When foodies use the word “sustainable” they typically mean a system that doesn’t require outside inputs – no chemical fertilizer or herbicides, no purchased feed for livestock, and only water that falls from the sky or flows on the surface. In other words everything needed to produce vegetables, fruit, and meat over the long term is either already available (water, for instance) or can be produced (manure fertilizer) on location.
This a wonderfully pleasant, bucolic idea that takes many proponents back to a distant time when farming was less of a business and more of a way of life. But before you write it off as hopelessly romantic and idealistic you should know that a number of studies have found that such operations are capable of at least equaling the calories-per-acre production of state-of-the-art industrial farming operations. There are, however, a couple of caveats.
First, the successful farms are located in areas sporting both plenty of clean water and rich soil. Second, the farmers running these operations devote far more time and effort to their farms than the average mega- or even mid-size farmer does. It takes a lot of data collection, analysis, and planning to achieve such yields without external inputs. Add in the actual physical labor and farmers such as the Salatins, who Michael Pollan describes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, work far harder than almost anyone else in our economy. Only someone who truly loves farming would invest the effort required.
The hard work quotient is just the first road block to nationwide sustainable agriculture – the utopia many foodies dream of when they think of the future of farming. There’s also the issue of arable land. Large swaths of this country, even those that provide much of our produce, are incapable of self-sufficient agriculture. A significant percentage of the fruits and vegetables in this country come from the Central Valley of California – an area that relies on water piped in from Northern California. Arizona and New Mexico are also major producers and their climate makes Southern California look like rain forest. With irrigation these areas produce almost enough vegetables to feed the nation – and the do so year round.
Obviously the western mountain chains (and large areas of the eastern mountains) are incapable of supporting more than subsistence farming. Additionally the vicinity of major metropolitan areas (think NYC, Chicago, Boston, and so on) means a lot of potential farmland is already in use and what land is available is too expensive for agricultural uses.
Government policies also impede sustainability by encouraging mono-cultural (one crop) agriculture via direct and indirect subsidies and by excluding farms from laws regulating air and water pollution. For instance, any sane policy would prohibit the manure lagoons produced by Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) rather than giving them an exclusion from environmental laws.
Finally, it’s worth noting that with the exception of sunlight the Earth is a closed system – meaning we aren’t the only ones affected by our decisions and the decisions of others will inevitably affect us. In other words, although thinking about sustainability within the borders of the United States is a valid starting point, sustainability eventually must be considered globally. And, given that the Earth is a closed system, we must think about sustainability.
The initial practical answer probably isn’t the farm described in the first paragraph. Instead the answer is semi-sustainability; a reduced reliance on fossil-fuel based fertilizers and herbicides, a greater effort to prevent the loss of topsoil, the development of drought-resistant plants – perhaps even using genetic engineering. And it’s livestock breeding and ranching methods that don’t require antibiotics to prevent disease.
We need to keep in mind that, however appealing it may be, a system of agriculture that fed 77 million people in 1900 – the model that today’s sustainability proponents harken back to – won’t feed the 304 million people alive today. Furthermore, the current system can’t be scaled up to support even twice the current population.
That brings us to the biggest obstacle to sustainable agriculture – even a modified, more realistic, less pure agriculture – our eating habits. We need eat far less meat than we do now because our meat-eating habits simply aren’t sustainable. We need to quit throwing household organic waste into landfills and instead turn it into fertilizer (composting on a grand scale). And lastly, we need to care enough about the issues to express our opinion.
Sure, write your Congress-person. But if you educate yourself on the topics and just talk about it when the subject comes up you’ll have as much effect as writing a letter or planting a garden on the White House lawn. And eliminating meat one day a week will reduce your carbon footprint more than almost anything else you can do.
In fact, just giving a damn at all can make a difference eventually.