Food security — resilient agricultural systems

Trial and error works well so long as most things are predictable. But that is not always enough.

Afterbefore has a list of the 10 big things we must have to achieve global food security to 2050 and beyond

Here is a closer logic look at one of them

Phasing out of some agricultural production methods for more resilient and diversified systems closer to the innate capacity of soils and available water.

Agricultural production systems are the result of generations, sometimes thousands of years, of trial and error. Learning from mistakes and successes has set conventions on what grows best where, and steadily honed the skills and techniques to make it happen. The best ways are established in tradition and cultural norms.

Until quite recently there was no need for these systems to change. Farming provided for the farmer, his family, and exchange. It was tough but enough.

When systems work new ideas and technologies do not easily displace norms of production. There is little need for innovation when production provides for needs and nascent markets.

Then came the industrial revolution.

Engines rapidly replaced draught power, farmers could access fertilizer and pesticides, and many farming systems changed to produce food for profit.

Farms got bigger, more specialized, more reliant on inputs, but also more productive. It still mattered if it rained or not. And it made a difference if the crops were rotated and the residues recycled into the soil. But soon it was the fertilizer levels, pesticide sprays and commodity prices that mattered most to the bottom line.

Not all tradition was lost during this change but the profit driver did roll over many traditional ways.

Now more than half the people alive are fed from industrial food production methods — systems that are often decoupled from the innate capacity of the soil and even from the vagaries of the weather.

It is hard to imagine the significance of this change for mature economies. Food grown on an industrial scale feeding millions of people who never had to step foot on a farm.

Today industrial agriculture is essential. Over 4 billion people depend on it.

Only not all systems are sustainable. Many are slowly mining nutrients from the soil or degrading key soil properties. Joe’s story, a fictional account of a farmer from NSW, shows how this trend can creep up on producers.

Global food security to 2050 and beyond requires that we identify the systems and situations in decline and change them to protect their owners and their production potential.

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