Sustainable Agriculture Scoping Group
President's Council on Sustainable Development
Frederick Kirschenmann, Ph.D.
Manager, Kirschenmann Family Farms
President, Farm Verified Organic, Inc.
Agriculture, in the United States, has reached a very important fork in
the road. We are now confronted by two paths.
One path in this fork in the road is what is commonly referred to as
industrial agriculture. This is the predominant path we have been on
since the turn of the century. This approach to agriculture is based on
the principle of controlling nature. It relies heavily on hard
technology and non-renewable sources of energy to achieve
agricultural goals. It achieves efficiency through specialization and the
production of mass quantities of a few, uniform commodities. It
prefers to trade food in global markets. To achieve its production
goals food is generally produced some distance from consumption. By
some estimates food consumed in the United States today travels an
average of 1300 miles.
>From the perspective of maximizing the production of a few
commodity crops, and from the perspective of labor efficiency, this
type of agriculture has been enormously successful. There are,
consequently, many in our society today who believe that the
continued development of industrial agriculture is inevitable and
essential to meet world food expectations.
But there is a dark side to this picture that we have only recently
begun to acknowledge.
With its demand for specialization, and subsequent mono-cropping,
industrial agriculture has caused unprecedented soil loss. We have
now lost over half of our topsoil in the U.S., most of it in the last
twenty years. It is estimated that if we continue to erode our topsoil
at this rate for another 50 years, declines in crop yield from erosion
alone will equal the loss of 23 million acres of cropland.
Industrial agriculture is also very irrigation dependent. As a result we
have been draining our groundwater supplies at a rate exceeding
nature's capacity to recharge them. We are currently draining the
Ogalala aquifer at a rate of 130% to 160% faster than it is being
recharged. Irrigation is causing groundwater over a 15 million-acre
area to decline between 6 inches and 6 feet every year. The
remaining water is being polluted with pesticides and chemicals. One
out of every five municipal wells in Nebraska is now unfit to drink
due to nitrate pollution.
With its demand for uniformity industrial agriculture has significantly
narrowed the gene pool of agricultural plants and animals. The United
Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that while
traditional agriculture relied on 80,000 species of plants, industrial
agriculture uses just 150 varieties. Twelve varieties produce 85% of
our food and 3 varieties provide 55%. This specialization creates
enormous vulnerability to disease, pests and weather related
With its exclusive emphasis on labor efficiency and mass, uniform
production, industrial agriculture has also decimated rural
communities. Industrial agriculture is based largely on an extractive
economy which extracts cheap raw materials from rural communities
to add value esewhere, while selling expensive value-added
production inputs back to rural commnities. This labor efficient,
extractive economy has left rural communities bankrupt and has
deprived us of a vital human resource for effective farming---young
farmers. In Iowa, now, less than 6% of remaining farmers are under
A second path at this fork in the road has recently received attention.
That path is sustainable agriculture.
Sustainable agriculture is based on the principle of working in
harmony with nature. It relies heavily on using nature's own
evolutionary powers to achieve production goals. It prefers "soft"
technologies, letting nature do more of the work by utilizing the
diversity and variety inherent in nature to optimize production. It
places as much emphasis on land and energy efficiency as it does on
labor efficiency. It prefers to trade food within regional "foodsheds,"
safeguarding the ability of local people to exercise control over the
food they buy. From the perspective of maintaining optimum, diverse
food production with efficient use of land and energy, this type of
agriculture is proving very successful.
The principles of sustainable agriculture are similar to the principles
of sustainability in other arenas. If agriculture is to be sustainable it
* refrain from depleting non-renewable resources faster than
we can find substitutes
* prevent renewable resources from deteriorating any faster
than nature's capacity to regenerate them.
* limit pollution to a rate that does not exceed the ability of
plenetary sinks to absorb, dissipate or disperse them.
* safeguard intergenerational equity.
* maintain a sufficient base of human resources on the land to
effectively manage the soil and water resources on which agriculture
depends. Conservation biologists are now telling us that due to the
ever changing, and site-specific character of natural ecosystems, there
is no way that we can properly manage natural resources without
populating local ecosystems with people who have been acquainted
with those systems long enough and intimately enough to know how
to manage them. Natural agro-ecosystems are no exception!
Where Are We?
Measured by these principles industrial agriculture has failed to meet
any of the basic criteria of a sustainable agriculture.
* Industrial agriculture is largely fed by fossil fuels. Eighty
percent (80%) of the petroleum used on this planet has been used in
my lifetime. By most estimates, at our current rate of use, we have
approximately a 35 year supply of oil left. It is unlikely that we will
find energy substitutes by the time we run out of oil.
* Industrial agriculture has depleted renewable resources
(especially soil and water) faster than nature can regenerate them.
* Industrial agriculture has produced pollutants at a rate faster
than planetary sinks can absorb them. This is true of animal
agriculture (where large concentrations of animals create enormous
waste problems) as well as plant agriculture.
* Intergenerational equity is clearly being ignored as we
continue to refuse to do full cost accounting in industrial agriculture.
We have externalized many of the health and environmental costs of
the inputs used in industrial agriculture. We have externalized the
social costs of dismembering rural communities. These are costs we
are passing on to future generations.
* Industrial agriculture has decimated farming's human
resources. The average age of farmers is now approaching 60.
Perhaps the greatest barrier to solving the problems inherited from
industrial agriculture is that there are no farmers young enough,
interested in innovation, and knowledgeable enough about local land,
to fashion an imaginative, alternative farming system.
How Important Is All This?
To point out that a sustainable society without a sustainable
agriculture is impossible seems like stating the obvious. But U.S.
society has come to depreciate the value of agriculture to a point
where it could easily be overlooked in the sustainability dialogue.
Simplistic notions about agriculture could easily leave serious
consideration of agriculture out of the sustainability debate. Most
citizens in the U.S. have little knowledge about where food comes from
or what is involved in producing it. For many, agriculture is
synonymous with the supermarket. Incerasingly agricultural experts
assume that all of agriculture's problems can be solved with
technological fixes. Environmentalists often want to solve
agriculturally-related environmental problems with reductionist
regulations. These simplistic outlooks betray a lack of appreciation for
agriculture and its complexity.
Yet, maintaining the capacity to feed the human species, especially in
the face of exponential population growth, is absolutely critical to any
kind of sustainable society. Some demographers are now suggesting
that even in the United States population growth has already exceeded
our ability to sustain an adequate quality of life. How could anyone
consider leaving agriculture out of the sustainable development
What Can the PCSD Do?
The President's Council on Sustainable Development could propose
some gradual, but systemic changes that would shift the paradigm of
agriculture in a more sustainable direction. Several specific proposals
come to mind:
1. The USDA National Sustainable Agriculture Advisory Council
(NSACC) has proposed five specific "recommendations for
implemention" for sustainable agriculture. The PCSD could propose
that the President and the Secretary of Agriculture support these
recommendations. The recommendations include:
* more direct interaction between sustainable agriculture and
integrated pest management
* involve NSAAC members in the 1995 Farm Bill hearings
* constitute public sector members of NSACC as a standing
committee within USDA to facilitate cooperation between sustainable
agriculture, water quality, integrated pest management, food safety,
* develop criteria/standards that promote the principles of
sustainable agriculture and application of those criteria to evaluate the
merit of all USDA policies, programs and initiatives in terms of
2. The PCSD could propose new tax policies that encourage the
expenditure of funds for adopting sustainable systems. Internalizing
the external costs of purchased inputs, either through regulation or
input taxes, could reduce their overuse. The diversificaiton of farming
systems and the reintegration of livestock into cropping systems could
be similarly encouraged.
3. Government policy should be shifted away from what farmers
produce and toward the way they produce it. "Green payment"
programs, proposed by the National Dialogue on Sustainable
Agriculture, and others, could accomplish this.
4. Public research funds should be diverted away from technologies
that seek to control nature and toward practices that seek to farm in
concert with nature. It is now recognized that research promoting
"vertical" crop improvement (eliminating "defects" and introducing
desirable traits in specific organisms) has put agriculture on a
technology treadmill. We need to shift to research that promotes
"horizontal" crop improvement (more diverse genetic mosaics and
more diverse cropping systems).
5. The PCSD could recommend the inauguration of a new era in
economic development. Rural economic development can never take
place so long as economic forces extract wealth from rural
communities in the form of raw materials and sell value added
products back to rural communities. The national economy needs to
be diversified so that a fair share of economic activity is comprised of
income generating activities that are retained in rural communities.
This will certainly include reclaiming part of the market sector activity
of agriculture for the farming sector (an example is farmers forming
cooperatives to add value to their production before they sell it) and
reducing dependency on the input sector by substituting on farm
managment for off farm inputs.
6. The PCSD could urge the administration to support and promote
community controlled marketing of sustainably produced food.
Supporting the development of local infrastructures (local processing
and packing sheds, distribution centers, farmer-owned cooperatives,
etc.) to use sustainably produced foods in school lunch programs might
be a good first step.
7. The PCSD might study and recommend the priorities put forth by
the National Dialogue for Sustainable Agriculture.