Farmers can answer modern challenges

The following is a summary of the case made for agricultural change in the book The Emergent Agriculture; farming, sustainability and the return of the local economy, provided by author Gary Kleppel.


The observation that “The only constant is change,” credited to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (ca. 500 BC) is nowhere more appropriate than in agriculture. During the past 10,000 years farming has been both the agent and subject of change. The Emergent Agriculture explores a moment in the trajectory of farming. That moment is now. Agriculture is in the early stages of a major transformation, from a food production system that emerged 250 years ago, at the dawning of the industrial revolution, to one that will take us into the next century and possibly beyond.

The mid-18th century heralded an age of unprecedented access to science and technology. Farming was integral to that revolution. Improved technological achievements in food production permitted farmers to feed burgeoning urban populations, to reduce the cost of food, to work with distributors to move food from points of origin to distant points of consumption, and even to consider ending hunger.

However, progress in industrial agriculture has not come without costs. Just as the technology of arid-land irrigation contributed to the demise of ancient Assyria and the clear cutting of forests proved catastrophic to Mayan civilization, so does the trajectory of industrial agriculture today appear unsustainable. But unlike the localized outcomes from the mistakes of ancient cultures, the consequences of modern agriculture are global.

Monoculture, an icon of industrial food production, violates a fundamental ecological rule — diversity creates stability. Monoculture sets the table for epidemic insect and fungal outbreaks. As a result, pesticide chemistry must continuously be modified to deal with new and evolving pests. While a boon for the chemical industry, pesticides have exacerbated existing problems with monoculture and created new problems, such as chemically resistant pests and an increasingly critical loss of pollinators.

The dependence on fossil fuels to energize much of the industrial system, while creating a “green revolution” in the short term, is proving unsustainable in the long term. The cost of delivering increasingly scarce fossil energy to the farm shaves profitability from farming and leaves us wondering how we will energize agriculture in the future. As a consequence of its enormous energy requirements, industrial agriculture contributes about a third of the earth’s greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere and is among the largest polluters of rivers, lakes and coastal waters.

Serious consequences arise from a philosophy that equates the farm to the factory. Considering farmers to be factory workers, and livestock to be parts in an assembly line, leads to the abuse of both. Agricultural colleges rapt in economic theory taught for decades that the future was in commodities and that the only credible standard of success was yield. The mantra of the mid- to late 20th century, “get big or get out,” suggests that losing one’s family farm is a sign of progress.

Consequences arise when the farmer is taken out of the food production equation and replaced with a “life” scientist. As agricultural technology has become more sophisticated, genetic modification and the concomitant patenting of the genomes of society’s most important crops have taken the food system out of the hands of farmers and placed it into the hands of multinational corporations. This is not progress.

There are alternatives. The Emergent Agriculture describes a new paradigm in food production that questions the assumptions that the existing food supply is safe and that food is a commodity. The thousands of food recalls each year, the growing number of food borne illness cases and allergies provide good reason to question food safety. The idea that quality is constant throughout the market (part of the definition of a commodity), justifies the belief that the cheapest food is the best deal.

The Emergent Agriculture suggests rational alternatives to the existing system, which speak to a deep faith in farmers. Farmers count. The quality of our food and the way we manage the land counts.

Ethics in food production and in the market counts. Scientists in laboratories and executives in board rooms may be good at what they do, but they are not farmers. They know less about farming than farmers. They should support agriculture. They should not direct it.

The Emergent Agriculture argues for the transition of farming to a smaller, more local scale. It argues for an appreciation of the craft of producing food and respect for the food producers. It argues for the replacement of commodity monoculture with a diversified, risk averse (to the extent possible) agriculture. It argues for a down scaling of the fossil fuel economy and adaptation to sustainable alternatives. None of this will happen overnight. It has already begun, a little at a time to be sure, but in unmistakably obvious ways. Agriculture continues to change. And the emergent agriculture is a change for the better.

Gary Kleppel is a professor at the State University of New York at Albany.

  • richard

    A brilliantly written article…..and precisely what many of us here have advocated for years…….Sadly it will not be delivered until status quo ignorance and arrogance are fully bankrupt…….