Although big business, industrial agriculture, and many politicians try to lead us to believe that sustainable agriculture is a quaint idea whose time has passed, this excerpt from a 2007 article by Bill McKibben proves otherwise:
Is it foolish to propose that a modern global economy of 6 (soon to be 9) billion people should rely on more localized economies? To put it more bluntly, since for most people "the economy" is just a fancy way of saying "What's for dinner?" and "Am I having any?," doesn't our survival depend on economies that function on a massive scale—such as highly industrialized agriculture? Turns out the answer is no—and the reasons why offer a template for rethinking the rest of the economy as well.
We assume, because it makes a certain kind of intuitive sense, that industrialized farming is the most productive farming. A vast Midwestern field filled with high-tech equipment ought to produce more food than someone with a hoe in a small garden. Yet the opposite is true. If you are after getting the greatest yield from the land, then smaller farms in fact produce more food.
If you are one guy on a tractor responsible for thousands of acres, you grow your corn and that's all you can do—make pass after pass with the gargantuan machine across a sea of crop. But if you're working 10 acres, then you have time to really know the land, and to make it work harder. You can intercrop all kinds of plants—their roots will go to different depths, or they'll thrive in each other's shade, or they'll make use of different nutrients in the soil. You can also walk your fields, over and over, noticing. According to the government's most recent agricultural census, smaller farms produce far more food per acre, whether you measure in tons, calories, or dollars. In the process, they use land, water, and oil much more efficiently; if they have animals, the manure is a gift, not a threat to public health. To feed the world, we may actually need lots more small farms. [emphasis added]
But if this is true, then why do we have large farms? Why the relentless consolidation? There are many reasons, including the way farm subsidies have been structured, the easier access to bank loans (and politicians) for the big guys, and the convenience for food-processing companies of dealing with a few big suppliers. But the basic reason is this: We substituted oil for people. Tractors and synthetic fertilizer instead of farmers and animals. Could we take away the fossil fuel, put people back on the land in larger numbers, and have enough to eat?
The best data to answer that question comes from an English agronomist named Jules Pretty, who has studied nearly 300 sustainable agriculture projects in 57 countries around the world. They might not pass the U.S. standards for organic certification, but they're all what he calls "low-input." Pretty found that over the past decade, almost 12 million farmers had begun using sustainable practices on about 90 million acres. Even more remarkably, sustainable agriculture increased food production by 79 percent per acre. These were not tiny isolated demonstration farms—Pretty studied 14 projects where 146,000 farmers across a broad swath of the developing world were raising potatoes, sweet potatoes, and cassava, and he found that practices such as cover-cropping and fighting pests with natural adversaries had increased production 150 percent—17 tons per household. With 4.5 million small Asian grain farmers, average yields rose 73 percent. When Indonesian rice farmers got rid of pesticides, their yields stayed the same but their costs fell sharply.
"I acknowledge," says Pretty, "that all this may sound too good to be true for those who would disbelieve these advances. Many still believe that food production and nature must be separated, that 'agroecological' approaches offer only marginal opportunities to increase food production, and that industrialized approaches represent the best, and perhaps only, way forward. However, prevailing views have changed substantially in just the last decade."