Monarchs and monocultures: Challenges of science and policy in the Corn Belt and beyond
Industrial agriculture in the US Midwest is highly productive, but is also widely recognized as causing very large environmental impacts, such as hypoxic zones in coastal environments and lakes, climate emissions of nitrous oxide and methane, and loss of biodiversity through land and pesticide use. At the same time, it is also recognized that increasing global population, climate change, resource scarcity, and changing demographics, especially leading to increased consumption of livestock products, will challenge agricultural production and distribution in coming decades. Despite recognition by the global change community and ecologists of the challenges posed by and to agriculture, and the need to substantially change course, policy makers and the general public seem largely unaware of the magnitude of these challenges. However, one segment of these challenges, the need for food sufficiency and security for a growing population that already includes close to a billion food insecure people, and adaptation of agriculture to climate change, has become a focal point of some policy makers and the global development community. Responses from stakeholder communities to these challenges have often bifurcated into two proposed paths: one, often called “sustainable intensification” continues to rely heavily on purchased inputs such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, but proposes to reduce or mitigate the impact from these through technological advances. The other approach is generally based on implementing farming systems that rely on agroecological principles and food sovereignty. This talk will explore the policy, science and political landscape related to these two approaches, possibilities that the best from both might be implemented, and barriers to implementation.
As with climate change, agricultural input industries with a stake in maintaining demand for their products, are often driving policy at the federal level, while grassroots farming and food movements often favor ecologically-based approaches such as organic farming. Emerging science also suggests that implementing agroecologically-based farming principles will be needed to adequately address global agricultural challenges. The political landscape suggests that policies to implement agroecological solutions will require connecting currently disparate food and farming stakeholders through problem reformulation and other means, in order to apply organized pressure to political elites currently aligned with the agriculture input industries and the large farm organizations that rely on its products, and to independently model and implement ecologically-based farming systems.