The Downside of Expecting America's Agriculture System to Feed the World
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Sooner or later the question comes up, whether it is between two friends sharing a pot of stew made from local grassfed beef and their garden harvest, livestock farmers gathered on a pasture walk, neighbors working together to tend a flock of backyard chickens, or organic vegetable producers discussing yields at a conference.
“But can we feed the world this way?”
As we try to move humanity away from dominant power regimes and thoughtless extraction of the earth’s resources, toward a way of life that honors the earth and all of her creatures, I think this is the most maddening question we can be asking ourselves.
Nevertheless, we’ve all been conditioned to reflexively turn to this question as we challenge our methods and consider new paths toward sustainability.
But following World War II, with the onset of the “Green Revolution,” feeding the world became a national mantra. It was a ubiquitous “good” that handily justified the discovery that the petrochemicals used in warfare could find postwar applications if dumped on our food supply. However, 75 or 100 years ago, such a question would never have entered into our dialogue. To ask a local farmer or homesteader how his or her production methods were going to feed the world would have been absurd. The local producer’s job was to support the family, the community, and his or her bioregion–not the world.
“Feeding the world” consoled farmers as they incurred mountains of debt to afford the fossil-fuel-intensive machinery and expansive acreage that would enable them to crank out tons of food for which they would garner increasingly lower prices. “Feeding the world” was the elixir offered as our grandparents attempted to adjust their palates to a food supply that was suddenly tasteless as local food disappeared from the market. “Feeding the world” was the slogan tossed about as rural people the world over surrendered ties to the land, moved to cities, and trusted that the food system would take care of itself. “Feeding the world” was the background tune playing in the bank, on the car radio of the seed salesman, in the office of the accountant as farmers were counseled to “get big or get out,” to expand their production and change their growing practices to participate in a global food supply, rather than a regional one. “Feeding the world” was the motto that let Americans turn their heads and not notice the polluted waters, the increasing severity of floods, soil loss, or the fact that the little farm next door had suddenly disappeared.
Can the local, sustainable food movement in the United States feed the world? Hell, no. Nor can the industrial agricultural paradigm. No one can feed the world. One country cannot do it, nor can any specific model of production. The earth must be allowed to reclaim its natural productivity. That’s why we need local and regional food systems, designed to work harmoniously with local ecosystems. While certain ecological lessons may apply, it would be absurd to think what works for us here in upstate New York for producing food is going to necessarily work in Africa. Heck, many of the methods that work on farms 10 miles from our house won’t work on our steep hillside farm. There is no such thing as a universally applicable production practice nor a universally acceptable diet.But those petrochemicals and farming practices that feed the world are washing away our topsoil and leaving what remains nutritionally deficient. Ironically, the goal to feed the world has led to a form of agriculture that has made it increasingly difficult for the people of the world to feed themselves. And the fact that fossil fuels are not quite as abundant as they once were, nor as cheap, means that even if we could generate yields of global proportions in perpetuity, we wouldn’t be able to deliver the goods in any cost-effective manner.