Environmental Sunday: Agriculture

The current agricultural system used to feed the worlds 8 billion plus people is unsustainable and requires a major overhaul. With a rising world population, the stresses placed on the environment due to inefficient and wasteful practices will lead to food shortages and a plethora of socio-economical issues.

While in the past the increased pressure on the agricultural sector has been kept in check by improved technological improvements and expansion, this trend is not limitless. These innovations have allowed the agricultural sector to meet “rising demand by increasing crop yields” (Oxfam 15). This increase, compounded by the “agricultural expansion [into] rain forest regions” (Rudel 133) and other areas, permitted the nearly-exponential population growth of the past century. A combination of climate change and natural ecological limits will soon dominate the trend to lower the limits of agricultural productivity. Recent trends indicate that this growth in agricultural output will soon be waning (Oxfam 15) and that the decline in production will be exasperated by further development. In addition to the high ecological impact of developing countries, they tend to both demand more food while also wasting significantly more (Oxfam 15) in proportion to how developed they are. The current path of technological innovation is not the path to sustainability some claim.

With the effects of climate change becoming more dramatic and exceeding all expectations, the rising temperatures alone will cause “rice yields [to] decline by 10 per cent for each 1°C rise” (Oxfam 19) along with similar declines to many other staple crops. Just as famines have long been endemic in sub-Saharan Africa, so too will they be throughout the world as extreme weather conditions grow in severity and frequency (Copenhagen Diagnosis 15). Quite simply put, the global agricultural supply is overstressed and volatile, the time for change is now.

For all the negative impacts of the recent development of agricultural resources, there exist possibilities which can bring about long-term, sustainable practices. As with other natural resources, the most sustainable practices require conservation and efficiency. Elinor Ostrom found in countless societies around the world that some of the most efficient land management systems are local co-ops (Governing…). By removing the large scale, mono-croppers, the agriculture in the region not only becomes more sustainable through diversity (Lyson Civil…) but also becomes economically enriching by promoting the local investment of funds. This promotes sustainable measures since some of the many externalities of the corporation would become costs to the small, local farms. Local residents have a far greater incentive to maintain sustainable practices in their region.

Another solution to the ecological overshoot of the agricultural sector could come in the form of conscious choices of behavior. Just as recycling has benefitted the forest conservation movement, so too could changes in diets. For example, the average American consumes 94lb. yr-1 of beef (Schor 95), and with a simple shift away beef would free up considerable resources. Not only is beef “thirty-six times more greenhouse gas-intensive” (Schor 95) than asparagus, but cattle feed represents a considerable investment of grain-use in the US. This is simply one example of a change which could lessen the pressure on agriculture and permit the introduction of a more sustainable system.

Due to the humanitarian importance of maintaining ready access to food stores around the world, the agricultural sector must de-commercialized. While it may be valid commercial practice to institutionalize and mono-crop the open land of the world with cash crops, it is not a sustainable approach. Any system that permits the juxtaposition of starvation with large swaths of cash crops such as cotton must be changed. Ethics must become a business consideration, a consideration even greater than profits if true sustainability is to be achieved.

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