It can’t go on like this….
Not long ago I was standing in a bookshop, minding my own business, when a book title leapt out in front of me. The book was "History’s Worst Decisions and the People Who Made Them". It documents the sorry tales of dozens of people throughout history who, with the best of intentions, made some fascinatingly terrible choices.
I scanned the book’s contents page, purposefully, looking for a specific name – that of the recently deceased, Iowa born agronomist, Norman Borlaug. I failed to find him amongst all the unfortunates chosen for inclusion, but then I really didn’t expect to. My lack of surprise was not because I didn’t think he was deserving – I would likely have put him at top of the list myself – but because, in general, the human race is largely ignorant of the grave implications of his work. This ignorance is made glaringly obvious when you consider he is widely celebrated as one of the greatest benefactors of the human race. He even received a Nobel Peace Prize, amongst several other awards, for his disaster of a contribution to mankind.
Mr. Borlaug is father of the very inappropriately named ‘Green Revolution’ – the post World War II industrialisation of agriculture. He is credited with saving millions of people from starvation after World War II. And, credit where credit is due – he probably did. He hybridised seed strains to develop high yield varieties, which in and of itself might not have been such a bad thing. But Borlaug’s work didn’t stop there. The outcome was the creation of a colour-by-numbers, fossil fuel-, chemical- and irrigation-dependent approach to agriculture that saw large scale monocrops become the system of choice worldwide and gave birth to the ‘get big or get out’ agricultural policies of the 1970s. The resulting reductionist bid to deal with, and capitalise on, all the symptoms of this unnatural shift then gave birth to that ultimate method of social control and profiteering – genetic engineering.
The industrialisation of our food supply means that our current production is extremely oil intensive. It has been calculated that, on average, it takes ten calories of fossil fuels to produce one calorie of food in our current setup. Some food has an even more ridiculous ratio – like corn-fed feedlot beef which consumes about 55 fossil fuel calories to one calorie of meat. We are effectively eating oil.
This is of course an insane state of affairs. As oil production wanes this puts us in an extremely vulnerable position. If our current system remains unchanged, we face acute food shortages in the near future, and that’s without even taking into account the major crop failures we’re getting now as a result of climate change. It is precisely why in 2008, when oil prices tripled in a matter of months, people began to riot worldwide as they got priced out of the ability to eat. The recession has somewhat alleviated this problem, but it won’t be long before crisis strikes again and becomes a permanent condition for humanity.
Big Agribusiness not only uses a disproportional amount of oil, they also empty our soils of life and organic matter (primarily carbon) – destroying the natural soil fertility that would make their fertiliser-in-a-bottle products obsolete and thus also making agriculture the largest contributor to climate change. Same goes for water. Agriculture, as implemented today, is by far the largest consumer and contaminator of water of all industries. Its runoff is also responsible for large and growing ocean dead zones in coastal areas around the world. It is also the biggest driver of deforestation and the main culprit for the mass extinctions and biodiversity loss currently underway.
Not only did the Green Revolution make our entire food system wholly dependent on finite resources, and make it function in such a way that it undermines them all, it also shifted demographics (his work has fueled a population boom whilst transitioning much of the world’s population off the land, where they could have been small scale stewards of it, into city dwellings) to such an extent that we may well see widespread starvation as peak oil issues become more pronounced, and widespread revolution and bloodshed if we can’t find a way to peacefully re-ruralise the world so we can get back to a sustainable footing.
In short: we’ve been subsidising our food supply over the last sixty years by stealing energy, soil, water and health from the future. But, now, the future is here. In saving millions, Borlaug could well have consigned many more millions, or even billions, of us to death. He has left us with quite a legacy – the enormous challenge of having to find a way to rapidly but peacefully reverse his life’s work.
Thanks Norman. We know you meant well…. Pity you couldn’t have hung around long enough to see it all play out.
Beginning a Detour Around Catastrophe?
In light of these realities, I like to find hope where I can. Realising the implications of the thoughts above, some local initiatives are looking at ways to reduce this outright vulnerability. And now, finally, at least on the surface, it looks like the UK government may be beginning to take this issue a little more seriously as well.
Plans to boost food production in Britain and reduce its impact on the environment have been unveiled.
The government’s 20-year food strategy includes making land available for people to grow their own food and more healthy cooking courses.
… The Tories said ministers "belatedly" recognised the need for food security after a decade of declining production.
Environment Secretary Mr Benn unveiled the government’s Food 2030 plan at the Oxford Farming Conference and said a rising population and climate change meant food could not be taken for granted.
… The government also wants less food waste, more food bought in season to reduce environmental impact and to encourage people to buy sustainably-farmed food. – BBC
There are some excellent signals in the Food 2030 report – like a push for more land for communities to grow their own food on, and training thousands more teachers and students in how to grow their own (the ‘Growing Schools‘ program). I really wish I could end this article right here – on this positive note. Unfortunately I can’t. Industry lobbyists are clearly working behind the scenes to ensure this crisis will not only maintain their current level of profits, but also increase them.
The food strategy, set to be launched on Tuesday by Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, will encourage consumers to throw less food away and to adopt leaner and healthier diets. It will promote higher crop yields, urge food producers to reduce the impact they have on the environment, and recommend a move towards accepting GM crops in order to create a "sustainable and secure food system for 2030". – Telegraph
GM crops for more security? How, exactly, does that work in light of this, this, this, this and this? And how can the words ‘GM crops’ and ‘healthier diets’ coexist in the same paragraph? (See this, this and this for example.)
… the report will pledge that the UK will keep lobbying to create a more liberalised global food market. – Telegraph
A "more liberalised global food market" will bring profits to a few commodity brokers, but will also continue dismantling the food economy in ‘developing’ countries – whilst we have the deluded belief we’re helping ‘the poor’ to raise their standard of living to something resembling ours (a dangerous ambition). It will continue to pit low wage workers in these countries against local farmers in the North, undercutting and disincentivising them. In both the South and the North, we need more farmers – millions more – not less.
The campaign group Sustain said the report avoided tough issues…. "The government’s food vision is hardly worthy of the name. The document proposes a series of minor tweaks to our fundamentally unsustainable food system."- Guardian
Borlaug’s ‘strategy’ was to keep perservering down the Road of Vulnerability, perpetually and furiously trying to stay one step ahead of all the problems the industrial system creates – fossil fuel consumption, soil and water loss and contamination, plant disease and pest attack, etc. This culminates in the need to forever tweak plant characteristics through chemicals and genetic engineering.
Defenders of the green revolution, such as Borlaug, place their hopes on the promise of a never-ending cycle of innovation. We’ll keep redesigning plants into organisms that yield ever greater bounty, while consuming fewer nutrients, staying one step ahead of the grim reaper, for as long as necessary. Science will save us.
But what if scientists poured as much energy into studying how to improve organic farming methods as they did into recombinant DNA? The authors of "Organic agriculture and the global food supply" believe that current organic farming yields could be greatly increased, if we knew more about how to build ecologically balanced agricultural systems. But such research hasn’t been the priority of either academia or government. It’s time for that to change. It’s time to show organic farmers the money. – Salon.com
Biodiverse systems are proven to be more productive. A progressive, staged reversion to small scale polycultures will restore soil, water, personal and even climate health – making risky genetic engineering redundant. Such a reversion is a win-win-win situation.
What will stop such a reversion happening is the perceived need to persevere with a profit and competition-based economy and a lack of education in genuinely holistic agricultural, biological science. Industry will fight us every step of the way. The perversion of the market system is that, up until a tipping point that leads to complete social collapse at least, the greater the suffering the more profit there is to make. These companies are incentivised to ensure their products are continually required. (The corporate dissatisfaction with Michelle Obama’s organic garden is a case in point.) Hence my continual cry that we need to change society at a wholly foundational level. The ‘free’ market economy, even if it were truly free, would not enable us to buy our way out of this mess.
The longer we avoid the need to decentralise and relocalise our food systems, the greater the crisis. While we study options for systemic change, duplicating landshare initiatives like this is a great way to get started at a grass roots level, and Michael Pollan’s one and a half hour presentation below begins to tackle the political policy changes we need to push for to get things moving in the right direction.
The good news is there is a growing food revolution. We just need to ensure our politicians allow it to flourish and don’t give in to the greenwashing demands of Big Agribusiness. The ‘Food 2030’ announcement risks leading the world’s citizenry to assume something tangible is actually being done to address this painfully sharp edge of the biggest convergence of crises in human history, when it really is just a little medicine mixed with a large dose of placebo.
One way or another, we’re beginning to see the end of the industrial agriculture era. Our task is ensuring it gets replaced as rapidly and painlessly as possible with relocalised, resilient systems.
What do you think? Are we facing crisis? If so, what should we be doing about it?
Michael Pollan: Deep Agriculture
Click on ‘Watch Full Program’ link at bottom right of video screen