We are in need of a new revolution in how food is grown. A growing population in combination with climate change has put heavy pressure on our current system. The last time this happened (about 50 years ago) we had the Green Revolution to save the day. Major improvements in crop breeding and the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides resulted in enormous yield gains in farms across Asia, Europe and the Americas. Norm Borlaug won a Nobel Peace Prize for his role as the “father” of this revolution.
In the U.S. in particular, we have this green stuff down. But we need to get even more out of our soil and food systems. In other words, we need a new revolution. My question is what color is it going to be this time? A recent op-ed piece in the New York Times by Jason Lusk, a professor from Oklahoma State University, suggested that making the green even greener was the way to go. Lusk talked about the changing face of agriculture: Fewer farms and fewer people farming them. In contrast with 1900, when 40 percent of the U.S. population lived on farms, now only 1 percent do. (Photo essay on industrial agricultural in the NY Times)
With this shift we have seen a change in what farms look like. From 1940-1980, the number of farms fell by 50 percent and the size of those remaining tripled. This is not just for field corn and wheat; it is also true for lettuce and tomatoes. The median tomato farm covers 620 football fields. The median lettuce farm is a whopping 1,373 football fields. That is Caesar salad for everybody plus the ragu.
We have also seen a change in how farms are farmed. Say goodbye to the horse and plow. The main reason farms have been able to grow in size is the availability of a range of sophisticated types of equipment. Precision agriculture can provide detailed yield maps of fields, real time moisture and nutrient readings. This level of efficiency has reduced water use, soil erosion and greenhouse gas emissions for each unit of food produced. This is factory farming.
Lusk thinks this is OK. He does say there is room for improvement and notes new industry initiatives that are focusing on soil health. While he mentions the increasing use of legumes to fix nitrogen nowhere does he mention manures or composts as part of the solution. Lusk sees what I’ll call lime green as a way to avoid Soylent Green (a 1973 science fiction movie depicting a future suffering from pollution, overpopulation, depleted resources, poverty, dying oceans, and year-round humidity due to the greenhouse effect).
More Brown Than Green
I’ve recently read two books that have a different take on what we need for the next revolution in growing food. Both are heavier on the brown than the green. The Emergent Agriculture by Gary Kleppel and the Third Plate by Dan Barber argue that recognizing the complexity of the soil-plant ecosystem is the key to success for the next revolution. They both bring farms down in size and equipment, but scale up in terms of crop combinations and rotations. They both make the case that feeding the soils is critical to both the success of the crop as well as the value of the crop. Crops grown in richer soils have richer flavors (important to Barber, a chef) and are richer in micronutrients.