Is Sustainability Sustainable?

A few days ago, my main man Mark Bittman posted this optimistic report on the future of sustainable farming.  I love the practical take Bittman usually has on enlightened eating.   This time, though, I think he got carried away by wishful thinking.

The post sites a few sources – chiefly, recent reports from the U.N. and U.K. – that promote ecologically conscious farming practices.  According to Bittman, these reports show how better farming can organically feed the world.  It’s a wonderful thought, but I just don’t think they do.

Dr. Steve Gliessman, agroecology's biggest champion

Bittman first points to a report by Olivier De Schutter, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the right to food.  In it, Rapporteur breaks down the nature of the human right to food and diagnoses that much of today’s world is denied that right, thanks to destructive farming and faulty distribution.  To solve the problem, Schutter calls for the adoption of agroecology.

Agroecology – a fusion of agronomy and ecology – is more or less a back-to-basics for farming.  From De Schutter: “The core principles of agroecology include recycling nutrients and energy on the farm, rather than introducing external inputs; integrating crops and livestock; diversifying species and genetic resources in agroecosystems over time and space; and focusing on interactions and productivity across the agricultural system, rather than focusing on individual species.” In short, agroecology tells us to forget the machines, fertilizers, and monocultures.  It argues that the best example of successful agriculture is Mother Nature, so we all should just chill out and follow her lead.

For as simple an argument as that is, it’s surprisingly true.  It stands to reason that a deeper respect for the natural world help the planet, but it actually does wonders for food production, too.  In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan writes of a “grass farmer” whose crop and livestock yields dwarf those of his conventional competitors.  Similarly, agroecology in Zambia has brought back-to-back bumper crop harvests to a land plagued by famine.  What’s more, both examples operated at a fraction of the cost of conventional farming, as much of the work was left up to the naturally restorative processes of the ecosystems.

So if agroecology is so great, what’s wrong with Bittman’s ringing endorsement?

It’s unrealistic.  The modern world has gotten used to too many of the conveniences of industrial agriculture.  For one, it’s allowed us, as a global population, to explode at ridiculous rates.  Even if agroecology were to produce enough to feed the world, it seems unlikely that the food – no longer aided by the preservative powers of modern chemicals – could be reasonably distributed to where the population is: cities.

¡Yo quiero mangos todo el año!

Second, modern society is spoiled by its access to global produce.  For breakfast this morning I had a Mexican mango.  I like mangos a lot, but they don’t like New York much.  Agroecology would mean much less availability for the foreign delicacies that have become commonplace.

Still, the most daunting impediment to global agroecology is resistance.  There is a LOT of money invested in industrial agriculture today.  Last year, John Deere reported over $26 billion in equipment sales, DuPont reported $8.3 billion in agrochemicals, and the US food processing industry – built on a mountain of industrial corn – weighed in at over $600 billion.  A conversion to agroecology would be apocalyptic for these industries and more, and giants that big don’t fall so easily.  When De Schutter writes that we should farm more sustainably, it rings sort of hollow.

Shoud DuPont fear the cowpie? Probably not.

So is Bittman wrong in saying sustainable farming can feed the world?  I guess it might be scientifically possible, but it’s still not realistic.  It’s a shame the planet is so ensnared by such a destructive system, but it’s still the reality of the situation.  Solving the problem can’t be done without addressing its context.  This may mean a less than perfect solution, but it’s still better than an impossibly perfect one.

Agroecology seems like the right idea for a lot of the world – especially in places like Zambia that don’t have the same access to modern industry.  For the more developed world, I think Dickson Despommier’s idea of the vertical farm makes a lot more sense.  It recognizes today’s population dispersion by bring agriculture to the city.  It appeases our spoiled palates by making fresh produce available year-round.  But most importantly, it promotes industrial growth, rather than politely calling for mass liquefaction.

It’s true that agroecology would be the perfect solution.  To really fix the planet, though, I think we should be thinking goodly.


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