Sustainable food and farming part I: Is sustainable agriculture sustainable?


“There is always a well-known solution to every human problem–neat, plausible, and wrong.” – H.L. Mencken

When I began my career as an agricultural scientist, the “well-known” solutions for farming problems were mostly about which fertilizer to apply or which pesticide to spray.  Fortunately, that rather simplistic approach lost favor as we became more aware of its unintended consequences.  Nitrates in our drinking water, herbicides in the surface water, and tons of soil running down stream were pretty clear indicators that something wasn’t working.

Of course is was yet another economic crisis in the mid-1980’s that drove farmers to join together to “invent” something they chose to call sustainable agriculture.   Agricultural scientists were slow to get the message, but eventually most came around to talk about sustainability in their own terms.  Today, sustainable agriculture is pretty mainstream.  But the terms that mainstream agricultural scientists choose to use (that of reductionist science)  is really not such a radical departure from the past.  Loosely described as “input substitution,” most agricultural scientists began trying to develop safer ways to apply pesticides and more organic means of applying nutrients.  With some exceptions, the scientific community struggled to think about farms as ecosystems, and most university trained scientists continued with a mechanistic approach to solving problems on the farm.

Many farmers on the other hand quite naturally saw farms as complex agricultural ecosystems, even when they didn’t have all of the tools or ability necessary to manage such complex systems.

This series of posts will explore what it means to be sustainable and compare the so-called mechanistic and ecological approaches to farming and science.  I will address this topic using both theory and practice, and while my exploration of sustainability will most likely apply to many aspects of life, I intend to focus principally on food and farming.  This is where my heart is and this is the area of study that I have a modicum of experience and some expertise.

Any linear mechanistic approach to solving problems in agriculture, a decidedly complex ecological system, is likely to fail in the long run.  As the quote from H.L. Mencken above suggests, even the most obvious solutions applied to complex systems are likely to be wrong when approached from the wrong frame of reference.  So perspective matters.  My next post will explore ways of looking at sustainability as I try to answer the question “is sustainable agriculture sustainable?”

If you are curious about the author of this blog, you are welcome to check out a bio statement on my web page, where you may find some background information as well as links to some of my writing and videos.

My hope is that this exploration elicits a passionate but thoughtful response from readers.  So let us begin this discussion with a question…..

… sustainable agriculture sustainable?

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Sustainable food and farming part I: Is sustainable agriculture sustainable?

  1. It's become clear to me that any food production system utilizing annual tillage of the soil results in a net loss in fertility. Sure, you can ship in nutrients, but where are they coming from, and where do they go? Chances are that it won't be a cycle, but rather an increase in entropy, from usable fertility to polluted water bodies. We only have one planet to work with right now.

    So what are our long-term food options? Well, one idea is the edible forest garden.

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