Reaping What We Sow

One of  sustainable development’s great issues that can oftentimes be overlooked in the public arena lies not above in the changing patterns of our atmosphere, but below with the degradation of the soil we all depend on. A 2018 report by the UN-backed Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) states that soil degradation includes “nutrient removal in harvest greater than it is replaced; depletion of soil organic matter, surface sealing, compaction, increasing salinity, acidity, metal or organic toxicity.” This same report warns that even though land degradation represents “the most pervasive, systemic phenomenon with far-reaching negative consequences for human well-being worldwide” and threatens to impact the lives of 3.2 billion people, the road to a solution is narrowed by a “widespread lack of awareness”.

Alongside being a profound threat to the wellbeing of billions of people, soil degradation is also a telling example of the way that development and the environment interact, and how the incentives generated by our current systems can run counter to sustainability’s demands. Much of human life depends on the availability of fertile soil for agriculture, and new technologies and methods developed in the past century have enabled us to make greater use of this vital resource. It is, ironically, these developments that are in part to blame for the coming risks, though what that attribution means is somewhat more complex.

The alteration and, in some senses, degradation of land by human societies is not new. The raging forest-fires in the Amazon are a successor to much more ancient methods of slash-and-burn farming which has taken place over millennia, though the current incarnation is occurring at an unsustainable level. Likewise, though many may imagine much of the developed world to have been untouched wilderness prior to the industrial age, it is now believed that places like Britain were cleared of their primeval forests as early as 1000 BCE, with the onset of bronze-age farming. As some infographics that regularly do the internet rounds attest to, we have also been altering the various species we use for food over many centuries of farming, effectively creating GMOs through much slower processes. As caveats in each example point to, however, part of the issue with our current round of environmental modification is the speed and severity thereof, and whether it allows for sustainable continuity.

When writing about this “current round,” it is impossible not to mention the Green Revolution of 1966-85, with agronomist Norman Borlaug as its face. Through the development of resistant, high-yield strains of staple crops and popularizing of double-cropping methods, Borlaug is credited by some as “the man who saved a billion lives,” receiving a Nobel Peace Prize for his achievements in 1970. The Green Revolution as a whole introduced new technologies and methods that grew many developing countries’ agricultural capacities, contributing to the global decline in hunger that ran from then into the 2010s. The success of such measures is doubly significant when held up against the catastrophic failures of other agricultural schools, namely the disasters wrought by Lysenkoism through its influence in the USSR and China.

Yet the legacy of the Green Revolution and Borlaug is not uncontroversial. It has had critics like Vandana Shiva, whose argument that the methods of the Green Revolution  degraded soil and reduced biodiversity ring true in a time where more and more voices point these issues out as vital to the sustainability of agriculture. The dangers of the standardization of cultivars can easily be seen through the trade collapse following mass contamination of the gros michel strand of bananas in the 1950s. Although it is difficult to dismiss the Green Revolution as a negative given the alleviation of hunger and poverty that followed it, these criticisms point to a troubling clash between the demands of development and limits of sustainability.

This clash is not necessarily inevitable, however, and this becomes apparent when we examine consumption patterns driving agricultural development in the past few decades. The 2018 IPBES report lists the over-consumption of developed countries and the growing high-calorie consumption of emerging economies as the main drivers of land degradation as a whole – not the alleviation of hunger. The inequality in consumption between and within economies is a vital driver in land use, and this is demonstrated strikingly by researchers at Oxford. They show that the diets of many developed countries would be impossible to support if imitated globally, but that if the diets of developing nations were globalized less land than present would be needed for agriculture. In other words, unsustainable agriculture is not driven by an attempt to feed the world, but by overconsumption in developed economies. This has rung even truer since the long decline in world hunger stopped and reversed, while obesity continues to grow.

What all this amounts to is that the challenge we face with land is not Malthusian calculation of who to let die to preserve sustainability, but the simple fact of inequality. Just as Amartya Sen’s groundbreaking work arguing that many famines are caused not by a lack of food but by a failure or unwillingness to distribute food to those in need, so, too, is this a situation where our social systems fail to sustain natural ones. So long as such systems remain as is, sustainability will mean leaving many in need; only through their transformation can we combine these two goals.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on Aug. 25, 2020.

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