“Look after the land, the land will look after you”
— Tumanako Wereta, Chairman, Tuaropaki Trust
It’s a startlingly simple notion, referencing an ancient wisdom that by and large, much of the western world has all but forgotten.
Today is World Food Day, the 35th such day since it was first celebrated in 1981 to mark the creation of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) back in 1945. FAO was founded upon the desire for food security for all human beings, and the eradication of hunger and malnutrition.
Seventy years after the founding of this organisation, 793 million people are estimated to be suffering from chronic hunger, regularly not getting enough food to conduct an active life.
Today also marks the first day of the 25th annual Bioneers conference, held this year in San Rafael, CA. Co-founder Kenny Ausubel coined the word ‘bioneers’ in 1990 to describe social and scientific innovators who are mimicking nature’s operating instructions to serve human ends. Bioneers advocate for a human/nature relationship in which we meet our needs in a manner that works with nature, rather than against it.
Few will deny that our planet is in the midst of an ecological crisis. Four of the nine planetary boundaries outlined by the Stockholm Resilience Centre have been crossed already, each of them intricately related to the expansion of the industrial agriculture system. We have now entered a time of uncertainty where scientists cannot say for sure whether the globe will be a hospitable place to live for humans, even within a few decades’ time.
As Kenny Ausubel puts it:
“We have been like a rockstar trashing a hotel room up until now. Now it’s the morning after, and if we don’t change, we are going to get voted off the island”
— Kenny Ausubel, Co-Founder of Bioneers
The question is often raised as to whether or not we as a global society can afford to both look after the Earth and its biodiversity, while still managing to feed the ever-expanding bulk of the human population.
I would argue that we can do both. I would argue that we actually don’t have a choice. I would also argue that this is the wrong question to be asking, and that the future of food lies in the answers to a multitude of other related questions.
How are we meeting our current needs? How do we distribute food, within nations and across geopolitical boundaries? How are we stewarding the land? How are we looking after the biodiversity of ecosystems? What is the true cost of food production? What sort of food do we need to produce to nurture healthy populations? How much food do we actually need? Will our current methods of farming ensure that the soil, the water and the air will be fit for future generations to grow food? To what extent will new technologies be useful, and in which cases do they become a distraction from the core issues at hand?
The answers to these questions are complex. As is nature.
Ecological systems have evolved in an intricate matrix of countless overlapping parts. In a healthy ecosystem, each element plays a role of both nurturance and reliance, contributing to the cycle of give and take. It’s a house of cards scenario; you take away one element, the integrity of the whole ecosystem is compromised.
In humankind’s quest to dominate nature, we have hacked the system to value only some elements of food growing ecosystems, while discarding others, and in doing so have dictated a monocultural, industrial agriculture. While it has worked for a while, with a primary focus of only meeting our immediate needs, the unintended consequences on the entire ecosystem are becoming increasingly clear. The cards are falling down.
Inefficiencies in agricultural water use have exacerbated droughts. We are seeing the decline of bee populations, due in part to the use of GMOs. Half the topsoil on the planet has been lost to oceans and waterways in the last 150 years. Our globalised distribution systems are woefully inefficient, with one third of all food produced going to waste. We have reached a tipping point where we risk not only irreversible damage to our planet, but also our own demise.
“We are beyond urgency, it’s emergency from here on out”
— Kenny Ausubel, Co-founder, Bioneers
A new model is needed, one that addresses all the moving parts of our global agricultural complex. We need to redefine abundance to be all encompassing of the good health of our bodies, our minds, the soil, the water, the air and of our global neighbours.
There are no cure-alls; there is no one solution. We need to humbly step back, and look at things holistically.
We Already Have The Answers
As the problems are becoming clear, so too are the solutions. If you’ll excuse me the pun, we need to return to our roots.
At the core of most efforts of “alternative agriculture”, there is a movement towards decentralised food production, permaculture and/or regenerative agriculture. These paradigms all include taking a systems-approach, and matching the types of food grown to the given region.
These are not just the dreams of a few out-there individuals. A shift in global consciousness is occurring and these ideas are entering mainstream dialogue. From Forbes heralding biomimicry as a better solution than genetic engineering, to Prince Charles stating that city level policy to encourage healthy local food systems “could scarcely be more important”, and economic philosopher Charles Eisenstein writing about regenerative agriculture in The Guardian, diverse voices are joining the conversation.
“Why do we tip the balance of the Earth’s delicate systems with yet more destruction, even though we know in our heart of hearts that in doing so we will most likely risk bringing everything down around us?”
— HRH Prince Charles
Earlier in the year, I helped to organise a day exploring the future of agriculture at New Frontiers festival in New Zealand. Below, I outline four key learnings we can embrace for a healthier and more sustainable food production system.
1. Every Drop Makes Up The Ocean
At the core of the approach that is needed to solve our planet’s food crisis, is the recognition that everyone is required.
We are in the thick of a global decentralised revolution, with millions of people around the world embracing nature’s ancient wisdom and focusing, in their own way, on the solutions rather than the problems. The move towards decentralised food production is easier than we have been lead to believe. Already, 72% of all food gets produced by farmers on small farms, and global economies continue to depend on local food production.
Schools are teaching children the joy of growing their own vegetables and once-industrial cities like Detroit are turning vacant lots into community gardens, while stoic farmers are quietly incorporating nature into their methods and young urban couples are moving out to the countryside to tend to the land.
City dwellers, fear not — there is no need to move out to the country to grow your own food. The urban food production movement is gathering steam with the rise of rooftop gardens, creative growing solutions, and community garden projects. For those living with the luxury of back yards, the Koanga Institute in New Zealand have put together an urban agriculture design brief, outlining how you can feed a family of four adequately (and have some to spare) within a 200 square-metre plot.
These movements are more widespread than we may think — individuals and organisations are synthesising their efforts towards solutions-based culture, that is starting to gain traction and have greater influence. While our efforts may feel like drops in the ocean, consider David Mitchell’s words in Cloud Atlas:
“What is the ocean, but a multitude of drops?”
— David Mitchell, Author
2. No Ecosystem Exists In A Vacuum
Within larger scale agricultural production, a holistic systems approach is required that takes into account factors beyond just total yield. It means taking into account which elements of farm design will maximise efficient use of energy, minimise external inputs, look after the whole system and provide a good outcome for financial yield, environment and biodiversity health and nutritional value.
Often this points to organic food production. The well-respected Rodale Institute recently published the findings of a 30-year study on organic vs conventional agriculture. They found that yields from organically fertilised farms matched those of conventionally fertilised farms, and actually exceeded them in drought years. Other studies have shown that soil carbon sequestration and other regenerative farming methods can produce significantly higher yields. With increased droughts on the rise due to the effects of climate change, organic and regenerative forms of agriculture can essentially be considered an insurance policy.
Regenerative agriculture is in itself a means of combating climate change. In two carbon sequestration trials also by the Rodale Institute, regenerative, organic farming was shown to sequester more than 100% of the carbon that is in the atmosphere. Imagine if the globe was covered in farms using regenerative agriculture methods? We could solve the climate crisis as well as the food one.
In a broader sense, return on investment from agriculture can be measured beyond monetary. Variances in crop yields, nutritional value and resource inputs could also be measured. Viewed through a holistic lens, the benefits of regenerative agriculture may come in the form of reduced healthcare costs, improved productivity of workers, top quality produce that commands a premium price, and reduced expenditure for the mitigation of unintended environmental effects.
Holistic systems thinking isn’t new — it’s the approach that indigenous people all over the world have always recognised and respected. Just north of Taupo in New Zealand, the Tuaropaki Trust have established a shining example, that showcases integrated models of agriculture, horticulture, communications and energy generation.
The Trust are stewards of over 10,000 acres of land which came to be held in one title, after 297 Māori landowners agreed to amalgamate their lands for joint management in 1952. In a model that provides a viable, working alternative to western property ownership, there are now 2,250 owners and over 7,000 beneficiaries of the land, which can never be sold, but only passed down to descendants. Upon the land, inputs and outputs flow back and forth between a large dairy farm, a milk factory, a state-of-the-art gourmet food glasshouse, a large-scale vermicast composting plant, a geothermal energy plant and telecommunications systems. These interconnected food and energy production elements promote both ecological and financial efficiency.
“The trick to walking on water is knowing where the rocks are”
— Tumanako Wereta, Chairman of Tuaropaki Trust
While organic and regenerative methods of agriculture hark back to earlier methods of food production, there is certainly a role for technology to play here, provided that its impacts don’t extend beyond the intended outcome. Patrolling pastures with drones is a technology with a low environmental impact. Eight-wheel tractors tilling the land in a stiff wind… a different story.
3. Take A Look At What You’re Eating
As much as our ecological systems need to change, we need an accompanying social change; a shift in mindset.
A common defence of the industrial agriculture system, and its role in the future of food production, centres around the need to feed a rapidly expanding global population. The dominant story is that we will need to produce 70% more food by 2050 to feed 9 billion hungry mouths.
Christiana Wyly of the Food Choice Taskforce challenged these notions in a recent talk in New Zealand on the future of food. She suggested that population growth is a red herring, and that changing diets are the real problem. As the developing world gains affluence, we have more people eating foods that are resource-intensive to produce (read: meat).
For many people, meat is the final social and cultural taboo of dietary discussion. It is also the elephant in the room.
Industrial-scale meat production pushes against every one of the Stockholm planetary boundaries. It takes around 15,000 litres of water to raise a kilogram of beef, while a UN report from 2006 shows that animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than all global transportation systems combined. The bottom line is that without a significant downwards shift in global meat and dairy consumption, the fight against climate change is a losing battle.
“[Switching to a plant-based diet] was the first thing that actually gave me hope, about rescuing the biosphere and preventing runaway climate change”
— James Cameron, Director of Avatar
To date, only 8% of the world’s plant proteins have been explored for human consumption, and people are moving to find replacements for meat-based sources. Impossible Foods recently raised a staggering $108 million in new funding to further develop their meat- and cheese-like products made entirely of plants. Aiming for authentic taste, these products will contain no cholesterol, hormones, or antibiotics.
Also emerging is aquaponics as a closed loop system that could provide a fish protein source, while naturally fertilising fruits and vegetables and filtering water.
And hey, if you’re keen on the newest techno-solution to all your nutritional problems, there’s always Soylent. Personally, I’ll always prefer a tasty meal made with real whole ingredients and natural flavours.
4. Let Food By Thy Medicine
“Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food”
There is much evidence now to link our over-consumption of meat with health issues such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancers. Earlier this year the New York Times published a piece exploring the Myth of High Animal-Protein Diets relating to health. Often the problem is not so much that we eat meat, but the amount of it that is consumed in a typical Western diet.
Meanwhile, the variety of fruits and vegetables that we grow has been drastically reduced in the past century. In just 80 years from 1903 to 1983, the National Center for Genetic Resource Preservation reports that we have lost 93% of the variety in our food seeds. Along with these varieties, we have lost much of the flavour and nutritional value, as outlined in Mark Schatzker’s book The Dorito Effect.
We don’t need trendy health-food diets and current fads to tell us what to eat to be healthy. It’s really not that complicated. In his book of the same name, Michael Pollan delivers a simple seven word guideline on what should go into your body for nourishment:
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
— Michael Pollan
None of this is all that new. Holistic food production and regenerative agriculture is a return to the methods of growing food that humans have employed for thousands of years. As expert permaculturalist Gary Williams points out in the panel discussion below, the industrial agricultural system is a blip in human history. It is only there because of a flush of cheap energy — one that we all recognise is coming to an end.
The biggest challenge is connecting young people with land that they feel they can have a stake in. As we are moving away from the model of intergenerational farming, where the land was traditionally passed down to the eldest son, we are entering a new era of agricultural entrepreneurship — one that combines new technology with ancient wisdom, championed by a new breed of farmer who believes in infinite possibilities.
“We have to make it sexy to farm again.”
— Nina Simons, Co-Founder, Bioneers
With so many planetary crises converging, there is a global awakening to the interconnected nature of human and ecological systems. We are faced with the pressing opportunity and need to change the paradigm of consciousness around food production.
This article has been adapted from a version originally published at www.kiwiconnect.nz
Kiwi Connect is helping to build a ‘living laboratory’ farm for experimentation, incubation and testing of cutting edge innovations towards a stronger and more resilient food system. If you are a visionary wanting to get involved in regenerative agricultural entrepreneurship in New Zealand, we would love to hear from you!