Is agriculture sustainable? This is a question that should go way beyond politics into everyone’s mind. Not because we need everyone to find an answer but because we need everyone to ask the question that demands an answer that goes beyond the current polemic…
Yes, of course it is, with human ingenuity and capacity for engineering to the fore and economic returns to drive behavior and investment we will keep growing as much food as we need for ever.
No, not at all, for our soils are already denuded, we rely too heavily on fossil fuel based inputs that will sooner or later run out and we don’t have enough water.
Is agriculture sustainable | arable fields in Tuscany, Italy
Back in 1987 a report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, better known as the Bruntland Report, defined sustainable development as ‘‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’’
This ability to ‘meet the needs of the present without compromising the future’ has stuck as a workable definition of all forms of sustainability. Those thinking and acting sustainably try to use resources in a way that retains the integrity of resources for the future. In many countries we now try to develop our societies and communities to be self-supporting both now and tomorrow.
The challenge though, is that word ‘use’.
Sustainability, even for the greenest of us, still means that we use resources however careful and frugal we are. A card-carrying new age vegan still consumes several thousand calories a day. Please, no offence meant, for even monks on the mountaintop have to eat.
And yet you could argue that so far we have been very successful at sustainability. There are more people than ever before, many of them [although certainly not all] living with a much higher standard of living that at any other time in our history.
We produce more and more food each day to feed these growing numbers and the buying power of their expanding wallets — so far, so good. We still have an agricultural system delivering millions of tons of produce to markets, malls and corner stores all across the world.
So is agriculture sustainable or have we compromised the ability of the soil-water-vegetation system to keep producing food for us?
Will our arable and grazing lands chug along offering up food harvest after harvest, muster after muster?
Unfortunately we will never know.
It is near impossible to predict our global agricultural sustainability because we are already locked in. We have to grow more and more food, sustainably or not, just to keep up with the spiraling demand.
Every day we must come up with new ways to make each acre more productive, to find another source of nitrogen fertilizer, or a technology to green the desert — because by 2050 food production will need to be double what it is today.
And today production is already double what it was in 1980.
The demographic models suggest that over the millennium our numbers will peak at between 9 and 12 billion, and then decline to a stable lower figure [maybe 4 billion or so] as wealth filters down to the less fortunate.
This is a scary prospect for the green end of town that cannot believe the world can support that many people. It is also a problem for the capitalists who cannot imagine a world where numbers do not grow.
And whatever your political hue if the answer to "is agriculture sustainable" is yes then the demographic transition will happen and all will be well. If it isn’t then there will be problems. If we are smart we’ll work hard on figuring out how to make agriculture sustainable.
Needless to say that none of this got a mention in the recent US presidential election campaign that re-elected Barack Obama, but it is worth recalling quotes from two former US presidents who said...
‘‘While the farmer holds the title to the land, actually it belongs to all people because civilization itself rests upon the soil’’ | Thomas Jefferson 1809
‘‘The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself’’ | Franklin D. Roosevelt 1933
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