Are we outgrowing how we grow?
Could we have outgrown modern agriculture? Dr. E Ann Clark thinks “agriculture was never designed to be sustainable,” and argues in recent research that we need to re-vision our food production systems entirely for today’s needs.
We do not have a whole-scale sustainable organic food system today, Clark argues, because agriculture as designed in the North American colonies had the central goal of exporting raw commodities to mother countries. This “design driver” of agriculture, as Clark terms it, did not create a food system intended to be sustainable for its producers. This system is dependent on cheap oil and society’s willingness to bear costs “externalized by seemingly efficient mega-scale production and processing.” This second design driver enables and encourages producers to produce large amounts of homogenous products. We can’t expect agriculture to move towards sustainability, she says, unless we re-design its base to be more in line with today’s needs.
What are the needs that should be driving today’s agriculture? Today’s central “design driver,” Clark says, will be relying on current rather than stored (fossil fuel) energy. Organic practices will become mainstream in a future food system because they require less manufacturing of products used in farming and because organic practices internalize costs of production. Clark predicts that “ecologically sound agriculture…will necessarily rely less on annuals and more on perennials- with a central role for grass-fed livestock.” This does not mean less vegetables, she says, but rather less large-seeded annual grains which occupy the majority of arable lands, require bare soil, and have various other requirements less compatible with most of US farm land than perennials.
Current research, education and activism on agricultural sustainability focus on how to make the current system less bad, Clark writes, but a more useful way at framing today’s agriculture is through today’s distinct “design drivers.” Food systems not relying on oil will favor smaller, organic, seasonally-oriented and local food. The more policymakers frame agriculture “post-oil realities,” Clark says, the more we can design a food system that is both driven and aided by today’s needs and the land we’re using. What do you think are today’s particular drivers, and how can the way we receive food promote them?