Feeding Humanity Requires Healthy Ecosystems, Not Gadgets


| 7/2/2013 3:36:00 PM


Tags: industrial agriculture, agroforestry, The Land Institute, Stan Cox,

With anxiety building over how humanity will feed itself in coming decades, we have two routes open to us. We can eliminate waste, stop producing crops for destructive uses (in factory farms, for biofuels, in sugary drinks, etc.), stop degrading the soil, water, and atmosphere that undergird our food production, and ensure fair access to nutritious food for all. Or we can keep running with our current global food system, but just run faster, hoping for dramatic increases in crop yields—regardless of how that extra production is achieved or used.

The former, sufficiency-oriented approach offers a lot of “low-hanging” fruit for strengthening food security.Humanity needs healthy ecosystems to feed itself, not technological fixes. Conventional wisdom, on the other hand, has a strong preference for the supply-side approach—even though studies like one just published by researchers at the University of Minnesota's Institute for the Environment show that  to keep our species fed solely through increases in production, current efforts are far from adequate.

Concern over lagging production has prompted a search for technologies that could revolutionize food production. Thus, we have a report published in June by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, entitled “The Age of Plenty.” It featured more than twenty articles whose authors attempted to argue that, in the introduction's somewhat crude language, “Smart technology and better management policies will let us feed the hungry hordes to midcentury and beyond.”

The age of plenty—of technology

Prominently featured in “The Age of Plenty” is a discussion of genetic engineering entitled “GM Foods Grow Up.” After more or less conceding that such techniques have never achieved much beyond a modifying a handful of single-gene traits that do not affect yield potential (which results from large, complex networks of genes interacting with the environment), the article veers sharply toward a discussion of genomic analysis.  But this set of techniques can never substitute for the long, hard process of field-testing large plant populations that is necessary in breeding crops for higher yield.  

Then, after acknowledging the US Corn Belt's continuing rapid loss of topsoil, another article goes on to describe a whole set of “precision agriculture” techniques made possible by global positioning system (GPS) technology: satellite-guided row- and seed-spacing; fertilizer application that gets seed and fertilizer into the same groove; tractor autosteering; and others. The actual causes of soil degradation—growing the wrong crops for the wrong uses, clearcutting of the soil every year to sow feed grains, sowing fencerow to fencerow, flooding the environment with biologically active nitrogen compounds; substituting “oil for soil” as the soil resource continues to degrade—remain largely untouched.   

Elsewhere in the report, Africa—home to some of the world's most badly degraded soils and lowest yields of staple crops—is celebrated as the “Continent of Plenty.” All that's needed, according to IEEE, are big doses of high technology and a strong export market. And, it is noted, that's already happening, as “global prices for African cocoa, cotton, and even green beans are at or near historic highs.” The biggest bright spot in this area, according to IEEE, is accelerating production of roses. Yes, roses.  




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