In many ways the human race hit the skids when we stopped throwing spears and gathering berries. Once we started planting seeds and harvesting the produce, we grew shorter, fatter, sicker, and considerably more overworked. An alien visiting from another planet during that critical transition period to a more settled existence might easily have thought that we were being domesticated by our livestock and not the other way around.
Sure, hunting and gathering was hard, what with either hunger or saber-toothed tigers always breathing down our necks. But it was actually the daily grind of agriculture that took a heavy toll on us. More predictable food surpluses allowed for greater concentrations of people and thus more opportunities for microbes to hang out, party, and develop new diseases. Easy-to-store grains could be made into porridge so that babies could be weaned more quickly. “As a result, the sicklier agriculturists were able to outbreed the more robust hunter-gatherers,” writes Elizabeth Kolbert in her recent investigation into the Paleolithic lifestyle. “More farmers then needed even more land, which further reduced the resources available to foragers.”
Agriculture allowed for the development of everything we associate with modernity: politics, economics, MTV. But there was a major trade-off: Suddenly we had to work a whole lot harder. As Jared Diamond wrote in his famous 1987 essay “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” those early foragers were probably much like today’s modern hunter-gatherers, who “have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal, and work less hard than their farming neighbors.” Since those early days of farming, we’ve regained our stature and we live longer, on average. But we’re still overweight and overworked compared to our Paleolithic ancestors.
Now that there are more than 7 billion of us on this planet, going up to nearly 10 billion by the middle of this century, we don’t have the luxury to choose between agriculture and the Paleo life. There’s not much big game around anymore, and even a modern all-meat diet would soon consume all the world’s resources. We’re stuck with farming. But forget those Arcadian visions of agriculture as a benign activity. Even small-scale farming leads to the clear-cutting of land, the reduction of biodiversity, widespread soil erosion, and the kill-off of otherwise beneficial insects. I hold out great hopes for techniques pioneered at places like the Land Institute to bring back perennial versions of staple crops. But it’s not going to feed 7 billion people any time soon.
Here’s the even more troubling part of the story: agriculture is helping to push up global temperatures. Up to one-third of all the carbon emissions responsible for climate change come from farming, from fertilizer production to growing crops to refrigerating and transporting goods to market. Throw in livestock, and things look even worse: a whopping 18 percent of greenhouse gasses, according to one Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, come from the mass production of cows, pigs, and chickens (and World Watch argues that the FAO undercounted by a factor of three). Climate change in turn is having an impact on agriculture by leading to a projected 10 percent reduction in yields over the same period that food production must nearly double to handle more mouths (and more mouths eating higher up the food chain).
Modern agriculture: can’t live with it, can’t live without it.
World leaders met in New York this past weekend to deliberate over the coming catastrophes of climate change. Several hundred thousand people marched in the streets to demand that politicians come up with an agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions, finance a global shift to clean energy, and make sure that the burden doesn’t fall on the poorest nations.
The focus of protest has been on energy, and strategically this makes sense. But at some point, we’re going to have to rethink the much more fundamental structures that have been with us long before we discovered fossil fuels or even harnessed the power of the wind and the water. We desperately need to rethink agriculture.
From an organizing point of view, the easiest approach would be to ask “What would Monsanto do?” and then do the opposite. That means standing up against industrial agriculture, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and the mass production of substances like high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that have generated an obesity problem the world over.
I have an instinctual preference for family farms, organic produce, and coops that refuse to stock HFCS. But I need to set aside my preferences for a moment to ask a different question: “what kind of agriculture can best sustain the human race in this era of climate change?” This question actually contains two challenges. How can we produce enough food to feed a growing population, and how can we do this without generating the carbon emissions that will overheat the planet and literally take the rug out from under us?
The obvious answer would be to immediately implement a “lentil dictatorship.” By forcing people to shift to a mostly legume diet, we would reduce the enormous drain of resources caused by eating meat—up to 16 pounds of grain goes into one pound of steak—and naturally replenish the soil by planting these nitrogen-affixing plants. Given the difficulties that former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg faced when he tried to wean people off sodas larger than 16 ounces, the move to a mostly legume diet would require a seriously strong-arm vegetarian. Hitler aside, vegetarianism and authoritarianism generally don’t go hand in hand.
So, if a lentil dictatorship isn’t in the offing, what’s next? The United Nations has come up with its own answer to this problem. It calls its initiative the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture. It involves using the latest technology to maximize yields and minimize the impact on the land. For instance, farmers use lasers to create level fields to reduce water use and consult precise weather forecasts to know when to sow and irrigate. In essence, the UN wants the Global South to take advantage of the technology that has already improved farming in the richer countries. These are useful techniques, but they are largely palliative. They help farmers adjust to rising temperatures and dwindling water resources rather than help to reverse the negative feedback loop pushing up the thermometer.
Advocates of organic farming argue that a shift way from energy-intensive industrial agriculture will do the trick. But organic farming faces two challenges. Even if the world’s farmers were willing to shift to organic, it’s not clear that it could produce enough to feed the planet without cultivating what little land remains in the wild (goodbye Amazon rainforest!). And where organic farmers have been able to scale up, they have begun to resemble the very industrial producers they aimed to replace (in what Michael Pollan has called the organic-industrial complex). Moreover, as I’ve pointed out before, traditional farming techniques have failed us in the past, when over-farming precipitated civilization decline in many parts of the pre-modern world.
But on the energy side of the equation, organic farming does represent a reduction, by about 30-50 percent according to another FAO report. That mostly comes from cutting out commercial fertilizer, a petroleum product, and substituting some human labor for machines. When we’re scrambling to cut emissions, that’s nothing to sneeze at. But when it comes to energy consumption, eating locally can be more important than eating organically, since it reduces all the energy used to send grapes from Chile and garlic from California to dinner tables on the East Coast.
Another way to go is low-tech. Instead of plowing up the land in order to plant the next crop, many farmers don’t overturn the soil of the entire field. They simply dig narrow trenches. This “no-till” agriculture produces comparable yields but without the considerable erosion caused by conventional farming. The problem is, no-till agriculture uses more herbicides to get rid of all the weeds that aren’t plowed under. And it is traditionally associated with mono-culture farming.
Then there’s GMOs. “Between 1996, when genetically engineered crops were first planted, and last year, the area they cover has increased a hundredfold—from 1.7 million hectares to 170 million,” writes Michael Specter in The New Yorker. “Nearly half of the world’s soybeans and a third of its corn are products of biotechnology.”
I have my doubts about what GMOs will do to our guts and our biosphere. It’s not necessarily the existing strains that worry me so much as the sheer number of genetic combinations that scientists are developing, any one of which might inexplicably turn our brains to mush after 20 years in the food chain or interact in some unanticipated and devastating way in the wild.
On the other hand, what if we discover a new breed of nitrogen-affixing, high-yield wheat that dramatically reduces fertilizer use or a new kind of soybean that allows us to do no-till agriculture without the heavy herbicide application? Biotechnology can’t save us. But we shouldn’t automatically assume that it can’t play a role.
After all, there is no perfect agriculture that can both feed 7 billion people and improve the planet. Throw in climate change and the trade-offs become even more challenging. Every technique comes with risks. The danger of industrial farming is precisely its reliance on monocultures: field after field of a single variety of grain that runs the risk of being wiped out by a new kind of blight.
The solution is diversity. “No single crop or approach to farming can possibly feed the world,” Specter concludes. “To prevent billions of people from living in hunger, we will need to use every one of them.”
To feed the world and save it at the same time, let a thousand wheat stalks bloom.