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    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

The future of farming, at very least
June 30, 2010 - 9:17pm

The National Research Council has produced Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century, a report describing how farming practices and thinking need to change so that society and farmers can both thrive. Industrial farming practices fundamental to what was once known as The Green Revolution (e.g., mono-cropping, heavy application of chemical fertilizers, large-scale irrigation) have led to high output levels and low prices, but impose negative consequences on the land, the water, and food consumers. The report goes into significant detail regarding how, and why, these need to change.

Even for those not really into farming, this report is a significant milestone. It exemplifies the rethinking of a major economic sector (worldwide, the major economic sector), based on a truly radical analysis which goes way beyond profit maximization. The authors identify four simultaneous first-order goals for agriculture worldwide:

  • satisfy human food, fiber, and feed requirements, and contribute to biofuels needs
  • enhance environmental quality and the resource base
  • maintain the economic viability of agriculture
  • improve the quality of life for farmers, farm workers, and society as a whole

Meeting human needs is clearly basic to agriculture, but was (until the 20th century, give or take) seen as basic to economic activity of all sorts. Dollar maximization is merely a measure of efficiency, not of effectiveness.

Enhancing the resource base (which, for agriculture, clearly includes environmental quality) is probably the key benchmark for any sustainable practice. If, in the course of doing business, you improve -- not degrade -- the resources upon which your process relies, you can keep doing it forever. The current default -- degrading the thing you most depend on and hoping to keep one step ahead of nature's law enforcement -- is obviously a chump's game once you stop and think about it. It's interesting to ask why most of us (even in education) never do.

Maintaining the economic viability of agriculture becomes more a constraint than an aspirational goal. Financial resources, as ecological ones, need to be enhanced to assure sustainability. But profits become merely one car in the train, not the train itself. Not even the locomotive.

And quality of life for all participants, even including consumers, must continually improve. In effect, this becomes the measure of real progress. Technologies and practices which make people's lives better create progress. Those that don't merely create activity.

If it all sounds a bit too idyllic, consider that the report contains over 140 pages of case studies demonstrating real-world benefits achievable with the methods it recommends. And a whole chapter describing the application of these techniques in sub-Saharan Africa -- an ecologically, economically and socially challenging environment. This is a report about practice, not just theory.

Perhaps farming is uniquely positioned to take the lead in this sort of radical rethinking. After all, agriculture has existed for millenia, on all continents, creating a wide variety of products and using an incredible range of tools and technologies. Envisioning non-industrial agriculture is easy; all you have to do is envision pre-industrial agriculture (not that that's what the authors have done, by any means). But how do you envision non-industrial petrochemicals? Non-industrial international finance?

The key, to my mind, is to realize that there's no absolute human need for either petrochemicals or international finance. Given the way things currently operate, some of the things we need tend to be made from petrochemicals or financed internationally, but our needs are for the products, not the support materials/services.

So, again, it's a matter of radical rethinking. "Radical" not as some intermediate step between "liberal" (bad word) and "anarchist" (VERY bad word), but in the sense of "at the root". Which, of course, brings us back to agriculture. Where we, and modern society, started.


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