Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Land Institute and the 50-Year Farm Bill

Agriculture is a major, if not the major contributor to loss of biodiversity, unclean water and ecosystem destruction, with ominous possible prospects for the future of our survival.  But there are many people thinking about how to lessen its impact.  Mark Bittman did a fine job a few weeks ago describing the work of one of those people.  Wes Jackson and The Land Institute that he founded 37 years ago on the Kansas prairie represent a growing awareness that agribusiness can and must change.  They are working to make it possible for agriculture to transition from annual monoculture, 80% of agriculture today, to perennial polyculture, that is, from growing a single crop that must be planted from seed every year to fields of multiple, complementary perennial plants chosen to contain pests and weeds, and contribute to soil retention, not erosion.


The Land has done the hard work of perennializing a grain they call Kernza, although more needs to be done before it's finally commercially available, perhaps within 8 years. (See this for a report on bread made with Kernza flour.)  We think The Land will deserve a Nobel Peace Prize when Kernza's finally on the market.  Norman Borlaug was awarded one in 1970 for his work on the Green Revolution.  Perennializing grain will be even more significant, as it has the potential to decouple farmers from agribusiness and its unsustainable practices growing hybrid annual grains requires (indeed, to reverse many of the effects of the Green Revolution).  Agribusiness is big business, but trades short-term profit for long-term survival.

Why is soil erosion such a problem?  Because soil is essentially a non-renewable resource; it takes on the order of 1000 years to create 2 centimeters of topsoil, which, given conventional monocultural practices, can wash away in a single season.  Industrial-agriculture relies on monocultures based on annual plants that must be replanted each year, and that means plowing and loosening the soil.  And, annuals, with short lifespans, only put down short roots.  

When soil erodes, it takes with it tons of toxic herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers that were applied during the growing season, which end up in rivers, and then the mouths of rivers as in the Gulf of Mexico, where they can create huge dead zones, thousands of square miles of hypoxic waters, unable to support marine life (except for jellyfish, which thrive in these hypoxic zones; it's not a good sign when jellyfish take over).  Perennial plants with their deeper roots can be a major contributor to the prevention of soil erosion.  And, polyculture well-considered requires less toxic chemical use, less fertilizer, and less tilling of the land.

NASA-NOAA map of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico; Wikimedia

5-Year Farm Bills/50-Year Farm Bill
But Bittman, and Jackson in the video accompanying the op/ed, already told this story beautifully.  What we want to talk about today is the 50-Year Farm Bill proposed by Jackson and colleagues.  Since the Great Depression, food and farm policy in the US has been structured according to farm bills that are passed every 5 years or so.

These bills have been largely political mine fields and pork barrels that maintain agribusiness more than they are solutions for the real environmental, cultural and financial problems plaguing agriculture today.  It's not all bleak, however -- since the 1990's a small fraction of the budget has been dedicated to funding beginning farmers, minority farmers, organic farmers, and fruit and vegetable farmers (these are "specialty" crops).  This has been important.

But, the 2008 Farm Bill has expired, and the temporary extension passed by Congress did not include funding for these programs. As Brian Snyder, president of PASA, Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, put it in a recent blog post, 'What's at Stake in the Farm Bill?":
Even taken together, these important reform efforts are still a fairly small fraction of total farm bill spending, but they have an outsize impact – and they are helping to create the foundation for a more a more sustainable and equitable farm and food system in America.
Good news: these innovative programs were all funded as part of the last farm bill that ran from 2008 to 2012.
More good news:  they also receive renewed, and in some cases increased, funding in one or both of the Senate and House farm bills currently being considered in Congress.
Very bad news: when the current farm bill had to be extended in January to give Congress more time to complete it, nearly all of these innovative programs were denied funding in the farm bill extension that was negotiated between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and passed by Congress on January 1 of this year.
The Congress is currently debating very different versions of the new bill from the House and Senate.  One of the major sticking points this time around, at a time in our history when one of the fiercest debates in Washington is the extent to which the government should help the undeserving poor, is the amount of money that will go to the supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP), food stamps -- this is thanks in no small part to tea partiers who've decided that it's their job to keep tax money from people who need it.  But innovative farm programs are also at stake.

Again, as Brian Snyder writes,
Congress should seize the opportunity to get our food and farm policy back on track.  Congress should pass a new five-year farm bill that includes robust funding for the programs that keep our families fed and healthy, build local economies, protect and restore natural resources, and spur the next generation of farmers.
Cap carbon!
How soon Congress will pass a bill is not at all clear, mired as it is in extremist politics.  The Land Institute, in any case, proposes a much broader view, with attention to food security and sustainable practices for the long term.  Jackson and Wendell Berry wrote in an op/ed in The New York Times in 2009, "We need a 50-year farm bill that addresses forthrightly the problems of soil loss and degradation, toxic pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and the destruction of rural communities." The aim is to bring about gradual change in the way agriculture is done, to stop "the ecological spending of ecological capital necessary for food production".

The 50-Year Farm Bill document includes this paragraph:
Perennialization of the 70 percent of cropland now growing grains has potential to extend the productive life of our soils from the current tens or hundreds of years to thousands or tens of thousands. New perennial crops, like their wild relatives, seem certain to be more resilient to climate change. Without a doubt, they will increase sequestration of carbon. They will reduce the land runoff that is creating coastal dead zones and affecting fisheries, as well as saving and maintaining the quality of scarce surface and ground water. U.S. food security will improve.
Wendell Berry puts it less prosaically in a piece he wrote about the 50-Year Farm Bill published in  The Atlantic last year. As always, his concern is for traditional agricultural communities and sensible practices. 
I have described the need for a farm bill that makes sense of and for agriculture -- not the fiscal and political sense of agriculture, as in the customary five-year farm bills, but the ecological sense without which agricultural sense cannot be made, and without which agriculture cannot be made sustainable.
The program would need the support of the president, the Department of Agriculture, the Congress, non-profits, corporations and citizens.  Five-year farm bills would be incorporated into the plan, and head incrementally toward food security and sustainable farming.  This is, we think, a good idea, but even better would be if, in addition to sensible farm policy, bold political decisions were taken to limit anthropogenic climate change, such as those recently recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change such as capping carbon emissions, limiting the burning of fossil fuels.

Sensible and smart as it clearly is, we're not terribly hopeful that such a 50-Year Farm Bill will be adopted any time soon.  Our politicians don't think long-term because it doesn't pay off in the immediate currency of politics, even if a long-term policy like this one would produce handsome returns in many ways down the road.

We're not hopeful that meaningful carbon caps will become law either, sensible as they are, for much the same reason.  Is the groundswell of interest and research into sustainable agriculture evidence of an incipient revolution in how we do business, though?  We can hope.

We will never see the real answer, however.  What we're doing is leaving the surprises for our descendants, who will have to face the societal consequences of our long-term neglect.


Ken Weiss said...

Lucky for us,when our ancestors take our names in vain, we'll not be around to hear it. And what historians say about us, we won't have to read....

Jim Wood said...

Excellent post, Anne. But here are the two questions that give me sleepless nights. To achieve the kind of sustainable farming you talk about, (1) how big a hit does the human population have to take, and (2) how big a hit does the American (or Western) standard of living have to take. As the demographer Joel Cohen has emphasized, the question of sustainable population and acceptable standard of living cannot be separated from each other. Recently I came across two factoids in the literature that are worth sharing (I forget the sources, but I'll try to track them down). First, if everyone in the world came up to America's average body mass (weight), it would be the equivalent of adding approximately 2 billion more people to the human population. Second, the estimated sustainable human population size if everyone in the world had America's average standard of living would be approximately 1.2 billion as opposed to the current 7.2-ish billion. Okay, one never knows how to take such guestimates, but the issues are real. Who gets to decide who dies? Or who reproduces? Who gets to decide what standard of living is acceptable for everyone? How many people can sustainable farming support at anything above the subsistence level of well-being? I love environmentally-friendly farming. But, given the current world population, how do we get there from here? Dark, dark thoughts....

edward hessler said...

Thanks for posting this. I've been meaning to send you a book reference I much admire by R. Ford Dennison who was trained as an agronomist and is now in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the UM-TC. It is titled "Evolutionary Agriculture" (Princeton University Press). Must reading, you bet (in my view). I think you and Ken will find much to agree with in it since he is critical of the "omics" and big data surge, intelligently so, just as the two of you and also the need for setting research priorities under the constraints of limited resources. I was quite surprised to find several copies in my local bookstore but then that store is close to the campus. Dennison makes much use of long-term plot studies, e.g., Rothamsted and one he was involved in at UC-Davis. If there is a chance for us in the future, his ideas must be considered, again my view.

Ken Weiss said...

Dark thoughts indeed! There will either be some rather remarkable and gradual evening out of std of living, and that means curtailing ours, or some large scale strife. Historical precedent, with few if any exceptions, is the dark thought.

One bright thought is that some of us were alive when the 'standard' of living was much less in the currently discussed terms. There was little air conditioning, fewer cars, smaller houses, and so on. And we were at least as happy as we are today. Medical and dental sciences have improved and so on, thank goodness, but they aren't and weren't the main consumerist evils, so much that really matters could be retained.

It can be done, and it has been done.

Anne Buchanan said...

Wendell Berry would say that we can't predict the future, and trying to do so is a waste of time. Which is not, he would add, to say that we can't be prepared for tomorrow. "To prepare rightly for tomorrow is to do the right thing today."

Anne Buchanan said...

Thanks so much, Ed. I am on this.

Anne Buchanan said...

This is not to be flippant about your dark thoughts, Jim. I actually think there's much wisdom in Berry's caution. As you know better than I, future population predictions vary widely, can't take the effects of contingencies like epidemics or drought into account, and are based on differing predictions of fertility rates and so on. And whether or not responsible agriculture can feed the world is hotly debated, with many people believing it certainly can (only 30% of the world's food is now supplied by big ag), though many others certainly believing it cannot. But the point that ecological economists and others would make is that current practice is so unsustainable that it can't go on.

Ken Weiss said...

The unpredictability is the ultimate wild card. Even the idea of unsustainability of current practice is somewhat vague. Nothing is 'sustainable' forever, so the issue is how long and how things now are sustainable or to what extent technology can adapt.

Drought and epidemics are disastrous ways to 'adapt', of course, and climate change is another total wild card.

Manoj Samanta said...

In answer to Jim Wood's question, the world is estimated to lose 30% of its human population in the coming years before the current debt/economic crisis ends. Based on various trend lines, the world population will have to go back to 1980's level, because other leading financial indicators are already receding to that level.

Which regions will take the biggest hit? In my analysis, India, Pakistan, Middle East, North Africa, etc. India added an entire USA between the time I left and now. That is completely unsustainable. India also had over 150 years of relatively no war. India's last major war happened about 4 years before US civil war. These things usually follow long cycles of two Kondratiev waves.

Jim Wood said...

Gawd, Manoj, and I thought my thoughts were dark!! My deepest (and thankfully only intermittent) fear is that you're right, especially since we seem utterly and completely to lack the political will to try for some alternative future.

Jennifer said...

And how does the research on aging fit into this population problem? Where the purpose is to prevent conditions due to aging, thus extending lifespans (I imagine only for the very wealthy, of course) significantly. And population also in countries that are voluntarily reducing the birth rate - such as in Japan where women are choosing not to have children, or in Spain, for example? We used to hear about the world population explosion being the major problem and now we hear how the low birth rates are so troubling.

Feeding everyone - I wonder if we try to rely on big ag and science producing "food" such as that hamburger grown in the petri dish, if that is even sustainable. I can't imagine that "food" like that will lead to long healthy lives. And if the population were to explode much more, I would think that the world ecosystem would have trouble maintaining it.

Jim Wood said...

Stable population models (and, increasingly, reality itself) show that a reduction in fertility inevitably results in population aging, with all its attendant problems. In addition, the same set of models shows that a population whose fertility declines to the (ultimate) replacement level will continue to grow, perhaps for several decades, because of so-called "population momentum" -- which is essentially an adjustment of the age distribution of the population to its new demographic rates. Any discussion of population policy needs to take both problems into account. There is no simple solution.

Anne Buchanan said...

No simple solution, and every model takes different factors into account. Some estimates suggest that the world currently produces 4500 calories per person per day, and yet there are close to a billion hungry or starving people. Which means that economics and politics have to be a large part of the solution.

Jim Wood said...

Agreed. Not only is it important to lower the West's level of consumption, it's just as important to move toward equalizing everyone's standard of living globally. The idea that we (the US) are going to say to China and India etc., "Well, yes, we had the opportunity to become rich, but now we have to deny you guys the same opportunity in the name of saving the planet" just ain't gonna wash.

The fact that the rewards of economic growth accrue to the wealthy and powerful, while the pain disproportionately affects the poor and disempowered means that the people who count (politically and economically) are rendered insensitive to the costs of growth. Greater equality is not just a matter of social justice, but also of becoming better monitors of the state of the planet.

Anne Buchanan said...

So, how are those of us who don't count politically and economically going to get those who do to recognize that we're headed in the wrong direction? Is it possible, or is it going to take a crash? Oh, maybe this?

Jim Wood said...

Anne, we don't have much political or economic power, but we've got a hell of a lot more than most people in the world. And we have a voice -- thanks partly to the internet and (for some of us) academic tenure. We also have resources such as the Land Institute to provide some resources and infrastructure. Problem is, the internet is a cacophony of voices, many of them running quite counter to the arguments we've been making. And those voices are backed by institutes with a lot more money than we have. Once again it boils down to a matter of political will, or lack thereof.

So are we doomed? I dunno. Ask somebody who counts politically and economically.

Anne Buchanan said...

All true. And, what our people who count politically and economically do directly affects all those people without power around the world. It's a big responsibility, whether our pwcpae want to acknowledge it or not, nevermind find it sobering. As Wes Jackson says, Priuses and squiggly lightbulbs aren't going to get us out of the mess. But perennializing grains and demonstrating that crop rotation and conservation strips (see posts on Matt Liebman's work) improves crop yields and much more, and starting food hubs and changing economic models to treat non-renewable resources (land, fossil fuels) as such, may.

Jim Wood said...

Yes, but Priuses and squiggly lightbulbs will make us feel more virtuous, and that's what's important.

I think my line of comments here has been more pessimistic than my thoughts usually are -- though sometimes they're very pessimistic indeed. I hope Wes Jackson is right and that we all make sure he gets to find out if he's right. More generally, let's support that optimists even if they turn out to be wrong, because the pessimistic view is just too horrible to contemplate.

Manoj Samanta said...

Population drop is the opposite effect of baby boom and is inevitable. Some countries are going through it peacefully, as you can see from the following two reports on Japan.

"A survey this year by the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA) found that 45% of women aged 16-24 "were not interested in or despised sexual contact". More than a quarter of men felt the same way.
Population of 126 million has been shrinking for the past decade
Population projected to plunge additional one-third by 2060
Survey in 2011 found that 61% of unmarried men and 49% of women aged 18-34 were not in any kind of romantic relationship
Fewer babies were born in 2012 than any year on record.
Of the estimated 13 million unmarried people in Japan who currently live with their parents, around three million are over the age of 35.
Married working women are sometimes demonised as oniyome, or "devil wives".
Japan's Institute of Population and Social Security reports an astonishing 90% of young women believe that staying single is "preferable to what they imagine marriage to be like"."

Japan has bad memories of WW I and II, and will try to avoid any devastating war on its soil to survive through economic depression.

USA and India do not have any institutional memory of major war. To most Americans, WW II follows this simple narrative -

i) A bad guy named Hitler rose out of nowhere in Germany.

ii) He started doing bad and unethical things to everyone.

iii) We, the ethical people, landed like knights in shining armor and rescued Europe.

There is very little anyone can do at this point, except going into the brains of millions of people and reprogramming them. All these knowledge about sustainable farming are still important for humanity, but I expect them to be adopted by other countries like Japan and rest of east Asia.