Rethinking the Food System

29 Aug, 2013

by Shauna Sadowski, via Ensia

“We must feed 9 billion people by 2050” is a common refrain among food industry leaders, held up as the ultimate—if elusive—goal of production and sustainability. Unfortunately, current approaches to address this challenge are unsustainable—from economic, ecological and social perspectives.

Today’s investment dollars are going toward business models that are strikingly myopic in their approach, based on the belief that increased consumption is the key to economic growth. As everyone knows, however, our Earth’s natural resources are finite, and they are degrading faster than we are replenishing them. Therefore, we need to shift from a “more consumption” to a “better consumption” model. We need a forward-thinking strategy that will help us build resiliency and regeneration into our ecosystems as we grow food for an increasing population.

By reconsidering our investments and developing new solutions, we will ensure not only enough food for 9 billion, but also a planet that provides clean water, fertile soil and rich biodiversity—as well as healthier consumers and stronger communities—in 2050 and beyond. 

Agricultural Evolution

Over the past few decades, farming systems have changed dramatically. Following World War II, the agricultural sector underwent a chemical revolution, with DDT being one of the first broadly used pesticides. Many farmers embraced it as a way to control unwanted pests or weeds, but it came at a cost to humans and wildlife. By the 1960s, it was linked to nervous system and liver damage, breast cancer, miscarriages, developmental delays and male infertility.

Although DDT is now banned in the United States, other chemicals are similarly concerning. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, is used extensively worldwide but has been linked to birth defects and cancers. In addition, a 2009 paper published in the European Journal of Agronomy finds it compromises plants’ defense mechanisms, making them more susceptible to disease and ultimately leading to reduced yields.

U.S. farm size has also increased, due in no small part to 1970s federal policies that helped drive farmland consolidation and monoculture cropping. According to an Economic Research Service report, as of 2007, farms with more than 1,000 acres now account for more than 60 percent of all U.S. farmland and more than 40 percent of all U.S. agricultural production value. While farm size is not inherently a problem, how the farm is managed can be: toxic, persistent chemical applications come at a cost to human health and the environment, and less diversification creates vulnerabilities in the system.

The most recent agricultural developments center around genetic engineering. In the nearly two decades since genetically engineered crops (commonly referred to as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs) have been farmed commercially, they have focused on adding two primary traits to crops: a herbicide-tolerant trait that allows crops to survive chemical sprays while a weed is destroyed, and an insect-resistant trait that gives crops a built-in toxin so farmers can use fewer pesticides. Although designed to use fewer chemicals on crops such as corn, soy, canola and cotton, these two traits have actually led to an increase of 400 million pounds of agrochemical applications in the United States, according to a study of pesticide use from 1996 to 2011 published in Environmental Sciences Europe in 2012.

To further complicate matters, evidence in recent years demonstrates nature adapting to chemical spray through the evolution of “superweeds.” These weeds are chemical resistant; 24 weed species are now resistant to glyphosate. This results in farmers needing to use more—or more toxic—chemicals to combat them, which pollutes our soils and waters, creates known risks to humans, and ultimately doesn’t help farmers.

Finally, a study conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that no genetically engineered corn or soy crops increased intrinsic yields (yields grown under “ideal” conditions) in the U.S. Operational yields—those that occur under field conditions—also didn’t increase for herbicide-tolerant corn and soy crops. Only the built-in toxin trait for corn demonstrated modest increased yields of approximately 0.2–0.3 percent per year from 1996 to 2009. Relative to yield increases from conventional breeding – corn yields have increased an average of 1 percent per year in the past several decades – it appears the impact of GMO crops is modest, at best.

All told, this is not a resounding return on investment. Based on performance to date, we need to think outside the singular box of GMOs and instead invest in a broad range of tools to address the challenges at hand.

Toward a Better Path

To feed our growing population sustainably, the food community must rethink the system and accelerate investment in a more sustainable future. The innovations are already out there. Now we need to refine and replicate them throughout the world. And we need to get to critical mass, because it’s not just one company that needs to invest in these innovations in order to feed 9 billion by 2050. Rather, it’s all of us who must think about where we invest our resources—be it the financial sector, the food sector, the government, nonprofit organizations or simply ourselves, the eaters.

We can do this by moving toward broader, big-picture systems thinking, which tells us that we can’t understand a problem by looking only at individual parts. Instead, we must understand how the parts interact with and influence each other. As naturalist John Muir famously said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

What follows is a series of ideas exploring how to start thinking differently about our food system, taking into account all aspects of this complex network.

Rethink: How We Farm

Farming is the foundation of our food system, so it’s critical we start here. We need innovations that will not only increase food production, but also create vibrant rural communities and protect healthy ecosystems.

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