Chapter 10 Food for Life

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What we are undoing -- Chemically dependent exhaustion -- Wholly made of oil -- Sustainable food and fiber -- Productivity of place -- When food needs passports -- Rice and ducks -- Dirt and climate -- Unfarming -- Chock-full of life

By one measure--that of raw output--the industrialization of farming has been a triumph of technology. In the past half century, production of major crops has more than doubled; that of cereals has tripled. In the past thirty years, the number of food calories available (even if not provided) to each person on earth has risen 13 percent, despite a rapidly growing population. Almost all of the world's increase in food output has been the result of higher-yielding, faster-maturing crops, rather than from farming more land, because essentially all good land is already being cultivated. Although 1 to 4 billion more acres are potentially arable worldwide, mainly in developing countries, that land would cost more to irrigate, drain, and link to markets than crop prices now justify. Intensification is therefore conventionally considered the only feasible way to continue expanding world food production to feed the growing population.

Intensive agriculture came to America in stages. It began with a mixture of brash and courageous persistence and ecological ignorance. As Wendell Berry put it, " When we came across the continent cutting the forests and plowing the prairies, we have never known what we were doing because we have never known what we were undoing." With pride and without misgivings, vast and complex native ecosystems were converted to equally vast expanses of wheat and sorghum, corn and soybeans.

People first filled and then departed the landscape. Engine-driven machines had essentially finished replacing draft-horse and human labor by the 1950s. Hybrid corn and other highly bred crops requiring synthetic fertilizers and pesticides replaced well-established varieties. Increasingly, farmers' traditional knowledge and agrarian culture were displaced by a managerial and industrial culture, a profound shift in the foundations of society. Today only one percent of Americans grow food for the rest; 87 percent of the food comes from 18 percent of the farms. Most farms have in effect become factories owned by absentee interests; and ownership not only of farms but of such upstream and downstream enterprises as seed and chemical suppliers, meat-packers and grain merchants, is becoming rapidly more concentrated, leading to all the abuses that one might expect. Farmers represent about 0.9 percent of GDP, but those who sell to and buy from farmers, the entire food-supplying system, directly and indirectly, have a share about 14 times as large, and their market power tends to squeeze out small, independent, and diversified farmers.

A similar pattern of development is transforming agriculture around the world. Experts in this "Green Revolution" emphasize high-yield seeds, biocides, irrigation, and nitrogen fertilizers. Irrigation by itself accounted for more than half the increase in world food production from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. During the years 1961-96, nitrogen fertilizer use also rose 645 percent. By 1991, the resulting level of artificial nitrogen fixation exceeded the low estimates and approximated half the midrange estimates of total natural nitrogen fixation on earth.

Almost unnoticed in the figures charting the rise of agricultural output is that actual returns on agricultural intensification are diminishing. The president of the Rockefeller Foundation, among the world's leading authorities on the green revolution, warns that at least in developing countries, "Recent data on crop yields and production ...suggest a degree of stagnation which is worrying." Equally disquieting findings indicate more volatile yields and "increasing production problems in those places where yield growth has been most marked." The effects of any shortfalls in yield, and of all the increased inputs needed to sustain or increase yield, are being greatly amplified because of rapid growth in the fraction of the world's cereals (currently one-third) being fed to livestock, an inefficient use of grain. Animals turn only about 10-45 percent of grain inputs into meat, 5 percent or less in some cases.

Modern American agriculture has certain features uncomfortably similar to those of the Soviet economy. That system generated the outputs that planners considered necessary by rewarding participants for how much they manufactured (or, often, consumed), not how efficiently they produced. Similar distortion is caused in the United States by input subsidies, price supports, production quotas, and use-it-or-lose-it western water laws. Mechanisms like peanut permits, milk price supports (which were in force until 1999), sugar quotas, and similar schemes are attributes of overcentralized planning and unadaptive bureaucracies. Although U.S. agricultural and water systems are slowly becoming less rigid, almost all conventional sources of farm information, including Extension services and the land-grant universities, still offer the conventional party line, promoting intensive, chemically dependent production, which is profitable mainly for the input suppliers.

Industrialization, and developments like the heavily subsidized interstate highway system, enable food to be transported great distances--averaging 1,300 miles in the United States--and processed in ever more elaborate and costly ways. The food sector uses about 10-15 percent of all energy in the industrialized countries, and somewhat more in the United States. Despite improving efficiencies, about two-fifths of that energy goes to food processing, packaging, and distribution, and another two-fifths to refrigeration and cooking by final users. Only one-fifth is actually used on the farm, half of that in the form of chemicals applied to the land.

American farms have doubled their direct and indirect energy efficiency since 1978. They use more efficiently manufactured fertilizer, diesel engines, bigger and multifunction farm machinery, better drying and irrigation processes and controls, and herbicides instead of plowing to control weeds. Yet U.S. farming still uses many--perhaps ten--times as much fossil-fueled energy in producing food as it returns in food energy. Our food, as ecologist Howard Odum remarked, is made wholly of oil with oil left over

The superficial success of America's farms masks other underlying problems. A third of the original topsoil in the United States is gone, and much of the rest is degraded. Soil productivity in the semiarid Great Plains fell by 71 percent just during the 28 years after sodbusting. Notwithstanding some recent progress in reviving soil conservation efforts, topsoil is eroding very much faster than it is being formed. Growing a bushel of corn in conventional ways can erode two to five bushels of topsoil. In the 1980s a dumptruck-load of topsoil per second was passing New Orleans in the Mississippi River. A decade later, 90 percent of American farmland was still losing topsoil faster, on average, 17 times faster, than new topsoil was being formed, incurring costs projected at $44 billion over the next 20 years. In many developing countries, matters are even worse.

A more subtle decline than physical soil loss, but no less dangerous, is the invisible loss of the soil's organic richness. The ability of soil bacteria, fungi, and other tiny organisms to cycle nutrients, fight disease, and create the proper soil texture and composition to protect roots and hold water is essential to soil health. Texture matters: Coarse particles are needed for air spaces, fine ones for water retention and surface chemistry. So does humus: Of a good soil's 50 percent that is solid matter, the one-tenth that is organic content can hold about as much water and nutrients as the mineral nine-tenths. Long-term experiments in wheat/fallow systems in the semiarid Northwest found that except when manure was applied, the soil's levels of organic carbon and nitrogen have been declining steadily since the early 1930s, even in fallow seasons. Perhaps a tenth of on-farm energy use is already required to offset such soil problems as the degradation of nutrients, water-holding capacity, and hence crop productivity caused by erosion. As more soil quantity and quality are lost, that penalty--perhaps already reducing U.S. farm output by about 8 percent in the short term and 20 percent over the next 20 years--will rise. Most ancient civilizations collapsed because they destroyed their topsoil, but few policymakers seem mindful of that history. After a century of farming in Iowa, the place with the world's highest concentration of prime farmland, the millennia-old prairie soil, laments Evan Eisenberg, "is half gone. What is left is half dead, the roiling, crawling life burned out of it by herbicides, pesticides, and relentless monocropping. Petrochemicals feed its zombie productivity. Hospitable Iowans assure their guests that the coffee is made from 'reverse-osmosis' water, since agricultural runoff has made the tap water undrinkable."

Agriculture uses about two-thirds of all the water drawn from the world's rivers, lakes, and aquifers. Irrigation waters only 16 percent of the earth's cropland, three-fourths of it in developing countries, but produces 40 percent of the world's food. In many key areas, groundwater is being overpumped and depleted, mined out just like oilfields. In the United States, about one-fourth of the groundwater pumped for irrigation (which is a third of the total withdrawal) is overdrafted. Salting and other side effects of poor irrigation and drainage management have already damaged more than a tenth of the earth's irrigated cropland, some irretrievably. Since 1945, moderate, severe, or extreme degradation of these and other kinds has already affected nearly 3 billion acres, roughly the area of China plus India. Four-fifths of those acres are in developing countries, where even governments, let alone farmers, lack capital to repair the damage, and nearly half the acres have too little water for ready restoration methods to work. Of the one-ninth of the earth's land that was considered arable in 1990, little remains really healthy, most is stressed, and losses are generally accelerating.

Degradation of the natural capital that is the foundation for farming has been found to be decreasing overall farm productivity in almost all farm systems studied worldwide, including every irrigated Asian rice system. This loss continues regardless of the technological inputs that have been applied to alleviate it. In many areas, tripled fertilizer use and new crop breeds have been necessary just to hold modern rice varieties' yields constant. The situation is analogous to what happened in U.S. forestry during the years 1970-94. Logging increased its labor productivity by 50 percent, but overall (total factor) productivity fell by 30 percent, because technological improvements in harvesting trees couldn't compensate for reduced accessibility and quality of the forest resources.

Clear-cutting at the microscopic level of DNA may be creating the gravest problem of all. The world's farming rests on an extraordinarily narrow genetic base. Of the 200,000 species of wild plants, notes biogeographer Jared Diamond, "only a few thousands are eaten by humans, and just a few hundred of those have been more or less domesticated." Three-quarters of the world's food comes from only seven crop species, wheat, rice, corn, potatoes, barley, cassava (manioc), and sorghum. Nearly half the world's calorie and protein intake eaten as food, not as feed, comes from only the first three of these crops. Adding one pulse (soybeans), one tuber (sweet potato), two sugar sources (sugarcane and sugar beet), and one fruit (banana) to the list of seven would account for over 80 percent of total crop tonnage. In every one of these key crops, genetic diversity is rapidly disappearing as native habitats are destroyed. In this industrialized farming system, the most productive and narrowly specialized varieties typically become mass-produced and crowd out their diverse cousins. India, for example, is in the final process of replacing its 30,000 native varieties of rice with one super variety that will do away with centuries of botanical knowledge and breeding.

Perhaps worse, seed banks that store and preserve thousands of different varieties of common and rare plants are being neglected--a consequence of government budget cuts--so their irreplaceable germ plasm is becoming nonviable. Most seed companies have been bought by agrichemical companies. Not surprisingly, these companies are seeking to make themselves the sole lawful proprietors of the world's legacy of plant diversity, if not by purchase, then by manipulation of intellectual-property laws to include the traditional "free goods" of nature, or by increasingly frank grabs for legal monopoly. Such efforts to ensure that food cannot be grown without commercial control might be attractive to investors, but it may not be a good long-term strategy for anyone's survival.

Crops are becoming more specialized for other reasons, too. Prospective income from single cash crops is overwhelming local subsistence traditions, which favored varied local production to meet balanced nutritional needs. Agricultural professionals tend to encourage producers to focus on single commodities rather than pursuing a wide range of goods. Farmers, having no safety margin for experimentation, are conservative about trying new products or techniques. Land-tenure practices and complex sociological issues may create further artificial incentives for cash crops, ecological simplification, intensive production, and short-term thinking. Only the increasing need to farm in such diverse and marginal conditions as dry regions may create pressure to diversify into such promising crops as the neglected major grains (quinoa, amaranth, triticale, millet, and buckwheat) and beans (winged, rice, fava, and adzuki). These are only the beginning: Subsaharan Africa alone contains over 100 such forgotten grains and more than 2,000 forgotten crops; only a handful are receiving significant research. In hindsight, it will seem odd that such attractive crops were so long neglected.

The single-crop mentality both ignores nature's tendency to foster diversity and worsens the ancient battle against pests. Monocultures are rare in nature, in part because they create paradises for plant diseases and insects, as science writer Janine Benyus puts it, they are like equipping a burglar with the keys to every house in the neighborhood; they're an all-you-can-eat restaurant for pests. Disease already damages or destroys 13 percent of the world's crops, insects 15 percent, and weeds 12 percent; in all, two-fifths of the world's harvest is lost in the fields, and after some more spoils, nearly half never reaches a human mouth. The conventional response of dousing infested plants and soil with biocides seemed promising at first, but using technology to combat natural processes hasn't worked. Around 1948, at the start of the era of synthetic pesticides, the United States used 50 million pounds of insecticides a year and lost 7 percent of the preharvest crop to insects. Today, with nearly 20-fold greater insecticide use, almost a billion pounds a year, two-fifths more than when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, the insects get 13 percent, and total U.S. crop losses are 20 percent higher than they were before we got on the pesticide treadmill.

To be sure, pesticides can be used more rationally. In the former East Germany, pesticide applications were reduced by about tenfold, with better results and about tenfold lower costs and risks, by nationwide installation of insect traps. Frequent inspections to see what pests were actually present replaced spraying for everything that might be. But the problem is more fundamental than one of mere measurement and management. The whole concept of pesticides has a basic flaw: In this game of "crops and robbers," the house always wins. Insects' huge gene pool, quick evolution, and very short reproductive cycles enable them to adapt and become resistant to our most powerful poisons--as more than 500 species have already done--faster than we can invent new ones. Worse, by disrupting competition between species and by killing their natural predators, pesticides often transform previously innocuous insects into nasty pests.

Monocultures also leave most of the rich diversity of soil biota unemployed. Nature doesn't waste resources supporting underutilized organisms, so if they have nothing to do, they die. Treating soil like dirt--not as a living community but as a sterile medium on which to spread out leaves in the sun--makes the soil barren and unable to provide its natural services. Pathogens and insects with free habitat and no competition then flourish. California vintners have suffered phylloxera infestations on sprayed vineyards but generally not to date on organically grown ones. Some growers believe that phylloxera may not be an inevitable grapevine pest so much as a symptom of unhealthy soil.

Organic farmers, in contrast, rely on healthy soil, careful observation, and controllable levels of pests to raise their crops. In the organic, ecosystem-based view, the complete eradication of pests is a tactical blunder, because a healthy system needs enough pests to provide enough food to support predators so they can hang around and keep the pests in balance. Some organic farmers also use biologically derived substances to cope with their pest problems. But the best-known of these compounds, the insect-specific family of natural Bacillus thuringiensis toxins, may become ineffective because agrichemical companies are putting Bt-making genes into common crops for universal use. This may appear to be a sound strategy, genes instead of pesticides, information instead of mass. But over time, and maybe sooner than expected, the prevalence of Bt in the ecosystem will select for insects resistant to it and make the compound useless or, worse, begin to affect nontarget species. By 1997, eight insect pests in the United States had become resistant to Bt, for the same reason that penicillin is now impotent against 90 percent of the staphylococcus infections and many of the other germs that it used to control. A coalition of organic farmers, consumers, and public-interest groups has sued the EPA to rescind all Bt-toxin transgenic crop registrations.

Monocultures' chemical dependen ce requires enormous amounts of fertilizers to make up for the free ecological services that the soil biota, other plants, and manure provide in natural systems. Healthy soil biota can provide about tenfold better uptake of nutrients, permitting the same or better crop yields with a tenth the application of soluble nutrients. But having become dependent on ever-greater amounts of synthetic inputs, Americans consume more than 60 million metric tons a year of such agriculturally applied minerals as phosphorus and potash. Alongside the average American's daily food sits the ghostly presence of nearly a half pound of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer used to grow it. Most of those chemicals are wasted, running off the soil to flow onto other land or into surface and groundwaters. Agriculture is America's largest, most diffuse, and most anonymous water polluter. In other respects as well, industrialized agriculture is increasingly presenting threats to public health.

The growing volatility of weather and the potential for shifts in climate will only worsen the pressure on overspecialized crops. Finely tuned by a half century of breeding and lately by genetic engineering, they cope poorly with changes in such conditions as temperature, sun, and moisture. Genetically diverse natural populations in healthy ecosystems, in contrast, have millions of years' design experience in coping with surprises. The brittleness caused by shifting from resilient natural systems to specialized artificial ones could prove catastrophic as crops encounter conditions quite different from the stable ones assumed by their breeders and genetic engineers.

For economic, health, and environmental reasons, a major overhaul of current agricultural production methods is needed to achieve adequate, acceptable, and sustainable food and fiber supplies. Many practitioners in both developed and developing countries are therefore adopting new or modernizing old methods of agriculture that are more clearly based on natural models. Their overhaul doesn't involve just doing the same things differently, because the problem of agriculture cannot be solved within the mentality that created it. Rather, the new solutions are the result of whole-systems thinking and the science of ecology; they embody the principles of natural capitalism; they follow the logic not of Bacon and Descartes but of Darwin.

The innovations now emerging in agriculture are taking two complementary and interwoven paths. The less fundamental but more familiar path applies the first three principles of natural capitalism: It increases the resource and ecological efficiency of all kinds of farming, seeking new ways to wring more and better food from fewer resources, both through direct increases in resource productivity and through biomimetic, closed-loop, nontoxic practices. These are both encouraged by community-supported agriculture, an application of the third principle, whereby customers subscribe in advance to a particular farm's or cooperative's flow of food, typically organically grown. But in a deeper and even more promising break with industrial agriculture, some pioneers are also redesigning agriculture from scratch as an embodiment of the fourth principle, restoring, sustaining, and expanding natural capital. Their innovations go beyond conventional organic practices to create diverse forms of agriculture that are based, as geneticist Dr. Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, says, "on nature's wisdom, not on people's cleverness"; that follow ecologist Aldo Leopold's dictum of tending "to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community."

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