I’ve been following the growing absurdity of the media fueled meme about food production since the UN declared the world officially hit 7 billion people with a mixture of frustration and amusement. The center-points of this meme are that we will have to grow as much food over the next 100 years as humanity did over the last 10,000 and that the only way we could possibly do so is by intensifying our current industrial farming methods.
Unfortunately for most of the pundits spreading this meme, their argument fails on a simple apples to oranges comparison. The way humanity produced food over the past 10,000 years bears almost no resemblance to the way we’ve been producing food since the 1950s, and it is this radical shift that has produced so much of the problem we have today.
For most of mankind’s history, most humans were involved in food production. There were times and places where the number of people involved reached as high as 90 percent, and as recently as the 1910s in the United States, as much as 50 percent of the population was involved directly in food production. If you add in those whose work supported food production, the number reaches as high as 80 percent.
And the way these people farmed was completely different than the way we farm now. Historical farming was possibly one of the most green and sustainable undertakings humans have ever mastered, using crop rotation cycles involving dozens of crops lasting dozens of years, direct recycling of organic waste, and intentional use of multiculture to improve fertility and reduce waste. There are still parts of the world, especially in Asia, where these production methods are used to this day.
Now, fast forward to 2012. In 2011, as few as 1 percent of the US working population (about 1.6 million of 160 million people) work in direct food production. If you add in those whose work supports food production, the number barely climbs to 2 percent. Further, nearly all American agriculture consists of just eight crops, two of which aren’t even edible (cotton and tobacco) and three of which (corn, soybeans, and wheat) represent as much as 70 percent of acres planted. Meanwhile, most organic waste gets buried in landfills and modern farming requires massive amounts of fossil fuels to make anything grow at all.
Further, most Americans–in fact most Westerners–think it is their right to demand someone else grow their food in exchange for money. Many Americans believe food production is beneath them because they have better things to do with their time. Most people have no idea what it takes to feed them and assume that whatever it does take will continue to go on forever.
No wonder we face a food crisis of epic proportions.
The solution to this problem is not more of the same failed approach since the 1950s that got us here. We already have examples of ways things can be done better. For instance, during the height of the central planning induced famine in the Soviet Union during the late 1970s and early 1980s, as much as 70 percent of the calories consumed in Russia were grown on 4 percent of the available arable land by local farmers on small allotments that usually measured about a tenth of an acre. In urban Detroit, as I write this, small-scale sustainable farmers are creating farms capable of feeding entire neighborhoods without the need for grocery stores. In sub-Saharan Africa, farmers are returning to traditional farming methods that worked for millenia before European intervention and multiplying their yields by factors of hundreds.
In short, these problems have solutions and the solutions are already out there, but they all take the following form: smaller-scale agriculture involving more people using more intensive methods involving more plants and animals that take into account the entire cycle of birth to death to birth again.
In fact, these methods represent a return to something nature has been telling us all along: we’ve departed from the way it works and it’s not going to let us win. The methods that fed humanity for 10,000 years worked with nature. The methods that we’ve used since the 1950s have destroyed it.
So, consider the following: if the United States would engage in an agricultural “Apollo Program” wherein it created an environment where agricultural entrepreneurs seeking to establish sustainable operations could succeed without unnecessary government or corporate interference, agriculture by itself could reduce the unemployment rate, reduce US dependence on fossil fuels, increase biodiversity, reduce pollution, and produce unprecedented food surpluses that would help redress the food imbalance in the world. And if the US does it, everyone else will follow.
Don’t believe me? Visit a local sustainable farm or a local farmer’s market and see what they have going on. Then, go home and dig up part of your yard and grow something yourself. Humans have been doing it for 10,000 years. What makes you think you’re so special?