Fred Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow with the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, asks us to rethink the concept of sustainability. In an article for the Iowa Farmer Today this October, he posits that the relatively stable climate and resource abundance of recent memory may be coming to an end.
“The drought of 2012, in other words, is probably not going to be an isolated phenomenon which has deeply affected agriculture, it is rather likely to be part of a new world that will require us to radically rethink how we do agriculture—how we produce food.”
The agricultural system that we enjoy today is a product of the industrial revolution, during which industry invented easy, simple solutions to minimize the inherently volatile nature of farming. For millennia, farming had been a highly insecure endeavor with seeds and crops susceptible to everything from weather to pests, weeds, and poor soil fertility. During the last century or so, we entered into an era where industrial solutions and government subsidies have made farming a much more reliable enterprise—one that we largely take for granted in America. It is rare to see store shelves empty, and nationwide it’s common to find strawberries in the grocery store, even in the dead of winter.
Blogger Tom Philpott distilled this particular reality well in his recent Mother Jones post: “Got an insect infestation or a plague of weeds? Turn to toxic chemicals. These innovations, leveraged by the rise of genetically modified crops in the 1990s, dramatically simplified farming and made it more efficient: farms got bigger and bigger, requiring less and less labor. Diversification gave way to specialization; biodiversity, on which farms had relied for millennia, gave way to mono-crops.”
The danger inherent in this trend is a system-wide loss of resiliency. There is no simple fix when faced with a flood, hurricane or intense drought like the one experienced this year, which caused corn and food prices to rise worldwide, unleashed a plague of GMO-resistant ‘super insects’ and ‘superweeds,' and put many farmers out of business.
In less than a decade, we have seen an inordinate amount of extreme weather events effecting farms and crops in America. In 2005 Katrina, the sixth-most powerful hurricane ever, destroyed over $900 million worth of crops in the Mississippi River Delta region. Just two years later, a '500-year flood’ occurred in the Midwest corn belt which, as the U.S. Geological Survey pointed out, was actually the second '500-year flood’ to occur in the past 15 years.
In 2011, Texas suffered the worst 12-month drought they had experienced in recorded history with $5.2 billion worth of crop and livestock losses. In 2012 we saw the Midwest drought followed by Hurricane Irene in August, which destroyed crops across North America. And this fall we experienced Superstorm Sandy with damages that are still being calculated.
Luckily, when Sandy hit, farmers had ample warning and it was after the summer harvest season. But looking back at the pattern of ‘freak’ weather events, one has to wonder if we have entered a new era, with a ‘new normal’ of once-in-a-generation extreme weather events becoming increasingly frequent and no longer rare.
If the experts are right, the realities of extreme weather seem to be here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. In 2011, Scientific American published a series of articles on Severe Weather and Climate Change. In these, author John Carey made the observation that:
“In this year alone massive blizzards have struck the U.S. Northeast, tornadoes have ripped through the nation, mighty rivers like the Mississippi and Missouri have flowed over their banks, and floodwaters have covered huge swaths of Australia as well as displaced more than five million people in China and devastated Colombia. And this year’s natural disasters follow on the heels of a staggering litany of extreme weather in 2010, from record floods in Nashville, TN, and Pakistan, to Russia’s crippling heat wave.”
Peter Höppe, head of insurance giant Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research/Corporate Climate Center explains, “Our figures indicate a trend towards an increase in extreme weather events that can only be fully explained by climate change. It’s as if the weather machine had changed up a gear.”
Aldo Leopold and other legendary agricultural thinkers warned us almost a century ago of the loss of resiliency that results from mono-cropping and other common industrial agricultural practices. Leopold called for a holistic approach to agriculture, asking the philosophical question, “Do we realize that industry, which has been our good servant, might make a poor master?”
In America today, there are many who are realizing new and innovative ways to reintroduce resiliency to our food systems. We recently profiled the Marsden Farm Study which showed how the simple introduction of additional crop rotations increased overall yield and soil health in otherwise conventional farming conditions.
We’ve also seen how high oil prices are spurring creative, sustainable solutions in agriculture like farming in shipping containers and companies like Real Time Farms that connect local farmers with consumers through the internet. Innovations like these are critical to addressing the realities of growing populations, and the challenges that factors like extreme weather and market fluctuations pose to the reliability of our food supply.
The reality is, our food systems are currently unsustainable and rely upon complex production and distribution systems which are overly dependent upon oil. At Sustainable America, we believe that entrepreneurial innovation and sound scientific research needed to combat the complex issues we face today.
With a laser focus on reducing our need for oil to transport food and producing food in more efficient ways, we believe we can create food security for our nation into the future. While that may mean reserving your strawberry shortcake for summertime, it also means more vibrant, healthy and resilient food systems producing better food for more people.