Sustainability and feeding the world

The Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society has a long history of thinking outside of what is accepted as the status quo. This organization was talking about farming organically long before big box stores had an organic food section. We were discussing sustainability and systems approaches to problem solving thirty years ago. We talked about local food long before farmers markets and the “100 mile diet” gained popularity. Our definition of sustainability has always included environmental, social, health and economic elements. We have included discussion of the philosophical aspects of food, farming and culture as well as the nuts and bolts of cultivation, seed selection, weeds and soil structure.

I was curious when a recent issue of “Progressive Farmer” featuring feeding the world on the front cover showed up in my mailbox. Since most of the ads in this publication are paid for by big pickup trucks, big tractors, big irrigation systems, big seed companies and big agrochemical companies, I was curious to see if the ideas for solving the future’s food issues were the usual ones promoted by these companies. I was surprised…sort of.

The magazine’s editor in chief, Gregg Hillyer,  laid out four fundamental areas where advances are needed if we are going to feed the world’s growing population. According to Hillyer, food security will need solutions that are local. He proposes that food needs to be grown and produced and available where it’s needed the most. Hillyer maintains that efforts will need to be collaborative, requiring involvement of governments, businesses, non-governmental organizations and those with the resources to be able to access solutions. Farmers will need to be able to put science to work in a practical way and solutions have to be sustainable, environmentally, culturally and economically.

Now he had my interest. These are all things NPSAS and the sustainable agriculture community have been talking about for the last thirty years.

Of course, some of the articles promoted biotechnology as the answer, but many writers seemed to understand that the solution to future food security was not going to be found in a single seed or a single technology. Almost all the the writers and “experts” interviewed recognized that water and soil fertility were going to have major implications for future food production. I found it interesting to read of crop rotations, plant diversity, cover crops, mulches and low input systems being promoted in a conventional agriculture publication.

Spending a little time in Haiti last winter reemphasized to me that the farming methods we use in this country are not appropriate for use in other places. Even what we do on organic and sustainable farms in this country is probably not going to work in other parts of the world. I don’t know how to grow bananas, mangos or how to keep a goat healthy in the tropics. I do know that the tractors, even the small ones, featured in the “Progressive Farmer” would not be useful in Haiti, even if a farmer there could afford the wheel nut on one of them. The fields are too small and the grade is too steep. Even a rototiller would be too expensive and too heavy to haul up to the field.

Agriculture in other parts of the world has to be based on low cost inputs. It must be labor intensive not capital intensive. Farmers need to be able to save the seeds from the crops that work and to improve them for their particular location. New technologies will be necessary, but they will have to be scale appropriate, repairable by the operator and inexpensive. Auto steer and precision agriculture technology are not useable by people who do not have a consistent source of electricity or internet access.

While the chemical and seed company representatives interviewed in the “Progressive Farmer” articles used words like “sustainable” and “systems approach” I don’t think they define them in the same way the members of NPSAS would. Still, we have made progress when those who used to ridicule us as living in the past now use our language to give themselves credibility.

There is a part of me that wants to gloat and say, we told you so. But we didn’t have all the answers and we still don’t. We, the members of NPSAS and the larger sustainable agriculture community, need to do more. We need to have serious conversations about how we share what we have learned with farmers in other parts of the world. We need to look at our own lifestyles and question if we are part of the problem of overuse of the world’s finite resources. We cannot be satisfied with where we are on the road to sustainability, but work to move what we do even further down that path. How will we address our dependence on fossil fuels? What can we do to address the sustainability of our economic system? How can we use our investments to further the philosophies we have talked about for decades?

We haven’t arrived at the solutions for growing food and fiber in the future, we’ve only begun our journey.

Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains