Native American wisdom says that decisions should be made with the next seven generations in mind. When it comes to agriculture and the production of food, we don't look ahead at all.
Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground — the unborn of the future Nation. Constitution of the Great Iroquois Nations: The Great Binding Law
Now that we have been thankful for our food, it is time to develop a food system so that future generations can also be thankful.
Mr. President, we need a food and agricultural system that meets our needs now and for the future. Think not just about the next four years; think about implementing food policy that will feed the next seven generations. Let’s take Michelle’s garden to a higher, more expansive level.
Industrial farming, which has dominated world agriculture for decades, has met past food needs for many. But there are problems ahead. Big problems.
Agriculture is in transition, like it or not. But to what? For whom? And who is driving the tractor?
Industrial agriculture as commonly practiced is not sustainable because it relies almost exclusively on fossil fuels and mined phosphorous and potash fertilizer. Our world is finite. Resources are limited. Population, use of fossil fuel, mining of fertilizer, and drawdown of aquifers cannot continue to increase exponentially.
The corporate agribusiness mentality driving industrial farming and farm policy goes beyond fair profits to outright greed. It is oblivious to environmental consequences, future ecological damage, or long-term effects on the earth’s capacity to support humans.
The mentality driving industrial agriculture doesn’t look even one generation ahead, much less to the seven generations called for in Native American wisdom.
Allowing powerful special interests largely to control our food is undesirable; special interests do not have the public interest at the heart of their agenda (although their mouthpieces proffer otherwise).
Corporate interests are spending millions on advertising trying to convince us that industrial farming is needed to feed the rapidly expanding world population. This makes no sense. How can an unsustainable system feed a growing population?
We feel that it is time — actually long past time — for the public to be involved in visioning an agricultural system for “the people,” a system that would provide for the needs of those who are concerned about having something to eat today, and for the generations ahead.
Here we provide links to a wide range of visions proposed by others, along with our brief comments. We hope to stimulate meaningful dialog on future agricultural systems in the Daily Yonder and beyond.
Native Americans had a system of companion plantings of corn, beans, and squash that is now known as the “Three Sisters.”
Through biological fixation, the beans add nitrogen needed by the corn. The corn plant provides a structure for pole beans. And the squash shades the ground, reducing evaporation and smothering weeds. Together, the three crops provide a fairly balanced diet.
The Three Sisters system was sustainable for 10,000-15,000 years and would have been sustainable for much longer had it not been replaced by modern farming practice.
Industrial farming, as presently practiced, won’t survive 100 years, much less thousands.
More sophisticated companion systems are now available, but widespread adoption is hampered by mindset and policy.
Recognition of problems with industrial food production has led to a growing “sustainable agriculture” movement.
Sustainable agriculture is more of a philosophy than a well-defined system or vision. Fred Kirschenmann points out that the basic concept “has focused our attention on how to make agriculture a little less bad—how to reduce soil erosion, how to mitigate the effects of toxic chemicals, how to improve our water quality, etc.”
Enough people have now subscribed to the sustainable philosophy that corporate agribusiness is catering products to this growing consumer group.
Unfortunately there are no legal standards governing sustainable food, which invites mischief and deceptive advertising.
Urban Skyscraper Farms
One vision put forth in a recent Scientific American article is an urban skyscraper, or vertical farm.
In many ways, the vertical farm may be more of a fantasy than a vision. It is industrial farming on a vertical rather than horizontal scale. This concept is attractive because wastes and plant nutrients can be recycled, and because it eliminates the cost of transporting food long distances.
But there are numerous economic and biological reasons why the high-rise idea may be nothing more than a pie-in-the-sky idea! The food skyscrapers would have to be extremely narrow, or have significant fewer floors, or integrated on the south side of office and residential buildings to get adequate sunlight to plants. Capital costs would be enormous.
Use of “cleansed city wastewater” is also problematic from a cost standpoint, due to all kinds of impurities and toxicants in municipal wastes, including drugs, growth hormones and heavy metals. Some plants uptake and concentrate heavy metals and impurities. Some heavy metals, such as mercury and lead, are toxic to humans. Costs of cleansing wastewater are high with known technology.
There is potential biological peril to relying on a food skyscraper for food, as many food crops are susceptible to air borne diseases. Such diseases could easily wipe out uniform crops depicted, or require use of pesticides inside an urban building that includes restaurants.
Greenhouse Fruit & Vegetable Production
Production of high value vegetable crops and some fruit crops in greenhouses and hoop houses is expanding rapidly in many parts of the world, particularly where extensive acreage of high quality land is not available. World acreage of covered vegetable production now exceeds a million acres, with over 300,000 acres in Europe. Over 900 acres of hydroponic (without soil) tomatoes are grown in the U.S.
Some of these covered production systems are nothing more that industrial farming on an intense, horizontal scale. Some covered systems may be sustainable. Most are located on the fringe of urban areas.
Small Scale Urban Food Gardening
A variety of small-scale urban farming and gardening visions has been proposed, and even tried with varying success. Community gardens have met with limited success. Some may be nothing more than a modern version of World War II Victory Gardens, while others try to bring recent scientific advances to bear on urban systems.
In many urban areas, changes in local land use restrictions and bans on certain farm animals are incompatible with urban gardening on a large scale.
A considerably less grandiose urban farm that integrates food production with restaurants is a “farmery” constructed from used, low cost shipping containers. This concept combines covered production with a retail outlet.
Organic Farming and Gardening
Organic farming gained traction as a movement in the 1970s with concern over man-made chemicals—fertilizers and pesticides—that are now at the core of industrial agriculture. Initially, organic farming was small scale. As small organic producers developed markets and the industry began to expand in the 1980s, corporate agribusiness moved in and now dominates the industry.
USDA standards for organic produce provide some assurance to consumers about production practices, unlike “natural foods” and food from “sustainable” farms. Lack of any standards for natural foods and sustainable practices often leads to deceptive advertising.
Aside from Grandma’s garden at one extreme, and large-scale industrial farming at the other, very few visions food and agricultural production for 21st century rural America are apparent.
While building cost is an impediment to development of the skyscraper vision, transportation costs are an impediment to development of sustainable food systems in rural areas distant from consumers.
To some extent, Grandmas’s garden was an evolution of the Three Sisters to include Aunts and Uncles (and maybe a few Grandkids!). Grandma’s garden, further developed for the 21st century, offers considerably more variety that translates into much richer cuisine, clearly beyond the feasibility of large-scale industrial farming.
Economic viability of new, non-industrial food production in rural areas hinges on either getting the people out to buy food, or getting food to consumers in urban areas. Moreover, for a rural system to be sustainable, waste products from human consumption—organic matter and plant nutrients—will need to be returned for future cycles of production.
A Time for Vision & Action
“We the people” need collectively to develop a vision of the agrifood system that is most desirable, then begin to build the institutions necessary for it to be realized. No single system, large or small, organic or inorganic, monoculture or multi-crop rotations, vegan or carnivore, will be appropriate for every area and all people.
To the extent that a food system involving both small and very large producers and processors is desirable, policy must include a business or market version of predator control to prevent the big companies and producers from consuming the small.
There is no assurance that continued evolution of industrial farming controlled largely by transnational corporate interests dominated by short-term greed will result in a system that best fits the public interest.
There is no assurance that a system built on a (false) free market ideology will be in the public interest.
There is certainty that a system built on deception will not be best for the public.
The people need a food system that is just, that provides for all, and that stewards resources on planet Earth well.
Mr. President (and especially Mrs. President), please help the people develop a common vision of an appropriate food system for the next seven generations, then begin building the institutional (policy) base necessary to realize that vision.
The authors are distinguished University Professors of Agricultural Policy and Plant Pathology at Auburn University, respectively.