Is Industrial Monoculture the Real Path to Sustainable Farming?

Image credit: Amanda Friedman/OnEarth Magazine

Some have been wondering whether Obama is really on the side of sustainable farming or industrial agriculture. Others, however, are busy wondering whether industrial agriculture really is sustainable farming after all. In a provocative OnEarth Magazine piece written for the NRDC, one reporter argues that large-scale monoculture must be part of the solution to greener farming if we are to have any hope of digging out of the mess we're in.In a piece entitled What's New For Dinner, reporter Frederick Kaufman talks to Frank Muller, a megafarmer whose clients include Unilever, about how he has greened his operations through meticulous bookkeeping, precision management, and boosting the overall productivity of the farm.

Last year alone, Kaufman tells us, Muller sold over 60,000 tons of tomatoes to Unilever for processing into its Ragu-brand pasta sauces. That's a staggering amount, compared to the average farmer at my local market, and it is precisely this volume that makes farmers like Muller a prime target for environmentalists who want to see a cut in greenhouse gas emissions, pollution and depletion of aquifers. With organic farms making up less than 1% of cropland in the US, Kaufman argues, it's time for greens to accept that the future will not be solely made up of small family farms growing heirloom tomatoes and grassfed beef. That's where a new scheme for more sustainable mainstream farming, which NRDC helped pen, comes in:

"In the past few years, some of the world's mightiest and most profitable tomato syndicates -- including Del Monte, Heinz, and Unilever -- have allied themselves with a small, relatively unknown, and extraordinarily ambitious consortium called the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops. In 2008 the Stewardship Index began the business of gathering together many of those who share a stake in industrial agriculture, be they farmers, transnational packagers and retailers, or environmentalists. The goal is to get them to agree on what, exactly, one ought to measure to understand and gauge the environmental impact of the seed-to-shelf life cycle of any produce-based product, from frozen french fries to canned almonds to bottled pasta sauce."

Using high-tech soil monitoring systems, Muller measures everything from fertilizer use to soil temperature and moisture, and adjusts his resource use accordingly. But the scope of the Stewardship index doesn't end at the farm gate—the idea is to monitor sustainability metrics, from fuel used to waste created, at every step of the production process from field to store to get the most value out of every drop of energy expended or resource used.

It's a far cry from the urban farming and heirloom vegetables that we TreeHuggers love to gush over. But with climate change, peak oil, over population and overtaxed aquifers posing serious threats to our civilization, we need to be tackling these issues from every angle possible. Whether the future will be made up of ultra-efficient high-tech megafarms, a patchwork of artisanal growers, or a combination of the two remains to be seen. The only thing that is certain is that it will look nothing like the food system we have now.

More on Industrial Agriculture & Sustainability
Does Obama Really Support Sustainable Agriculture?
Omnivores Delusion & The Joy of Industrial Agriculture
21st Century Green Farming with Soil Sensors
Are Vertical Farms the Answer After All?

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