Many of these places are rampant with war and with that comes refugees who will never settle in one place.

    Take our neighbor Mexico for example: no water (because we, the US, have stolen it), poor political system and rampant poverty. These people need agri-business just to survive because that’s just what they are doing – surviving.

    When I was twelve I remember traveling to Mexico and a man was washing himself in a mud puddle and there was a line behind him with women who had washing to do. Many US citizens just don’t understand how poor the world really is until we see it with our own eyes.

    It’s romantic to think that home-grown green practices will save the world, but what the world population needs is a better standard of living to all of it’s citizens, not just the wealthy westerners.

    And most of the arable land in the US is not being wasted by farmers but is being turned into track-home suburbia by developers.

  15. excellent responsw Old Kim.
    I also like the part about a little od vegatble garden in my backyard. To reduce corporate industrial farming takes millions of back yard gardens.

    But it will never be promoted by places like the UN or conservative glob-capitilists.

    It takes us neo-cons like me and libeal do gooders as well. My backyard, my food, your backyard your food.

    And we share the excess with our neighbors!

    The (share food with aliberal?) TROLL

  16. This reminds me of a trip i took to far western China out in the desert (think silk road camel caravans). i was there during the summer and i was completely amazed at the quality of their agriculture given the short growing season, heat, very limited rainfall and sandy soil (if you can call it that). This region is famous for their grapes and melons! i was impressed with the variety of local vegetables in the markets (tomatoes, eggplants, etc.), and their system of ancient irrigation canals bringing mountain snowmelt to their fields. Some of these canals were dug underground by hand and ran for miles. The farmers made very efficient use of their limited resources based on centuries of local (sustainable) agricultural wisdom.

    Having grown up in the “third world”, i know life is truly hard for farmers there. But i think we too often forget that in many places, agriculture was sustainable for centuries until we intervened. Population and economic growth has changed that. Farmers there struggle with some of the same basic questions farmers here do, like what can they grow for profit, not just sustenance. Where i come from in the tropics, some of our food staples are not things i can find in a typical American grocery store. Farmers back there grow cash crops like bananas, citrus and coffee because they’ll make a lot more money selling that to the US, Canada and Europe than selling traditional local food.

    i think we’ve got to fashion a new economic development model that values and builds on local, sustainable agricultural wisdom and discourages others from following in our wasteful footsteps. i would disagree a bit with LM – the options are there, and widespread adoption already happened. But the financial reward is gone.

  17. The same friend who relayed the information to me about the organic versus chemically treated acre went on to work simultaneously at a major ag university, and the UN. She left the UN this past Fall after more than fifteen years. I read comments about what people do and don’t do in Third World countries. I’ve listened to my friend during these years, who worked helping these people in various ways, and realized I can’t comment on what is done in other countries, not without intensive research and study. I think until one is willing to acquire a more rounded understanding, words strung together about what is done elsewhere are more opinion than grounded fact.

  18. Naomi, you are right.

    I am against huge, conglomerate farming practices that wreck the environment as much as everyone else is. But as Diana noted above, and I agree with her one this, it seems to go hand in hand with our high population.

    I wonder if we could feed everyone enough food with green practices or if it’s just a nice notion?

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