Sustaining the world's population, which will likely climb to 9 billion by 2050, sounds like an overwhelming challenge until you break it down into smaller steps. In the hands of individuals, there is the promise of a lush and fruitful future. Science, at last, is beginning to back me up.
Industrial flaws • Industrial agriculture just isn't sustainable. The way our current food system operates is sadly lacking in its ability to nourish people properly.
On one hand, a staggering percentage of the world's population is starving, and on the other hand, in "developed" countries like ours obesity has become a leading cause of illness and death. More than half of adults in the U.S. are overweight. This ailing system takes its toll on the environment as well. Industrial agriculture gobbles up soil and water so recklessly that it is depleting resources. To make matters worse, the use of synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers used to extend resources beyond their natural production capacity are destroying the biological integrity of the land, polluting waterways and ultimately reducing agricultural productivity. It's a vicious cycle that's starting to collapse.
A better system • There are great strides being made in the fields of organic and conservation agriculture, systems of farming that work with natural resources, not against them. For example, the soil-damaging practice of intensive plowing is being replaced by the planting of cover crops and the rotation of food crops to naturally boost soil productivity.
Environmentally conscious agriculture also reduces irrigation requirements and improves energy efficiency of farming operations. In a review of 286 projects in 57 countries, farmers were found to have increased agricultural productivity by an average of 79 percent by adopting "resource-conserving" agriculture.
Ways to help • There are important contributions everyone can make to create a worldwide sustainable food system that do not always cost more money and time. Here are four steps.
Take one, or take them all. What matters is that each of us starts putting one foot in front of the other.
1. Begin close to home by buying food that is grown locally. This simple shift in shopping will support small farms and channel dollars directly into the local economy. If you need help finding sources, visit LocalHarvest.org.
2. Request locally grown preferably organic products from your hometown grocer, and encourage others to do the same. Store managers are often eager to accommodate customer requests, and you can increase your chances of success by providing a list of local growers.
3. Grow your own. Homegrown food isn't a pipe dream, no matter where you live or how little space you have. The kitchen windowsill can host an herb garden, and an ordinary file box can grow an all-you-can-eat zucchini crop. Find out how in the "Column Extras" section at www.maryjanesfarm.com/column.
4. Donate to an organization that is doing great things for global food security, such as Heifer Project International (www.heifer.org). Based on the simple idea of giving families a source of food rather than short-term relief, Heifer provides training in progressive agricultural practices, and helps build strong communities as each project participant agrees to assist another family in need.
MaryJane Butters is the editor of MaryJanesFarm magazine. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org .