Toward a Sustainable Food Future: The Two Stories of Agriculture

October 26th, 2010 · No Comments

Frederick Kirschenmann is a distinguished fellow and former director at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and supporter of Democrat Francis Thicke’s campaign for secretary of agriculture.

In the six-year period from 1988 until 1994, Herman Daly served as the World Bank’s senior environmental economist. During that time he tried to convince the Bank’s economists that they needed to change their paradigm (what economists sometimes call their “pre-analytic vision”). The problem with the prevailing industrial economy, as Daly saw it, was that it functioned like a bubble floating in space with unlimited natural resources flowing into the bubble to fuel and grow the economy, and unlimited sinks in nature to absorb the wastes flowing out of that economy. These two presumed limitless resources allowed us to imagine an economy of unlimited growth. Daly had already become aware that such an economy was not tenable in 1967 when he served as a Ford Foundation visiting professor at the University of Ceará in Brazil. Such an economy, in Daly’s view, was simply not sustainable since the natural resources were being depleted and the sinks were filling up. Consequently, he argued, we need to redesign our human economy to function as a sub-system of the ecosystem and operate within those natural, physical limits. While Daly and a growing number of young economists continue to make the case for a new economic future and have formed the professional society of Ecological Economics, the debate goes on.

This debate serves as a good framework for citizens of Iowa to engage in the conversations that the current campaign for secretary of agriculture provides us. The challenge which Francis Thicke has presented to Bill Northey, the current secretary, is similar in many ways to the one that Daly presented to his colleagues at the World Bank. Thicke argues that our modern industrial agriculture also functions as if natural resources, especially cheap energy and stable climates, will always be available to us and that the sinks in nature can continue to absorb its wastes. He argues that these resources are in steep decline and that this fact is “little discussed or even acknowledged today” – much as Daly’s warnings were little discussed or acknowledged.

So just as we have two stories in the field of economics we also have two stories of agriculture in Iowa, and the debate emerging in the secretary of agriculture campaign gives Iowans a unique opportunity to explore which story they think can best serve Iowa’s food and agriculture future.

As Dan Piller pointed out in his “Campaign 2010” article on the Northey-Thicke race in the October 3 issue of the Des Moines Register, Northey’s story is one of defending the current agriculture industry. And, of course, there is much to brag about and defend. Modern, industrial agriculture continues to be a major contributor to Iowa’s economy and farmers continue to do a heroic job of maintaining productivity in an increasingly challenging farm economy. That is the one story of agriculture in Iowa.

Francis Thicke, on the other hand, while acknowledging the incredible contributions that farmers continue to make, looks farther into the future. He recognizes, as Daly did, that the natural resources so essential to the success of industrial agriculture – cheap fossil fuels, fertilizers, stable climates, etc. – are in steep decline. The wastes – carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and nutrients flowing into the Gulf of Mexico as well as into lakes and streams in Iowa – have now reached a point where the sinks are full and the potential harm to the natural ecosystems which support agriculture now threatens the sustainability of Iowa’s agriculture future. Consequently, as the title of Thicke’s new book announces, “a new vision for Iowa food and agriculture” is imperative. That is the second story of agriculture in Iowa.

In his new book, A New Vision for Iowa Food and Agriculture: Sustainable Agriculture for the 21st Century, Thicke provides practical ideas which help Iowa citizens to imagine what such a new agriculture might look like and how farmers could benefit from it.

However this campaign turns out, this is a debate that is much needed in Iowa, and the rest of the world, and we should all welcome the opportunity to participate in it.

Tags: 2010 · AP Issues · Commentary · Frederick Kirschenmann · October 2010

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