With the global population expected to increase significantly before the end of this century (reportedly to 11 billion; most of them in poor and currently under-developed countries), maybe we should be thinking now about how to feed them. Hopefully if we are able to plan ahead, we will not be facing a global revolt predicated upon insufficient resources. While I do not have a solution, I do have a few thoughts on this based on my experience as a ‘dirt farmer’.
We need to think about ‘dirt’ differently. If dirt means planting in the ground, then we may be short-sighted because arable open land is finite whether we return some of our forested land to row crops or not. If ‘dirt’ means soil and soil-augmented media, then we have hope. I admit that farming on the land is and has been my passion but I am also clear that I am not feeding very many people and cannot up my production and maintain soil and product quality at the same time. There has to be another, maybe better, way.
As food system planning becomes the new policy passion for those of us concerned with food justice, equity, access, affordability, resource protection and societal optimization, we will need to think creatively about who the next generation of ‘farmers’ might be and how will they practice their art. Of obvious concern will still be the emphasis on ‘local’ (if not organic), pollinator support, on-site energy (co-) generation, complete recycling/waste management. Production systems will need to be transparent in order to build confidence in the new systems, not wholly-owned subsidiaries of off-shore mega-conglomerates and entrepreneurial. Naturally, we will have to consider more efficient use of our current agricultural assets and will have to better understand how to maintain nutritional quality as climate change and technological innovation drives change in world-wide agriculture.
We will need to incentivize our planning boards, corporate boardrooms, architects and developers to consider how our physical infrastructure and undeveloped open spaces in new communities might be used for food production even at the individual level. Could we have planned agricultural communities, for instance? We will need to consider conservation ahead of preservation, adaptation and innovation and multiple utilizations of existing and created resources.
Once budding and entrenched ag-entrepreneurs (viz. ADM, Monsanto, Syngenta et al.) unhitch from lock-step thinking
about in-ground agriculture and gene-pool manipulation, they can start to seriously address the issues of accessability, transportation and economies. Every roof-top created from some date forward must become productive space. We will be able to grow food where it will be needed most while improving and supporting community development, hunger relief and educational opportunities. Freight farms, vertical farms, tiered gardens all will become de riguer as we learn to optimize otherwise over-looked spatial resources.
To some who love their land, these thoughts may seem heretical. But to someone who has been on the land for more than five decades, has seen what hunger in the undeveloped world looks like and is inclined to believe the UN’s population projections (even as a worst-case scenario), I think we cannot bury our heads in the sandy loam. Diet and privilege must be uncoupled; changing our diets from beef to beans is only a step in the right direction. We need to make strides. Walt Kelly’s famous Pogo sagely claimed as he peered over the bow of an obviously over-crowded Noah’s ark: ‘We have met the enemy and it is us!’ Let us hope that this will not become the case and that succeeding generations around the world will be food-secure and that such food will be good and good for them.
John Lee is the manager of Allandale Farm (Boston's last working farm), which specializes in naturally grown local produce. Each summer, John manages an outdoor children's program on the farm. He writes for local news outlets and is deeply involved with farming and locally grown issues in Massachusetts.