Sustainable Agriculture: An Organic Vision for the 21st Century

Written in 1993 by Roger Blobaum

Several months ago I gave a lecture to a group of students and faculty at Cornell University on sustainable agriculture. All was well until the question and answer session when a student raised his hand and asked, “What is your vision for sustainable agriculture?”

At first I was speechless. Then I tried to recover by saying that the important thing was that we are moving toward a more sustainable system and that developing a vision is something that can come later. What I was saying, in effect, was “I have no idea where we’re going but I’m going there anyway.” The look on his face told me I had to do better.

I thought about this all the way home. I knew I had strong views about sustainable agriculture. And I had talked and written about it many times. But this encounter made me realize I had not thought about a vision for sustainable agriculture in a systematic way and that I should be able to answer that question.

I have since discovered that this may be a problem for many of us directly involved in policy and in the debate over agriculture’s future. It hampers our effort to articulate a vision to others. We are asking consumers, environmentalists, and others to support policy changes that will facilitate the transition to a more sustainable food production system. But we fail to develop a vision that the public can embrace and one that can be widely shared.

Last Monday at an alternative agriculture symposium, a former Senate Agriculture Committee staff person blamed lack of vision for many of the problems encountered in shaping the 1990 farm bill. Failure to articulate a vision, she suggested, also helps account for lack of political support for funding needed to implement the sustainable agriculture initiatives that were adopted.

The general public, she suggested, still identifies agriculture with too many farm subsidies, too many handouts, too many chemicals, and inhumane treatment of animals. She said conventional farm groups respond to all this by arguing that sustainable agriculture is little more than an attempt to take chemicals away from farmers, that it is not a realistic alternative because it turns back the clock, and that it attracts people who don’t make a real living from farming. She described one debate where Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska finally insisted, in a desperate attempt to gain support, that sustainable agriculture is not “hippy dippy” farming.

To those who oppose it, she suggested, sustainable agriculture is a blank screen. And for those who support it, and for people in the media, it is a blurred image at best.

Even organic farmers have trouble articulating it. In a recent essay entitled “One Farmer’s Vision” and published in the NOFA-New York newsletter, a biodynamic farmer shared her thoughts about what it would take to bring about a dynamic shift in the public’s attitudes about agriculture. She called for support for a “reasonably self-sufficient, spiritually independent class of farmers producing a vibrant, vital food supply.” But her arguments centered on alienation from nature, environmental degradation, health, homelessness, and lack of spiritual values. These are symptoms of a failed agriculture but they are not things that interest or sway most policymakers.

We don’t have a lot of time to deal with this. As we look at global food production trends for the 1990s and beyond, it is clear that a shift to more sustainable agriculture practices is an environmental imperative. And, for the long term, it’s a matter of human survival. The question no longer is whether sustainable methods will be adopted. The question is when will the transition begin and how long will it take.

Population growth in developing countries and excessive consumption of energy and other resources in the industrialized nations create a relentless driving force. The world faces an unprecedented food production shortfall in Africa, Asia, and Latin America in the decades just ahead. Agricultural production will have to be increased at least 50 percent in these countries over the next 20 years just to meet expected demand.

A global increase of this magnitude is unprecedented and will be extremely difficult to achieve. More important, it must be done with resource-conserving and environmentally sound methods that do not destroy the capacity of the land to continue to produce enormous amounts of food indefinitely.

Most Americans think of food security as a serious issue for people in Ethiopia or Somalia or elsewhere but not for us. But even in America the security of the food supply cannot be guaranteed indefinitely because, on a long-term basis, our production system is not sustainable.

It is a shaky system built on dwindling petroleum reserves, eroded and compacted land, rising soil salinity and loss of soil humus, polluted wells and depleted aquifers, and other resource problems. It competes for prime land and water with expanding urban complexes. It relies on monocropping and an ever-narrowing genetic base, a reckless strategy that reduces our ability to create sustainable systems and our flexibility to respond to crop diseases and other natural calamities. It destroys rural communities and has bankrupted hundreds of thousands of farm families.

It is encouraging that much attention was given in the Earth Summit process last year to agricultural sustainability. The official Earth Summit mandate is for the development of national plans for sustainable agriculture in all countries and a global transition to resource-conserving and environmentally sound food production practices. This global meeting endorsed a move away from the industrialized approach to food production and towards methods more in harmony with nature. It is a move away from the kind of farming that requires domination of nature’s forces.

Representatives of organic and sustainable agriculture groups from throughout the world adopted a plan of action at the Earth Summit that lists characteristics of sustainable agriculture systems. This action plan states that sustainable agriculture preserves biodiversity, maintains soil fertility and water quality, conserves and improves the physical properties of the soil, recycles agricultural wastes, and conserves energy. It increases local independence and self-sufficiency and helps ensure a source of stable income for producers by using locally available renewable resources, appropriate and affordable technologies, and a minimum of external and purchased inputs. It uses modern science to improve, rather than to displace, the traditional wisdom built up over centuries by food producers around the world.

Some of these concepts are included in the Congressional definition of what we call low-input sustainable agriculture. It is defined as “a system that, for generations to come, will be not only productive and profitable but will conserve resources, protect the environment, and enhance the health and safety of the citizenry.” This implies some minor adjustments but it is not a call for a new direction. The politicians mean well but they really don’t get it.

What is needed is a rejection of the industrial model of agriculture and of the idea that biotechnology is the quick fix needed for agriculture’s problems. Some of the visions of agriculture for the 21st century being pushed by biotechnology proponents are science fiction formulas for disaster.

A team of scientists from Great Britain and Brazil, for example, have conceptualized an agricultural system where farming as we know it, and farmers as we know them, would no longer exist.

Huge amounts of biomass would be produced and fed to extraction factories that would use enzyme technology to decompose plant materials into syrups. This material would be the food manufacturing input. Artificial coloring, flavors, thickeners, and other components of today’s fake foods would be used to create the full range of food products. The production sector would be limited to occasional replanting of perennial crops and to harvest.

Two USDA scientists who analyzed this system concluded that the technology needed will be available early in the 1990s. They also projected an 86% decrease in farming activity when this system is fully in place.

The proceedings of the 1991 conference of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers, which focused on automated agriculture, provides another kind of vision. It calls for computer-controlled, vision-based sensing systems and autonomous legged robots and would include a neural network for adaptive control of milking robots. Apparently this takeover of farming by the engineers would retain real crops and real livestock.

Other possible scenarios based on biotechnology and computers are being proposed. Kamyar Enshayan, who directs a sustainable agriculture program at Ohio State, is keeping track of all of these high tech schemes. Another of his favorites is a Congressional Office of Technology Assessment report on bioengineering techniques that could produce cows that weight 10,000 pounds and pigs that are 12 feet long in the next decade or so.

Clearly we need to reach consensus on a vision for sustainable agriculture, rally public support for it, and begin taking the steps needed to get it adopted.

Gordon Douglas, a California economist, has identified three schools of thought regarding agricultural sustainability. The first is the “food sufficiency” or “productivity” viewpoint, which thinks of sustainability as providing enough food to meet the demand. The second is the “stewardship” school, which views sustainability primarily as a ecological phenomenon. Those holding this view are concerned about maintaining output indefinitely without depleting the natural resource base. And the third is the “community” viewpoint, which pays most attention to the effects of different agricultural systems on the vitality, social organization, and culture of rural life.”

I identify primarily with the stewardship school, with a little community perspective thrown in, and that influences the vision of sustainable agriculture I want to present tonight. These are the components of my vision of sustainable agriculture in the 21st century:

I see an agriculture that mimics nature to the maximum extent possible.

This requires diverse holistic systems and production methods that are in harmony with nature. It rejects those, like biotechnology, that manipulate nature. And it rules out others, like synthetic chemicals, that attempt to dominate nature’s forces. It builds on indigenous knowledge, like that developed by organic farmers, and uses modern science to enhance, rather than displace, these knowledge-intensive site-specific systems.

I see an agriculture that is sun-powered.

That means it depends totally on renewable energy resources. Agriculture is a global solar collector that uses plants to capture unlimited amounts of energy from the sun. It also uses photosynthesis to convert light, carbon dioxide, water, and soil into food. The sun provides the only new addition to the earth’s resources and is the only production input that is not finite.

A report prepared by the USDA in the late 1970s concluded that American agriculture could be energy self sufficient it if fully developed its solar capability and fully utilized known recycling and conservation technologies. This included production of mobile fuels like ethanol from grain and diesel fuel from refined vegetable oils, electricity from wind and biogas generators, and space and water heating from wood and solar sources. The sun also provides the energy needed to supply fertilizer from nitrogen-fixing legumes and recycled manure and other organic wastes.

I see an agriculture that does not use toxic inputs of any kind.

American farmers spend more then $4 billion a year on pesticides and most of them are applied to field crops. Agricultural pesticide use in the United States has tripled over the last 30 years while cropland has expanded only 10 percent and damage from pests has remained largely unchanged. For some crops, pesticides are no longer available due to the buildup of pest resistance.

The organic food industry no longer makes residue-free claims because residues can persist in the soil years after pesticides have been applied. Pesticides are carried by irrigation water, fog, wind-blown dust, water-borne soil, rain, and spray drift. A recent story in a Midwest newspaper had a lead paragraph that dramatizes this problem. The one-sentence lead said, “It’s raining Atrazine in Iowa.” The story described a study that showed that pesticides applied to fields are taken up through evaporation and return in rain. It said pesticides had been found in rain falling on most farm states.

This can be remedied through source reduction and eventual elimination of toxic chemicals. Organic farmers all over the world are demonstrating that toxic chemicals are not needed for food production. Further work on resistant varieties and biological and cultural controls will make their job easier.

I see an agriculture that conserves its topsoil and achieves zero off-farm impact.

Agriculture has become the largest source of non-point pollution and the annual off-site damage from soil erosion alone is estimated at more than $10 billion a year. This includes such categories as freshwater recreation, water storage, navigation, flooding, and municipal water treatment. Further damage is caused by organic matter, bacteria, and pesticides that enter waterways attached to sediment from agricultural runoff.

USDA initially supported the concept of T-values, a measure of soil loss considered tolerable. It was officially defined as the maximum rate of annual soil loss that will permit crop productivity to be realized economically and indefinitely. But even if this standard was enforced, the result would not necessarily be a sustainable level. The standard should be the rate at which new soil is formed from parent material plus the soil built through incorporation of plant residues or other organic matter.

Again, organic farmers prepare and follow farm plans that require soil conservation and regeneration and, in effect, call for zero off-site impact. They build up humus levels that help provide drought resistance and increase productivity. They are developing and adopting the practices that will make this vision of agriculture a reality.

I see an agriculture that recaptures and recycles all organic wastes generated on the farm.

Livestock and poultry on U.S. farms provide more than 100 million tons of manure per year on a dry basis, making it an important nutrient source. In addition to providing large amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, manure also is a source of trace nutrients and organic matter.

Much of the manure produced is poorly handled and the percentage of nutrients made available to crops could be much higher. Much wider adoption of composting techniques will increase utilization of manure and other organic wastes. Composting and recycling of clean sludge, paunch manure, and other urban wastes also has high potential and will help close the rural-urban nutrient loop.

I see an agriculture that fully integrates livestock into holistic production systems.

Livestock, and ruminant animals in particular, are a major pillar in the human food chain. The beef industry alone makes it possible to utilize nearly 600 million acres of grass pasture plus several hundred million more acres of rangeland. This is the best use providing over-grazing does not occur.

In recent years, however, the productive potential of forages has not been realized as producers have moved to large-scale operations that generally involve a separation of cropping and livestock activities. Many benefits would flow from adoption of farming systems that integrate livestock and utilize rotations that include forages. Practices like rotational grazing are beginning to demonstrate the benefits of these forage-based systems.

Changing the way livestock are raised in the future can play a leading role in defining the nature and direction of change in agricultural systems and in making agriculture more sustainable.

The advantages include utilizing forage grown on land that should be kept in grass, utilizing high-quality forages grown on more productive cropland in rotation with row crops, spreading out labor demands on farms, and lessening the adverse environmental impact of large operations.

I see an agriculture that treats livestock humanely.

Livestock and poultry produced under humane conditions can make significant contributions to agricultural sustainability and improve the ecological stability of the farming system as a whole. Ethical considerations also are important because centuries of domestication have produced livestock and poultry breeds that are dependent on human care.

The livestock systems adopted in recent years, including confined feeding and caged layers, are based on an industrial model and have resulted in severe health problems that require heavy use of antibiotics and other medications. The humane treatment requirements, which are satisfied on most family farms, include readily accessible clean water, a nutritionally complete and balanced diet, appropriate comfort and shelter, freedom of movement and the opportunity to executive normal behavior, responsible care by skilled people, and prompt treatment of injury or disease.

I see an agriculture that protects all good cropland from conversion to nonfarm uses.

Conversion of cropland, and prime land in particular, due to development and other pressures remains a critical problem. Successful land preservation models exist. But their application has been limited to areas where cropland loss has been so extensive that food production has almost disappeared.

The adoption of an Urban agriculture strategy that will emphasize local and regional self sufficiency is a critical need. It would provide incentives for close-in production of high-value crops and encourage community-supported agriculture and other initiatives. Large metropolitan centers in other parts of the world, and in China in particular, are self-sufficient in food. This approach, which includes full utilization of urban wastes, has the potential to become a major component in achieving agricultural sustainability.

I see an agriculture that fully utilizes the biological potential of the soil and the maintenance of soil health.

Little is known about what takes place below the soil surface in American agriculture. A major research effort is underway to identify soil health indicators, to develop a soil health index, and to learn what practices enhance microbial activity.

Preliminary research results strongly suggest a link between healthy soil and healthy livestock. Although that relationship is more difficult to document with humans, and would require long-term trials, it is highly likely that a link between soil health and human health exists as well. The ability to develop and maintain healthy soil is essential to agricultural sustainability.

Finally. I see an agriculture where producers are guaranteed a fair return on their investment plus a profit.

Neither agriculture nor the communities serving farmers can be sustainable unless producers have the financial capability to stay in agriculture and to adopt sustainable practices.

My vision for the 21st century is an agriculture that mimics nature to the maximum extent possible, is sun-powered, does not use toxic inputs of any kind, conserves its topsoil and achieves zero off-farm impact, captures and recycles all organic wastes generated on the farm, fully integrates livestock into holistic production systems, treats livestock humanely, protects all good cropland from conversion to nonfarm uses, fully utilizes the biological potential of the soil and the maintenance of soil health, and guarantees producers a fair return on their investment plus a profit.

All of these things are achievable. Most of them have been achieved by organic farmers around the world. There also are clear signs that the transition to this kind of agriculture is underway. One sign that it is underway came last fall when Edward Knipling, the father of biological and genetic insect control, and his former research partner, were awarded the first World Food Prize. A few years ago this prize probably would have gone to Norman Borlaug or someone else involved in the Green Revolution.

Knipling, who retired 20 years ago believing the approach he pioneered would never be fully accepted, has never stopped advocating biological control of insects. “Somewhere along the line,” he said in accepting the prize, “we’re going to have to drastically change our way of thinking if we hope to double the world’s production of food.” That new way of thinking must become part of our vision of the future.

All of us are prodded throughout our lives to try to make things better. I think this is programmed in all of us. We have to ask ourselves: Have I heeded that call? What have I done to make a difference?

I was reminded of that need to make a difference, and of how crucial the transformation to a safer and more Earth-friendly agriculture is, by a quote in Sam Bingham’s Holistic Resource Management Yearbook. It is directed primarily at those who work the land but it applies as well to all of us.

“While theologians debate the immortality of the soul, you can walk around and get your boots muddy in the ages of the earth, which compared to your short life might as well be immortal.

“No other living planet has yet been found in space, and ours is very small. We tax it sorely with our bombs, our wars, our fumes, and our fires, our cutting down and building up, our teeming cities and plundered fields, and our greed.

“When the paintings in the galleries and the poems on the shelves have turned to dust, the earth, your piece of the land, will abide.” What an awesome responsibility for all of us!