Toward a Better Path

To feed our growing population sustainably, the food community must rethink the system and accelerate investment in a more sustainable future. The innovations are already out there. Now we need to refine and replicate them throughout the world. And we need to get to critical mass, because it’s not just one company that needs to invest in these innovations in order to feed 9 billion by 2050. Rather, it’s all of us who must think about where we invest our resources — be it the financial sector, the food sector, the government, nonprofit organizations or simply ourselves, the eaters.

We can do this by moving toward broader, big-picture systems thinking, which tells us that we can’t understand a problem by looking only at individual parts. Instead, we must understand how the parts interact with and influence each other. As naturalist John Muir famously said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

What follows is a series of ideas exploring how to start thinking differently about our food system, taking into account all aspects of this complex network.

Rethink: How We Farm

Farming is the foundation of our food system, so it’s critical we start here. We need innovations that will not only increase food production, but also create vibrant rural communities and protect healthy ecosystems.

Invest in agroecological farming — While many farmers rely heavily on chemical inputs to grow their crops, some farmers are finding ways to balance productivity and ecosystem health through agroecological practices. Agroecology is a scientific approach to managing agricultural land by understanding the structure and function of the natural ecosystems on which it is built.

Kenneth Miller is a farmer in North Dakota who practices agroecology using cover crops and livestock to build soil health. Unlike many of his neighbors, Miller divides his fields into manageable sections, reincorporating livestock and devising what he calls a “cover crop cocktail.” Cover crop cocktails vary, but the purpose is to include a blend of different species and plant types, each with its own rooting patterns that help contribute to diversity and restoration of microbial and physical soil function after producing a single grain crop. Miller is building soil organic matter, the critical component for sustainable land stewardship. He also is seeing increased crop yields while reducing costs, resulting in net profitability.

To move away from pollutants and to better support farmers, agrochemical companies should shift their investments in product innovation to ones that are nontoxic and nonpersistent.

Likewise, the Marsden Farm study out of Iowa State University, highlighted in a 2012 article by Mark Bittman of the New York Times, describes a four-year rotation that included corn, soy, oats and alfalfa, along with integrated livestock management, to produce higher yields of corn and soy than strictly corn and soy rotations or corn, soy and oat rotations. In the study, nitrogen fertilizer and herbicides decreased by up to 88 percent and toxins in the ground decreased 200-fold, all while profits remained the same. Again, another example of agroecology principles in action.

Apply agrochemicals judiciously — An agroecological farmer may still want to use agrochemicals, but they should be applied as a last resort, not a first line of defense. I know farmers who have battled a vicious weed, bindweed, that can live for up to 30 years and wreaks havoc on farmland, with roots that travel up to 30 feet deep into the soil. Some of these farmers used herbicides, but only after years of trying to combat bindweed through nonchemical methods.

To move away from pollutants and to better support farmers, agrochemical companies should shift their investments in product innovation to ones that are nontoxic and nonpersistent, and turn more attention to bio-based solutions that eliminate excess waste and pollution.

Furthermore, we need to measure precisely what we’re putting onto the soil and at what rates. At present, we don’t have a comprehensive, publicly available database that tracks pesticides (active and “inert” ingredients) and how long they persist in the soil. This must be created. More importantly, we need to conduct more independent research on how these chemicals affect the environment, humans and animals over the long term.