Posted by: Bill Stoneman | August 25, 2009

Expanding the food supply tomorrow or today

A couple of items in The New York Times in the last few days acknowledge one of the important reasons for planting vegetables in our backyard, but suggest very different paths to addressing the basic challenge of feeding the world’s growing population.

Monsanto, the big agrichemical company, says in a big image advertisement, “Non-irrigated agriculture produces 60% of the world’s food. It will need to do more.” The company explains that forecasters believe we’ll need to double food output by 2050 to keep up with population growth and that increased use of irrigation is unlikely to play a big role. That’s because irrigation for agriculture already consumes two-thirds of the world’s fresh water. The solution to a fairly real concern about food shortages, according to Monsanto, is development of plant varieties that don’t need as much water. Leave it to the scientists to figure out how to do that, the ad more or less says. Now, some would argue that some  of the great scientific developments in agriculture, like chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, have either produced or contributed to some rather troublesome unintended consequences, like nitrogen-induced dead zones in our oceans, heat-trapping carbon concentrations in the atmosphere and tomatoes that don’t taste like tomatoes in January. But the ad doesn’t suggest any reason to be concerned about anything like that.

Then, Columbia University professor Dickson D. Despommier wrote the future of farming is in urban hydroponics and aeroponics in specially designed high-rise buildings. We’re talking about growing plants without soil.

For all we know, one of these approaches may work. Let it be said, however, that we’re contributing today in our backyard, where the tomatoes look beautiful and taste like tomatoes, and where the squash and cucumbers and beans and carrots and potatoes are flourishing. On top of that, we don’t even have to wait 20 years to find out if the scientists can prove that it works. We didn’t need a Ph.D. And other than cold frames made from old windows and boards, we haven’t done any construction. The sunshine is free. The compost takes labor. Buying seeds is optional.


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