Mainstream agriculture faces enormous challenges in the Twenty-First Century.
All of these factors are likely to push agriculture toward the evolution and adoption of systems that are more sustainable economically, ecologically, and socially.
- The farm economy is collapsing as a result of industrialization. Net farm income in the United States and Canada, in real dollars, is now lower than it was in 1929.
- Climate change is likely to have a major impact on agricultural practices in many areas. Some studies indicate that Iowa may experience a 21 percent increase in precipitation by the year 2040 which could result in a 51 percent increase in surface run-off. And the increased incidences of infectious diseases caused largely as a result of ecological impacts will require agriculture to rethink its system to help reduce such impacts.
- Industrial agriculture is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. As fossil fuels are depleted they will become more costly, and the ratio of energy produced to energy required will continue to deteriorate. Agriculture will have to find alternative energy sources to sustain its productivity.
- Nature's sinks are filling up rapidly. The "hypoxic zone" in the Gulf of Mexico increased to 8,200 square miles in 2002, largely due to excess nutrients from agricultural activities.
What is Sustainable Agriculture?
In popular literature, sustainable agriculture generally is presented as a new phenomenon. Wes Jackson is credited with the first publication of the expression in his New Roots for Agriculture (1980), and the term didn't emerge in popular usage until the late 1980s.
But if sustainable agriculture is defined as the ability to maintain productivity, one can find hints of attempts at "sustaining" agriculture since its inception some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. In fact one could contend, as some do, that since we have ably maintained productivity, agriculture as we know it is sustainable. The real question is whether current agricultural practices can be sustained much longer.
That question turns us to some fundamentals of ecology and evolutionary biology. From an ecological perspective, sustaining any activity on our planet into the future always involves two requirements - managing resource consumption and waste discharge. As Wackernagel and Rees have put it, to remain productive, i.e., live sustainably, "we must insure that we use the essential products and processes of nature no more quickly than they can be renewed, and that we discharge wastes no more quickly than they can be absorbed." (Our Ecological Footprint, 1996, 7)
From this perspective, maintaining productivity in agriculture presents us with some essential conditions. Wendell Berry has suggested at least two criteria that must be met if agriculture is to "remain productive":
"It must preserve the land, and the fertility and ecological health of the land; the land, that is, must be used well. A further requirement, therefore, is that if the land is to be used well, the people who use it must know it well, must be highly motivated to use it well, must know how to use it well, must have time to use it well, and must be able to afford to use it well. ("Nature as Measure" in What Are People For?, 1990, 206-7)
This brief description captures the three interdependent components of sustainable agriculture that have now become commonplace in sustainable agriculture literature. In order for agriculture to be sustainable, it must be
As Wackernagel and Rees have suggested, this shifts the emphasis from "managing resources to managing ourselves." So how well have we managed ourselves with respect to agricultural sustainability during our brief tenure on the planet?
- ecologically restorative,
- ocially resilient, and
- economically viable.
Historically, a common practice among human communities has been to hunt out or farm out a given location and then move on, allowing the used-up region to restore itself. This method was sustainable only so long as there were new places to which to move. It was practiced by European farmers who moved to the New World and continued so long as frontier lands were available. As Steven Stoll reminds us in Larding the Lean Earth (2002), the westward mobility of farmers was the subject of intense debates. Many felt that abandoning the land was immoral and that farmers had an obligation to stay and "improve" what they had impoverished.
Various other farming methods were employed by the human community; some have kept agriculture productive for thousands of years while others have led to the demise of entire civilizations. We have learned, for example, that some ancient human communities had ingenious ways of maintaining productivity using ecologically restorative practices. An Associated Press story published in 1998 reported that researchers had found small acreages of rich, black soil 7 to17 feet deep in Brazil, where people had lived 10,000 years ago and practiced soil-restoring farming methods. We still don't know precisely what these incredible stewards of the soil used to achieve such results.
The roots of industrial agriculture are embedded in the historic publication of Justus von Liebig's Chemistry in the Application to Agriculture and Physiology (1840). Von Liebig argued that by using chemical fertilizers we could maintain the productivity of agriculture without resorting to the laborious task of manuring soils. While von Liebig was never very successful in actually demonstrating his idea, John Bennet Lawes and J. H. Gilbert did establish its effectiveness. They manufactured and patented super-phosphates and built the first fertilizer factory in 1843.
The ability to substitute chemical fertilizers for nutrient-cycling practices encouraged farmers to specialize in the production of a few high-value crops and abandon the mixed-farming practices that incorporated green manures and livestock into farming systems. The movement toward specialization and monocropping was further stimulated by repeal of the British Corn Laws in 1846, which embraced free trade and encouraged the production of crops for export from virgin territories to Great Britain. Farmers committed to ecological restoration of soils saw this as a disastrous event since it encouraged farmers in exporting countries to exhaust their virgin soils to take advantage of markets overseas, while simultaneously forcing farmers in Great Britain to abandon ecologically sound practices and industrialize their operations to compete.
The Origins of Sustainable Agriculture
As the industrialization of agriculture took hold, some agriculturalists began to take issue with the fundamental premises upon which it was based and proposed alternatives. These early works, which formed much of the foundation of the sustainable agriculture movement, can be divided into four categories.
First was the "humus farming" movement, which stressed the notion that agriculture could never maintain its productivity without sustaining the humus content of the soil. Early influential books were D. Browne's The Field Book of Manures or the American Mulch Book (1855) and Charles Darwin's The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits (1881). Years later, Sir Albert Howard's An Agriculture Testament (1943) became a bible for humus farmers. In Japan after World War II, Mochichi Okada developed his "nature farming" practices, which employed similar humus farming techniques. And in 1979 the Rodale Institute published the Rodale Guide to Composting, which became a standard text for many humus farmers and gardeners.
A second movement around "complex farming systems" emerged in the early Twentieth Century largely in response to the writings of F. H. King - Farmers of Forty Centuries (1911) and Soil Management (1914) - challenging the oversimplification of industrial agriculture.
A third movement took hold in Europe with the presentation and publication of Rudolph Steiner's Agriculture Lectures in 1924. Steiner took strong exception to the industrialization of agriculture and the science that supported it. He insisted that in order to maintain productivity, agriculture had to be viewed much more holistically. The farmer, he asserted, must not only maintain a healthy soil humus but also must recognize that a farm is embedded in the "whole household of nature" including the cosmic forces that affect plant and animal health. The "biodynamic" agriculture movement emerged out of Steiner's work.
Finally, in the 1940s, a philosophy of "organic" agriculture emerged at least partially in reaction to the industrialization of agriculture. Lord Northburne (Look to the Land, 1940) first used the term "organic" to describe the farm as an "organism" in which the parts of the farm are orchestrated into a functioning whole - a kind of farming that stands in stark contrast to an industrial farm that relies on input-output mechanisms. Other works influencing the organic movement included the writings of Liberty Hyde Baily, Dean of Cornell University's College of Agriculture, especially The Holy Earth (1915); Lady Eve Balfour's The Living Soil (1943); and Louis Bromfeld's Pleasant Valley (1946).
The Green Revolution
Industrial agriculture took another quantum leap forward in the "green revolution" of the1960s. Norman Borlaug and his colleagues began breeding plants that would thrive with the inputs (fertilizers, irrigation, etc.) used in industrial agriculture. The new seeds were designed to resist the more commonplace diseases in monocropping systems. Dwarf varieties with stronger stems were developed to prevent lodging (straw breaking down) due to the larger grain heads of fertilized crops. These innovations made it possible to further increase the yields of a few monoculture crops, primarily wheat and rice.
In Creating a Progressive Rural Structure: To Serve a Modern Agriculture (1969), A.T. Moser articulated industrial agriculture's vision for the future:
Moser's work is both an indication of the direction agriculture was taking by 1970 and the evolution of an infrastructure to move it toward an increasingly technology-driven industrial future.
- Research new technologies.
- Disseminate technologies.
- Provide rural infrastructure to move goods and information.
- Provide incentives for farmers to adopt technology.
- Improve land for agriculture production.
- Educate and train technicians.
Silent Spring and the Environmental Movement
But the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring had a profound countervailing effect on agriculture. The book launched the environmental movement in the United States. While Carson's book initially was vilified among industrial agriculture advocates, her groundbreaking work on the effects of pesticides on wildlife and potentially on human health was eventually corroborated. It encouraged a new focus on some of the unintended costs associated with industrial agriculture techniques.
In the 1970s and 1980s awareness gradually increased of industrial agriculture's impact on the environment - crop nutrients and pesticides began to show up in groundwater as well as surface water, growing levels of soil loss and soil degradation were verified, increasing amounts of pesticide residues in food were documented.
At the same time, we became aware that irrigation was depleting water sources at rates that had begun to exceed nature's capacity to recharge them. Meanwhile, the energy shortages of the 1970s drew attention to the fossil-fuel dependency of much of industrial agriculture. Fertilizers, pesticides, and farm equipment were all highly dependent on fossil fuel energy, and the shortages created an awareness of the limits of this energy source.
Modern Sustainable Agriculture Emerges
All of these factors gave credence to the evolving sustainable agriculture paradigm based on modern ecology and drawing on earlier works that emphasized nutrient recycling and humus-based farming.
Several works became linchpins for the movement. First was Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America in 1978. Berry's moving account called into question many tenets of industrial agriculture and made a passionate case for the importance of the human resource factor if a sustainable agriculture was to be realized. In 1980 Wes Jackson published his New Roots for Agriculture in which he argued that agriculture based on annual plants and monocultures would have to be replaced with perennial polycultures. Given the rate at which annual monocultures deplete our ecological capital, Jackson found that it would be impossible to continue down the industrial path.
Miguel Altierri's Agroecology (1987) bolstered the credibility of an agriculture that was ecologically based. And in 1989 the Board on Agriculture of the National Academy of Sciences weighed in with its historic study, Alternative Agriculture, featuring eleven farmers throughout the United States who had adopted ecologically based production methods and appeared to be successful and competitive by most measurable indicators. This study gave further scientific and political credence to the sustainable agriculture movement.
From Concept to Policy and Action
The U. S. Congress passed the Food Security Act in 1985, which included Subtitle C (The Agriculture Productivity Act) providing for sustainable agriculture research. Throughout the late 1980s, a growing number of sustainable agriculture advocates lobbied for funding to implement the research provisions of the Act.
In January 1988 Secretary of Agriculture Richard Lyng issued a memorandum pledging the Department's support for research and education programs focused on "alternative farming systems." Shortly thereafter the Low-Input Sustainable Agriculture (LISA) program was established. LISA was the forerunner of today's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Initial funding in 1989 was $4.45 million.
In 1990 Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act, which established national standards for organic food production and labeling, giving further authority to the organic agriculture movement.
The Conservation Reserve Program, which paid farmers to take highly erodible land out of production and place it into a reserve to improve water quality, reduce soil erosion, and provide wildlife habitat, became popular with many farmers in the 1980s and 1990s.
Research and education also promoted minimum-tillage and no-till systems, which were more widely adopted during most of the 1980s and 90s. These met some sustainability criteria.
Next, as part of the 2002 Farm Bill, Congress established the Conservation Security Program, a plan that will pay farmers for certain conservation practices employed in their cropping systems.
Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s numerous land grant universities established centers for research and study of sustainable agriculture, and courses in sustainable agriculture were added to undergraduate curricula. In early 2000 Iowa State University established the first U.S. graduate program in sustainable agriculture.
Multi-species Systems - the Wave of the Future?
Agroecologists are increasingly convinced that research should focus on the synergies inherent in multi-species systems. These new production strategies will evolve out of an ecological - in contrast with a technological - paradigm. Instead of using one-dimensional, single-tactic approaches to solving production problems - an approach that requires farmers to continually buy new technologies to solve evolving production problems - this approach will redesign natural systems that are more self-regulatory and synergistic and that are far less likely to have negative environmental impacts.
One example is the integrated duck/rice system developed by Takao Furuno, a farmer in southern Japan. Instead of producing rice in a monoculture dependent on fertilizers and pesticides to achieve acceptable yields, Furuno developed an elegant, complex, species-interdependent system that has increased his rice yields while producing a full range of other food products, without relying on any exogenous crop inputs.
Right after Furuno sets his rice seedlings out into his flooded rice paddies, he puts a gaggle of young ducklings into the paddies. The ducklings immediately start to feed on insects that normally attack young rice plants. Furuno also introduces loaches, a variety of fish that is easily cultivated and good to eat, and azolla, which conventional rice farmers consider a weed.
The ducks feed on the insects and later on the golden snails that also attack rice plants. Both ducks and fish eat the azolla, keeping it under control so it does not compete with the growing rice. The azolla adds nitrogen and, along with the droppings from the ducks and fish, provides all of the nutrients needed for the rice.
Furuno grows figs on the periphery of his rice paddies. He rotates his integrated rice/duck crop with a crop of vegetables and wheat. He harvests duck eggs, which he markets along with the rice, fish, duck meat, vegetables, wheat, and figs.
Furuno's rice yields in this system exceed the yields of industrial rice systems by 20 to 50 percent. This natural systems design makes Takao Furuno's six-acre farm one of the most productive in the world. Farmers in many regions of the rice-growing world are now adopting this system.
The concept, Furuno writes, "is to produce a variety of products within a limited space to achieve maximum overall productivity. But this does not consist of merely assembling all of the components; it consists of allowing all components to influence each other positively in a relationship of symbiotic production." (The Power of Duck, 2001)
Meanwhile, consumer demand continues to grow for sustainably produced foods. Farmers, processors, and retailers now have many opportunities to cooperate in developing new food systems that reward farmers for sustainable farming practices.