One thing's for sure — farming won't look the same as it does now. Even if you ignore larger factors — like skyrocketing fuel prices that may make transporting food long distances way more expensive, or increasing droughts that may drive up feed prices — the way we're farming now probably can't be sustained for another generation.
Here are 10 wide-spread methods of food production that may well collapse under their own weight in the next two decades.
As Michael Pollan writes in the New York Times Magazine:
To call a practice or system unsustainable is not just to lodge an objection based on aesthetics, say, or fairness or some ideal of environmental rectitude. What it means is that the practice or process can't go on indefinitely because it is destroying the very conditions on which it depends.
Top images: Andrew Baines' Bovine Surrealist Art Installation, photographed by Paul Kane/Getty Images.
So here are 10 huge farming practices that may fall apart within a generation:
It's nature's anti-depressant, but within 20 years, chocolate may be the new caviar, warns the Ghana-based Nature Conservation Research Council. Says director John Mason: "[Chocolate] will become so rare and so expensive that the average Joe just won't be able to afford it." It's not just that rising demand is outstripping supply of chocolate, which is grown on cacao trees. It's also the fact that chocolate growers in Ghana and other countries have gone over to methods that are quicker, but doomed to failure all too soon.
Because cacao trees require years of tending before they mature — a labor-intensive process that eventually yields a fairly small reward for growers — farms have gone over to hybrid seeds to increase output. And these hybrid trees grow in full sunlight as a monoculture, rather than within the shade of a rainforest. But they also deplete the soil way more than regular cacao trees — forcing the farmers to cut more rainforests to produce more land for their cacao trees.
As NGO News Africa explains, Ghana "has experienced a decades-long decline in cocoa yield per acre farmed." And Ghana is the world's number two producer of chocolate. So enjoy your chocolate fix while you can! Image by Natalie Shau on Deviant Art.
9) Salmon farming
If you live in the United States, chances are you've eaten salmon farmed in Chile. The reason why salmon is so cheap in U.S. supermarkets because of huge farms along the Chilean coastline. As Charles Fishman explains in his amazing book The Wal-Mart Effect, salmon used to be an expensive delicacy, until the Norwegians developed methods of farming salmon inside cages. And as this business grew, it moved to Chile, where restrictions were lighter. As Fishman wrote in 2006:
The Atlantic salmon doesn't appear naturally anywhere south of the equator. Farming salmon in Chile is a bit like farming penguins in the rocky mountains. Now, however, not only are there far more Atlantic salmon in Chile than there are people, there are ten times as many, maybe even one hundred times as many. More salmon are harvested in Chile now than anywhere else in the world, including Norway.
Many environmentalists, of course, warned that salmon-farming in Chile was unsustainable. Not only are these fish swimming in their own waste products, and there were alarming levels of nitrogen and phosphate in the water. Not to mention a fungicide that may cause cancer. But Chile was on track to double its salmon yield in just five years — until disaster struck. A virus called infectious salmon anemia, or I.S.A., killed millions of fish and decimated the salmon-farming industry. The industry moved south into Patagonia. But the underlying problems, of millions of fish squashed into cages, remain.
8) Bug resistant genetic crops.
Companies like Monsanto have been trying to do away with pesticides by introducing genetically engineered crops that are bug resistant. And while many people can agree with genetically modifying crops to make them more drought resistant, improve yields, or even make them more nutritionally complete to help prevent malnutrition, the anti-bug contingent is doomed to fail. Why? Because the bugs are always evolving. And they can do so faster, and along many more lines, than a company could probably even imagine.
Not to mention, these companies are engineering toxins right into your food plants. And while we trust that tomatoes – members of the nightshade family – will keep their mild toxins in their roots, can we really trust a company trying to make food plants poisonous isn't going to screw this up somehow?
7) Grass lawns
In this spectacular New Yorker article (yes, it's about lawns – go with us here) Elizabeth Kolbert explains the social and physical history of lawns. Lawns used to be a combination of grass and clover plants. The clover would fix nitrogen in the soil and then the grass would use that nitrogen in its growing cycle.
With the advent of herbicides, companies that sold lawn care products (everything from grass seed to mowers to fertilizer) convinced homeowners that clover was unsightly. Suddenly homeowners had to buy herbicides to kill clover, then fertilizer to replace the depleted nitrogen that the clover no longer fixed. It was the beginning of a vicious and terrible cycle that continues to this day — to the tune of $40 billion a year in lawn upkeep. Image via TractorByNet.
6) Slash and burn for grazing
If throwing out your Christmas tree every year makes you sad, watching videos of rainforests being burned down, hacked at with machetes, and then turned into cattle grazing land, probably breaks your heart. It probably also breaks the heart of those machete-wielding ranch hands who will have to clear another section of land next year. Rainforest soil is notoriously poor in nutrients (because nutrients are always being upcycled into new plants, instead of hanging out in the dirt during fallow winter periods) and can only support enough grazing for cattle for a year or two.
After that, the land is depleted, and more land needs to be cleared. The poor soil erodes causing flooding and mudslides. Eventually, the ranchers will run out of rainforest, and the eroded land cannot support any agriculture (and if particularly unstable, cannot support buildings, either.)
5) Factory meat production
Our favorite culprit, evolution, is going to make factory-farming of livestock harder and harder. The antibiotics needed to keep animals in such close quarters are overused and applied universally — and thus are creating super germs.
Not to mention the issue of animal waste. Yes there are a few biogas converters out there, and manure makes excellent fertilizer if processed appropriately. But most animal waste ends up in holding ponds, and leaches away in rain and snow melt, where it eventually ends up in the waterways. Image via Market Oracle.
Bees, like every other part of our food system, are big business. Once they were a small part of every family orchard and most farms, such small scale operations no longer cut it in a world of hundreds and hundreds of miles of a single crop. And since bees are only needed to pollinate once a year, and since extracting honey and beeswax requires specialized equipment, not to mention bees sting and are annoying at picnics, the modern corporation farm chooses to rent its bees.
These bees are delivered via eighteen wheeler to the appropriate place, and then get to work moving pollen around. This peripatetic lifestyle has been blamed for colony collapse disorder — and honestly if you were placed in a medically induced coma, forced to eat the equivalent of glucose syrup instead of pollen, driven all over the country to be exposed by all sorts of new germs and then forced to do manual labor, you would probably collapse too.
Colony collapse disorder gets more reporting at some times than others, but if it continues at very high rates the entire industrial food system could well collapse.
Equally worrisome is SmartStax Corn, a genetically modified corn plant that produces its own insecticide. One of the chemicals it produces is clothianidin, which has been shown to kill wild honey bees. So not only will farmers pay to have honeybees work their fields, they will also pay extra for varietals of plants that poison bees.
Similarly, growers of seedless mandarin oranges have been spraying insecticides that are known to kill bees. If left to their own devices, the seedless orange trees will produce the desired fruit asexually — but if a bee comes waltzing through, the oranges will produce seeds, reducing their value.
So you often have huge swathes of crops that depend on bees for fertilization growing near huge swathes of crops that need to get rid of bees at all cost. This article by Kim Flottum explains exactly what happened in parts of California, where the beekeepers, orange growers and almond growers reached a détente.
3) Herbicide-resistant crops
Often known as "Round-Up Resistant" or "Round-up Ready," these plants are immune to broad-leaf plant killers. This means that farmers can liberally spray toxic chemicals all over your food to get rid of pesky weeds. And not just any toxic chemicals, but the ones provided by the company that engineered the resistant plants. Aside from the toxins on the food and in water run-off (which could kill the plants of nearby farmers who don't fork out the extra cash for herbicide resistant crops) it has also created superweeds that are immune to broad-leaf herbicides.
The New Scientist describes these superweeds as "not uncommon." Which as we all know is scientist-speak for "holy crap, that superweed is about to eat your dog." Just wait until there's super-kudzu.
Two-thirds of the water used world-wide is used in agriculture. As agriculture's needs for water expand, more and more water is being pumped out of aquifers. Aquifers feed ground water sources, like springs, with water that has been stored up over long periods (sometimes hundreds of years). As well-irrigation (the kind that should have protected the 2006 spinach from e-coli) becomes more common, aquifers are being drained. This means less ground water, and the eventual drying up of springs and streams. Also, empty aquifers are essentially hollow ground and are unstable, and have the tendency to settle. Or collapse into sinkholes.
And as more and more land is converted to farm land due to growing populations, the amount of fresh water needed will inevitably outstrip supply.
1) Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer
If you ever hear a farmer, agriculturalist or a professor at a land grant college talk about the Green Revolution, they are not talking about Iran, or about Berkeley banning plastic shopping bags. They are talking about the combination of processes and technologies that were combined after World War II and exported to developing nations. High-yield varietals, better irrigation and new farming equipment let the world once again escape the dark cloud of Malthus and produce more food than we could consume. The population exploded, and famines were eradicated from the developed world. Even in the developing world, famines are often part of larger political unrest (though food insecurity and malnutrition are still problems).
But the greatest (and worst) technological innovation in agribusiness was the invention of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. The Haber–Bosch process catalyzes natural gas and the nitrogen in the air to produce ammonia. Ammonia is biologically reactive nitrogen (instead of the stuff in the air) that can be used as fertilizer.
Suddenly, land too poor to be worked was available for farming. And farmers no longer had to spread smelly manure on their plants. Or rotate their fields, planting them with nitrogen fixing crops like alfalfa or legumes that don't pay as much as nitrogen depleting cash crops like cotton or corn.
Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer seemed like the answer to all our agricultural problems. The world could be fed.
But it's unsustainable, being produced from natural gas. And the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is at the root of all of the other unsustainable farming methods — the ease of use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer eliminated the market for actual manure from animals, and that in turn helped farms turn away from integrated systems of animals and plants. Plants could now be grown on poor soil or in arid regions, requiring more irrigation water. As a result, monocultures and super-farms that rely on standardization and technology became more and more common.
So really, it's all the nitrogen's fault.
Thanks to Cameo for the idea!