Five Truths I: modern agriculture is not sustainable

In my blog, Five Truths Intro: reflections on agricultural research and education, I introduced what I intend to be a series of posts exploring some issues that have concerned me for most of my academic career.  Some years ago, I surveyed a group of university researchers and educators working in the areas of sustainable agriculture regarding their thoughts on five “truth statements”.  This blog reflects the first of “my truths’ and their response. Perhaps this is self-indulgent.  So be it.

My Truth Onethe form of agriculture currently practiced in most of the U.S. is not sustainable, as it continues to leak biological toxins and soil into the surrounding environment, use natural resources at rates greater than replacement, and put small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers off the land.

“Yes, we know all that.”

This was the most common response among survey participants.  On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 indicating ‘don’t agree‘ and 5 signifying ‘full agreement‘, 90% choose either 4 or 5 (strong or full agreement).  One of the respondents summed it up by writing:

 “Most political organizations, institutions and commodity agricultural organizations are aware of the social/natural resource problems, however, they lack the knowledge and understanding that would enable them to take constructive steps towards sustainable systems.  Instead they are locked into old patterns and keep trying the same old things.

This is so true.  We are all locked into old patterns and keep trying the same things, or making small changes ‘around the edges’.  Indications that something is amiss in the world go unnoticed (or noticed only by a minority of activists).  Think about:

  • A ‘dead zone’ where oxygen breathers don’t survive in the Gulf of Mexico and reports from respectable sources about projected global water shortages are mostly ignored.
  • Potato production increases to satisfy our desire for French fries, while more potato farmers go out of business.
  • A billion people hungry or malnourished and another billion over-fed.
  • And yet another food recall.  Sometimes people get sick or die.

We know what is happening; yet we stay on the same path.  I’ve written dozens of blogs about the non-sustainability of modern agriculture and I have lots of followers in the social media.  We agree… and nothing changes.  Another participant wrote:

 ‘If you keep on doing what you have been doing, you will keep getting what you have been getting.  If you don’t like what you are currently getting, then you need to try something different.  The industrial model of agriculture is not sustainable.’

While there are some people who honestly support the industrial model of agriculture, many researchers and educators know something is wrong but can’t see an alternative.  Their response to this first truth is usually something like…

“yes, but aren’t we doing better?” 

And the answer is surely, yes.  Or they might say…

“so what choice do we have?  We have to feed the ever increasing human population, don’t’ we?   Only the modern industrial system can feed the world.  Right?

And of course the answer is yes … and no.  Yes, food is a human right and we have an obligation to make sure nobody is hungry.

And no…industrial farming isn’t the only way, but in the absence of a clear and proven alternative path, we fall back on that which we know best – industrial agriculture with its quick fixes and addiction to growth at all costs.  We have a vague idea there is a better way (which many of us call agroecology) but the ecological path seems treacherous, full of unknowns.  T.S. Eliot assures us this is the right path when he writes;

  …in order to arrive at what you do not know. 

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.

Right, and isn’t research ‘the way of ignorance?”  When we admit what we do not know, we are then able to begin the search for a better way.  Eliot continues;

 . . . And what you do not know is the only thing you know.

Today, we must admit that we do not clearly know the path to an ecological agriculture.  Experiments in tillage practices, integrated pest management, multiple cropping, cycling of nutrients and the like surely point us in the right direction.  But when challenged by proponents of the industrial way, we must admit ignorance.  That is the beginning of the search for a better way that we intuitively know is based on principles of ecology.

And who will lead us in this path of discovery?  Surely those farmers and non-profit research and educational organizations devoted to agricultural sustainability are key.  And what of the universities?   It seems that the public university is a place where this work SHOULD be happening to a significant extent.  A survey participant wrote:

“This undertaking is beyond the resources or capability of any single institution (public or private) and therefore can only be achieved through the re-establishment of some form of commons.”

 It was both funny and sad that this survey participant didn’t recognize the publicly funded land grant university as a “commons.”   It was once upon a time.

My next “truth” blog looks at one of the underlying causes for this problem.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   Go here for more of my posts. And finally if you are ready to study sustainable food and farming, check out our 15-credit online certificate or our Bachelor of Sciences degree program.

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