Providing a Sustainable Food Supply

Dr. Fred. Kirschenmann is a long-time national leader in sustainable agriculture. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, where he also teaches in the Department of Religion and Philosophy. Additionally, he oversees the management of his family’s 1,800-acre farm in North Dakota which was converted into a certified organic operation in 1976.

This opening session of Day Two outlined the challenges of shaping a sustainable agricultural system for a growing world population. Recognizing that synthetic agricultural inputs are cannot be sustained, maintaining the soil must be coupled with more natural and sustainable methods. As Kirschenmann noted in his talk: It is important to have these conversations on agriculture, since it will have an impact on our children and grand children. It is necessary to discuss these questions together.”

Providing a Sustainable Food Supply

Question is not solely about the supply, but a unity in the providing. The public media expresses this question as: How are we to feed nine billion people by 2050? This is a wrong question, since it considers these X billion people as a problem—simply a production problem. Those who have studied the situation have found that on the calorie-per capita basis we already produce enough food for 10 billion people. It’s not a problem of production today; with 7 billion people on the planet today, we still have one billion who go hungry. Why?

Clearly identifying the problem

The problem is not production problem: it is a problem of poverty; it is a problem of entitlement (meaning people don’t have access to the knowledge and materials to feed themselves); it is a problem of inequality; and it is a problem of waste. Examples of this are college student’s waste of food, farmer’s disposal of food that the market will not take because of its blemishes. In Europe they have taken these blemished foods and have sold them at discount prices to prevent this waste of food. The solution is not going to be found by only one party’s efforts: it takes everyone’s engagement.

Second issue: The number of people, if growth continues, is eventually a problem—now this is an uncomfortable question— will eventually hit a point where it will be impossible to sustain them. Leopold, in his writings, has said that nature always sets a density for a species, once a species starts breaking from this, nature will correct it find a way to reduce that density). What is the density (maximum population size) of humanity? Some say 3, others 5, billion. Is 7 billion already too much? Who is saying 9-10 billion is the right number?

Man’s place in the complex web of life

Aldo Leopold says that we are not the conquerors of the land community—entirety of biotic life—but are rather plain members and citizens in this community. We are a part of Creation … Science shows that we are just beginning to understand the extent and amount of biotic organisms in the soil. (More “life” below the surface) within the earth than (above the surface) walks above it.) These biotics are the basis of life from the soil. We need to consider and preserve them or we will undo ourselves.

We need to understand the complexities, and we need to begin anticipating the future. Minor adjustments to how we currently produce won’t solve or prevent the problems that are coming. We are moving into a new era; agriculture and economy and culture. (Ref. to Ernest Schusky, an anthropologist, wrote “Culture & Agriculture” 1989: How have we fed ourselves since the beginning of our history?)

[The argument here is that the current industrial model is both unsustainable and inefficient. Ernest Schusky has called this the “neocaloric era” — a blip in human history that is the least efficient food system ever known because, thanks to cheap fossil fuels and abundant water: humans consume more energy than we produce. As energy and food production becomes more complex and expensive, Western society will be forced into changing its diet to a more ecologically sustainable model. That will mean entering a period of more regional, organic, local production and a diet that is very different from the kind of Western conception that currently dominates the way we eat. The high cost of cheap food will be one of the big drivers for change. As ever, technology will also play a part in this. Will mobile technology play a role in food production? Economies of scale in food production are not per acre yield but in distribution—and anything that reduces the cost of distributing local food can only help.]

Agrarian Era -> Industrialization (modern era) -> Future (yet undefined) Era?

Kirschenmann said we are now in the “neocaloric” era. This will be a relatively short period of time, he said, because the cheap energy of fossil fuels will be exhausted sooner than later. Other agricultural inputs, such as potash and other minerals will become 5-6 times more expensive than they are now; fossil water (e.g., Ogallala aquifer) cannot be sustained if we continue drawing out water at the rate we are. So imagine 20 years from now: $350 a barrel of oil; depletion of minerals (potash, phosphorus, potassium); half of our “fossil” & fresh water supply exhausted; and climate change. Where will we be?

The current food production fight between organic and conventional farming is not helping anyone. Given the changes coming at us, it won’t really matter what farming system you practice.

There is wisdom from the past that can offer us hope today: Kirschnmann mentioned Sir Albert Howard (An Agricultural Testament: “The maintenance of the fertility of the soil is the first condition of any permanent system of agriculture.”) said that relying on minerals from other soils will rob good soil from future generations. (N-P-K additions won’t keep up) We must rely on the model of nature. Another is Liberty Hyde Bailey (Cornell University) The Holy Earth.

We have to have a new attitude, and to change our strategy and cooperate with nature. Aldo Leopold: “It was no doubt inevitable and desirable that industry should come to agriculture; but it will be exhausted if we do not change.” We need to marry our new-world science of ecology and resilient thinking with the wisdom of the past (reliance on nature) we could come up with a solution that would be self-renewing and self-regulating.

We need a new ethic: how to relate to the land. How do we adopt this ethic? (Sand County Almanac and “land ethic” reference) We need to develop an ethological conscience—concern not only for humanity but the entire earth and biotic community—the health of the land will allow the capacity for self-renewal. This is not going to happen overnight—culture and religion wasn’t considering it at the time; social evolution would incorporate this into the conscience.

Thomas Berry—“moments of crises are moments of grace”— the pain motivates us, it pushes us to develop, adapt and be creative. Moments of opportunity, these moments of grace. We need to engage the entire human community; changing agriculture, economy and culture. “Let us eat of the tree of life, not of the tree of knowledge.”

Family farmer’s role in ending world hunger

Kirschenmann ends with reference to an article by NFU President Roger Johnson and his argument for “family farmer’s role in world hunger”—family farmers are a model for the world to imitate. If we want to solve the problem we need to turn to these family farmers and work with these family farms (many by women) in their own situations in their own countries. If we want to solve the problem of hunger then we need to enable them to work together and provide them with the know-how and resources to produce their own food. This will also help to solve the problem of poverty in order to address the problem of hunger. (ref to UN reports, Crossroads, et al.)

“Family farming is the backbone of agriculture, not only in the United States, but worldwide,” said NFU President Roger Johnson. “The role family farmers play in addressing hunger, health and food security issues in both the U.S. and around the world, though not always adequately recognized, is significant.”

Johnson noted the solutions family farms offer to solving hunger and health issues around the world. Smallholder farmers consistently have healthier soil and larger yields, and those who have diversified their crops have been most successful in increasing consumption of nutrient-dense foods. “Healthier food production leads to a healthier planet,” said Johnson. “Family farms provide a model for the world to diminish major health and hunger issues.”


RESPONDENT: Mr. Rodger Johnson (President, National Farmers Union)

There is a division between the organic and the conventional. The organic used to say their practices were “sustainable”; now everyone says it. It is clear that all agricultural practices must be sustainable; ie., we need to work with the soil.

In the agricultural community, the majority are commodity farmers; many do not incorporate livestock into their farming. This last point has much implication. Anybody who responds to the crisis—either from an economic or a conscientious background—will find that we have much to learn by studying the biotic life in the soil. We all are in this together.

We are seeing enormous demand for where food comes from and how it is produced. So how do we bring these types of agriculture – conventional and organic – together? If we figure this out, we will be able to bring society together around food.