Philip Clayton on The Dilemmas of Feeding the World

Philip Clayton on The Dilemmas of Feeding the World April 30, 2015

When Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave me food,” about 2,000 years ago, there were only 100 to 300 million people on the whole Earth. Today, there are well past 7 billion living on the same-sized planet. Now that we’re bumping elbows as never before, Spaceship Earth is struggling as never before. Feeding the hungry, for example, has become much more complicated.

Satellite Photo of the Dead Zone from Mississippi River run-off
Satellite Photo of the Dead Zone from Mississippi River run-off

Back in Jesus’ day, major grains, such as wheat, rice, and corn, had to be planted afresh each year, as they are today. In New Testament times, however, the yearly plantings didn’t make much of a dent on the Earth’s eco-system because, relatively speaking, they were such a small part of it.

Today, that is no longer the case. In fact our food production practices are a painful example of the perils of ignoring Earth’s interrelatedness. That’s the subject of this, the third of the Pando Populus series highlighting some of the exceptional people and multidisciplinary issues involved in the huge global conference for the planet coming up June 4-7, “Pando Populus: Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization.”

Abolishing hunger is a noble goal, and in recent times the West has felt the goal was almost within reach. New breakthroughs in farming technology have been responsible for major increases in food production. Beginning as early as the 1970s, however, oceanographers and scientists from a variety of disciplines began noticing ominous trends associated with modern farming practices.

Here’s the problem: Modern agriculture depends on monoculture planting — growing a single crop on each field — which steadily depletes the nutrients in the soil. As the fields are re-plowed each year, they lose further soil and nutrients. Agribusiness, with its large-scale farming techniques, replenishes the soil with nitrogen fertilizers derived from fossil fuels. Then toxic chemicals are applied to the crops to diminish pests. The result: vast quantities of soil, fertilizer, and pesticides are washed out of the fields and down the waterways each year, polluting rivers and creating huge dead zones at their mouths that feed into the oceans.

Underwater habitats that were previously teeming with life have become ever-expanding deserts, as their marine life dies or swims away. Many of these dead zones are now so large that they are measured and tracked by satellite images. Every populated continent now has extensive dead zones along their coasts, with the worst cases belonging to the United States (see photo), Europe, and China.

By now, the negative side-effects of these agribusiness practices have reached global proportions. The agricultural sciences have been brought in to investigate better ways to keep crop productivity high, while reducing the need for fertilizers and pesticides. Some of the proposals, such as genetically modified crops that bugs don’t care to eat, have vexingly unknown long-range consequences. Other reforms involve improved fertilization, plowing, and irrigation techniques that result in less agricultural run-off. That is all well and good, but it is not enough.

Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute in Kansas, and recipient of a 1992 MacAurthur “genius award,” has been pioneering a new paradigm for agriculture that imitates nature, and in particular the prairie ecosystem. Prairie grasses thrive year-round with no replanting and no fertilizer. They are perennially fertile.

Jackson and his collaborating Land Institute researchers are developing a number of natural grains that put down strong roots, live year-round, and conserve the soil, yet can still be harvested yearly. They have already developed a perennial native wheat relative called Kernza that is being harvested on a number of test farms. Jackson expects it to be ready for larger scale farming within this decade. And the empirical test: a friend of mine recently tried baking biscuits with Kernza flour from the Land Institute’s test farms — they were delicious!

Pando bannerW“We can now realistically imagine farming like the prairie,” Jackson says. “Using nature as model for agriculture makes possible, for the first time in human history, the sustainable production of food. This means perennial grains grown in mixtures, thus creating ecosystems that reflect the resilience and productivity of prairies. This promises an end to soil erosion, weaning from chemical inputs, restoration of soil health, curtailing of carbon emissions, and greater food security.

Wes Jackson will be a part of the Agro-ecology track of the conference, presenting a special session on Saturday, June 6 called “New Roots for Agriculture:  Perennial Crops and Their Promise for a Sustainable World.” Please join him, me, and almost 1,000 innovative leaders who care about the Earth for this inaugural Pando Populus event, in conjunction with the Whitehead2015 conference. Go to to connect!

Next Up: Named a “Hero of the Environment” by TIME Magazine in 2009, activist and journalist Sheri Liao is one of China’s most important environmentalists. As President and founder of the Global Village of Beijing, she has successfully navigated her country’s political landscape to implement green models and advocate for policies that mitigate some of the major environmental problems resulting from China’s headlong race for modernization. 


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