Dispatch from the 39th Annual Conference of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association

For most farmers, February is the agricultural doldrums. But with the lengthening days, a flood of seed catalogs in the mail, and the promise of an ever-earlier spring, this shortest month is also the time to plan and get excited. It’s the perfect month for an uplifting conference on sustainable community-based food systems, and the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) fits the bill.

This year’s conference theme was “A Taste for Change,” a theme that will undoubtedly be appropriate for every conference for the rest of the 21st century, at least. In this century, experts advise us, we will need to produce more food than humans have consumed in all of human history.

By one extreme extrapolation of our “needs,” we should have doubled our Y2K food production by mid-century. That need for increased production is driven by a projected population increase to 9½ billion by 2050, and over 11 billion by the end of the century, with most of that growth happening in the developing world where incomes are also rising. The combination of increased eaters with increased incomes means more resource-intensive diets—grain-fed meat and dairy mostly. Throw in competition for grains by biofuels and other industrial uses of grain, and the stage is set for what will need to be a heroic effort at expanded grain production. The catch: We’ll need to produce all this food with . . .

Less arable land. Industrial agriculture has degraded or severely degraded (the latter designation meaning a loss of 70% of the topsoil) about 40% of the world’s farmland, with soil losses happening at 10-40 times the rate at which it is produced. Extrapolating these losses means 60 years of soil-based farming left.

Less fresh water. Freshwater demands are expected to increase 55% between 2000 and 2050. And yet water tables are dropping all over the world. The projection is that half of the world’s population and most of the population growth will be centered in water-stressed areas by mid-century.

An energy conundrum. A sobering calculation highlights our precariously unsustainable position: It takes ten times as much energy to produce, process, and transport our food than we actually gain by eating it. That energy input is measured in “barrels of oil” units. Hitching the price and availability of food to that of oil makes us vulnerable, at a global scale, as demonstrated by the 2006-2008 concurrent oil and food price spikes. As oil reached over $147 a barrel, the cost of everything from fertilizers to truck transport to refrigeration also rose. Corn producers were incentivized to sell their harvest to ethanol rather than food producers. And the results contributed to a global food crisis that pushed 130 million to 155 million people into poverty, leading to social unrest across the developing world.

Despite the current boom in domestic oil production, the end of cheap oil is an eventuality. In the meantime, we have another good reason to break the food-oil dependency.

A changing climate. Given its reliance on fossil fuels, it’s no surprise that agriculture accounts for perhaps a third of our greenhouse gas emissions (estimates vary). What might be a surprise is that much of agriculture’s contribution to climate change is not directly from burning fossil fuels. Livestock contribute the powerful greenhouse gas methane, as well as nitrous oxide, which also volitizes  from fertilized soil. Tilling the soil exposes organic matter for decomposition, releasing carbon dioxide. And the clearing of land often turns a carbon sink, like a forest or grassland, into a carbon source as the vegetation is burned and the soil tilled.

But this isn’t a one-way interaction. Agriculture is stuck in an ironic, unfortunate, and potentially dangerous feedback with climate. As the climate warms, patterns of precipitation will change, and the ranges and performance of pests, diseases, pollinators, and the crops themselves will be altered. It’s safe to say that where certain foods are produced today will not be where those foods are produced by the end of the century. Research published last year by the scientific journal PNAS estimates that every degree Celsius rise in global temperature will reduce global yields of wheat by 6%, rice by over 3%, corn by nearly 7.5%, and soybeans by over 3%.

Our current level of commitment in tackling climate change puts us on track to realize the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s projection of a 4°C warmer world by the end of the 21st century. The silver lining? The same practices that regenerate healthy soil, save water, and support agricultural diversity also mitigate our agricultural contribution to climate change.

Finally, there’s the question of who will be growing all this needed food, and how. The average American farmer is pushing 60, and over the next couple decades 400 million of the nation’s 911 million acres of farmland will change hands as farmers retire. The ever-rising price of farmland—several thousand dollars an acre —has been an effective barrier to young aspiring farmers but has attracted investors, both domestic and foreign, who have been buying it up. These entities will expect a return on their investment, and it isn’t clear that “sustainability” or even “food production” will be included in their investment portfolio.

These were among the concerns addressed at the 2018 OEFFA conference, and likely every participant there could have elaborated on our mess. But OEFFA isn’t an organization peddling fear. The conference is about proactive empowerment and affirmative advocacy. The workshops provide a toolkit for sustainability and self-sufficiency, featuring skill sets as diverse as on-farm biogas production and fruit tree grafting to soil block making and “Goat Health Made Easy.”

Jeff Moyer, executive director of The Rodale Institute, gave the first keynote address. As an organic ag research organization, Rodale has lit an alternative pathway for the future, demonstrating that yes, we can feed the world via organic agriculture. Indeed, we must adopt organic principles and techniques of soil regeneration if we are to have any hope of feeding ourselves going forward. Moyer’s talk railed against the corporate-pushed technological imperative of GMO crops as The Future of agriculture. He places all of his organic eggs of hope into one basket of “80-million [smartphone-wielding] millennials with disposable incomes, who buy based on their values.”

The conference was wrapped up with the final keynote speaker, Stacy Malkan, co-founder of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit “pursuing truth and transparency in America’s food system.” In her talk, “Fake News, Fake Food,” she untangled the tobacco industry-style web of biased research, savvy marketing, heavy lobbying, and blatant falsehoods that sow public apathy and promote status quo politics—a friendly environment for a few large companies, whose business model is based on crops genetically-modified to tolerate proprietary pesticides. The result is a billion pounds of pesticides liberally spread on the United States annually, contaminating much of our surface and ground waters and wreaking untold havoc beyond the farm field. But Malkan has identified an ad tagline that might just wake us up to demand our right to know and our right to change the food system, for our children’s health and future: “Food is Love.”

—By Steven Corso, Photo by Matthew Connors