For decades, urgent international debate about whether sustainable agriculture can feed the world has foundered on a false assumption. We’ve been sucked into a game rigged by the constrained doctrine of the Green Revolution, the 20th-century shift to high-yielding rice, wheat and corn varieties that are dependent on irrigation and heavy fertilization. We’ve made the mistake of focusing on crop yield — on mere quantity — but there is so much more to this equation.
Rural India is as good a place as any to begin digging to the roots of the problems with industrial agriculture. Poor farmers there have long been offered the Green Revolution’s so-called miracle crops, and many have said, “No, thanks.” Stories such as this are legion within the vast network of breeders and agronomists charged with spreading the miracles worldwide: poor, starving farmers weeping and pleading to be permitted to keep growing their treasured local varieties of rice instead of obeying a government decree that they plant the “new and improved.” Why would a destitute farmer refuse these “blessings”?
The Root of the Matter
H.E. Shashidhar, a gene-jockey agronomist employed at a monkey-infested lab near Bangalore, India, dug until he got an answer to this question — actually, layers of answers. Each layer, peeled back, can help recast our thinking about sustainability everywhere. Shashidhar took the somewhat radical step of asking farmers who grew unirrigated, dryland rice why they persisted in cultivating long-cherished local landraces instead of science’s best varieties, which yielded sometimes four or five times as much food. Ignorance? Superstition?
For one thing, said the farmers, the landraces tasted better — but then what’s taste if you and your children are starving? A lot, it turns out, but put taste aside for a minute. Here’s the more obvious point: The miracle crop varieties do indeed yield well — most years. But they are delicate, and in more vicious drought years, they fail altogether. If a hut full of starving children depends on you, better to have a small, dependable crop year after year than to face catastrophe one year out of five. Ignorance? No. Rather, a cold calculation completely based on local realities, and one that set Shashidhar to thinking and tinkering. So why not have it both ways? Why not gather and cross-breed local landraces with the new varieties to create a high-yielding, drought-tolerant variety customized to local tastes?
To be resilient, crops — not just in India, but in desiccated areas worldwide — must be drought tolerant, requiring longer roots to reach deeper for water. The landraces do indeed have long roots. The improved varieties don’t, but they have short stems, which was what the Green Revolution was all about: short plants, dwarfing. We think it was about fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation and monocrops, but all of these were really derivative of dwarfing. By breeding plants to invest less energy in producing stems, more energy goes to grain. Further, short plants have the architecture necessary to support the extra weight of seed heads swollen fat by fertilizer and irrigation.
The miracle that forestalled mass starvation in the mid-20th century — and let’s give it its due for doing exactly that — was simply the dwarfing of rice and wheat. So what Shashidhar really needed was a rice plant with a short stem and long roots, and he set about to make one. He tracked and guided his work with genetic markers, which is not genetic engineering but a common method of conventional plant breeding. Yet his genetic markers yielded a discovery lying right at the heart of the issue: One can’t breed a rice plant with a short stem and long roots because both traits are controlled by the same gene, making it, really, a single trait. It’s either long and long or short and short. This means the world has been fed now for a couple of generations by short-stemmed and short-rooted plants, which has had unintended consequences for humans and plants alike.
The enormous success of the Green Revolution in boosting yields has, in fact, occurred in mainly three plants: corn, wheat and rice. “Success” means that about three-quarters of all human nutrition now derives from these three plants alone. They make up the world’s high-carbohydrate diet. Among the global poor — especially among the urban poor — most folks survive on something south of 2,000 calories a day, which is supplied by meager bowls of grain gruel or rice and a bit of oil. Many are fortunate to have even these austere rations, and yet, in the multi-starred hotels around the world where conventions of agricultural economists gather to congratulate each other, the data sets prompt celebration. It states in crisply rendered PowerPoint that farmers have fed the world. Yield-per-acre times acres cultivated times calories-per-bushel divided by people. It pencils.
Poverty is no longer marked solely by starvation, at least not everywhere. How much more obvious can this be than in the United States, and increasingly in the rest of the developed world, where the poor are fat? Separate issues? Not if one analyzes the stream of food in the developed world, just as carbohydrate-laden and grain-dominated as in the undeveloped. In the developed, it’s not porridge and gruel, but rather a stream of mush disguised by marketing, processing, coloring and flavoring — but still a stream of mush. Increasingly this mush is rendered by alchemy to sugar, and with the sugar comes a series of plagues: type 2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, depression.
In some ways, this caloric incongruity is nothing new, but has been developing for 10,000 years. One line of thought, now a couple of centuries old, that focuses on “diseases of civilization” argues that humans adopted agriculture at great peril. Agriculture equals carbohydrates and has from the beginning, and the diseases that stem from eating excessive amounts of carbohydrates appeared at the beginning. The plagues, though, have accelerated in modern times as we’ve doubled down since the Green Revolution.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation sponsors a massive and unprecedented study being carried out by the Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Called “The Global Burden of Disease,” it looks at causes of death, debilitation, and loss of quality of life from people suffering 291 diseases in 187 countries. First results published in the journal Lancet in late 2012 reveal that the world’s top health problems — our worst plagues, almost every one — derive in one manner or another from [problems with industrial agriculture]. The world’s worst health problems are, in short, diseases of civilization.
This sobering bit of business strikes straight at the heart of the question of sustainability, which has asked whether the land, the biota, the planet could stand industrial agriculture. The equally urgent question, now, is whether humans can stand it.
Taste, Deep Roots, and Your Brain
The emerging, welcome and necessary blame on carbohydrates for our health problems misses something important by focusing on what we eat and forgetting what we are not eating, which brings us back to the roots. The roots and something vitally important the rice farmers were telling Dr. Shashidhar when they said they preferred the taste of their local varieties. Just like the gene for dwarfing, taste and roots are different sides of the same coin.
Deep roots enable plants to tap into the highly mineralized subsoil, and the array of minerals manifests as taste and color in the resulting food, and then as complete nutrition for the people who eat it. For a couple of generations the world has largely fed itself on short plants that only scratch the surface by rooting in topsoil long since depleted and deprived of its mineral content.
The sense of taste that drives traditional Indian farmers toward landraces is not a culture-bound anomaly unique to their time and place, but rather a rule of human evolution, a seminal human trait. There’s a good reason that stomach samples taken from ancient bog men carcasses in Europe show evidence of dozens of species of plants consumed in a single day, or that traditional hunter-gatherers were nomadic, ranging far and wide to gather a dizzying variety of seeds, roots and berries. Or, for that matter, that all human cultures through all of pre-agricultural time ate meat. The animals we ate also ranged far and wide and mostly ate deeply rooted perennial grasses, thereby bio-accumulating an array of minerals we call micronutrients. These behaviors are fundamental to the human condition. Our brains and bodies, more so than any other species, are exceedingly complex, and this complexity requires complicated cellular networks, all of which are supported by intricate biochemistry that fuels itself on a vast array of proteins, fats and minerals, the raw materials of our form. Humans require variety to achieve their full potential — especially brain potential — and evolution gave us preferences that make us seek out variety: our sense of taste. Taste is adaptive. To ensure we get a full complement of micronutrients, evolution wired us with a drive powered by neurochemical rewards to seek out those micronutrients and the variety that supplies them. The irony is that no one understands this better than modern food processors, marketeers and packagers who exploit that reward system to lure us into eating fluffed-up lumps of carbohydrates disguised as food.
Overfed Yet Undernourished
The consequences of depriving us of variety, as industrial agriculture has done, are enormous. The good news is, this problem has now been placed on the table by some of the same institutions that brought us the Green Revolution. For instance, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) will now tell you that a third of humanity suffers from what the organization calls “hidden hunger,” which is defined as a diet ample in calories but insufficient in nutrients and micronutrients. Anemia from iron deficiency, goiter from iodine deficiency, and blindness from severe vitamin A deficiency lead the list as the worst problems. That is, fully a third of humanity is blind or brain damaged to the point of debilitation solely because of the way we grow food. Another 1.4 billion people are overweight from eating a diet long on carbohydrates and short on everything else. The widespread conditions of kwashiorkor and marasmus — resulting from the lack of protein and marked by visible stunting and listlessness — are yet further consequences of carbohydrate subsistence, and both are endemic in the poorer reaches of the world.
Vitamin B12, iodine, magnesium, cholesterol (yes, cholesterol is a vital nutrient), vitamin D, calcium, fiber, folate, vitamin A, omega-3s, vitamin E and iron — each is plentiful in the same foods we have eliminated from the modern industrial diet and each is vital to brain function and physical well-being. Furthermore, scientists are in the early stages of understanding the phenomenon of “bioavailability” — that the lack of a given vitamin or micronutrient is not simply remedied by adding a given amount back through a supplement. The body’s ability to absorb those nutrients is greatly influenced by the presence or absence of other nutrients. For instance, people eating a full complement of healthy meats tend to not need added vitamin C. At all. Eating spinach with lemon helps the body absorb much more of the iron in the green’s leaves. Eating eggs and cheese together delivers a better uptake of vitamin D and calcium. Variety supports our internal complexity.
Biodiversity and Human Potential
We’re no longer in India, but in the U.S. heartland, in Minnesota corn country. Will Winter is a veterinarian and subversive, if speaking against corn and soybean row crop monocultures in the heartland is subversive — and indeed it is. But he’s tired of treating sick cows, and that’s what veterinarians do at industrial feedlots and dairies, because all the cows, every one, are sick from a diet of ground grain and protein meal. Take these same cows (he’s done it) and turn them loose on an established pasture with access to woodlots and brush, and they’ll begin eating the woody stuff, and then the grass, and then they’ll get better. No doctoring necessary. Winter says this phenomenon, as was the case in India, is about roots. Perennial grasses and brush form deep roots that extend into the subsoil, which makes nutrients missing from feedlot diets available to the cows. Instinctual taste preference tells the cows they need these minerals; they seek them out, and then they get better.
These nutrients are transmitted to the people who eat the meat and drink the milk from cows grazed on permanent pasture. This realization is the impetus of the burgeoning demand for grass-fed meat, and at the heart of this dietary shift are omega-3 fatty acids, which science is finally acknowledging are in short supply in the human diet. Critically short. A recent global summit of researchers studying the lack of omega-3s in our diets called for a “Kyoto-type approach” to the worldwide omega-3 shortage to head off a crisis they attest is every bit the equal of global warming. Michael Crawford, the British researcher who has examined the issue for more than 30 years, thinks we are in danger of becoming a “race of morons,” so great and widespread is the brain damage from lack of this essential fatty acid.
Yet making this all an issue of omega-3s or carbohydrates misses the point. There is no single focus or magic bullet or wonder micronutrient, no matter what the marketers might tell you. There is only diversity. What is accomplished when Indian rice farmers grow landraces with deeper roots or Minnesota farmers run cows on permanent pasture is increased diversity, which is another way of saying they are widening the links and pathways to the essential forces and complexities of the planet. Roots link to minerals. Manure captures the wide-ranging gleanings of animals and builds soils that promote microbial life. Microbes promote health in soil, plants and human guts. Landraces link to the full genetic heritage, built by eons of life forces, to the wisdom of time. We are evolved to be woven into this web of life.
For a long time, some of us have understood that increasing biodiversity in agriculture is absolutely essential to making it sustainable — “farming in nature’s image,” to use the words of Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Salina, Kan. But still, the industrial ag folks and the Green Revolutionaries challenge us: “Yeah. Diversity is nice, but can sustainable agriculture feed the world’s population?” And then they rig the game by defining “feed” in just the same way they define agriculture — a narrow, linear process of input, throughput, output, yield per acre, calories per bushel, calories per person.
Humans are more than simply a caloric equation to solve. Better to pose the question correctly, as Wendell Berry did in his essay “What Are People For?”
We don’t have to get lost in the metaphysical weeds trying to answer that question. It may be uncertain what we are for, but it is totally certain that we will not fulfill that purpose — whatever it may be — without fully developed brains. Evolution’s best clue about the answer to Berry’s question comes from realizing the uniqueness of our brains. Evolution went to great lengths to give us extraordinary power of thought.
I think this is what the Koyukon people, traditional hunters of central Alaska, mean when they say, “Animals are our food. They are our thoughts.”
Human potential — the physical, glowing, buzzing human brain — is literally formed and developed with an unimaginably complex swirl and flood of biochemistry. Our bodies and minds only attain their potential by maintaining a web of ties to the forces of life: deep roots, many branches, flora and fauna, micro and otherwise. Biodiversity. Roots are our thoughts, too. Literally so.
The truth is, it is not clear whether we can feed the planet’s 7.2 billion with sustainable agriculture, but it is abundantly clear that we cannot sustain our thoughts and our humanity without it.
Award-winning journalist Richard Manning has covered nature, politics, and agriculture for more than 30 years. He is the author of Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization; his most recent book is Go Wild.