Can Our Method of Food Production Sustain Us in an Uncertain Future?

Circle Pivot Irrigation, Satellite Image of Crops in Kansas USA, NASA (2001)

A drought across the Great Plains and Canadian Prairies that lasted throughout much of the 1930’s, known as the ‘dust bowl’ or ‘dirty thirties’, resulted in huge dust storms that reached across the continent to the east coast of North America. This massive erosion was the result of widespread plowing, tilling and farming virgin soil that displaced the native grasslands that kept soil where it ought to be – on the ground.  This type of farming supported communities for decades, until the drought struck and forced people to move from their homes and farms as refugees – their machines buried in layers of dust and the skies blackened in a blizzard of soil. Hindsight is 20/20, but what the farmers failed to do at the time was adjust their techniques to dryland farming methods suitable to the grasslands – and in turn they and their communities suffered greatly when the local climate changed for just a few years.

Agriculture ecology systems developed through the understanding that the surrounding ecosystem affects farming management practices and also how the agricultural system itself must have nutrient cycles that circulate nutrients and organic matter back into the soil, for example. Organic agriculture is based on this understanding, takes the concept a step further by recognizing that synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and GMO’s are not supported by natural ecosystems and therefore are detrimental to both the environment and the people that live there and eat from it.

But the problem doesn’t end there - the way we grow food today relies heavily on external inputs on both large and small farms. We rely heavily on oil to till up the fields, move water around on the farm, move grain, hay, nutrients and seeds from one farm to another and eventually food from farm, to market, to table. Agriculture has come a long way, but it still requires inputs that are from off-farm – every year – with no end. This might work for us, here and now, and granted many folks are continuously improving this system - but what about the rest of the world, and the future?

In his final report on The Transformative Potential of the Right to Food, Oliver De Schutter points out that the current industrial food system is providing for rich countries like Canada while leaving 12% of the world hungry (Food System That Fails) – and I might add depleting agroecology systems around the world much like we did in the Prairies in the 1930’s. De Schutter claims people must rely on local food for health and well-being, both here and abroad, in order for everyone to have equal right to food. The problem is we don’t actually produce enough food here in the Maritimes to feed ourselves (2006). Equally problematic is the fact that the food that is produced here requires roughly 10 calories of input (from humans, animals and fossil fuels) for every 1 calorie of food output. Even the most local sustainable farm does not put out more calories of food than the energy calories put into production.

Truly healthy, functioning agriculture ecosystems provide for all life – it’s not just “doing no harm” but actually leaving the land “better than before”.  Healthy agriculture ecosystems are supported by surrounding natural ecosystems and provide support back – a mutual benefit.  Working with nature instead of working against it with intelligent design in turn reduces dependence on off-farm inputs. Stefan Sobkowiak of Miracle Farms came to this same paradigm shift personally when working with his organic orchard in Southern Quebec.

Sobkowiak found that with observation and design he could feed himself and many beneficial insects at the same time. He could create natural nutrient cycling and water management that over time created a healthy, self-supporting agricultural ecosystem. His approach of working with natural systems in turn led to less and less dependence on off farm inputs and greater and greater return – fruit, herbs and even some vegetables growing in the orchard itself. This idea moves beyond the standards of organic agriculture into something else - ecosystem restoration for food production.

In this short video, Stefan explains how his perennial food ecosystem provides more while requiring less through intelligent design:



Another example comes from Mark Sheppard, who runs New Forest Farm, a 106-acre commercial scale perennial agriculture system in Richland County, Wisconsin. Sheppard also believes that farms should be restored to function more like natural ecosystems in order to provide rich and healthy land for future generations while providing sustenance today. He notes that annual agriculture cannot continue to be our sole source of staple food (specifically grains and oils) and that we must look to other production methods that use less energy to achieve long-term climate smart agriculture.

“The growing of annual crops requires the eradication of an intact perennial ecosystem to grow seeds. Tilling the soil exposes it to the elements. Exposed soil blows away in the wind. Its organic matter and minerals are oxidized by the sun rendering them useless for plant fertility needs . . . In any one-year these soil losses may not be noticeable. You or I can still grow a wheat crop this year even though we lost some soil last year. The reduction in soil fertility and depth of our topsoil may not be noticeable in one lifetime, but over decades and centuries a cumulative loss of topsoil means a loss of nutrition for the people living of that land.” - Mark Sheppard, Restoration Agriculture.

The Land Institute is taking this shift a scientific step further and is crossing annual staple crops with native perennial grasses with aims of creating “Natural System Agriculture” 


These are some examples of commercial scale farms producing food in a new way, but how do our home gardens influence the food security issue?


Ben Falk of Whole Systems Design (above) converted his rocky, mossy lawn in the Mad River Valley in Vermont into a resilient and self-sustaining home-scale food and water management system. Each part of his system provides food while building soil, cycling nutrients or storing water. Ducks and geese keep grass down and provide fertilizer and produce eggs and meat; sheep graze and add biodiversity through small scale disturbance (cell grazing) as well as meat; shrubs and trees provide shade, water retention and soil stabilization while providing nuts, fruits and berries; and the water system that slows run-off, hydrates the landscape, recharges the aquifer, and stores nutrients also grows rice.

Like Sobkowiak and Sheppard, Falk’s homestead was developed through lengthy observation of natural systems in his particular area. These are just some of the people who have created food systems that are abundant and resilient - and have already proven capable of dealing with both excessive rainfall and drought without high-energy inputs.


What do you think? Can our current food system continue to support us as is - or are these people on to something?


Interesting articles and books:

Thought About Food? Understanding the Relationship Between Public Policy and Food Security in Nova Scotia. Policy Working Group of the Nova Scotia Participatory Food Security Project (2006). 

Restoration Agriculture. Mark Sheppard (2012).

Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter. Final Report: The transformative potential of the right to food. United Nations Human Rights Council (2014).

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