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Modern farming might seem productive, but is it slowly driving us toward starvation?

2011-12-30

Co.Exist

As Farming Gets More Efficient, We Need It To Do The Opposite

It’s not because large-scale farms are evil, per se, but the lack of crop diversity and farming knowledge that comes from massive farms of just a few crops could result in disastrous consequences.

Researchers argue agriculture needs to remember its primitive roots. Today’s agriculture’s most important metric is yield: how many cows, bushels, or tons can be grown per acre. This relentless pursuit of efficiency means that U.S. farm output has risen more than 158% since 1948.

That’s a good thing in many ways, and vital for feeding a growing population. It works by elevating a few winners (corn, wheat, and Hereford cows) to maximize their output at the expense of most everything else. It also happens to eliminate less efficient, but possibly irreplaceable alternatives.

We need these options, say scientists at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in a recent paper. As climate change remakes today’s farming map and the global biosphere, farmers will have to adopt new crop traits that can survive hotter, dryer, and in some cases, wetter conditions. This biological insurance relies on wild stocks and traditional farms around the world. Despite crop gene banks, these are disappearing.

"Policies, subsidies, research, and intellectual property rights promote a few modern commercial varieties and intensive agriculture at the expense of traditional crops and practices," says lead author Krystyna Swiderska, a senior researcher at IIED. "This is perverse as it forces countries and communities to depend on an ever decreasing variety of crops and threatens with extinction the knowledge and biological diversity that form the foundations of resilience."

Instead, scientists say we need to cultivate diverse agricultural systems that buffer shocks and harbor biological insurance policies against changes in climate. We are "ignoring a vast store of knowledge—generated over thousands of years—that could protect food supplies and make agriculture more resilient to climate change."

It’s the difference between an all-or-nothing bet and keeping your options open. Given the uncertain future, a Hail Mary pass that just relies just on today’s species is almost certain to leave us without the crops we need. Traditional knowledge is a hedge against uniform commercial agriculture, argues Swiderska, through locally adapted pest control, extreme tolerance for droughts and floods, and human networks to share biological diversity between communities.

For now, developed countries have ramped up their spending on agricultural R&D that focuses on genetic engineering and breeding common plants to survive more extreme conditions. Traditional solutions offer a simpler, if somewhat less efficient, approach to preserving options open for the future.

We’ll need both.

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3 Comments

  • Steve

    It is not up to the farmers to decide the diversity. Most farms can not create diversity, as most genes are owned by the seed companies. If you want to blame someone for a mono culture, blame it on gene patents.

  • Greg Stamp

    As a farmer, there is no incentive to grow a lower yielding variety. Also by introducing genes from around the world we are able to use some localized varieties to combat fungises and diseases by breeding in resistance. I agree we need the diversity but is it may be the responsibility of society as a whole to ensure this.

  • Chris Sayer

    I'm a
    farmer also Greg. I think the article misses one key point: Diversity can be
    maintained with relatively small production levels of certain crops. If one or
    two commercial cultivars dominate a market, but dozens or hundreds are being
    grown at low levels, the genetic options remain open. This is one of the rarely
    recognized benefits of smaller local channels like Farmer's markets. I have a
    few minor varietals that I sell to chefs and caterers. They may not yield like
    our primary commercial varieties, but at 2x or 3x the price, they are
    economically viable, and maintain the stock. Glad that this is getting
    discussion!