Chapter 5 - Industrial Approaches to Sustainability

Part 6 - Sustainable Agriculture

rice field looking up at sun and skyNo doubt, the move to a more sustainable agriculture will require difficult choices. The difficulty of these choices are mediated by a reflection of past failures in history, current challenges in food quality and availability, the greening of consumers, and the negative social and economic impacts to family farm operations and rural regions, largely resulting from the growth of an agribusiness and policy dynamic that plays to mass production of commodities and large-scale operations.

Food security is a major driver in human security, and the coupled impacts of increasing human population and environmental degradation can damage both. In a future where energy — an important factor in agriculture — is becoming more expensive, food prices are going to rise. New approaches to agriculture that aim to limit the input of non-renewable resources, that diversify operations including the types of plants and animals in production, and address key market, policy, and consumer opportunities can all accelerate the transformation towards the bold changes we need to address an increasingly uncertain future.

Consumers drive the marketplace, and increasing numbers, consumers are making choices that support a more local and decentralized food system where “how the food is produced” is increasingly valued alongside taste, nutrition, and cost. In past decades, government policies have driven the scale-up of corporate agriculture producing a commodity. Although this approach is regarded as being economically successful in providing for a profitable agribusiness arena, especially in a an era of global trade, the true costs in natural capital and social capital are largely ignored or unaccounted in most policy approaches. Often the least sustainable approach is subsidized and advanced, in a political power arena that often benefits the few and the favored, centralizing, rather than decentralizing, our distributed food system.

The growth in alternative agriculture systems, local food initiatives, and consumers looking for a more substantial connection to their food are positive indicators for needed change. As well, the development of educational tools for consumers in the arena of labeling of ingredients, organic certification, and geographic origin, are educating consumers about what they eat and the choices they have, helping to connect people — as consumers and as farmers — with the food that sustains them both.   

The twentieth century “green revolution” of agricultural science that advanced our farm and ranch yields, must itself now yield to a future very much different from our past. A remarkable system of “reliable strangers” has helped make our food safe and abundant, and this is indeed a great advancement in human civilization. In our era of climate change, peak petroleum, and rising uncertainty from population increase and environmental degradation, we must now heed the call of an even greater challenge, for ourselves and for this system of “reliable strangers” — the challenge of making our food safe, abundant, locally familiar, affordable, and sustainable.

In this twenty-first century “greener revolution” for agriculture, we must incrementally change and even “transform” the food system by the choices we make as farmers and ranchers, as agri-businesses large and small, and most importantly as consumers driving the dynamic of the marketplace.

At the end of the day, we as individuals are responsible for what we eat. Choose wisely.


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Suggested Reading

  1. Transforming U.S. Agriculture (2011) Reganold, J.P., D. Jackson-Smith, S.S. Batie, R.R. Harwood, J.L. Kornegay, D. Bucks, C.B. Flora, J.C. Hanson, W.A. Jury, D. Meyer, A. Schumacher, Jr., H. Sehmsdorf, C. Shennan, L.A. Thrupp, and P. Willis. Science 332 Pages: 670-671.
  2. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century (2010) National Research Council (The National Academies, Washington, DC).
  3. Report in Brief: Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. (2010) National Research Council (The National Academies, Washington, DC).
  4. Agroecology: A Review from a Global-Change Perspective (2011) Tomich, T.P., Brodt, S., Ferris, H., Galt, R., Horwath, W.R., Kebreab, E., Leveau, J.H.J., Liptzin, D., Lubell, M., Merel, P., Michelmore, R., Rosenstock, T., Scow, K., Six, J., Williams, N., and Yang, L. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Vol. 36: 193-222.

  5. Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People (2010) Godfray, HCJ, Beddington, JR, Crute, IR, Haddad, L, Lawrence, D, Muir, JF, Pretty, J., Robinson, S., Thomas, S.M., Toulmin, C. Science 327:5967 Pages: 812-818.

  6. How Sustainable Agriculture Can Address the Environmental and Human Health Harms of Industrial Agriculture (2002) Horrigan, L., Lawrence, R.S., Walker, P. Environ Health Perspect 110(5): doi:10.1289/ehp.02110445.


(Photo credit: Robertz65, 2009)