Dowser is welcoming new writers/contributors; please send us a note at with a writing sample.

Are we outgrowing how we grow?

   /   Apr 18th, 2011Food, News

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?

7 Responses

  1. Cassie Taylor says:

    I was really touched by this article. I think that agriculture is something that people as a whole take for granted. In no way can we continue living and farming the way we do forever, and what’s scary is that changes really need to be made quite quickly. As you have probably already seen in the news the price of a numerous food items are increasingly going up. Some of these items include corn, grains, catfish, and coffee. There is a scarcity of these items and it is a result of global warming and declining resources, and the fact that humans are using resources (water, energy) much to quickly. These resources will soon run out. We already know that oil is not an infinite resource and will eventually run out. That being said, a lot of oil is used to produce crops of food. We need oil for the transportation of goods, for the machines that pick the goods, and even for pesticides. I think that it’s really important to start thinking of farming as being more local. In the future it might be impossible and unrealistic to grow think in an unlocal level. This is where ideas such as vertical farming really come in hand. Vertical farming is a much more sustainable way to farm and is good for the local community. A variety of different foods would be able to grow year rounds and would be fresher since they would not have to be picked prematurely so they could be shipped to another country. As a result they would most likely taste better as well. I also think that vertical farming would be beneficial to the local community because it would provide jobs and help to stimulate the economy and get money flowing. I think that it’s really important to start thinking about the future now otherwise there will soon be no future to plan for.

  2. Rachel says:

    For people who feel passionate about sustainable agriculture, there’s currently a challenge at that addresses the need to create a system where food sources are geographically close to the consumers of their products:

  3. Yuri Goto says:

    Very interesting article, regarding the pressing needs for the organic farming and what drives it. I understood, as I read this blog and briefly the research, that the agriculture today was designed to meet the demand for “cheap energy.” This is particularly true in North American regions, where they exported back their commodities, which are now bought by processed food giants like Tyson. The power play of these corporate giants certainly have affected the ways farming was done for last few decades; hence it is essential that the policy makers need to press the changes through regulations and aids. However, my questions would be about the mindset of consumers. We need to understand that the abundance of crops that are cheap and big (both in quantity and variety) were developed not just to meet the cheap fuel but to cater the consumerisms. That said, if we want to make organic farming the new standard, the first thing needs to be done is to change the mindset of the consumers. When I say consumers, I am not talking about the locals, but the global consumers where these producers are exporting their crops. Do we need to sacrifice needs of those who rely on imported crops because their homelands are unable to grow rich crops? Do we need to sacrifice the lifestyle (which we eat strawberries all year long) that we have for decades? I think we all know that organic farming and buying local are essential and why it is essential: what still remains, though, is the issue of changing the mindset of consumers, producers, and manufacturers.

  4. Anna J. Kim says:

    As far as “Design driver” in an agricultural system, I felt that this article essentially pin points the reason why people are so driven to agricultural restructuring like, local food chains or vertical farming. This article provides several reasons of why it is necessary to advocate sustainable agricultural systems; energy and cost efficiencies sound really reasonable and persuasive enough.
    I especially like the saying, “Re-designing ought to be based on today’s needs”, I have the same concept that the finding common needs and wants differs the whole design structure and the scale of it. Like it says, rather showcasing an universal idea of sustainable agricultural systems, it would be good to narrow it down to user-focused farming programs that can be really applicable to the particular area.

  5. [...] we outgrowing how we [...]

  6. Lauren says:

    I think this article is very interesting, because I have studied urban food systems in some of my classes at the New School. If the current agricultural system is not sustainable, this should be enough of a push to create a new system. Local farming is ideal, to not only save on the use of fossil fuels and other external costs, but to bring community back into farming. By buying from the farmer instead of the grocer you can get a better idea of where the food you eat comes from, which is something I think many people have forgotten.

  7. Olivia says:

    The point that is being made about agriculture and how it was never “meant to be sustainable” is unsettling. Given the state of our environment and our ever expanding society it is imperative that we address these issues at hand and attempt to implement change where we can. That being said the idea of assessing the “design drivers” in this situation is imperative to any type of positive system change that can occur. The current state of our system of agriculture is greatly skewed because over time it has turned into an industrialized and oversized market. With that changes have not been implemented overtime to account for additional external changes – as well as taking into account potential long-term sustainability. That being said it is important that we work toward a more sustainable system in order to ensure longevity, security, and wellness.