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Planting the Seeds of Crisis

Monocropping, loss of plant diversity and factory farming have created a global food crisis. Is it too late to change?



T he global agriculture market is busy cooking up a recipe for disaster. World grain production is on the rise, but this cheap oversupply has put millions of farmers in developing nations out of work. Equally problematic, policy makers are increasingly directing edible calories toward biofuels and animal feed. Meanwhile, impoverished humans starve.

At center stage in this misallocation of food is the modern practice of monocropping, or monocultures, in which one plant is sown exclusively. At first glance, selecting for the most lucrative, high-yield variety of plant and covering one's acreage with it and nothing else seems like a very methodical and sophisticated idea; such crops are easily planted and tended, and entire fields can be harvested in one fell swoop. But monocultures facilitate two serious matters: pests and soil depletion.

The latter results when a farmer perpetually cultivates a single type of plant on a given parcel of land, which steadily drains the earth of a particular spectrum of soil minerals. Eventually, such farmland grows off-balance and may eventually be rendered completely inadequate for agriculture. In fact, experts guess that at its current rate, soil depletion will leave the planet without farmable land in three to five decades, at which point the game will be up for biodiesel engines, cows and human beings alike.

Victory Gardening

John Jeavons, an innovative farmer, lecturer and author based in Willits, says that solutions as simple as home gardening can alleviate such serious problems. Jeavons is an advocate of biointensive farming, an ancient system of agriculture that he has helped rediscover over the last 30 years and which fosters biodiversity, intersperses different crops on small and vibrant plots of land, retains groundwater in the earth and naturally replenishes soils. Jeavons' hope is to see a return to a local, organic, regenerative farming system in which people everywhere embrace the lost art of growing food.

"With soil loss, the world is entering a new time of crisis," he says. "But the wonderful thing is that we have the power to change it in our own backyards."

But is home gardening enough? Can it supply the calories to feed families, not to mention the world? Devlin Kuyek is a Montreal-based researcher with GRAIN (Genetic Resources International), an organization that advocates sustainable agricultural biodiversity. Kuyek says the problems facing agriculture today are global in scale, and that most communities, especially urban ones, have lost all power over where their food comes from.

That, he says, must change.

"People need to start feeding themselves again. The government needs to give people back their lands."

Once Upon a Time

Localized, diverse, healthy agriculture was once the way of the world, before land consolidation, global markets and the capacity for long-distance transportation changed everything. People ate strictly what they grew locally, and gardeners and farmers cultivated a wide and colorful range of edible plants. In turn, this biodiversity maintained soil health and mineral balance, as did composting, which recycled organic matter back into the earth. The soil stayed rich and a diversity of foods sustained societies.

Industrialization altered everything. Division of labor pulled people away from their land, sending them en masse to cities where they worked at specific tasks, leaving the farmland in the hands of fewer and fewer landlords. These remnant farmers discovered that they could streamline their operations by focusing on commodity crops at the largest scale possible. They sold and shipped to increasingly distant markets, and the local urban populations likewise began importing foods from farther and farther away. Enjoying a diverse diet remained possible, as it is now in most California communities, but the fruits, grains and vegetables at the grocery store today come from separate fields, often thousands of miles apart.

For the moguls of today's ag industry, there is little incentive to do as Jeavons recommends and grow biointensively. Large-scale producers are interested in high yields, not in intermingling various crops together, farming organically and leaving much land permanently feral to promote beneficial insect habitat. Such tactics are not conducive to reaping profits. Or are they?

One study, published in 2006 and directed in part by UC Berkeley postdoctorate Lora Morandin, at the time a student at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, found that Canadian canola farmers who allowed 30 percent of their land to grow wild and uncultivated produced higher gross yields and more than double the profits due to an increased presence of pollinating insects inhabiting the brush.

Jeavons' biointensive farming system also produces dramatically boosted yields—nearly double that of conventional agriculture—while replenishing the soil. Jeavons cultivates one-third of an acre with a systematically diversified array of many edible plants, including a backbone of grains and high-calorie root crops. The land serves as a classroom and lab for Ecology Action, a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing high-yield farming methods by which individuals can grow all their own food on small plots of land while consuming a minimum of resources and sustaining soil balance.

Dump 'n' Run

But not everyone is dancing in the garden. While an advocate of genetic diversity and sustaining soil, Sonoma State University's director of sustainable landscapes Frederique Lavoipierre says biointensive farming is not practical as a means of feeding the globe.

"We're blinded in [the North Bay]," she says. "We have an ability to easily grow things almost all year long. In other places, they have a three-month growing season, and they need to produce intensively. There is a certain level of efficiency that we need to consider."

Monocultures are often the best way, Lavoipierre says, and they can even be produced in sustainable situations; the crops must simply be rotated seasonally to alleviate pressures on the soil's nutrient supply, replenishing its mineral load and maintaining balance. Trees and grapevines can obviously not be switched out season after season, but cover crops like weeds, grasses, crimson clover and edible vegetables, if allowed to thrive among the trunks, can nourish the soil and preclude the need for fertilizers.

Monocultures are devastating the security and stability of food production, says Kuyek, whose book Good Crop / Bad Crop: Seed Politics and the Future of Food in Canada hit shelves in December. The postmodernized world has seen a drop in nutritional value in staple crops, an increased reliance on pesticides and fertilizers and a severe loss of genetic diversity.

"Canada and the United States have been convinced of the vision of industrial agriculture, modernity, science and increased productivity," he charges. "People have stopped paying attention to pest problems, soil depletion and the water supply. Western science has totally dismissed ancient seed systems, but the diversity of plants used to be amazing."

In Mexico, thousands of varieties of corn once grew, but many of the peasant farmers who stewarded such brilliant diversity have been put out of business. Kuyek says that U.S. farmers are largely at fault for overproducing, flooding Mexico's market with underpriced corn and undermining Mexican growers. Growers in the States have done the same thing to Haitian rice farmers, who sufficiently fed their country as recently as a few decades ago. But in 1986, the Haitian government opened its doors to U.S. rice.

"We undercut their producers with cheaper imports," Kuyek says. "It's called 'dumping.' They had to give up on their own production, and they've become dependent on our imports."

The United States also destroyed Haiti's once prolific sugar industry, infiltrating the island with American sugar and squashing the local production. Today, Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 82 "low-income, food-deficit countries" currently depend on imported food and are forecasted to purchase 82 million metric tons of grain in 2008. These countries' traditional agrarian systems have withered, leaving many people jobless and, ironically, scarcely able to afford the overtly cheap imported foodstuffs that put their own farms out of business in the first place. Nations worldwide have come to similar economic ruin under the crushing hammer of global agriculture.

Dirt Is Gold

The United Nations FAO reported that global grain production increased during 2007, though not quite at pace with the earth's growing population, and according to the USDA, the world's emergency supply of grain is diminishing. In December 1999, the earth's warehouses held 116 days of surplus food; today, we have 50 days' worth.

Jeavons attributes this decline to population growth, global warming complications and soil deterioration. The United Nations FAO estimates that soils worldwide are being depleted between 13 and 80 times faster than they are being restored. Rising fertilizer costs due to climbing oil prices have prompted many farmers to curtail their use, in turn producing less food of decreasing nutritional value on soils of diminishing quality. Soil is lost to erosion and weathering, too. Cover crops would prevent such deterioration, yet most of the world's farmers disdain "weeds," preferring fields, vineyards and orchards uncluttered by alien plant life.

SSU's Lavoipierre is perplexed.

"I just don't understand this feeling that people have where they think they need to remove everything and clean-cultivate the ground. They remove all the biomass and the roots. They basically remove the structure of the soil. I don't understand the reasoning behind this."

The good news is that more and more farmers understand and appreciate the importance of soil sustainability. They see farming not as a way of growing food, but as a way of growing soil, the product of which is good food. Biodynamic agriculture, for example, promotes techniques that cultivate a living ecosystem among the crops, between the rows, overhead and, especially, underfoot. German philosopher and gardener Rudolph Steiner developed this spiritual earth science in 1924 after investigating reports from nearby communities that nutritional integrity of crops was decreasing and health of villagers failing.

"In those days, people were much more connected to their land," says Colby Eierman, director of gardens at Benziger Winery, which utilizes biodynamic practices. "Their life stream was right off the farm, and it was not a far stretch to connect their health to what was coming from the land."

Steiner perfected a system of growing cover crops, fertilizing with fresh manure and providing habitat for a diverse food chain of insects. Done right, biodynamic farming improves the health of the plants and of the soil, which Steiner recognized as a complex living ecosystem. Benziger is certified biodynamic, and Eierman concedes that adhering to the requirements for certification is relatively costly.

"We find it to be a significant investment," he explains, "mainly because you're investing a significant portion of your land in plants other than grapes."

These cover crops promote soil nourishment and habitat for predatory insects. But the sacrifice of acreage is worth it, says Eierman, who swears the wine is as good as wine gets.

The land stays happy, too. Whereas conventional farming leaches every bit of profit that it can from the soil through what Eierman calls a "soil deficit program," biodynamic farming is far less intensive.

Most farms, says Eierman, see soil as a base for simply upholding plants as they await harvest.

"In biodynamics, it's the exact opposite. We want to grow rich soil, and this system deals with soil depletion at the highest level. All efforts are put toward soil health, because soil is sacred."

But done incorrectly, warns Lavoipierre, biodynamic systems can still deplete soils. So, too, can organic farming.

"Organic farms may use organic fertilizers, but they're coming out of the earth from somewhere else," she says. "That is clearly not a balance."

Back to the Backyard

Many experts agree: Poorly managed monoculture farm systems are draining the earth of its vitality, and by some estimates the earth bears as little as 36 to 52 years' worth of farmable soil. If communities only fed themselves, says Kuyek, such uncertainty might dissipate.

"There has to be a return to local food systems. That's the only answer. That's the only way that people can take charge of feeding themselves again. Only local food systems provide a sense of a community's needs."

The idea is that when people produce their own food, they take better care to produce it right. Diversification of crops inherently follows, which keeps life on the table interesting. Plant health improves and soils thrive.

Unfortunately, few of us know anymore how to care for and cultivate the earth.

"It's not only our water tables, genetic diversity base and soil base, but we've lost our skill base," Jeavons says. "Just one person in 625 in the United States is a farmer on a tractor. Almost no one grows their own food supply anymore, and it's very important that we rejuvenate our skills as farmers."

Our plants are vanishing, too. Experts estimate that a mere 5 percent of plant varieties once commonly grown are still available today. Worldwide, nine-tenths of our calories come from 20 crop species, and four plants—rice, corn, wheat and potatoes—provide half of our calories. The livestock and biodiesel industries aren't helping. Together, they devour some 50 percent of America's grain production. To make matters worse, the captains of these industries have little interest in maintaining genetic diversity or maintaining nutritional value in the plants. Seed selection is driven by concern for caloric yield alone.

That's how it's been since approximately 1900, says Kuyek.

"In the last century, human nutrition has never been a concern. The focus is all on yield, hybridization, crop density and the ability to absorb fertilizers, and overall in the United States and Canada, there's very little genetic variation anymore in corn and soybeans. This has left us extremely vulnerable."

The threat of famine, even in the U.S., is plausible. We need only look back to 1970. That year, farmers nearly lost the nation's corn crop when a particular gene in a widely grown hybrid variety facilitated the spread of an aggressive fungus. Eighty percent of the country's corn crop withered. The Irish potato famine was also result of inadequate crop diversity. In the 1700s, the island nation borrowed a favorable potato variety from Peru, which had long subsisted on countless varieties. A century later, in 1845, the water mold Phytophthora infestans ravaged the nation's potato fields on which the populace by now relied. By 1849, over a million Irish had died.

"They should have been diversifying that crop," says Lavoipierre. "They had one variety and lost it all to Phytophthora. Diversity is like insurance, and we're losing our diversity. What's happened to America's corn is truly frightening. We've thrown out so much genetic diversity that people should be scared."

Seed banks exist around the world. One, established in February in the Svalbard Islands of the Norwegian Arctic, has been dug deep into the permafrost, where freezing temperatures persist all year. With the capacity for as many as 4.5 million seed samples, the facility, operated by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, has been heralded as a triumph in protecting the security of our future food security. Concern has been expressed, however, that it creates the possibility that, should a seed variety vanish in the outside world, the surviving vaulted sample could be snatched up, patented and even genetically modified by powerful seed corporations.

For now, television coverage of food riots and famine worldwide gives Western viewers a comforting distance from the severe problems of the 21st century's global agriculture system. But Americans depend on soils and farming as much as any other nation, and it may be just a matter of time before the crisis hits home.

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