The convergence of rapid population growth and climate change threaten our ability to feed everybody. But our thinking about solutions has been a monocultural reflection of how we grow our food. A recent Guardian article suggests switching to organic farming could cut greenhouse gas emissions and still feed the world.
What we don’t need
We don’t need more “business as usual agriculture”. The 2016 IPES-Food report (page 54) warns us that “feed the world” narratives are one of eight “lock-ins” that inhibits our collective ability to rethink the way we grow food. Advocates of current industrial food systems claim that massive monocultures, synthetic fertilisers, genetically modified crops and toxic chemicals are essential to feed the world. But if we follow the money we are more likely to find they are serving their financial ambition rather than any altruistic concern for the greater good.
But we also don’t need purist ideologies about how food should be produced. Rather a diversity of solutions should be explored with each assessed on its own merits.
Here are some solutions. Some will work better in a country such as mine (New Zealand) where population density is low, but every bit of food grown (and not wasted) helps.
1. Rethink what it means to be “organic”
Can food only be called organic if it is grown in the soil? Can organic food be grown hydroponically? When I first studied soil science about 40 years ago, conventional horticulture relied on a handful of macronutrients and micronutrients. Now high quality products are available that supply nutrients and important microbial constituents (Rok Soild is my preferred fertiliser). USDA organic certification is now available to qualifying hydroponic, aeroponic, and aquaponic crop systems.
Since the early days of hydroponics, growers have learned how growing in a more controlled environment can reduce or eliminate the need for pesticides. And in these systems herbicides just aren’t needed.
These containers are “vertical farms” used by food banks. Crops are grown inside using LED light and energy efficient heating enabling year around production. Aerofarms farms vertically on a bigger scale.
This system has detractors but it seems a good option for growing food close to where it is needed without nasty chemicals.
2. Try aquaponics
Aquaponics is another option – combining fish and produce production.
Ben Smith is a local advocate of aquaponics.
3. End our obsession with lawns
Lawns are beautiful additions to the landscape and great places for children to play. But in our towns and cities (especially in New Zealand) we waste too much energy mowing lawns when we could be growing more food.
Here is a kiwi example of optimising urban lawn space to create lots of food.
4. Collapse the ornamental/food dichotomy
Most of us have grown up in the traditional garden where food production and ornamentals have there own space. Municipal parks departments also have difficulties coping with the concept of mixing the two. After all fruit trees drop fruit and can be messy! But imagine a landscape where children can eat feijoas, citrus and passionfruit on their way to school. For some, it might be the most nutritious food they get that day. This video shows how a group in Portland Oregon, “glean” fruit to distribute to the needy. Couple this with an intensification of fruit tree plantings in public spaces and we bring good food closer to those that need it.
5. Diversify protein
I’m not sure how I feel about lab grown meat, but it gets around some of the environmental problems that are presently coupled with intensified agricultural systems.
A new initiative in New Zealand produces a “chicken free chicken” out of pea protein.
So here’s a diverse range of approaches to getting food to people. What is most important is for people to make their own assessment about what works best for them and their communities and to have a whole lot of tolerance for other ways of growing food.