Envisioning the future of agriculture today

Allan Savory and Will Harris at White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia.

Allan Savory and Will Harris at White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia.

If we begin with the right context, we can settle any dispute.

That was the message of Allan Savory, the founder of holistic management, as he spoke to a crowd studying a weedy field in southwest Georgia last December.

Savory has been a crusader against desertification of the planet since he was game research officer in southern Africa in the 1960’s. His ideas are unorthodox, if not outright paradox. But it can’t be denied that he’s identified perhaps the root cause of the challenges facing all human endeavor and continued prosperity: the inability to deal with complexity, whether it’s the blasted inertia of the American political system or the sudden climatological shifts of a warming planet.

Of course, agriculture—with its draws on natural resources and beggar-thy-neighbor economics—is the fundamental and primarily important complexity of human existence, entwined with water and air to our continued habitation on earth.

As Savory illustrates, the solutions to thorny and wicked problems first require all parties to realize their common interests. Once a baseline of consensus has been established, a practical roadmap to approach and overcome our challenges can be worked out. But without context, without self-identification in your opposition, the debate is all sound and fury.

No industrial and cultural issue in America today has more idiotic ranting and needs context as much as agriculture. The current debate in farming prefers to fixate on means rather than goals—GMO versus organic, for example. Advocates, who are generally not farmers themselves, would rather stand in their corners and accuse each other of poisoning the earth or living in agrarian fantasies. In truth, each side would do good to take a long, hard look in the mirror, tone down the rhetoric and see how a little humility fits. Ancient wisdom tells us only fools believe they’re absolutely right. We’ve tried segregating ourselves before, and we know that doesn’t work. 

The context for farmers—for all human beings, really—is that we must develop more resilient, renewable and ultimately sustainable agricultural systems in order for the species to flourish on this earth. To say it should enable mere survival is a failure of our own expectations. To flourish should mean nothing less than our farms produce an abundant and nutritious food supply, create vibrant rural towns and economies, preserve clean water, and live within a thriving terrestrial fabric of marsh, coast and forest.

There’s not much to argue with here. Savory might add an item to the list. But who can say he or she really wants farms that do any less? Who wants a world where the water has been made undrinkable and the forest empty for the purpose of growing food, one that sucks the oxygen out of the Gulf of Mexico while it encourages the burning of the Amazon?

We should have an agricultural system that goes farther even. It should replenish the soil, filter rainfall, sequester carbon and protect the tapestry of strange and marvelous creatures on the planet. It should shun costly inputs and hold the promise of lasting profitability.

Our farms currently fall well short, and this is not an outright indictment of conventional agriculture or a vindication of organic farming. The latter is still trying to achieve scale and customize an economically successful model, converting dreams into a production system that can be realistically implemented. But the former, propelled by technological innovation and the motivation to feed a growing post-war population, has pursued the efficient production of cheap carbohydrates and protein with ruthlessness. Those fat and flightless chickens are now coming home to roost. The effects are visible in the forgotten and crumbling main streets of rural America. Over nine percent of the population now has diabetes, and over one-third of adult Americans is obese. Due to the prevalence of obesity in today’s children, it has been hypothesized that they will be the first in 200 years to live shorter lives than their parents.

The emphasis on efficiency and yields above all other concerns has also brought us recently to the brink of extinction for the Monarch butterfly. Had this beautiful and iconic creature or its food source, the milkweed plant, performed an economic service on the farm, we might never have gotten to this point. Instead, we took the name milkweed literally and considered it an impediment to our insatiable desire for maximized yields. With conservation efforts by the USDA and private organizations, it seems we have averted disaster. But it’s appalling to think that we almost eliminated an entire species because of the way we farm. Shouldn’t the farm be a symbol for life? Could we have told our children that we killed off the Monarch butterfly in part to produce ethanol?

Our current farming system is a victim of its own success. We wouldn’t have the leisure to ask these questions (or carry some of the extra inches on our waistline) if we all had to spend our days growing food. To date, in the discourse about food and farming, no one has thanked farmers enough for providing Americans with an abundant and safe food supply and supporting the nation’s rise to global preeminence in the Twentieth Century. But now that we have achieved it, it’s time to pivot to improving that farming system to meet the needs of the Twenty-First Century.

Farming in America is changing. The internet has brought both scrutiny and new value propositions that are still evolving. The objective is no longer calories alone. But we can farm in a way that not only feeds us but also produces the kind of world we want to live in.

Let’s work together the visualize the farms and the world we want. Sure, it might be completely aspirational. Sure, the results might be farfetched. But we’re not going to get anything if we don’t ask for it. And we’re not going to make any progress without talking.