Agriculture – a basic necessity, a cornerstone of the global economy and the root for the concern over food security – will play an integral role in how we as a planet move into the future. Currently, our goal to feed all the humans on earth requires the use of outdated and inefficient farming practices. With an exponentially increasing population, the efficiency and sustainability of industrial farming is being called into question. However, transitioning to sustainable farming is not as simple as it may appear either. In the end, it seems a reliance on local farmers will be imperative to ensure the world is properly fed.
The Green Revolution, as it came to be called, was a period between the 1930s and the 1960s, where various crops, such as wheat, corn and rice were genetically engineered to produce higher yields. This was wonderful news to developing countries with rapid population growth, such as China and India. The Green Revolution moved the traditional culture of farming into an industrial process that ensured millions more had sufficient amounts of food. The three principal elements of the Green Revolution were as such: the continuing expansion of farming areas, double-cropping (using a field for more than one growing season in a year) in the existing farmland and using seeds with improved genetics called GMOs.
However, with the Green Revolution – and by extension, the introduction of industrial farming – came the need for mineral fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals necessary for allowing the GMO crops to ensure their high yield. You see, while the Green Revolution was wonderful in many ways, it also caused and continues to cause eco- logical damage. Double-cropping, for example, quickly wears topsoil out and furthers the need for fertilizers and other chemicals, as the soil will eventually be devoid of nutrients needed for growing crops. With more double-cropping and fertilizing came the need for a developed irrigation system. This was the dawn of industrial farming, and according to Paul Hawken, author of “Natural Capitalism: The Next Industrial Revolution,” it started with “a mixture of brash and courageous persistence and ecological ignorance.”
Since the 1960s, production of crops such as corn and soybeans has more than doubled in the U.S., and the production of grains such as wheat, oats, barley and sorghum has more than tripled. However, this increase is not without ecological implications, and in the past twenty years or so, the need to return to sustainable farming has become a relevant issue in regards to the Earth’s and its inhabitants’ futures.
This is not to say that intensification of current crops will not be necessary to feed the increasing global population — it will. However, it is imperative that we tread lightly and consider the environmental ramifications of specific farming practices. Sustainable farming encompasses certain ideals of natural capitalism, as it would allow farmers to increase their yields using fewer resources and the same amount of land.
In the industrial farmer’s defense, transitioning to sustainable farming is easier said than done. To many farmers, sustainable farming (usually resulting in organic produce) comes at a considerable financial cost, and unlike industrial farming, sustainable farming and the transition to sustainable farming is not subsidized by the U.S. government. Once a farmer is practicing sustainable farming, if they wish to have their produce marked as USDA Organic – which can draw a larger customer base – the price is exorbitant. The cost of USDA Organic certification varies on the size, type and complexity of production, ranging from a few hundred dollars (excluding all other fees) to several thousand dollars, and this certifica- tion must be renewed each year. It is important to note that though a product may have a USDA Organic certification, the company may not employ the most sustainable farm- ing practices.
Outside of the financial challenges presented to farmers, organic produce is notoriously more expensive than produce that has been industrially farmed, making it unattainable for many people. In some cases, Community Supported Agriculture programs are cost effective for families. CSAs allow residents living in urban or suburban areas to purchase fresh produce directly from a local farmer. If one wishes to participate, they become a member and essentially purchase a “share” of fresh produce from the farmer. Regardless, the case still generally stands that organic or sustainably grown food and produce is something limited to those few who have access to it and are able to afford the sometimes substantial cost.
So, if industrial farming will not reasonably sustain humans through the next century and sustainable farming is an expensive endeavor for both farmer and consumer, what are we to do? For one, the government could slowly start subsidizing the transition to sustainable farming, perhaps by incentivizing the transition for farmers. Second, if the government wishes to remain entrenched in food production in the U.S., it ought to reconsider the cost and the meaning of a USDA Organic seal.
Finally, knowing that USDA Organic does not necessarily mean sustainable, local farmers who practice sustainable farming could be an imperative to the future of food for humans. This does not have to be in the form of a CSA, but in the ideal future, the prices for locally-produced food will be well within reason for people on a budget. Regardless of the outcome of both industrial and sustainable farming, the financial, social and health changes for both farmer and consumer will be great either way.
Sarah Liebig is a senior studying English Writing and Global Studies: Worlds in Dialogue. Liebig’s principal interests lie in social justice and environmental concerns. Upon graduation, she intends to study law. Liebig is originally from Lincoln, NE and is the only child of two soil scientists. She shares permanent residence with two cats, Oscar and Ophelia.