Sustainable Agriculture is Pro-Technology Within a Cyclical Model


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

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  1. Andrew
    Tuesday, June 9th, 2009
    Working on a farm, I see for myself how recent technological advances make agriculture more sustainable. We would not be able to rotate cows to a new paddock every day if not for portable electric fencing.
  2. Tuesday, June 9th, 2009
    These are some excellent points. Technology is nothing more than creation and application of tools using the best information that we have available to us. One of the traps that we currently are facing is the belief that technology can somehow surpass the physical limitations of the system that we call planet earth. Even nanotechnology is limited by the physical exchanges between molecules, atoms and their parts. These exchanges are finite and are limited by time so we shouldn't let hubris lead us into delusion. We have catapulted into the last two centuries propelled by dead organic matter that accumulated over an incredibly long period of time. While we are currently tinkering with the system, our existence and success still rely on the earth's technologies (plants, animals, microbes, fungi). These technologies are the result of billions of years of "research and development", and they do an amazing job of converting the energy of sun, wind and water into life, abundance and beauty. Birds were defying gravity long before we figured it out, and they still use a whole lot less energy in flight than we do. Mushroom spores are dispersed with such immense velocity and efficiency that they reach an acceleration of 180,000g (compare that to our space shuttle's puny 4g acceleration). So we shouldn't get so cocky when we talk about the greatness of our technology. Nature has some amazing technologies that we are only just now starting to even understand, much less replicate.

    What human technology does not do is teach us how to live within our means. There will always be limits to the system, no matter how far we push it. Right now we are reaching the end of the fossil fuels trajectory....the wax on Icarus's wings is starting to melt, the our rocket fuel is starting to run low, and we need to figure out how to start finding and building parachutes so we can make it down safely and start preparing for the next big launch.
  3. Kurt Lawton
    Tuesday, June 9th, 2009
    Paula

    I agree that your definition of "sustainable ag" (which is different from mine--another story) is not about hand tools and hard labor, similar to what I grew up doing on our small Iowa farm in the 60s and 70s. You are correct that there are very progressive organic farms today.

    I believe the point that Fedoroff was implying (albeit poorly stated though) is that our society can't go back to the millions of small farms that fed a completely different society 40-50 years ago.

    Would I love to see more growth of small advanced farms today? Absolutely. The biggest challenge with that thinking is that only a very small minority of people want to get their hands dirty--in an industry I still love to this day.

    Admittedly, I write about technology and the efficiency of today's farms--yet I see room for both large and small farms, giving consumers choices. And that is happening.

    Yet just like you, I'd like to see several binary arguments put to bed as well. Like the notion of 'factory farms' and 'industrial agriculture.' Certain people have such a warped notion of the 'corporations' that run them. 95% of them are run by simple families (like my brother's family). And he doesn't worship technology, like many don't.

    And the other disagreement that is way out there in left field is the notion that animals raised for food should be deemed the same as pets. Now granted, we had 4-H animals that we showed at county and state fairs, and we became real attached to them, like pets. But we knew their true purpose in life, and understood that. Now I love vegetables too (we had huge gardens), and I respect vegetarians-- until they try to force their habits on others.

    I'm not as sold as you are that our society is sold on technology keeping us perfect. And I have a hard time seeing a society that views agriculture as the foundation and lifeblood. Only a small minority actually realize that.

    Your average consumers don't care where their food comes from, as long as it's relatively safe--which it is. Sure there's issues here and there, but no system is perfect.

    I've rambled long enough. Time to go get a juicy cheeseburger, with some veggies, too.

    Kurt

    Just to note my background--ex-Iowa farm boy who grew up on a small livestock & grain farm in the late 60s and early 70s. Today I live in the burbs of the Twin Cities, yet remain an agricultural journalist, as I have followed the industry since 1981.
  4. Wednesday, June 10th, 2009
    "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."

    There will be a conference in New York City this September to demonstrate the overlap between sustainability, profitability and technology, in an effort to attract much needed investment capital to this sector.

    For more information: www.newseedadvisors.com
  5. Wednesday, June 10th, 2009
    Permaculture teaches how to do sustainable agriculture easy. After you install your 5 acres demonstration designs, you only have to work 500 hours a year.
  6. Thursday, June 11th, 2009
    Quoting Kurt:

    "only a very small minority of people want to get their hands dirty"

    "Admittedly, I write about technology and the efficiency of today’s farms–yet I see room for both large and small farms, giving consumers choices. And that is happening."

    Your point about people not wanting to get their hands dirty is valid, but I think it is more of an economic one than a cultural one.
    People will be a lot more willing to put their hands in the dirt if they can make some money doing it. Right now they can't because machines and chemicals do it cheaper. What it boils down to is this concept of efficiency. The price of entry to run an "efficient" industrial vegetable or grain farm is pretty high, you need to purchase or rent expensive machinery, you have to pay to run and maintain that machinery, pay constantly for various chemical inputs and on top of that you probably need a lot of land to be able to keep up with the discounting and bulk production of the other big operations out there.

    I think we need to redefine this term efficiency. "Industrial Ag" often boasts of how efficient their operations and yields are. The efficiency they boast of is purely a monetary one though, and hinges on the fact that energy from oil right now is dirt cheap compared to human labor. So "efficient" really means "less human labor needed". That's pretty much it. If you look at energy use, human powered farms at the beginning of this century yielded a positive energy gain (you have to, otherwise you die!). If we look at farming with machinery and chemicals, it takes several times more calories of energy of input than you get out of the system in food....add into that soil erosion and a significant amount of pollution (from running machinery and pesticide/herbicide/fertilizer leaching) and the whole cost of the current system is staggering. In terms of whole yields, industrial agriculture manages to make some money, but in all other costs it is deep in the red. Ultimately these costs will catch up to us because they are based in a physical system that has limits, checks and balances and will ultimately start collecting on that debt.

    So when industrial agriculture says "efficient" all they really mean is "makes money". As oil prices rise, expect to see more human and animal powered farms. This goes back to my previous point, technology can take us only so far. And energy does not come from nowhere. We have been borrowing energy from the past to feed ourselves, but now we have to look at given the current energy available to us, how do we balance the books?? That is the technological challenge that we all face in the coming decades.