Can Agriculture Ever Be Sustainable?

Only the other day I was musing on whether food in America is too cheap. Now I come across a fascinating, well-argued and passionate piece by Dr E. Ann Clark over at the Post Carbon Institute's Energy Bulletin on why the future is organic, but it is much more than organic. Covering everything from the inevitability of peak oil and peak fertilizer, through the need to move away from annual grains as animal feed, to the use of more perennial food crops and grass-fed livestock, Dr Clark presents a pretty comprehensive vision of what future food production systems should look like. But it is her absolute indictment of the current model of agriculture, including efforts to reform it, that is most compelling:

Agriculture here in the colonies was designed primarily for one thing - to export vast quantities of undifferentiated, raw commodities back to the Mother Country. We do the same thing today, but the recipient is ADM, Cargill, Smithfield and Tyson. Arguably, agriculture performed other services as well - sustenance, good place to raise a family, and a way to make a living.

But those seeking to ensure food production in a post-oil future must first explicitly acknowledge that agriculture was never designed to be sustainable - not ecologically, not economically, and not socially sustainable, at least for primary producers. It would be a coincidence of miraculous proportions if agriculture would be sustainable, simply because it was designed to do things which are incompatible with sustainability. Thus, efforts to adjust, refine, or otherwise tweak contemporary agriculture to sustain productivity are starting from a flawed design.

Tags: Activism | Agriculture | Farming | Permaculture | United States