The future of sustainable food and farming

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I got a call from the dean of my college recently.  He asked me to stop by and share a few thoughts on the future of sustainable agriculture in New England.  While sustainability has become “wicked cool” at the University of Massachusetts and our undergraduate major in Sustainable Food and Farming has grown rapidly, he wanted to know “what is this sustainable agriculture thing all about?”  Well, I babbled something or other – but here is what I wish I had said:

1.  First, a sustainable agriculture MUST address the multiple interrelated objectives of economic vitality, environmental integrity, and social equity or justice.

This claim is understood by most governments, the United Nations, farm and advocacy groups, and universities.  Some corporations and agricultural commodity groups would like to present sustainable agriculture more narrowly (focused primarily on economic sustainability), but this self-serving position is in the minority today.  The sustainability movement grew out of the environmental movement of the 1970’s by adding social equity/justice to the conversation during the 1980’s – creating the so-called triple bottom line.

2. The long-term viability of large-scale, industrial agricultural systems is threatened by rising oil prices and global climate change.

Industrial food production and distribution systems are financially efficient in the short-term and have resulted in low food prices.  However this system is highly dependent on chemical and energy subsidies and is vulnerable to collapse or at least decay.  As energy costs go up and government begins to take climate change more seriously, global food prices will continue to rise and we will need to look at more energy-efficient alternatives.

3. Although theoretically it is possible to imagine a large-scale industrial agricultural system that is more sustainable, we do not have the political will to develop the necessary government regulations and tax incentives to move corporate farms and major food distributors in this direction.

It would be possible to create a global, corporation-dominated sustainable agricultural system with the appropriate government-imposed constraints and incentives if we had the political willWe don’t – at least not at present.  The structure and purpose of the corporation itself won’t permit even the most progressive and courageous corporate leaders (and there are some) to voluntarily sacrifice profit to become more environmentally responsible and committed to social justice for very long.

Large-scale, corporate sustainable farming such as that proposed by Walmart will continue to maximize profit at the expense of the other two sustainability objectives, regardless of what their advertising campaigns might say.  Current experiments in sustainability by a few food giants are likely to be short lived, as the structure of the global corporation is designed to make money at all (sometimes legal and sometimes not) cost.  We must look to more local alternatives if we want long term environmental protection, equitable access to food and land, and a fair distribution of wealth.

4. A food and farming system with a local focus, managed by families and local community groups rather than corporations, is more likely to address all three of the sustainability objectives.

Addressing environmental and social justice priorities will be more likely when producers and consumers know each other and are part of a shared community.  As long as the negative impacts of doing business impact people “far away”, most of us will overlook these impacts in exchange for maximizing financial return.  However when farmers, distributors and consumers engage within a community, they will be more likely to include environmental and social impact into their decision-making.

Even the “father” of capitalism, Adam Smith, understood the need for a fair distribution of wealth.  His concept that the “invisible hand” of the free market (guided by competition, self-interest, and supply and demand) would result in efficient and fair distribution of resources was in fact based on two assumptions that are no longer true.

the first assumption was ethical.  In the 18th century, there was a sense of “right and wrong” promulgated at least partially by the church.  Even when people and businesses cheated their customers, they were not proud of it (as it seems some CEO’s are today).  The second assumption that is no longer true is that most economic transactions took place between people who knew each other.   It was difficult to cheat a neighbor that you had to see every day.

The global marketplace has lost both a sense of “right and wrong” and any personal connection between producer and consumer.  Transactions are anonymous and the only “wrong” seems to be getting caught.  Under these conditions, the global market no longer generates a fair distribution of wealth.  We must relocalize the food system if we want it to be sustainable.

5. As energy prices continue to rise, local agriculture will become more economically competitive if and only if we develop integrated crop and livestock polyculture systems based on three ecological principles.

The principles are:

A.  Ecological “Rule” Number One – Use Current Solar Income

B. Ecological “Rule” Number Two – Waste Equals Food

C. Ecological “Rule” Number Three – Enhance Diversity

If local farms are modeled after large industrial farms, they too will be negatively effected by increasing fossil fuel costs much like their larger cousins.  Unlike large monoculture farms however, small farms can be managed as ecological systems.  Progressive farmers are experimenting with new ways to integrate crops and livestock to use energy and nutrients more efficiently and agroecological research at the university must support this effort.  Science is important to the future of this work, but the science must be framed in ecological principles to be sustainable.

Although quite small, Edible forest gardens which mimic late-stage ecological succession, are perhaps the best example of a sustainable food production system.  But even simpler intercropping or polyculture systems are more energy and nutrient efficient than large monocultures.  It is imperative for small, local farms to continue to transition to ecologically managed systems if they are to be competitive and sustainable in the long run.  Consumers can participate in this transition, by supporting these farms and working to make local agriculture thrive in their own community.  

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The future of sustainable agriculture in New England is local

In the future we will see a further strengthening of local markets (especially into the inner city) and the development of new integrated crop an livestock farming systems.  While it will surely look different in other regions of the world, sustainable agriculture will be local in New England.  Some food items such as grain and dry beans, will be shipped by rail to feed livestock and people and hopefully will be sold through locally owned businesses.  But a recent analysis of local opportunities suggests that in New England, it is possible for us to produce most of our vegetables, half of our fruit, and also provide  for all of our dairy, beef, lamb and chicken needs for a population of about 15 million.  This could be done if we reduce our meat consumption, eat more more fruits and vegetables, and increase the amount of farmland in production by about three-fold (similar to what it was in 1945).

Finally, I wish I had told the dean that the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge School of Agriculture should play a lead role in this relocalization move toward a more sustainable New England.  Our undergraduate teaching program is already moving rapidly in this direction.  But it will also require a greater investment in agroecological research and more effective outreach working in partnership with progressive family farmers and non-profit community groups to realize the dream.  In 25 years, I hope people will talk about the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture as a leader in the relocalization of food and farming systems in New England.

Finally, as the Stockbridge emblem reminds us, this work will require the full commitment of our “body, heart and soul.”   Personally, I pray that we are ready for the challenge!

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