Often the sustainable food movement gets a lot of flack for what some perceive as insisting “we go back to 19th century” agricultural methods. (this time the speaker was Nina Federoff*, GM food proponent and current adviser to Secretary Clinton). But this black and white approach to agriculture is a straw man. There are no absolutes: It is neither true that all technology is good nor that all technology is bad. It seems the real dichotomy that exists in this discussion is whether we follow a linear or cyclical version of agriculture, and by extension, live to tell the tale.
According to Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton, authors of the recent book A Nation of Farmers, it’s only natural that we think that technology will solve all of our ills, because technology has been reinforced through popular culture and our current growth-based economic model as if it were the sole means of moving us linearly forward into a better future. And, the authors add, “the short term gains of linear systems are incredibly intoxicating.”
Thus, our society has fully embraced the idea that technology can perfect human beings. But most of the problems we now face are the unintended consequences of the very technologies we hold dear. It is only obvious then that the same thinking could be getting us into trouble in agriculture, the very foundation and lifeblood of our society.
Astyk and Newton continue:
As if drunk and playing with fire, we have settled into a way of growing food that requires enormous inputs of limited resources and burned away the age old practices that not only fed human beings for thousands of years but also sustained the soil in which crops grow and nurtured the streams and waterways that give the gift of water and nutrients… The idea that the same system that depleted aquifers, created the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and enabled the transmission of mad cow disease will magically cease causing problems and merely create solutions is nonsense, and yet we are accustomed to believing it… because [the idea that technologies can perfect humanity is] all that has been offered, the instinctive reaction of many people who are told they cannot fix our problems is to assume that nothing can — the precisely parallel linear response.
Unfortunately, as hard as we try to say it ain’t so, we exist in a cyclical world, and we can choose to work within this existing framework, or deny it at our peril. Sustainable agriculture is that which embraces the necessary cyclical nature of agriculture systems. This doesn’t mean that no technology is to be employed, but that technologies will be employed that further that underlying aim.
By extension, today’s sustainable practices are not just a replay of the agriculture of our grandparents. As a commenter pointed out over at La Vida Locavore:
Organic operations here have some impressive remote sensing setups, with computer-controlled irrigation systems that check the weather, read moisture levels in the soil, and use satellite imagery to decide when and how much to water.
Organic farmers use drip irrigation and t-tape and other state of the art irrigation systems.
Organic farmers use studies that show what crops are best adapted to particular microclimates, which cover crops provide the best rotations, and which plants to grow together. Organic farmers use plant breeding to produce the qualities they want, which might be pest hardiness or drought tolerance or yield, or it might be nutrition and flavor.
Organic farmers use laboratory analysis of the soil to determine not only pH and mineral composition, but also the biological profile of the soil. Organic farmers use some of the latest science in helpful insects and bacteria to grow their best crop.
Organic farmers use tractors (sometimes biodiesel, sometimes not) to do the jobs tractors are good at.
So let’s finally put to bed the binary argument that sustainable agriculture proponents are all about hand tools and hard labor for little returns. We like technology, just not technology-worship.
*hat tip to Jill Richardson for her post pointing me to Federoff’s quote, and the commenter Elfling