Is Our Food Supply Sustainable?

John Michael Greer shows how common sense has been left behind by Big Agriculture. Does anyone see the link between rapid growth and bubbles that pop?

Link: Thinking like an Ecosystem

To grow food crops in today’s world, do you draw on the dozens of readily available and sustainable sources of plant nutrients, which happen to be the sources that plants have evolved to assimilate most readily? Do you cooperate with the soil’s ecology, which has coevolved with plants to store, distribute, and dispense these same nutrients to plants? Do you even recognize that food plants, like every other living thing, are part of ecological communities, and thrive best when those communities receive the very modest resources they need to flourish?

Not a chance. No, you get your nutrients from nonrenewable sources, because that’s where you can get them in chemically pure and highly concentrated forms, even though plants don’t benefit from having them in those forms; you treat soil as though it was a sterile medium serving only to hold plants upright and provide a sponge to hold irrigation water and chemicals, and then do your best to make it a sterile medium; you use chemical poisons to stomp the crap out of any attempt by any other living thing to help form an ecosystem involving your plants; and then you wonder why you’re stuck in a perpetual uphill battle against declining soil fertility, chemical-resistant weeds and bugs, water supplies poisoned with chemical runoff, and all the rest of it.If some evil genius had set out to invent an agricultural system that was guaranteed to self-destruct as messily as possible, I’m not sure he could have done a better job.

Still, because these are the customs we’ve all grown up with, the ways of thinking fostered by this sort of giddy ecological idiocy seem like common sense to most people. Recent discussions about “peak phosphorus” are a case in point. Our current agriculture relies on mineral phosphates, which are mined from a small number of highly concentrated phosphate rock deposits that located in odd corners of the world and are being depleted at a rapid pace. (Does this sound familiar?) The conclusion too often drawn from this is that the world faces mass starvation in the near future, because you can’t grow food crops without phosphate for fertilizer, and where will we get the phosphate?

There’s a point to these worries, since our current agricultural system is probably incapable of churning out food at anything like its current pace without those rapidly depleting mineral inputs, and even the very rapid expansion of organic farming under way in North America and elsewhere probably won’t be fast enough to prevent shortfalls. Still, it has too often been generalized into a claim that the exhaustion of rock phosphate reserves means inevitable mass famine, and this is true only to the extent that current notions of industrial agriculture remain welded into place and nobody gets to work building the next agriculture in the interstices of the present system.

It may already have occurred to my readers, after all, and has certainly occurred to me, that somehow plants grew all over the world’s land surfaces in vast abundance for something like three quarters of a billion years without any phosphate fertilizer at all. If this suggests that there’s something wrong with the logic that insists that we can’t grow plants without chemicals, it should. Nor are food crops somehow uniquely dependent on stuff out of test tubes.