The drought of 2012, on the heels of a “500-year flood” just a few years ago, may be one of a number of changes taking place that should urge us to rethink the concept of sustainability. Ever since the notion found its way into our lexicon several decades ago, it has focused our attention on how to make agriculture a little less bad — how to reduce soil erosion, mitigate the effects of toxic chemicals, improve our water quality, etc. While these efforts produced some important results, this perspective presumed that the way we were doing agriculture was expedient; we just needed to improve it a bit. It assumed that our system of agriculture was stable; we just had some problems we needed to address. It is a concept of sustainability that Joseph Fiksel at Ohio State University calls “steady state” sustainability.
More recently, resilience thinkers have urged us to rethink the concept of sustainability. They suggest that steady state sustainability is, in fact, an oxymoron. Instead of assuming that current systems are stable and simply need to be improved, we must begin recognizing that all systems — economic, social, and natural — are constructs that are constantly changing. Furthermore, when there are certain functions, like producing sufficient quantities of food, that we want to maintain, we must redesign systems so that they can absorb shocks and disturbances without losing those functions. In other words, we need to design systems for resilience instead of only for maximum, efficient production for short-term economic return, which is the singular goal of industrial agriculture.
In agriculture, as well as in most of our other economic enterprises, we have been able to ignore such thinking because we have experienced a rather long period of relative stability. Ever since the dawn of the industrial revolution we have had access to an abundance of natural resources (fossil fuels, fossil water, minerals, metals, etc.), a relatively stable climate, and adequate sinks in nature to absorb the wastes of our farming practices. Those resources enabled us to sustain an industrial economy. That period of relative stability, and resource abundance, is now rapidly coming to an end.
The drought of 2012, in other words, is probably not going to be an isolated phenomenon that has deeply affected agriculture in Iowa, but instead is likely to be part of a new world that will require us to radically rethink how we do agriculture — how we produce food.
The drought of 2012, and the “500-year flood” of a few years ago, may not just be singular, difficult moments to endure and overcome but part of a more unstable climate future to which we have to learn to adapt. Beyond that, the more unstable climates will likely also be part of additional changes that will make our industrial agriculture, which has been so successful for the past century, untenable in the near future. We will also likely be facing a future without cheap energy and with depleting mineral resources, like rock phosphate and potassium, and depleting fresh water resources, as well as a future in which natural sinks that absorbed our wastes (excess nitrates, etc.) are now saturated.
Consequently, all of us in the business of producing food need to ask ourselves a simple set of questions: Will we still be able to do what we are currently doing with crude oil at $300 a barrel, twice the number of severe weather events (more droughts, more floods, more violent storms), no readily available sources of rock phosphate and potassium, and half the amount of fresh water?
The resilience thinkers refer to periods of such shocks and disturbances as the entrance into a period of “uncertainty, novelty, and experimentation.” And the question before us now is how do we design an agriculture that can adapt to these new circumstances and still perform the necessary function of producing reliable amounts of food?
One thing is apparent: we cannot meet the challenges ahead by simply doing more of the same. The transition we have to anticipate will require some of the most creative and imaginative thinking and research we have ever done. Preparing for “uncertainty, novelty, and experimentation” that can enable us to adapt to our new future means that we cannot predict the future but can anticipate the changes and begin planning for them. It means that doing more of what we have been doing will not likely meet the challenge, and it certainly does not mean simply going back to what we have done in the past.
Fortunately, we do have some available resources that can serve us well in designing a resilient agriculture for the future. First, we are blessed with wisdom from the past. While most of us enthusiastically embraced the industrialization of agriculture, there have always been those among us who viewed food production from a different perspective and suggested an alternative approach. Sir Albert Howard, Aldo Leopold, Liberty Hyde Bailey, and others warned us almost a century ago that the industrialization of our food system could not lead to a “permanent” agriculture.
Howard warned that the “NPK mentality” — the reliance on nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium fertilizers — was, in fact, a “form of banditry” because it would lead to a future which ignored the need to restore and maintain the health of the soil, leaving future generations without that essential resource to meet future challenges. Leopold reminded us that we humans are only “plain members and citizens” of the biotic community and that we needed to learn how to live on planet Earth as partners with the rest of the biotic community, not as its “conquerors.” He warned us that while the industrialization of agriculture was “inevitable and no doubt desirable,” its extremes would “some day die of their own too-much, not because they are bad for wildlife, but because they are bad for farmers.” Bailey reminded us that the earth was “holy” and that we needed to adapt agriculture to the sacredness of what nature was already doing. All three embraced a philosophy that urged us to design agriculture as “nature farming” — in other words, an agriculture that mimics nature.
Our task now is to take this wisdom from the past and marry it with the science of ecology and evolutionary biology to design a new agriculture that can prepare for the “uncertainty, novelty, and experimentation” that will be required of us.
Some resources are already providing some practical possibilities. We have farmers all over the world, including here in Iowa, who can serve as beacons, shedding light on how we might adapt to the future challenges. We also have researchers, including some here in Iowa, who are moving beyond doing more of the same and exploring new systems. These researchers are demonstrating that interesting new models of species diversity on the farm can prove to be more resilient and productive in unstable conditions, and some are developing perennial plants that are more resilient than annuals, require less energy and external inputs, and are more drought tolerant, while restoring soil health. We also have a new generation of young prospective farmers who are interested in becoming part of the “uncertainty, novelty, and experimentation” of our future agriculture.
These are all gifts of social and intellectual capital that can put us on the long journey of rethinking sustainability and enable us to adapt to our new future.