You can’t buy a better agriculture

With the Earth’s cropland quickly eroding, a shift to perennials is needed for a sustainable food supply.

Rice crop

To prevent soil degradation, perennials need to replace the annual grain crops that currently predominate [EPA]

The foundation of humanity’s food supply is crumbling.The United Nations now estimates that more than 20 per cent of the Earth’s cultivated soils have been significantly degraded, while in the United States, 28 per cent of cropland is eroding at an unsustainable rate. Research shows that of all human activities, agriculture is the biggest threat to biodiversity and ecosystems.

Solving agriculture’s many problems is not impossible, but the issues involved are complex and the necessary transformations radical. To discuss them is to risk frightening or confusing people. On the other hand, everyone likes good food. So campaigns for more ecologically sound farming practices, especially in the wealthier nations, too often seem to suggest to consumers that with enough effort, we can simply eat our way to a sustainable future.   

For example, Organic Valley, the United States’ largest organic-farming cooperative, suggests that “personal food choices affect the health of our bodies and our planet, and drive their future”. Likewise, the British Soil Association says that “the buying decisions we make every day are a simple but powerful form of direct action”, and stresses that “by changing what you buy, you change what farmers will grow and how they will grow it”.

But to trust that our personal food-shopping decisions or gardening prowess can push the global food system towards sustainability – to vote three times a day with our forks, as writer Michael Pollan has urged – is to assume that the global agricultural economy operates by the same neighbourly rules that prevail down at the local farmers’ market.

It doesn’t. Eating well-produced food will improve our own health, but not necessarily the health of the Earth’s soils. On the 1.5 billion hectares of cropland around the globe where our staple foods are grown, the profits of agribusiness and the corporate food industry always get fed first.

Those profits depend primarily on a flood of cheap grain, produce, meat, and milk made possible by the exploitation of soil and human labour. And in the past few decades, a variety of industries – heavy equipment, chemicals, food processing, packaging, transport, advertising, restaurant chains, and others – have grown as appendages on agriculture. In the United States, the dollar outputs of those food-related industries are expanding at two to four times the rate of farming’s output. That is creating even more powerful constituencies for policies and practices that turn soil into profit.  

Working at it as hard as we can, all of us together cannot chew and swallow enough food to change those corporate priorities. The transformation has to be achieved in practice out on the land, not by depending on the same kinds of supply and demand curves that got us into this mess. After two decades of favourable publicity, growing customer enthusiasm, and rapid market expansion, certified organic food still accounts for only 0.7 per cent of US cropland and 0.5 per cent of range and pasture land.

Every country has its own domestic and global obstacles to overcome. To roll back the damage being done to the United States’ agricultural landscapes, for example, would require passage of bold legislation that challenges entrenched economic interests head on; consequently, the task is often viewed as impossible, but that makes it no less urgent.

Immediately necessary actions include abolishing commodity subsides; paying farmers serious money to conserve land and water; banning toxic chemicals, factory farming of livestock, and industrial mega-dairies; and putting a halt to the cultivation of hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of maize, soybean, and sorghum crops for supplying the livestock, sweetener, and biofuel industries. In addition, we must stop exporting cheap wheat and other grains that wreck local markets for family farmers in other countries, and we must stop importing products that distort economies and ruin landscapes around the world.

To do all of that is an ambitious undertaking, to say the least. But those changes are just the beginning of what is needed.

Working with nature

We can correct those problems that are created by industrial forces over the past century, but that won’t fix another, much more fundamental problem that has been plaguing farmers now for a hundred centuries: the dependence of agriculture on annual plants, typically in monoculture.

Before humans invented agriculture, 95 per cent of the Earth’s ice-free surface was covered by diverse mixtures of perennial plants: forests, prairies, wetlands, et cetera. Today, nearly 40 per cent of that land is devoted to agriculture, most of it sown to uniform stands of annual crops that die each season after harvest and must be re-sown.

That “clearcutting” at the soil surface and regular die-out of the roots below makes it impossible for healthy, durable, resilient ecosystems to become established either above or below the surface. Soil erosion, water contamination, and biodiversity loss are the inevitable result.

Landscapes can be compelled to produce harvests of annual monocultures for years or decades, sometimes centuries, but it requires hauling in nutrients, churning the soil, killing weeds, battling pests, and in many places irrigating. And even those heroic efforts cannot sustain soils in the long term.    

Since early cultivators first domesticated wheat and barley in the Middle East ten thousand years ago, farmers everywhere have struggled and often failed to compensate for the built-in vulnerabilities of annual crops and monocultures. And as things stand, with 7 billion human beings needing to eat every day and global per-capita food production continuing to decline, we have no choice but to do the best we can in the short term with a combination of conventional and more sustainable agricultural systems incorporating annual crop plants.

As we are keeping our fingers in the dike, so to speak, we also need to begin developing the methods of a new, more resilient agriculture by using the highly integrated diversity of natural ecosystems as a model. But that model and those methods can’t be brought to the farm as long as we are dependent on annual crops and clearcutting. First, we will have to develop perennial grain crops through breeding.

The annual grain crops that perennials will replace now occupy three-fourths of the world’s cropland. Consumer campaigns promoting more eco-friendly food tend to feature fresh produce, sometimes exclusively. That makes sense in a way. Corporate production of fruits and vegetables is especially hard on human workers, ecosystems, and the atmosphere. But those foods account for less than seven per cent of US cropland, and a similar share worldwide. Even if we all ate as much of those foods as we should, the bulk of agricultural soils would still be covered, as they are today, by crops of cereals, grain legumes, and oilseeds, not carrots or cucumbers. To save those soils in the long term, we will need perennial counterparts to those staple crops.

In the past few years, plant breeders, geneticists, ecologists, and agronomists in the United States, Canada, China, Nepal, and Australia have begun developing perennial versions of wheat, rice, sorghum, sunflower, and other major grain crops, along with ecologically sound, multispecies cropping systems in which to grow them. The goal is to replace annual grain monocultures worldwide with polycultures of perennial grains and other perennial species. That will require, as a first step, a rapid expansion of such breeding efforts.

The transformation of agriculture, therefore, will require two parallel efforts, one aimed at putting a halt to the ravages of industrial farming and the other at developing the perennial farm ecosystems of the future. Eating better food is not the way to ensure that those efforts succeed, but it will be the result.

Stan Cox is a senior scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, US. His most recent book is Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World. He can be reached at

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.