The authors of the Ecological Impact of Modern Agriculture suggest we call this era "the age of recognition of limits." Modern agriculture has created a number of environmental problems, including soil erosion and chemical contamination. It has definitely reached its limits. The authors (Judy Soule, Danielle Carré, and Wes Jackson) recommend that we turn away from the "extractive industrial model" of agriculture and focus on "nature's models of productive ecosystems."
Tim Lang, of the UK government's Food Council described the modern agricultural system as one which "was laid down in the 1940s." The system is failing, and as a Treehugger.com post says, "The 21st century is a going to have to produce a new diet for people, more sustainably, and in a way that feeds people more equitably, using less land."
Soil erosion is a big problem caused by modern agriculture. Soil erosion caused the lower Midwestern region of the U.S. to turn into a ‘Dust Bowl' in the 1930s. Michigan State University's (MSU) Sustainable Agriculture Project lists ways to reduce soil erosion, including making soil more fertile through crop rotation. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) defines crop rotation as "growing different crops in succession in the same field" which reduces the need for pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and is a "key element" in dealing with pest problems.
Since the 1970s, a number of innovative ways to produce food have been created. In 1978 an Australian ecologist named Bill Mollison coined the term permaculture, which he defined as the "use of ecology as the basis for designing integrated systems of food productions." The word permaculture is a contraction of "permanent agriculture." The idea of permaculture is to design "ecological human habitats and food production systems."
According to the Permaculture Institute, permaculture designs and manages "ecosystems that are very rich in biodiversity and productivity." Permaculture mimics nature's patterns by using a variety of plants, animals, and uses good land stewardship (left: rather than using pesticides, goats and chickens provide pest control, and can also eat plant scraps and cuttings). It also uses energy efficient buildings, recycles nutrients from a variety of sources, and treats waste water.
In 1994, the University of California at Davis developed the Biologically Integrated Farming Systems (BIFS) to "establish a program that provides extension services, training, and financial incentives for farmers who voluntarily participate in demonstration pilot projects to reduce their use of agricultural chemicals." BIFS uses on-farm demonstration projects to reduce use of herbicides and pesticides by encouraging "beneficial insect populations," and stops soil erosion by using cover crops.
Around the world agricultural land is being ‘swallowed' up by urban sprawl. In the U.S. alone, every year an area "one kilometer wide and stretching from San Francisco to New York is lost to agriculture." One way to stop urban sprawl is to enact tax incentives for farmers to stay on land and not to sell to developers.
Perhaps one way to deal with urban sprawl is to create vertical farms. One proponent of vertical farms, Dickson Despommier, a Columbia University professor of public health, wants to put crops in skyscrapers. It is estimated that one square block of a 30 story vertical farm could feed 10,000 people. Considering that by 2050 almost 80 percent of the world's populations will live in urban areas, vertical farms might be part of the solution.
"The time is at hand for us to learn how to safely grow our food inside environmentally controlled multistory buildings within urban centers," Despommier's website, VerticalFarm.com says. "If we do not, then in just another 50 years, the next 3 billion people will surely go hungry, and the world will become a much more unpleasant place in which to live."
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