Feeding America into the future.

A drive across Middle America treats the observer to swaths of farm fields as far as the eye can see, but it doesn’t take a keen eye to notice the lack of diversity in the U.S. agricultural system. Yet, this wasn’t always the case, and the current trends show signs of change in small pockets, but is it enough to bring back diversity or improve agricultural sustainability? How do we achieve agricultural sustainability?

A Glimpse Into the Past

Farming is an integral piece of American history. The land was allocated to families in sizes conducive to growing food for the family and to sell at the market for a livable income. The types of crops grown and animals raised varied by region, but the tendency was for each individual farm to plant multiple crops and raise several types of animals.

In the mid-90s, the landscape changed. China became a major export market, transportation costs declined and climate change began to have tangible impacts on farming conditions. These factors, coupled with the availability of genetically modified seeds (GMO) and a move to concentrated feedlots, led to diminished diversity and increased acreage snapped up by corporate farms.

Wading Into Sustainability

Corn and soybeans are now king and queen of our agricultural system, with most of the harvest allocated to bio-fuels, animal feed, and processed food fillers. The growth of corporate agriculture and GMO seeds results in farming practices that tax the environment. Mono-crop growing methods deplete the soil of important nutrients, while GMO seeds allow for the application of harsh chemicals without harming the plants of the Agricultural System.

At the same time, however, consumer interest in organic products, especially food, continue to increase from its origins in the 1970s environmental awareness movement. Organic farming does not necessarily mean it is sustainable under the USDA’s current allowances for certification, but organic practices are more likely to fit the definition of agricultural sustainability than conventional methods.

In recent years, we have also witnessed the growth in the popularity of farmers’ markets. By their very nature, farmers’ markets promote crop diversity at a regional scale, as buyers seek to purchase a variety of produce from local growers. Likewise, the farmers’ market model promotes a return to smaller, independent, or family-owned farms.

Looking To the Future Agricultural System

Our current, dominant system of agriculture is not sustainable for the environment or our communities. The impacts of climate change will continue to have devastating effects on our food systems due to increasing crop failures from droughts and floods, disruptions to the planting season, and shifting climate conditions at regional scales. There is some hope, however.

The growing awareness among farmers of the impacts of their current agricultural practices on the land and other resources, along with their in-the-field observations of the effects of climate change, is causing some farmers to take note. Consumer demand is also playing a role. Interest in organic food and farmers’ markets is helping shape a movement towards sustainable agriculture practices on smaller, more diverse, family farms.

The rate of climate change and environmental degradation is currently happening more quickly than the rate of change in farming practices, which might force painful shifts in U.S. agriculture. No one really wants this to happen. It is in our best interest to look towards a more rapid increase in sustainable practices, using the knowledge and skills a growing number of farmers already possess.