International support for sustainability meets local resistance

Posted by Christine, May 5, 2011

In his Future of Food Conference speech at Georgetown University, Prince Charles specified the problems of industrial agriculture and pointed a new direction for government, private corporations and consumers:

This is the challenge facing us. We have to maintain a supply of healthy food at affordable prices when there is mounting pressure on nearly every element affecting the process. In some cases we are pushing Nature’s life-support systems so far, they are struggling to cope with what we ask of them. Soils are being depleted, demand for water is growing ever more voracious and the entire system is at the mercy of an increasingly fluctuating price of oil.

California’s a case in point for the issues he tackles.  David Sneed writes in The San Luis Obispo Tribune:

After 2 1⁄2 years of work and multiple public hearings, state water officials are still months away from adopting new rules intended to reduce polluted runoff from irrigated farmland.

State regulators have proposed sweeping new rules intended to reduce the amount of agriculture-related pollutants, primarily nitrates, from tainting streams and underground aquifers. They describe theollution from farm runoff as well-documented, severe and widespread.

The rules would require farmers to monitor the amount of pollutants they are releasing and to reduce them through programs that curb fertilizer and pesticide use and create buffer zones between farms and creeks.

However, the board lacks a quorum to adopt any new regulations. Two members of the board have removed themselves from the vote because they farm irrigated land. They are John Hayashi, a vegetable grower from Arroyo Grande, and Jean-Pierre Wolff, a vintner from San Luis Obispo.

Sustainable methods are available to deliver more and renew the environment. A recent National Geographic feature focused on replacing the annual grain crops we’ve relied on for so long with perennials. This excellent illustrations convey the differences in roots that maintain the soil rather than deplete it.

Humans made an unwitting but fateful choice 10,000 years ago as we started cultivating wild plants: We chose annuals. All the grains that feed billions of people today—wheat, rice, corn, and so on—come from annual plants, which sprout from seeds, produce new seeds, and die every year. “The whole world is mostly perennials,” says USDA geneticist Edward Buckler, who studies corn at Cornell University. “So why did we domesticate annuals?” Not because annuals were better, he says, but because Neolithic farmers rapidly made them better—enlarging their seeds, for instance, by replanting the ones from thriving plants, year after year. Perennials didn’t benefit from that kind of selective breeding, because they don’t need to be replanted. Their natural advantage became a handicap. They became the road not taken.