Kirschenmann: The debate on feeding the world

On the one hand, it is tacitly assumed that the proper goal is to intensify agriculture so as to produce as much as possible on as little land as possible, thus leaving the maximum possible amount of land under ‘natural’ conditions. On the other hand . . . agro-ecosystems are important components of the natural world . . . their thoughtful management should be part of both a rational production system and a worldwide plan for biodiversity conservation. ― Nature’s Matrix (2010)

The debate is heating up over how to feed nine billion people, the projected population by mid-century.

One side of the debate insists that the “only way” to meet this daunting challenge is to expand our current system of industrial agriculture. From this perspective, our attention is focused solely on developing new technologies to further increase yields of the few crops − namely corn, wheat, soybeans and rice − that have been targeted for breeding work and technology packages since the 1950s. Further intensification of our current system is the “only way” to conserve the remaining “natural” habitats while producing adequate amounts of food for a burgeoning human population. Failure to subscribe to this scenario, it is argued, would require us to transform our remaining forests and wild-lands into agricultural lands to meet increased demand for food.

The other side of the debate doubts that the industrial agriculture of the past 60 years can be sustained much longer, let alone further increase production. The stored, concentrated (cheap) energy, fertilizer, fresh water reserves and the unusually stable climates − all natural resources that sustained the industrial agriculture miracle for the past century − increasingly are in short supply (Cribb 2010). Furthermore, the natural sinks that absorb wastes of this modern input/output system are saturated. Dead zones at the end of modern agricultural watersheds are increasing at a rapid rate. We have overloaded the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, further destabilizing the relatively undisturbed climate that we have enjoyed for the past 11,000 years. This side of the debate questions whether the highly specialized and simplified, large-scale monocultures of industrial agriculture can sustain productivity, let alone increase production, at least without incurring large amounts of environmental damage. It recognizes that agricultural and natural systems are connected by the movement of nutrients, pesticides, genes, pollinators, and other substances and organisms.

The debate confronts us with a crucial question. Since a sustainable future will require both food security and biodiversity restoration, how can we best do both?

The agro-ecological side of the debate is now demonstrating that alternatives exist. Proponents of agro-ecology argue that these alternatives may not only produce as much or more food from the same acreage, but also could do so while enhancing rather than destroying biodiversity and the myriad of environmental and agricultural services biodiversity provides. These new production systems, however, would require a rather significant redesign of our food system.

Peer-reviewed literature is now published regularly that envisions some of these practical new designs. Research at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, indicates that perennial crops could replace many current annual crops. These new perennial varieties reduce input costs, decrease environmental impact, increase food security, add to biodiversity, and improve soil health (Glover 2010). Social scientists Michael Chapel and Liliana LaValle provide important data comparing industrial and agro-ecological systems, and demonstrate that properly designed agro-ecological systems have a much better chance of solving the dual problem of food security and biodiversity restoration than industrial systems (Chapell 2011). University of Michigan ecologist Ivette Perfecto and her colleagues have produced an extensive analysis in their book, Nature’s Matrix: Linking Agriculture, Conservation and Food Sovereignty. They include case studies, suggesting that we could redesign agriculture socially and ecologically to successfully address the dual challenge (Perfecto 2010).

A significant shift away from an industrial to an ecological food paradigm will require dramatic changes in the design of our entire food and agriculture system, and therefore significant investment in experimentation. As Chapell and La Valle point out, much more research will be required to support such a shift.

In the meantime, we could solve a good part of our food-security-in-the-face-of-increasing-population problem by redesigning our food system to dramatically reduce food waste. Australian author Julian Cribb writes that by some estimates we currently produce 4,600 calories of food for every person on the planet every day − more than enough to feed nine billion people. But we only consume 2,000 calories − the rest is wasted (Cribb 2010).

The challenge of climate change, and the time frame it imposes on us, make it imperative that we explore these options sooner rather than later.

Such a monumental transition also will require that we radically rethink our relationship to Mother Earth. Since the beginning of the industrial era we have assumed that nature is a mechanistic collection of objects that humans can manipulate at will for our sole benefit. Unfortunately, that culture still rules. We need to nurture a new culture, one that recognizes nature as a complex, dynamic community of interdependent subjects, and that we are an integral part of that community. Consequently, our health and well-being depends on the health and well-being of the rest of the biotic community.

That awareness takes us back to Aldo Leopold’s admonition to develop “an ecological conscience.”


Perfecto, Ivette, John Vandermeer and Agnus Wright, 2010. Nature’s Matrix: Linking Agriculture, Conservation and Food Sovereignty. Washington, DC: Earthscan.

Cribb, Julian, 2010. The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Glover, Jerry and John Reganold, 2010. “Perennial grains: Food security for the future," Issues in Science and Technology Winter:41-47.

Chappell, Michael Jahi and Lilian A. LaValle, 2011. “Food security and biodiversity: Can we have both? An agroecological analysis,” Agriculture and Human Values 28(1):3-26.