A story on NPR this morning spoke of how, while it's going downhill slower than the financial or manufacturing sectors, agriculture is starting to suffer from the current economic crisis. As one interviewee said, "when Wall Street gets a bellyache, we get the nightmare." The reporter tried to sum it up with a comment about how farmers have learned from the recession of the early 1980's, but the truth of the matter is that most of the farm families that got caught in that recession aren't farm families any more. They either succumbed to overwhelming debt at the peak of the recession, or they jumped on the first good-looking USDA buy-out program to come along.
While the NPR website confuses farmers with agribusiness (nope, agribusiness is Archer-Daniels-Midland, or ConAgra, or Hormel, or Cargill -- the big producers and processors who provide feedstock for the "food" companies which get fat by making our kids fat), there are real lessons to be learned by looking at the agricultural economy. For academic institutions, one of these is to recognize the importance of resource economists. Professors of "ag ec" are perhaps the most familiar sub-category, and what some of them have been up to over the past couple of decades can serve as a reasonable model for the rest of us. Modern, no-till precision farming is far less unsustainable than the brute-force chemically-induced "green revolution" of decades past (even though it's still a ways from what we'll need in future). High information + high precision = high efficiency at decreased ecological impact.
Maybe one reason that the importance of reshaping agriculture gets short shrift in sustainability discussions is the fact that -- for many of the discussers -- it's out of sight, so out of mind. Only a couple percent of US citizens earn a living doing actual farming, and most of the folks who do don't have a lot of spare time to sit around discussing society's long-term direction. Another reason is probably that greenhouse gas studies haven't reached a consensus yet on what portion of emissions are agricultural in origin. Diesel fuel burned by a tractor is clearly an agriculture-based emission, as is fuel consumed in the milk truck that makes daily collections. But what about the energy consumed turning milk into ice cream? Or creating the paperboard carton? Or transporting the ice cream to a warehouse or store? Or keeping it cold in the store? Or carrying it home? Or household refrigeration? And what about (real or potential) sequestration of carbon in agricultural soil? Different studies draw different dividing lines, and agricultural emission are estimated to account for anywhere from 7% to 25% of US national greenhouse gas emissions.
The issue of carbon sequestration is a big one for agriculture. Use of biochar (sometimes called terra preta) has tremendous potential to both decrease the need for petroleum-based fertilizers and store carbon in the soil for a long (long) time. Putting carbon back into the soil in a stable form forces future years' crops to get their carbon out of the air, creating a "virtuous cycle" of CO2 reduction.
According to a report by the Worldwatch Institute, the use of biochar, farming using perennials, less intensive livestock management, and restoration of lands bordering agricultural fields all contribute to farming providing a net reduction in GHGs, as opposed to the current positive (in the worst possible sense) net contribution.
These techniques, in combination, could make it possible for some families to go back to the farm and many more to stay there for generations. Of course, biochar takes money out of the pockets of fertilizer companies, perennial planting hurts seed companies, grass-fed beef needs less in the way of agricultural antibiotics, and none of these techniques offer the economies of scale upon which those giant agribusinesses depend (in addition to billions in annual government subsidies) for market dominance. So I'm not going to be holding my breath, waiting for this all to happen.