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The Future of Agriculture and Public Health

November 1, 2017

Fred Kirschenmann

Sustainable Ag Expert Fred Kirschenmann: Our Soil, Ourselves

The word “growth” is bandied about so frequently by politicians, business leaders and real estate developers that it’s nearly become white noise. When we hear “growth,” we automatically think “increase:” more consumption, more products, more transactions. A former US secretary of agriculture infamously told farmers, “Get big or get out.” But what if we redefined “growth?” What if, instead of signifying “more,” the word “growth” became synonymous with “renewal?”

This was the parting thought that Fred Kirschenmann bestowed on his audience last week at a Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) lecture on agriculture, soil and human health. A leader in sustainable agriculture, North Dakota farmer, Board president at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture (Pocantico Hills, NY) and a Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Kirschenmann offered his vision of how the world is changing with respect to food, land and agriculture, and how we might face the future with wisdom and bright ideas.

“Can we redefine growth …? How can we use our resources so that we renew the earth as it’s being used?” he asked.

Kirschenmann began his lecture with a disclaimer. “I can’t predict the future,” he said. But he was compelled to share his concerns for changes that we can anticipate in what he calls the “post-neocaloric era.” The neocaloric era is a term he borrows from author-anthropoligist Ernest Schusky, who refers to the Neocaoloric Revolution as the current period, which began in the 20th century with the introduction of fossil fuels into agriculture. In the neocaloric era, we eat old calories, i.e., non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels and phosphate, in the form of food, or “new calories.” But, Kirschenmann warned, those resources are finite and dwindling—we will run out of old calories or they will become far too expensive to use.

So what will the post-neocaloric era look like? Kirschenmann urges us to focus on the law of return with respect to soil. The goal of the law of return is to leave the soil as healthy or healthier than it was before you harvested crops in it. Nutrients removed, or used in the process of growing, must be returned in the same (or greater!) quantities than they were taken away. In other words, balanced and fertile soil is the ultimate goal. How would nature farm?—that is the question Kirschenmann wants us keep asking.

Our soils today are not doing well. Iowa is famous the world over for its fertile soils, which developed over millennia with deep-rooted tallgrass prairie ecosystems. In the last 50 years, said Kirschenmann, Iowa soils have eroded six inches. Not only the quantity, but the quality, of the soil suffers, not just in Iowa but throughout the world, as we deplete it of essential ingredients, leaving it nutrient-poor and lacking essential microbes.

“We need the microbes in soil,” he said, “because they feed the microbes in our gut. There are more microbes in a single teaspoon of soil than there are humans on the planet, and they need to be fed.”

Is there potential for a new paradigm? Yes, there is, said Kirschenmann. He referred to the writings of Aldo Leopold, who coined the term “land ethic” and encouraged thoughtful management of the biotic community of the land. He also encourages bioregionalism, a philosophy that acknowledges that every growing region has different needs and opportunities, that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to agriculture.

Kirschenmann has had a long and diverse career, and perhaps because of that he was able to assure his audience that we will never have a final answer to any of the questions he asked.  He offered the black cat analogy, which states that, “Science is like being in a dark room looking for a black cat while using a flashlight.” But when we find the black cat, it opens the door to more dark rooms with more black cats.

“Science is never finished,” he said. “It comes up with insight and then that insight opens door to more questions.”

The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future is based in in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering. Fred Kirschenmann, who gave the 2006 CLF Dodge Lecture, visited the Center for a special filming for the course Food Systems and Public Health.

- Christine Grillo