Malawi farmer photo

Rufina Gibson weeds a peanut patch on her farm in Malawi’s Dedza district. African farmers typically raise several crops and animals on their farms, which provides environmental and nutritional advantages over single-crop farming, but productivity is lower than it could be. Stevie Mann/International Livestock Research Institute

Rebecca Nelson, who teaches international agriculture at Cornell University when she’s not zooming around Africa and Latin America, thinks a lot about the future of farming. She also happens to be my wife. On a recent long-distance car trip, I grilled her on some of the ideas she’s been working on. I may be biased, but I think they’re pretty important.

Since the middle of the last century, she says, farmers in the world’s wealthier countries have been practicing what we’ve come to know as “modern” agriculture. They plant scientifically improved seeds in soil that’s been fortified with synthetic fertilizers. They apply insecticides, herbicides and fungicides to protect the plants as they grow. Irrigation solves the age-old problem of unreliable water.

Value judgments aside, this is essentially an industrial model. Its operating principle is “optimized simplicity.” You reduce the number of moving (and living) parts and make the individual elements as robust as you can. If something isn’t working, you swap it out for something better. You measure success by subtracting the cost of your inputs from the value of your outputs.

The Green Revolution, which boosted rice and wheat production in much of lowland Asia and Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, was basically the extension of this model to the developing world. Vast areas of land were planted with the same crop varieties, and governments and other agencies provided farmers with subsidized seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, energy and loans. It was a powerful package, and it produced.

Scientists often get the credit for the technical breakthroughs – hybrid crops, nitrogen fertilizers – that made this revolution possible. But the real driver, Rebecca argues, was a seemingly limitless supply of oil – oil for fertilizer, for pesticides, for tractors, for pumps, for milling, for storage, for processing, for hauling. Oil didn’t just bump up yields; it also dramatically reduced the number of people needed for farming, fueling an epic migration from the countryside to the cities. For many political leaders, adding oil to agriculture was a crucial first step toward the ultimate goal of an advanced industrial economy.

If oil was cheap and abundant in the 20th century, information was expensive and scarce. It typically was locked away in industry and university labs. When the experts were ready to release it, they did so carefully, providing clear instructions on its proper use and (with some notable exceptions) protecting their rights of ownership.

Today, the world is different. We know that oil, water and land are finite resources and that their costs are only going up. We know that our love affair with fossil fuels has been disastrous for the climate and has created huge new challenges for food production in the places least equipped to deal with them. We know that chemical fertilizers create dead zones in our oceans and release greenhouse gases 300 times stronger than carbon dioxide. We know that pesticides can upset the balance of delicate ecosystems and pose serious hazards to human health. We know that monocultures are not just environmentally destructive, but also undermine good nutrition. We know that separating animal husbandry from the cultivation of crops produces enormous amounts of pollution and waste.  

The most important words in that last paragraph are “we know.” Because if oil is no longer cheap and abundant, information suddenly is. Not just in wealthy countries, but in poor ones, too. Most Indians and Africans have cellphones. The Internet is reaching places that only recently got electricity. An unprecedented amount of data is now available to nearly anyone who wants it, and nearly anyone can upload his or her own.

What that data tells us, more than anything, is that the world is a diverse and complex place. Soils, climates and cultures vary greatly, even within small areas. And ecosystems, economies and societies behave more like living organisms than factories or machines. Everything is connected and everything interacts – a bacterium on the root of a plant with the quality of local schools with the transparency of national governments with the acidity of distant seas.

In a world like that, a food production system based on optimized simplicity seems quaint at best. Rebecca says we’d do better to aim for optimized complexity. Call it post-modern agriculture.

She’s hardly the only person thinking this way. There’s a growing buzz in agriculture circles about the promise of “agroecology” – an approach to farming that looks for synergies and complementarities among crops, trees, livestock, birds, insects, microbes, soil, water and people.

There also has been a much broader embrace of the notion of “multifunctionality,” which sees agriculture not just as a means for churning out food, but also for providing employment, preserving wildlife habitat, sequestering carbon, protecting the soil and water, and fostering health and happiness.

What’s so post-modern about all that? For 10,000 years, most of the world’s farms have been, to some degree, ecological and multifunctional. But with a more difficult climate, degraded soils, diminishing water supplies, competition for land and labor, changing diets and billions more mouths to feed, few of those farms are as productive, or as resilient, as they urgently need to be.

And as they can be. Research has shown that integrated farms that recycle nutrients, use natural pest control and produce many different products aren’t just easier on the environment, but they also can provide more food and fiber than industrial farms. And they can be less vulnerable to upsets like pest infestations, disease outbreaks, flooding and drought. 

So what does a post-modern farm look like? Is it high tech or low tech? Grand scale or small scale? Labor intensive or capital intensive? There’s no single answer – and that’s the point. There are so many variables, from the biological to the physical to the political to the economic. What makes sense in one place may be totally inappropriate in another. 

Finding suitable solutions will take time and effort and lots of input from lots of people, from scientists and policymakers to farmers and consumers. And that gives Rebecca heart. Because a complex system based on information, creativity and local knowledge is likely to be more enduring – and more empowering – than a simple one based on oil. 

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Jonathan Miller is executive director of Homelands Productions, a journalism cooperative specializing in public radio features and documentaries. As a freelance journalist, he has reported from Asia, Latin America, Africa, Europe and the U.S. for NPR, BBC, CBC, American Public Media's Marketplace, Monitor Radio, VOA, Radio Netherlands and Radio Deutsche Welle. He also has written for The New Yorker, Condé Nast Traveler, Parents, American Way, The Christian Science Monitor and many other publications. For 13 years, he lived and worked in the Philippines and Peru. 

Jon is currently serving as executive producer of "Food for 9 Billion," a collaborative project of Homelands Productions, the Center for Investigative Reporting, American Public Media's Marketplace, PRI's The World, and PBS NewsHour. He was executive producer of Homelands' award-winning "WORKING" project profiling workers in the global economy (2007-09) and the "Worlds of Difference" series about the responses of traditional societies to rapid cultural change (2002-05).