Article reprinted from the Queens Magazine
Greg Pillar, PhD
With a doctorate in soil science, Professor Greg Pillar brings a level of scientific knowledge to the classroom most often found at large research universities, particularly the land-grant agricultural schools established by Congress in the nineteenth century. At Queens he has developed courses that examine issues in science, particularly those related to food and agriculture. A popular community speaker on the global food system, he enjoys challenging audiences to learn about their choices.
In the fall of 2008, my environmental science students and I took a trip to a small organic farm in Union County, North Carolina. As we walked through the fields and around the property, their questions and facial expressions caught me off guard. They genuinely did not understand how food is grown and harvested, or how our local, national or global food system really works. I stopped for a moment and wondered—in light of recent world events, how will this generation face the tremendous challenges ahead of them?
It’s Everybody’s Problem
Everyone eats, plain and simple. You would expect that for this very reason the average American would have a basic understanding of how and where their food is produced. This is not the case. The United States has an industrialized food system based on subsidized corn, wheat and soybeans. Easy access to inexpensive food allows us to ignore the true costs and complexity associated with bringing our food from the farm to the grocery store. Relative to the rest of the world, we pay very little for this luxury. That is all about to change.
The world is facing a food crisis driven by unsustainable production methods, extreme weather conditions, poor public policy and unwise personal choices.
Global Changes Will Drive Up Prices
In the next decade we’ll all be spending more on food. In 2008, prices of the planet’s staple foods—corn, wheat and rice—doubled, tripled, and quadrupled, respectively. The recent turmoil seen in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya was due in part to rising food prices. The protests and riots we’ve seen in the last five years over escalating food prices, in more than 40 countries, will become worse. By the time my 18-month old son Nathan is my age, there will be another two billion people on the planet, most of them living in countries ill equipped to deal with their needs.
Many of those people will move to urban centers, causing explosive growth in cities. Municipal water needs will compete with agriculture, which currently uses 64% of the world’s fresh water supply. The decline in petroleum resources will impact our modern farming system, which accounts for a fifth of all petroleum used in the United States. Soil is being depleted—to date we have damaged four-and-a-half billion acres of soil globally through erosion, urbanization and intense agricultural practices. With global climate change we can expect extreme weather events such as droughts and floods to further strain an already delicate food system. Consider the impact of the current drought on Australia. In 2008 the world’s largest rice mill went out of production—the Deniliquin mill once fed 20 million people. We will need to find ways to address these issues while increasing food production by 75% to keep up with the demand.
Science and Public Policy Are Critical
Some believe that science and technology are the key to addressing our global food crisis, and they hope for a breakthrough like the Green Revolution of the sixties. At that time, a dwarf variety of wheat changed the world. Producing high yields, Norman Borlaug’s ‘Miracle Wheat’ saved more than a billion lives and transformed countries like Mexico and India by enabling them to grow their own food. This phenomenon marked the beginning of biotechnology through plant breeding and genetic modification. Can science generate another food revolution similar to that of Borlaug’s?
Others argue that we are already capable of feeding the world and can handle future growth. The problem is uneven allocation of food resources and can only be fixed through policy change. Over the last 50 years, American grain subsidies have encouraged overproduction, driving down global food prices. In many cases it is cheaper for countries to import grain from the United States than to invest in growing their own food, thus making them dependent on foreign food supplies and putting small farmers out of business.
In an international economy, food sovereignty depends on equitable international policies. Is it possible to make substantial change in time to prevent a total collapse of our food system?
Individuals Can Make the Difference
We need sustainable methods of production that put less strain on the environment while allowing us to increase global supply. Another answer may lie in our global back yard. We know that our current input intensive, oil dependent and subsidized agricultural system is not sustainable. But here’s the good news: In March, the United Nations released a report stating that small-scale farms using eco-farming methods can double food production in 10 years by using simple and more natural farming methods.
This brings us back to that small organic farm in Union County, North Carolina. We each have a role in the global community, starting right where we are. Well-informed people make good decisions at the grocery store and in elections. As individuals make changes, the food system will follow. We’ve seen it before.
In the coming years, we will also need strong and intelligent people, who understand our food system, in positions of power to rethink domestic and international food policies. We will need agricultural scientists who think creatively, to develop new ideas for more sustainable farming practices.
Ultimately, the food system is driven by those who use it, which is every single human being on the planet.