There’s an idea out there that reforming U.S. food policy simply can not be a priority for the Obama administration. We’re enmeshed in two wars (three, if you count what our dear Israeli friends are up to in the Gaza Strip), the economy is crumbling, and climate change is accelerating.
Under these conditions, how can Obama possibly busy himself with something as trivial as food? The president-elect himself seems to buy into this line of reasoning. By nominating a corn-belt pol with a history of playing footsie with agribiz as his USDA chief, Obama signaled that status quo, not reform, will mark his food agenda, at least early in his presidency.
I think the food-reform-can-wait logic is wrong on several counts. As I’ll argue later this week in Victual Reality, investing in a new food system could make for an excellent piece of a stimulus package. And on practical grounds, food-system reform is urgent. Anyone who doubts that should read the powerful, concise op-ed in today’s New York Times by Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson.
The sustainable food movement’s most revered elders make the case with characteristic bluntness:
Agriculture has too often involved an insupportable abuse and waste of soil, ever since the first farmers took away the soil-saving cover and roots of perennial plants. Civilizations have destroyed themselves by destroying their farmland. This irremediable loss, never enough noticed, has been made worse by the huge monocultures and continuous soil-exposure of the agriculture we now practice.
Civilizations have destroyed themselves by destroying their farmland. Anyone who doubts this should take a dip into the pages of Jared Diamond’s Collapse, or David Montgomery’s Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations.
Berry and Jackson make a key point about a society that has become almost completely alienated from the land that feeds it:
For 50 or 60 years, we have let ourselves believe that as long as we have money we will have food. That is a mistake. If we continue our offenses against the land and the labor by which we are fed, the food supply will decline, and we will have a problem far more complex than the failure of our paper economy. The government will bring forth no food by providing hundreds of billons of dollars to the agribusiness corporations.
In other words, given enough taxpayer cash, you can theoretically bail out Wall Street, even when it’s twisted itself into knots; but you can’t bail out ruined soil.
Berry and Jackson call for a rejection of policies that prop up the industrial-food system. In their place, they want to see investments in “the perennialization of the major grain crops like wheat, rice, sorghum and sunflowers.”
They’re making an important argument here, but perhaps too concisely. For thousands of years, humanity has relied on annual crops — farmers plant, say, wheat, harvest the seed heads, and then plow in the dead wheat stalks to prepare the field for next year’s planting.
The process requires tremendous amounts of energy — whether human, animal, or petroleum — and disturbs soil structure, leading to soil erosion and the emission of carbon dioxide.
Jackson and his colleagues at the Land Institute have been having success breeding perennial versions of staple crops like wheat. In a perennialized system, wheat plants would stay in the field for decades, every year yielding a harvest of wheat berries. And each year, their roots would reach deeper into the dirt, sequestering carbon and holding soil in place — and negating the need for tillage.
But the particular solution that Berry and Jackson offer is beside the point. They conjure a stark image: modern society is consuming soil, literally destroying its ability to feed people.
I can only imagine two responses. One is to dismiss Berry and Jackson as doddering old Luddites. Let techno-corporate science, though patent-protected biotechnology, fix our soil troubles. This view is analogous to the Wall Street fantasy of the late 1990s: Tech stocks can rise indefinitely, because we’ve created a “new economy”!
The other response is to take Berry and Jackson seriously. If they’re correct that we’re at once consuming our best soil and poisoning it, we’ve got an urgent problem on our hands. We delay addressing it at our peril.