09 Apr 2012: Opinion

The Folly of Big Agriculture:
Why Nature Always Wins

Large-scale industrial agriculture depends on engineering the land to ensure the absence of natural diversity. But as the recent emergence of herbicide-tolerant weeds on U.S. farms has shown, nature ultimately finds a way to subvert uniformity and assert itself.

by verlyn klinkenborg

In its short, shameless history, big agriculture has had only one big idea: uniformity. The obvious example is corn. The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts that American farmers — big farmers — will plant 94 million acres of corn this year. That’s the equivalent of planting corn on every inch of Montana. To do that you’d have to make sure that every inch of Montana fell within corn-growing parameters. That would mean leveling the high spots, irrigating the dry spots, draining the wet spots, fertilizing the infertile spots, and so on. Corn is usually grown where the terrain is less rigorous than it is in Montana. But even in Iowa that has meant leveling, irrigating, draining, fertilizing, and, of course, spraying.

You can argue whether uniformity is the result of efficiency or vice versa. But let’s suppose that efficiency is merely the economic expression of uniformity. The point is this: When you see a Midwestern cornfield, you know you’re looking at nature with one idea superimposed upon it. This is far less confusing, less tangled in variation than the nature you find even in the roadside ditches beside a cornfield or in a last scrap of native prairie growing
Rather than change the earth to suit a crop, a reasonable agriculture would diversify crops to suit the earth.
in a graveyard or along an abandoned railroad right-of-way. Nature is puzzling. Corn is stupefying.

Humans have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the big idea behind nature is. It’s hard to tell, because we live at nature’s pace and within the orb of human abstraction. We barely notice the large-scale differences from year to year, much less the minute ones. But if we could speed up time a little and become a lot more perceptive, we would see that nature’s big idea is to try out life wherever and however it can be tried, which means everywhere and anyhow. The result — over time and at this instant — is diversity, complexity, particularity, and inventiveness to an extent our minds are almost unfitted to conceive.

A reasonable agriculture would do its best to emulate nature. Rather than change the earth to suit a crop — which is what we do with corn and soybeans and a handful of other agricultural commodities — it would diversify its crops to suit the earth. This is not going to happen in big agriculture, because big agriculture is irrational. It’s where we expose — at unimaginable expense — our failure to grasp how nature works. It’s where uniformity is always defeated eventually by diversity and where big agriculture’s ideas of diversity are revealed to be as uniform as ever.

To a uniform crop like corn, farmers have been encouraged to apply a uniform herbicide to kill weeds. Modern corn is genetically engineered to not be killed by the herbicide in ubiquitous use. Mostly, that herbicide has been glyphosate, marketed under the Monsanto trade name Roundup. Farmers have sprayed and over-sprayed billions of gallons of Roundup thanks to an
To broadleaf weeds, Roundup is not the apocalypse. It is simply a modest, temporal challenge.
economic and moral premise: corn good, weeds bad. And yet you can’t help noticing that it has done nothing to stop the endless inventiveness of nature.

To broadleaf weeds and soil microorganisms, Roundup is not the apocalypse. It is simply a modest, temporal challenge, which is why, 15 years after genetically-engineered, Roundup-tolerant crops were widely introduced, it’s no longer working against spontaneous new generations of Roundup-tolerant weeds, especially in cotton fields. This is because research, in nature’s laboratory, never stops. It explores every possibility. It never lacks funding. It is never demoralized by failed experiments. It cannot be lobbied.

To fix the problem of glyphosate-tolerant weeds, Dow Chemical is hoping to introduce crop varieties that will withstand being sprayed with an herbicide called 2,4-D. When it was first released to farmers in 1946, 2,4-D was a breakthrough — a herbicide that killed only certain kinds of plants instead of killing them all. It’s less safe than glyphosate, especially because it’s sometimes contaminated with dioxin. But it’s not an indiscriminate, lethal killer, despite the fact that it was one of the chemicals in Agent Orange, the notorious defoliant used during the Vietnam War. (The dioxin in Agent Orange came from another component chemical called 2,4,5-T.)

Still, this is backward-engineering of a sort, like trying to breed birds that will tolerate DDT. And while the USDA hasn’t decided whether to approve Dow’s 2,4-D-tolerant soybeans yet, it has decided to speed up the process of reviewing genetically-engineered crops, mainly to help deal with the spread of so-called superweeds caused by the nearly universal application of glyphosate for the last decade and a half. According to Dow’s numbers, superweeds affected some 60 million acres of crops last year. If things go right, bureaucratically, that is just so much cash in Dow’s pocket.


Can Reforming the Farm Bill
Help Change U.S. Agriculture?

Can Reforming the Farm Bill Help Change U.S. Agriculture?
For decades, farm bills in the U.S. Congress have supported large-scale agriculture. But with the 2012 Farm Bill now up for debate, Jim Robbins writes, advocates say seismic shifts in the way the nation views food production may lead to new policies that tilt more toward local, sustainable agriculture.
“Farmers need technology right now to help them with issues such as weed resistance,” a Dow official said last month. Translation? Farmers need technology right now to help them with issues created by right-now technology introduced 15 years ago. Instead of urging farmers away from uniformity and toward greater diversity, the USDA is helping them do the same old wrong thing faster. When an idea goes bad, the USDA seems to think, the way to fix it is to speed up the introduction of ideas that will go bad for exactly the same reason. And it’s always, somehow, the same bad idea: the uniform application of an anti-biological agent, whether it’s a pesticide in crops or an antibiotic on factory farms. The result is always the same. Nature finds a way around it, and quickly.

This is the irrationality of agriculture as it’s practiced in the United States and now all over the world. It has one big idea, and it will never give it up, because it has invested everything in that one big idea. Against uniformity and abstraction — embodied in millions of acres of genetically-modified crops — nature will always win. Whether it can ever win against the uniformity and abstraction embodied in the human brain is very much in doubt.

POSTED ON 09 Apr 2012 IN Business & Innovation Climate Forests Science & Technology Science & Technology Sustainability Asia North America North America 


The author overlooks one little problem. That being how do we feed the human population of the planet with his quaint little vision of of local agriculture.

"An idealist is one who upon noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage concludes that it will also make better soup." H.L. Menkin

Posted by Dennis M. Dixon on 09 Apr 2012

Excellent article though the news of this trend is disturbing...and will go largely unreported as all pesticide issues do. I guess it was bound to happen, the manufacturers moving to a higher toxic profile for the broadly applied plant tolerant herbicide as a panacea for monoculture, clean farming and chemical resistance. Part of the problem for wildlife toxicologically, is the potential for synergism in the field and cumulative impacts on soils, water, microorganisms on up.

Movement toward a more diversified agriculture that actually feeds people (not solely local, not all corn and soybeans) is happening, but perhaps too slowly and with little impact on dominant industrial practice.

Thanks for this piece.

Posted by Kelley Tucker on 09 Apr 2012

"Against uniformity and abstraction — embodied in millions of acres of genetically-modified crops — nature will always win."

It's a great point. But what would a food system that's more in harmony with nature look like?

There are few "natural" foods. Wild fish, mushrooms, maybe raspberries. Every form of agriculture seeks in some way to tame nature.

And efficiency is much more than "merely the economic expression of uniformity." Efficiency is the way we're going to be able to produce the food we need, with the land and water we have, to feed the 7 billion people living on earth.

Posted by Marc Gunther on 09 Apr 2012

Feeding the world is not actually a problem with local, diverse agriculture. We have been "convinced" that it is. However, actual practice has shown just the opposite. You can feed more people with numerous smaller-scale, diverse farms and gardens while maintaining or enriching biodiversity and stabilizing soils and forests.

One of the first keys to successfully implementing this system is understand the larger picture in the way that rivers and forests affect nearby land. We must stop diverting rivers and destroying forests, for the maintain beneficial conditions for farmland. It is also possible to (albeit slowly) repopulate arid regions with plant life and start to rebuild soil.

An agriculture in harmony with nature cannot be achieved with a polarized debate of truly wild vs manmade, with the implication that since it is madmade then there is no limit as to how extreme it can be made. Rather, it must be acknowledged that yes, it is manmade to some extent, but let us minimize this. Let us observe nature and as closely as possible model our agriculture on the way nature works. It can be done.

Posted by Consider on 09 Apr 2012

Dennis Dixon and Marc Gunther both make the mistake of assuming that Roundup Ready crops have something to do with feeding the world. That's nonsense. Neither the trait nor the crops that bear it serve this purpose.

The Roundup Ready (RR) trait is designed to make weed control easier for a short time, and less labor-intensive, so that already huge farms can get still bigger. These in any case dubious "benefits" are rapidly being eliminated by massive evolution of resistant weeds, which lead to more herbicide applications, more tillage (and soil erosion) and even manual weeding by hoe on hundreds of thousands of acres (see http://southeastfarmpress.com/cotton/pigweed-threatens-georgia-cotton-industry-0706/). How's that for efficiency, Marc?

Soybeans and corn are the major RR crops. They are overwhelmingly used to feed cattle for meat production in rich nations (here and Europe, Japan, S. Korea), or to fuel cars in rich nations (35-40\% of US corn is used to make ethanol).

Marc Gunther asks what would a food system more in harmony with nature look like? That's precisely what organic agriculture is all about. Building soil quality through incorporation of organic matter in the soil (modeled on leaves decaying in forest soils) to increase yields and nutritional quality of crops. Use of cover crops off-season (adding biological diversity to ag'l fields). Long-term trials of organic vs. conventional show decisively that it can equal conventional industrial ag'l yields, after a 3-5 year period of soil-building to restore soil quality degraded by industrial practices, and much more cheaply as inputs are dramatically reduced. See http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/fst30years.

It's so sad to see people with so little knowledge of agriculture base their opinions on tired journalistic cliches like modern vs. "quaint."

Thankfully, more and more people are leaving behind such cliches, and when they do, organic and low-input systems (sparing use of agrochemicals) emerge as eminently practical and efficient and inexpensive techniques to increase food production. One high-profile convert is Howard Buffett, son of Warren, who is advocating a "brown revolution" to increase food production in Africa, very much in line with basic principles of organic agriculture. See http://www.foxnews.com/us/2011/10/12/buffett-new-approach-needed-on-hunger-in-africa/

Posted by Bill Freese on 09 Apr 2012

I've not known any large-scale farmers who are all that interested in "feeding the world" because their actions speak louder than any words they might spout. Most "big agriculture" farmers' actions are a total effort to gain the highest caloric yield per acre at the lowest overhead for the best price they can find for that commodity -- regardless of how or where that calorie is used.

This "feed the world" montra is as worn out as the roads required to transport grain to silos. The average American citizen would be amazed at what fraction of commodity crops are grown for direct human consumption. No one I know eats feed corn or fuel corn or cotton. At best, commodity crops that are grown for human consumption are processed beyond their nutritional value and provide little else than nearly inert ingredents for a product that offers little for humans or the land.

Those who rhetorically ask how other ag systems can possibly feed the planet's population typically aren't willing to accept the alternatives, which is part of Mr. Klinkenborg's point here. There are mountains of data and pragmatic applications all over the world for honest and open-minded practitioners to see just how people can be fed with an approach that features diversity. This is not pollyanna, but practical.

Posted by Hebron Acres on 09 Apr 2012

In answer to Dennis M. Dixon

A better soup is a matter of opinion and taste. Rose petal soup is jam packed with nutrients cabbage does not possess.

The propaganda campaign regarding feeding the world with a monocrop culture was born out of industries that stood to gain from this experiment, the food industry and chemical companies. Using the same logic biotech/chemical companies spawned GMO crops which is now being recognized as another corporate driven failing experiment as yields are temporarily increased and then abruptly decline with catastrophic effects.

Great article Verlyn. Idealism is imperative for our return to nature.

Sherry Strong
author of Return to Food

Posted by Sherry Strong on 09 Apr 2012

The author doesn't mention who the corn is being grown for — cows. If we stop feeding so much corn to cows, there would be a lot more food for people.

Running the corn — or any food — through livestock wastes enormous amounts of energy.

Eat less meat.

Posted by Kristin on 09 Apr 2012

There is a slight problem with quantitative "we must feed the world" statements — the world already produces too much food.

According to the FAO and the UN Special Raporteur on the Right to Food, in 2008 the world produced enough food for 12 billion people. Yet 1 billion humans were chronically malnourished, 1 billion were obese, the environmental indicators are heading south, as are the farmers livelihoods. All are symptoms of a meta system in crisis that is qualitative in nature and yet we continue to offer reductionist quantitative solutions.

As a farmer I know that the monoculture of mind that calls for a doubling of food production to feed the world will end in tears — for the planet and all of us.

Posted by Michael Croft on 09 Apr 2012

Many Third World farmers understand the need for biodiversity and working with, rather than against, nature. Yet, the biotech companies (like Monsanto) are trying to impose failing GM crops on farmers in developing nations to make them as unsustainable as American farmers have become. Monsanto's objective is increasing profits, not helping farmers.

Posted by David Nuttle on 10 Apr 2012

Change agriculture for medicine and you'll have the same problem: nature always prevails. But that doesn't mean we should stop trying bringing better ways of life for the growing world's population.

Posted by Nicolás Mutis on 10 Apr 2012

I would suggest people read Nicole Johnson's excellent and well-researched article, "History, HACCP and the Food Safety Con Job" for a history of the entire issue.

To put it very bluntly the multi-national Ag cartel wants a monopoly on food. That is the next big money maker. Just look at the land grab in Africa and everywhere else including the USA.

To do this the Ag Cartel must get rid of small farmers/gardeners. If you want to see what is planned for the future read "Trojan Horse Law: The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009" by the lawyer Hans Bader. A one-sentence amendment to insert the commerce clause that was taken out of the final bill is all that stands between the home gardener and the large foot of the FDA. Even that amendment may not be necessary considering this case: MARILYN SHEPARD d/b/a CEDARCREST KENNEL vs USDA - AWA – Commerce clause – Intrastate commerce.

The World Trade Organization Agreement on Agriculture, written by the VP of Cargill, was the instrument used to force nations into wiping out their small independent farmers. In the USA the "Food Safety" Modernization Act of 2010 will soon be the death of US independent farmers as the multi-million dollar fines in the Dollarite Bunny case shows.

Large Corporations will not be held to any real standard only the independent farmers whose land is the target. (See SHIELDING THE GIANT: USDA's “Don't Look, Don't Know” Policy)

Thanks to generous campaign donations, regulations are now made for the express purpose of protecting/increasing the market share of large corporations. The largest all time US campaign donor was the Archer Daniels Midland Company who donated to both republicans and democrats and so we got the WTO AoA in 1995, the international HACCP regs in 1996 and the resulting doubling of food borne illness that was then used to pass the Food "Safety" law. (see HACCP'S Disconnect From Public Health Concerns by John Munsell)

If you do not know your history and the underhanded methods (propaganda) used to sway public opinion then we will continue to be serfs of the multinational corporations with one set of laws for us and no laws for them. The typical form of government in the world today is not "Democracy" but Corporatism masquerading as socialism.

Posted by Gaia on 10 Apr 2012

It is interesting that Mr. Dixon, a realist, thinks that the 7 billion people, who are obliterating the planet that protects them, can only be fed with industrial agriculture that obliterates this planet too.

As Michael Shermer writes in The Believing Brain: "We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations."

Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I happen not to believe in industrial agriculture.

Posted by Tadeusz W. Patzek on 10 Apr 2012

I am a farmer selling lamb and garlic in a farmers' market instead of spraying herbicides to kill weeds I use a hoe consequently my farm in labor intensive rather than chemical intensive.

The concept of Big Ag (corporate farming) is remote, it's always something 'over there', but the sprays and the practices that Big Ag uses are the same ones that farmers who call themselves conventional — those using herbicide, & pesticide sprays — use, be they large or small, corporate or personal, selling to a supermarket or from a farmers' market. You don't have to go to Iowa to find Round-Up or 2,4-D they are sold at your local Tractor Supply.

Posted by Eugene Wyatt on 10 Apr 2012

Thank you, Verlyn, for your thoughtful article.

I would add that polyculture tends to reduce the significance of impacts by injurious insects, fungal infections, etc., vs. the "put the crop on a plate for pests" approach of industrialized monocropping.

Monoculture tends to reduce the genetic diversity of crop species themselves, not just radically reduce the biodiversity of the landscape on which such crops are grown. Most specialized crops, including GMO crops, offer genetic diversity within the cultivar strain that is a fraction of that offered by the innumerable -- in many cases -- varieties of edible plants grown just a few decades ago. Want a thick-skinned, untart, tasteless tomato? No problem! Want a nutrient-rich, delicious tomato? You'll need to look for it, and when you find such a fruit, it won't be grown on endless 200-acre laser-leveled tomato fields in the Central Valley.

Commenters here allude to the degradation of soil "health" resulting from herbicide treatments. Let's be clear: the application of biocides -- both herbicides and pesticides -- to croplands profoundly degrades *soil* biodiversity. Sterile soils are not only more fragile but also offer crops far less in the way of organic nutrients.

What about the poison-resistant weeds that we are selecting for with increasing zeal? How do we get rid of them? We couldn't get rid of their progenitors and the progeny are de facto super-weeds -- the plant agricultural equivalent of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria promoted by the astounding quantities of antibiotics industrialized livestock agriculture administers to cattle in CAFOs. It is delicious, is it not, in the context of this article, that the method of administration of these antibiotics is in animal feeds -- largely grain-based rations, largely corn.

Feeding the world? A serious concern. Little mention, however, in the comments (as I write this) of addressing the problem of world population growth. Only, by some commenters, the perspective that we simply can't abandon the ephemeral efficiencies of industrialized crop agriculture if we are to feed the world. That, in my view, is an excuse, not a reason.

I know that you are, at heart, Verlyn, a farmer. You will appreciate the notion that a well-tended garden plot boasting fertile soil can produce an amazing quantity of real food. Furthermore, if the right seeds are planted at the right times, that production is diverse and spread through time. Contrast, if you will, the norm for conventional grain: single crop, single planting, single harvest.

Finally, the explosion of urban "farming" is worth noting. Efficient use of otherwise non-productive land local in many cases organic. No need for Roundup. Diverse plant crops. A sense of being involved in a counter-revolution: reclaiming our food production.

Posted by Brian S. Bean on 10 Apr 2012

The trend is a concern and corporations to lean on policy makers to enhance the system for them, but ultimately micro-economic decisions are made by the land managers. If we expect change to occur we need to address the unvalued positive externalities of production systems that do provide both production and natural resource managment benefits — capitalizing on symbiotic demand. It looks like:


Posted by Tim Gieseke on 10 Apr 2012

Excellent article and comments. Even the negative is understandable since it mostly supports myths about agribusiness and that we cannot feed the growing world population.

In the Philippines we have more than 300 kinds of edible fruit but only about 12 are commercialized. We have edible nuts that have never seen the market.

Contrasting, we also have the world's largest pineapple plantation with over 15,000 hectares and $350 million in debt to support its operations. This kind of pineapple production can easily be replaced, doubled and tripled through agroforestry practices on small plots of land. By the way the 15,000 hectares produce pineapples to fit the size of the cans rather than for nutritional value. Have you ever tasted a small, irregular, black pineapple that is not commercialized since it does not lend itself to canning — nothing artificial, it is all nutritional and the flavor is heavenly. However, the beautiful label on the canned pineapple we find on grocery shelves lists added sugar as one of the main ingredients — why add sugar if the fruit is sweet already? Oh yes, it was grown for size, not content.

In the tropics on one hectare we can raise more than 600 species of sustainable flora, mostly trees and perennials that do not require replanting every three months, like mono-crops. Farming in this diversified way converts farming's daily activity to mostly harvesting whatever crop is ripe that day. The farmer has daily cash flow and the market has fresh food. It can also be processed daily through the cooperative.

The paradigm shift is in the movement of the supply chain into the local community where manufacturing is modular, smaller, flexible and constant rather than specific, huge and seasonal.

The diversification provides the ability to be totally organic. Research the Neem tree. It effects more than 200 kinds of insect pests but it does not harm the ladybug or other beneficial insects, nor the birds, nor the earthworms nor microbes in the soil, not even humans. We have numerous other examples that come to us by merely applying common sense rather than a test tube.

But try and get funding when generally accepted accounting practices count only one kind of bean
that is uniform in size, color and quality all harvested at the same time. Accountants run from diversity and consequently funding is hard to obtain since the financial models have not developed to support the requests. Maybe if we grow pineapples for canning we can get millions in debt.

Oh well, it is very nice to read a credible article about what should be foremost in our agricultural schools and schools of finance, but is not.

Posted by Joseph J Reynolds on 10 Apr 2012

Thanks for the post, always good to learn about thoughts from others.

I would prefer a name/face over cloudy references to "big agriculture" and "big farmers". There are people behinds those vague terms. Let's bring those people to the front of the conversation and better understand them.

The one company that is mentioned, Dow Chemical, is not given a face or a contact, except the designator "official". To help people understand the issues there need to be real people mentioned. Without the real people this opinion piece becomes a post to setup fear, uncertainty, and doubt with faceless corporations doing all the activity. And we all know that is really not the case.

Posted by John Blue on 11 Apr 2012

I want to reference Kristin's post relating to eating less meat.

We most not forget that cows eat grass not corn. So the problem is not the cows themselves but the way they are being raised.

The herbivore is part of the ecosystem as much as the herbs themselves.

Posted by Jorge Tafich on 11 Apr 2012

In response to Dennis Dixon,

It's funny, I don't recall reading in this article anything about a "quaint little vision of local agriculture." His point is that growing diversified crops that suit the earth makes more sense than changing the earth to grow certain crops. This will ultimately lead to greater efficiency than monoculture can provide, making it EASIER to feed the planet.

Posted by Micah C Hall on 12 Apr 2012

There's even more folly in the Glyphosate Equation. First of all, it's NOT a poison, it 'chelates' soil nutrients in a way that was to keep the weed from getting fed-in other words, it was supposed to "starve weeds to death".

When a weed became "Round-Up Resistant", not only didn't the herbicide affect it, but it had been
genetically re-tooled to snatch nutrients out of the soil at a much faster rate, hence we note species of 'Waterhemp' growing 3" per day, and weeds now so tough, they damage Farm Equipment.

Now Monsanto wants to add the Dioxin based 2,4-D, the practical base for Agent Orange AND
a Bayer preparation that's 30.1\% Paraquat to the trait stacks.

So...what do get from that?

A recipe for an Ecological event of Biblical Proportions. Scientists in field studies are finding the effects of Glyphosate in the soil even after ten years from discontinuing it's use.

The problem with that? Crops planted in this soil are stunted and lacking in nutrition. So, much for
Monsanto's Mantra of "Feeding the World".

Posted by R Andrew Ohge on 12 Apr 2012

Excellent article and educated, interesting comments, too. I am glad this consciousness of needing more "natural" farming techniques as the norm is gradually spreading across Western and Westernized peoples.

Posted by Julia on 12 Apr 2012

Vote against big agriculture with your feet and your money by visiting your local growers only farmer's market where you can talk to the growers themselves about their seed, stock and cultural practices. Quaint, or antiquated, it ain't. Real food — raised just like your great great grandaddy's food is a viable option for you if you decide to act to make it so.

Posted by Stephen L. Stager on 12 Apr 2012

The question is not "how should people grow food"?, but "What are people FOR?"

The usual responses pop up about food production that ask "How will we feed all of the humans if we use natural methods?", but not "Do we need so many people?" "What would people do if we just fed them and told them to stay home?"

The majority of human consumptive activities are unnecessary, and usually involve ways to make money that they use to buy things to make more money. Humans have to learn to give more than they take from the planet, or they will go extinct. Modern agriculture is the way it is because it is an extractive process, not a generous one.

Posted by Dan Conine on 14 Apr 2012

I liked the emphasis on time horizons in this article. Our capacity to recognise the consequences of our actions has become disconnected from our ability to experience the consequences our actions create.

In the case of herbicicdes, a topic I report on at www.invasivespecies.org.au, the mass market support these products attract makes recognition of their harmful consequences very difficult. We have vested so much in herbicides - standards, policies, legislation, insurance, finance ... even armies. These social structures are used to assist us to work hard to protect herbicides against natures' resistance. The down side is that this highly coordinated effort makes it ever more difficult for nature to protect us, making the impact of herbicides on our lives (and on nature too) even more risky.

I congratulate the author for offering some alternative ways of seeing the role of herbicides, assisting us to be critical of the ways of thinking that support harmful practices, and to be involved in the task of adjusting the ways we do things in the future.

Posted by David Low on 16 Apr 2012

It is interesting that the natives who respected and worked with nature planted the 3 sisters — corn, beans and squash that all worked together. Beans produced the nitrogen for the corn and the squash
kept away the pests and held water. This is wisdom that we have denigrated and dismissed to our own demise. Small, diverse efficient well-designed communal gardens can feed the world. Earth is abundant if we work within nature. There is no reason for anyone to starve. We get in our own way from corruption — the love of money, power and control. Until we get over this we are going to suffer.

Posted by Darlene Buckingham on 20 Apr 2012

I agree with the author that agriculture is a big business today but I believe the idea of optimizing production is ultimately saving the land. If we let the farmers produce their crop to the highest yield per acre that they can then they are keeping other land from having to become agriculture land as well. I would rather have these farmers producing high yields of crops per acre than having the crops just grow on their own and thus requiring more and more land to use for crops resulting in more and more loss of native grasses and trees. I fully support the big and little farmers and believe the statement from " The Pros and Cons of Modern Farming There simply isn't enough productive land worldwide to support today's world population using yesterday's technology."

Posted by Nathan on 20 Apr 2012

This is a great article. Dan Conine -- love your comment! We are here to impose our will on the planet and other species of course. That's what we do best.

Posted by Erin Mooney on 21 Apr 2012

I believe the author is right on in taking a negative stance against monoculture agriculture. One of the serious problems with this approach is that nature does have an endless supply of resources to side step our efforts to control it. The consequences of shipping alone make this practice unsustainable. http://www.mnn.com/your-home/organic-farming-gardening/videos/michael-pollan-the-problem-with-monocultures. We also have to consider the possibility of a super weed or disease easily wiping out a large percentage of world crops because we weren't smart enough to diversify. http://www.thefutureoffood.com/see\%20the\%20film.html.

Posted by Briana on 23 Apr 2012

Federal ethanol policy increases government motors oil use and Big Oil profit.

It is reported that today California is using Brazil sugar cane ethanol at $0.16 per gal increase over using GMO corn fuel ethanol. In this game the cars and trucks get to pay and Big oil profits are the result that may be ready for change.

We do NOT support AB 523 or SB 1396 unless the ethanol mandate is changed to voluntary ethanol in our gas.

Folks that pay more at the pump for less from Cars, trucks, food, water & air need better, it is time.

The car tax of AB 118 Nunez is just a simple Big oil welfare program, AAA questioned the policy and some folks still agree.

AB 523 & SB 1326 are just a short put (waiver) from better results.

GOOGLE: Prop 87 (510) 537-1796

Posted by Charlie Peters on 26 Apr 2012

"A reasonable agriculture would do its best to emulate nature." So true! Farmers and communities in various parts of the world be it Latin America, Africa, Asia have shown time and time again that agroecological farming practices are the only way forward. The real question then is - What will it take to convince our policy makers to support this?

Thank you for an articulate expression of the "real" issues.

Posted by Radha Gopalan on 28 Apr 2012

Great article, and to "feed the world" nay-sayers like Dixon and Gunther, I can only say
that in is not "our" responsibility to "feed the world." It must feed itself.

This thought is so scary to many that they refuse to explore it. Before the advent of
industrial agriculture, it took fifteen families on the land to support one in the city. With
the coming resource depletion, probably starting with petroleum, a reversion to the
means is inevitable.

This means that many, many more of us are going to be involved with producing our
own food again. The "how can we feed the world" types are terrified that THEY will have
to get their fingers off their keyboards and into the soil.

But I can't really improve on the words of Eliott Coleman regarding the REAL reason
both government and industry cannot allow small farming to continue: "The small
organic farm greatly discomforts the corporate/industrial mind because the small
organic farm is one of the most relentlessly subversive forces on the planet. Over
centuries both the communist and the capitalist systems have tried to destroy small
farms because small farmers are a threat to the consolidation of absolute power.
Thomas Jefferson said he didn’t think we could have democracy unless at least 20 percent of
the population was self-supporting on small farms so they were independent enough to
be able to tell an oppressive government to stuff it. It is very difficult to control people
who can create products without purchasing inputs from the system, who can market
their products directly thus avoiding the involvement of mercenary middlemen, who
can butcher animals and preserve foods without reliance on industrial conglomerates,
and who can’t be bullied because they can feed their own faces."

In reality, huge stars eventually go nova and burn out. It's the small organic farms that
will "feed the world" by allowing people to feed themselves.

To totally distort Earl Butz, "Get small, or get out." Because it may soon be that only
those who know how to grow their own food will be eating.

Posted by Jan Steinman on 06 May 2012

1. Its a nice logo but if nature always won we would all be dead now - nature is allowing us to build and innovate and that's a natural thing that evolution allowed. The author thinks easy phrases mean they are correct.

2. Monoculture is required for food production. African farmers try to plant 20 crops in one field and nothing grows while if they grow one they reap 200 % more yield - how do I know - I work with them.

3. RoundUp was a great innovation -it IS non toxic releative to other herbicides. The anti-technology people were against roundup but now are scared of the alternative.

4. 2,4, D is safe but the dioxin that previously contained it was not but new 2,4 D doesnt have dioxin - if you can't deal with these facts stay off the Internet and stop writing lies.

5. For every pestcide used nature can adapt. Just changing your ways to not use a pesticide also doesn't work. Farmers used to rotate corn with soybeans to stop rootworm problems and avoid insecticides - the insects adapted and now kill corn the year after soybeans were grown -this was a so called safer solution but eventually failed.

6. We now have two different ways to controil rootworm and third, fourth and fifth are launched or close to launch. Try supporting the innovations that people can provide rather than just complaining.

Posted by Mike on 16 Jul 2012

Nature has inbuilt mechanism to safeguard stability of the soil.

Dr. A. Jagadeesh Nellore (AP), India

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 30 Sep 2012

Interesting post. However, it begs the question. Are we to bring nature in accord with us or are we going to allow nature to bring us in accord with "it"?

There is a principle at work here and I am uncertain what it is.

Posted by richard silliker on 24 Oct 2012

Mr. Jagadeesh, the principle here at work is "Nature's nature".

Posted by Boaz ItsHaky on 06 Dec 2012

Without human intervention, nature is wildly abundant. Look at any climax ecosystem and you'll see that. Such systems are also an inherently diverse mix of plants and animals. The more our farms and gardens emulate nature, the more splendidly abundant they become.

Industrial farming heads in exactly the opposite direction, to the detriment of the environment and the plants and animals (including humans) that form that environment's ecosystem.

The task of rational farming and gardening is to understand the weight and pull of nature's laws and tendencies, and to respect them and augment them.

Posted by Jeff Cox on 16 Dec 2012

The other folly the author forgot to mention and that so many on here are buying into, is that THIS way of farming is actually feeding people food. These are commodity crops that are grown for making soy and corn by-products that are then used for processed food. We are NOT feeding the world with these crops, we are poisoning them. These commodity crops also help feed the animals that we eat in over abidance that are also slowly killing us and (not so slowly) destroying the earth. There HAS to be a different way to feed everyone, and this isn't it.

Posted by Tina on 09 Feb 2013

Comments have been closed on this feature.
verlyn klinkenborgABOUT THE AUTHOR
Verlyn Klinkenborg is a member of the editorial board at the New York Times. His books include Timothy; Or, Notes of an Abject Reptile, The Rural Life, and Making Hay. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, Klinkenborg reflected on the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and explained why he continues to oppose geneticaly modified crops.



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