A Plate Full Of Problems: The Future Of Food Sustainability

-Heather Whalley

The last lecture this year for my conservation biology module required each student to put together a short presentation about where they believe the future of conservation biology lies. I can’t speak for the rest of my peers, but for me, trying to sum up what we need to do to conserve the planet and all its glorious attributes in 2 minutes was daunting, to say the least. Every day the news tells us about the encroaching threat of global warming and the negative impacts it will inflict on our landscapes and lives, ongoing battles with world hunger, pollution of the oceans and water systems, excessive deforestation, continuous loss of natural biodiversity… the list goes on! So I thought which of these problems is the worst? Which one should we target for our future? But upon reading, I came to the conclusion that like most things, all the above problems are interlinked and so maybe by targeting the biggest contributor to all the associated negatives, maybe that is where the future of conservation lies.

Agriculture may be feeding us, but it can also be described as the most destructive industry on our planet. 90% of the world’s 1.5 billion hectares under agriculture is dominated by industrial mono-cultures that are highly dependent upon external inputs and energy (TWN, 2015). These mono-cultures are extremely vulnerable to pests, disease and climate change and have resulted in nearly all the greatest famines in history (e.g. Ireland potato famine). In the 1960’s a green revolution generated international agriculture research centers and began to path the way forward for agroecology.

Unfortunately, the science became an instrument of those in power, and most agricultural projects were funded to fit particular political agendas, placing the technologies and education into large-scale farmers. To this day, this model is still prevalent, and the number of farms is decreasing while the size of farms is increasing. This has resulted in a tremendous erosion of genetic diversity as industrial farming has replaced naturally diversified farms. These mono-cultures may have a temporary economic advantage but in the long term are not ecologically or economically sustainable systems. Most cultivated organisms are genetically uniform, vulnerable to pests, disease and climate change.

Dead zones of ocean, water systems, and land are the result of intensive fertilization, pesticides, mechanical cultivation and overgrazing. It has led to reduced biodiversity of both flora and fauna due to the loss of habitat through deforestation for farmable land, and Its use of pesticides has negatively impacting crucial pollinators. Agriculture also is the biggest polluter and user of water in the world, through fertilizer eutrophication and ground soil run-off and the extortionate amount of fresh water it requires for production.

Excessive mechanical cultivation is continuing to reduce soil quality and quantity, which inevitably will result in vast areas of the planet that are too hostile for anything to grow. And finally, agriculture contributes approximately one-third of global greenhouse emissions, making it the leading contributor to global warming.

On top of the physical aspects, the modern agricultural industry relies on mechanization and labor saving policies, which inevitably consolidate land and resources into fewer hands. This leads to mass unemployment, rural-urban mitigation and depresses rural economies. It also results in these industries producing more food than necessary, with only one-third of the food produced on our planet being consumed (UNEP, 2009). The bottom line is that the agricultural industry can not continue with the same practices it has done in the past.

For me, the above negatives resound with me on a personal level. I come from a farm myself and when you are presented with journal, upon journal, of how harmful your livelihood is on the planet, it makes you question your moral compass. After soul searching, and more intensive reading, I came across a more recent science that is growing in both popularity and practice that could well and truly help us live more sustainably and harmoniously with nature. Agroecology is a science, practice, and a movement. It is based on solid scientific evidence and traditional knowledge. It is a science that bridges ecological and socio-economical aspects and works on various levels to enhances biological processes, ecological services as well as generating sustainable provisions for our ever growing populations.

Agro-farming, or Agroecology, uses techniques that work alongside nature rather than oppressing them. It has the potential to reduce agriculture’s impact on climate change by working with natural systems. It will generate food systems that are more diverse and resilient to changes in climate, and additionally, will improve independent farmer’s ability to respond to climate change. It focuses conservation of soil and water through several of its developed practices such as terracing, intercropping, and agroforestry. Studies have highlighted how it also has the potential to double, even triple yield from farming. Moreover, it’s practices’ aim to create wildlife habitats, maintain natural predator-prey relations and will help to increase biodiversity. It reintegrates livestock, crops, pollinators, fish, trees and water for integrated nutrient management. The practice embraces sophisticated methods of land stewardship and treats soil as the building block of community ecological health. Finally, it will help to maintain and improve soil quality that will retain more moisture and naturally improve crop drought resilience, run-off and contributes to balance aquifer withdrawal and recharge.

The number of positives massively outweigh the negatives. So why are we all not racing to implement this modern science? Well, foremost, like most things, people are afraid of change and generations of ingrained traditions will undoubtedly be difficult to persuade. Furthermore, there is not enough education and outreach to target people and help them to implement and utilize these modern practices.

And finally, a capitalist industry (people such as “Mr. Tesco”) pressures for land monopolization, proliferating a mono-culture mindset. Because it’s the quickest and easiest method to churn out more products and thus profit, large companies very rarely embrace the long-term outlook and settle for a more short-term gain.

So where do we go from here? Well, it ‘s hard to say, such a large problem can’t be tackled overnight, and even if every farm started implementing modern agroecological practices, it would take generations to see a genuine improvement in soil, water, and climate health. But overall, if we want to leave a green world for our grandchildren, we need to live sustainably through integrating nature into our food systems and paying back into food systems more viably.

-Heather Whalley

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