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Five Major Challenges Facing North American Agriculture

April 18, 2012 |

Over the next 40 years, world population is expected to swell to 9 billion people. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that in that time global food production will need to increase by 70 percent in order to prevent massive famine. Simultaneously, producers must learn to cope with changes in climate, intensification of floods and droughts, depletion of resources, and dramatic political shifts. Meeting the coming demand for food will mean addressing these large challenges head on. 

The following five challenges to the future of agriculture and food security exist on almost every continent in one form or another: constraints on resources from fossil fuel to water to phosphorus; land management problems resulting from tillage to monoculture to improper grazing practices; food waste from spoilage to produce culled by retailers; demographic changes; and government policy. This article focuses on the impact that these challenges have upon North America.

The agricultural systems of the United States, Canada, and Mexico are interconnected through the North American Free Trade Agreement. Although the economic and political landscape of Mexico differs a great deal from Canada and the U.S., all three countries face similar agricultural challenges, from the high resource costs related to industrial agriculture; to degraded farmland; to excessive food waste coupled with food insecurity; to an increasingly urbanized public that is disconnected from farming; to the role of big business in food.

Resource Depletion: The Costs of Industrial Agriculture 

From mechanized feedlots to automatic irrigation systems to agricultural machinery, North American agriculture has become increasingly industrialized, placing ever-greater demands on fossil fuel, water and topsoil resources. Petroleum not only fuels trucks and mechanized farm equipment, but also serves as a base for synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, tying the cost of growing food increasingly closer to the price of oil. “We have an industrial agricultural system that’s totally dependent on the assumption that cheap fossil fuels will last forever,” says sustainable food and farming professor, John Gerber of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “That’s not a useful assumption anymore.” Many believe that the world has already passed “peak oil”, the point where the volume of oil reserves reaches its highest point and begins to decline. Gerber sees potential for reducing fossil fuel consumption in the integration of crop and livestock agriculture.

According to the US Geological Society, the amount of ground water drawn for use in irrigation has tripled since the 1950s. While water resources are not permanently finite, they do have limits. Climate models also suggest that rainfall may become less predictable and dependable. Professor Nicholas Jordan of the University of Minnesota believes the foremost challenge facing all agricultural systems is the ability to achieve some level of resilience to intensified bursts of rains followed by extensive periods of drought.

Agricultural production places additional stress on water supply by polluting water bodies with chemical runoff. The EPA cites agricultural runoff as the leading cause of pollution of lakes and rivers. Professor Jordan adds that making sure that farmers make good use of nitrogen and other agricultural additives before they leave the farm would not only reduce pollution of water and ecosystems, but also help to cut down on fossil fuel consumption. He says that planting cover crops like legumes, which scavenge nitrogen, prevents the nitrogen from leaching into the groundwater while storing it for later use by future crops.

Farmers’ dependence on nitrogen supplements stems in part from the erosion of topsoil. While topsoil loss has decreased 43% from the period 1982 – 2007, the USDA reports that 1.73 billion tons of topsoil are still lost each year. “Soil is eroding much faster than it can be replenished—taking with it the land’s fertility and nutrients that nourish both plants and those who eat them,” wrote Leo Horrigan, et. al., researchers at the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in their 2002 article published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives. Horrigan and his colleagues charge that agriculture is one of the leading causes of desertification, citing “poor agricultural practices such as overcultivation, overgrazing, and overuse of water…” While in the past we have been able to expand agricultural croplands in order to meet increased demand for food, viable land for expansion is rapidly running out. According to the online database of country-specific facts and statistics, Index Mundi, the amount of arable land in North America has declined from 1.1 hectares per person in 1961 to 0.61 hectares per person in 2009. Changing land management approaches may be the only way forward.

Land Management: Degrading and Undervaluing Farmland

Throughout much of North America, especially in the United States, land management techniques have been draining the soil of nutritional value. Monoculture, the practice of continually planting the same solitary crop on one plot of farmland, removes nutrients from the soil that must be replenished with additional fertilizers. Many corn, soybean, and wheat farmers have switched to rotating crops from year to year to replenish the soil naturally. A USDA study of cover crops in sustainable agriculture found that interspersing cover crops in the field can prevent weed propagation and promote predator insects to naturally manage pests. At the end of the growing season, the cover crops can be worked into the soil, becoming added organic matter that increases water-holding before breaking down and replenishing the soil.

Livestock management is another major contributor to the degradation of farmable land. According to the 2009 textbook, Environmental Science by Daniel D. Chiras, continual overgrazing eliminates hardy grasses, creates dry soil conditions, and promotes the growth of weedy shrubs, such as sagebrush. Jim Howell, co-founder of The Savory Institute believes that the key to reversing desertification—and ultimately increasing food production—lies in holistic grazing practices. The Savory Institute promotes a managed grazing system developed by Alan Savory in Zimbabwe that involves keeping cattle in one location for just one week—just long enough to enrich a swath of future farmland with a carpet of dung. While the concept may seem simple, the practice involves extensive planning to allow grasslands to replenish before returning livestock to graze again. Howell believes that land and cattle management holds tremendous potential for intensifying food production.

Food Waste: Compromising Food Security 

The United Nations estimates that one-third of the world’s food goes to waste, either during agricultural production, post-harvest handling and storage, processing, distribution, or consumption. In North America, a large percentage of this loss comes from consumers wasting food. Consumers accustomed to an abundance of food often purchase more than they actually eat, tossing spoiled food out at the end of every week. As the old saying goes, people’s eyes are often bigger than their stomachs, and they pile up their plates at family style and buffet meals, throwing away whatever remains when they feel full. According to a 2011 UN study conducted for the International Congress, on average, each individual in North America wastes between 200-250 pounds of food per year.

Additionally, North American consumer expectations that fruits and vegetable should be pristine and without blemish means that supermarkets and restaurants are forced to reject produce that is edible yet aesthetically imperfect due to an unusual shape, size or color. Further demand for extensive selection causes supermarkets to purchase an excess of produce, driving prices up and increasing potential for spoilage.

Despite this seeming excess of food, hunger remains a significant problem throughout North America. The Canadian Community Health Survey of 2007-2008 reported nearly one million food insecure Canadian households. In the United States, 17 million households experienced food insecurity in 2010 according the USDA. Mexico’s National Evaluation Council on Social Development (CONEVAL) estimated in a 2008 study that 49 million Mexicans experienced some form of food insecurity.

Excessive food waste threatens to compromise every effort to increase food production. According to the EPA, Americans generated 34 million tons of food waste in 2010. One million tons of that was recovered and recycled. The remainder was thrown away. Food that is currently sent to rot in landfills where it decomposes and releases greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere could be better distributed to bridge the gap between those with excess and the hungry. Food that spoils can be re-integrated into the food chain as compost. Howell of The Savoy Institute says that he would like to see food waste be diverted to hogs. “Right now we waste massive amounts of food in cities. All that used to be fed to hogs, but it became economically viable to feed them grain.” He says that returning slop feeding would enable us to continue to produce hogs in a way that they would no longer compete with humans for food sources.

Addressing the massive problem of food waste calls for a tremendous shift in mentality that favors conservation over convenience, a reversal of the trends of the last 50 years.

Demographic Changes: A Disconnected Public

In North American, the last 50 years have brought a major cultural shift that has removed consumers further and further away from their food sources. U.S. Census data from 2010 showed around 80% of Americans living in urban areas. The Mexican Household Survey conducted by Harvard School of Public Health found that in the last forty years, the number of Mexicans living in urban areas rose from 51 percent to 74 percent. According the Canadian Geographic, two-thirds of the entire population of Canada lives in one of eight urban environments. Swelling cities and their surrounding suburbs form an ever-thickening barrier between farming communities and consumers. If you ask the majority of young children where food comes from they will say, “from the grocery store.”

Entire neighborhoods, known as food deserts, have no fresh produce for sale. In many low-income urban areas fast food restaurants and convenience stores have become the only accessible sources of food. These so-called food deserts are most common in racially segregated urban areas where low-income neighborhoods are relatively isolated from the rest of the city. The USDA estimates that over 20 million Americans live in so-called food deserts.

As urban areas grow, farmers receive increasing pressures from encroaching developers and communities to sell their land, says Jack Rabin of Rutgers University. The result is a phenomenon known as ‘impermanence syndrome’ where urban fringe farming is squeezed out of existence. As he explains on the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station website, the land has become so valuable to developers that many farmers cannot afford not to sell, and would be farmers cannot find affordable land.

Further, Rabin suggests a largely disconnected public translates to intolerant neighbors. Residents of newly developed suburban communities are unaccustomed to the smells and sounds of farming life. In New Jersey, he has seen an increase in land-use disputes between farmer and non-farming neighbors. He estimates that these conflicts cost New Jersey farmers on average $25,000 per year, becoming one more incentive for farmers to leave agriculture.

Political Issues: The Business of Food

While consumer habit has a profound effect on food, government policy bears just as heavily on the industry. Agriculture is a multi-billion dollar industry with powerful lobbyists. Monsanto recently launched a successful $2 million dollar campaign to push their genetically modified alfalfa through USDA approval. In the United States, big money has a big say in what happens in agriculture.

In Mexico, the North American Free Trade Agreement has had an outsized impact on farmers and played a major role in battering the agriculture sector in the country. According to a McLatchy Article, the two decades old trade agreement has been blamed for the loss of 2 million farm jobs in Mexico resulting from a flood of U.S. corn imports, combined with subsidies that favor agribusiness. The trade agreement was supposed to boost development in Mexico, creating enough jobs to stem the flow of workers crossing over the border in search of work. Instead, the free trade agreement has enabled foreign countries to export food tariff-free, pricing Mexican farmers out of the market.

Meanwhile in the United States, this past fall, untold amounts of food remained rotting on the vine due to a shortage of migrant workers. Recent tightening on immigration policy has drastically cut down on the nation’s imported workforce at a time when very few Americans have any connection to farming let alone a desire to work on one.

Addressing existing food insecurity and preparing to feed a growing population will require careful consideration of each of these complex challenges at the local, regional, and international level.

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