“The global population is skyrocketing, the climate is changing, and diets are shifting. So how do you tackle the problem of feeding 9 billion people by 2050? Assemble an elite team of scientists for a year-long brainstorming session… What’s needed is akin to a moonshot. Or as committee co-chair John D. Floros put it, a “green revolution 2.0.””
This is from a month-old article in the Washington Post entitled “This quiet agricultural ‘moonshot’ could change the future of food.’ They are some of the scariest words I’ve seen put together in quite some time.
I’m not an anti-science type; let’s get that out of the way. My college degree has the word “science” in it twice. I trust the scientific basis behind everything from global climate change to vaccinations. Science saves lives and allows for things that are impossibly cool. Science is awesome.
But science is not the answer to everything.
Here’s a question: it’s only 2017 and we already produce enough food for 10 billion people, so why are we defaulting to a scientific solution? Science can address the technical aspects of food production — yields, shelf life, etc. — but the technical aspects of food production aren’t the problems when it comes to feeding nine billion people, or dealing with the agricultural impact of climate change, or accommodating shifting diets. These problems are, almost exclusively, social and political.
Nevertheless, the article continues:
“The National Academy of Sciences answered the call and assembled the panel of eight staff and 13 scientists from institutions across the country. Their expertise ranges from nutrition to climate science to nanotechnology, and the report they’re set to deliver next March will lay out a “strategic vision” for how to rapidly improve the quality and quantity of food.”
We’ve addressed the issue of food quantity. Quality is another issue that could be addressed at the margins by science, but (at least in this country) the big problem with food quality is a Gordian knot involving agricultural policy, consumer tastes, household economics, and a centralized, vertically-integrated food system. We already know how to produce highly nutritious food; the problem is getting it in people’s faces. Science, here, is a hammer with no nail to pound. But that doesn’t seem to stem the desire to solve the problem with a second Green Revolution.
“Half a century ago, scientists similarly asked how to feed a growing population. Their answer: “invest more in agricultural technology,” recounted Floros. That investment kick-started what became known as the green revolution. During it, new crop varieties, technological advances, changes in agricultural practices and shifts in the storage and transport of food all contributed to a dramatic increase in agricultural output.”
The Green Revolution was an agricultural amphetamine injection that sent yields through the stratosphere, but at the expense of the natural resource base upon which it relies. We have the Green Revolution to thank for declining seedstock diversity, chemical poisoning, declining aquifers, impossibly cheap meat, and the myriad other problems that this scientific panel is set to try and solve (here are some sources)… with yet more science and advanced technology.
“Twenty-first-century challenges require 21st century approaches,” said Sally Rockey, executive director of FFAR. While many people tend to view agriculture as a tradition-bound system, “it really is a cutting-edge science.”
This may be true, but nowhere is it written that a 21st century approach MUST involve advanced technology, precision-everything, and patching together a broken food system with duct tape made out of patents.
The article goes on from here to discuss genomic data for crop breeding, using satellites and drones to monitor water needs and leaf color, and using precision agriculture to minimize the use of fertilizer. All these things are absolutely necessary — both environmentally and economically — for a food system based on massive monocultural farms with razor thin margins and operational levers with massive consequences for the environment. And as I read more and more about the increasingly advanced nature of the technology involved in agriculture, it’s hard not to imagine yawning inequities between the developed and developing worlds as the latter becomes increasingly dependent on technologies developed and owned by the former.
The last couple of paragraphs in the article pay lip service to “social sciences and economics” coming into play — mostly to say that the technologies must be profitable for farmers and acceptable to consumers — but leave the primacy of these and other non-hard-science issues completely unaddressed.
We Don’t Need a Moonshot. We Need a Global “Come to Jesus” Meeting about Food
We have an intractable food problem because it’s a people problem, not a technological one. Its solution will involve deliberate choices to do with less quantity and fewer options in a world where the supermarket and its infinite bounty and instant gratification are regarded as a global ideal.
Americans may be willing to eat less meat, but when we do, we still want it to be cheap. We want that 99 cent McDonald’s cheeseburger. We want ground beef to cost $4/lb. We want lemons in Michigan and tomatoes in January. We want what we want, when we want it, no matter how frequently or infrequently we ask for it. And the rest of the world sees this; we’ve been exporting our cultural values — for better and for worse — for the better part of a century. And we haven’t stopped.
A true agricultural moonshot would involve, among other things:
- A massive reallocation of public funding toward farms and foodscapes that mimic the natural, local ecology — improving their resilience and diversity of their yields, and dramatically increasing the number of places that can produce food.
- A global effort to discover, document, and apply ancestral foodways. Colonialism has cast a long shadow over much of the world, having forced vast swaths of the global community, at gunpoint, to forget their traditional knowledge around food — nearly all of which was tailored to food production and consumption in ways that were best for and wholly owned by those local communities
“Revolution” is agriculture oriented toward locality, diversity, redundancy, seasonality, mass participation, and ecological integration. Revolution is farms, and the technologies for distributing food, focused on producing food for a community or region instead of the gaping maw of a global marketplace. Revolution is communities around the world largely independent of food products, methods, and technologies owned outside of those communities.
A Green Revolution would be a fundamental re-engineering of the way food is produced and consumed around the world. What this WaPo article references is little more than a sugar pill for a dying patient. We can, and must, do better.
Chris Newman is a permaculture farmer in Earlysville, Virginia. For $1/month, you can support his writings and other beyond-the-farm sustainability endeavors on Patreon. Visit the farm and view the occasional on-farm livestream at @sylvanaquafarms on Instagram.