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Population Control and Sustainable AgPopulation Control and Sustainable Ag

There may be more to sustainable agriculture than what is preached.

Tanner Ehmke 1

February 15, 2011

3 Min Read

Last fall, a Stanford University student was trekking her way across Kansas in search of what farmers thought of "sustainable farming." She stopped by our farm where we were more than happy to sit with her to discuss what the word "sustainable" means to us.

It was quite a lengthy discussion. But despite all the evidence of conservation practices we have on our farm, I'm not sure we made the impression we were definitely what you call "sustainable" since the exact definition is about elusive as Big Foot. With agriculture being so variable, is an exact definition even possible?

Most people seem to agree it falls somewhere in the nexus of serving social, economic and environmental purposes. In the flagship movies for the sustainable Ag movement, "Food, Inc." and "Dirt! The Movie," they waste no time making the point that commercial and industrial ag are responsible for disrupting communities and the environment, putting farmers out of business and forcing remaining farmers into risky practices like monocultures.

But if you drill down deep enough in the sustainable ag argument, one other concern will eventually surface: rising world population.

Too Many People?

Most of us in farming know that by 2050, we'll have to double our efforts to feed more than 9 billion people with scarcer resources. But in the sustainable Ag movement, you will find those who point directly to the modernization of agriculture and improved food distribution as the reasons for the predicament we are in.

The dotted line in their argument leads straight back to technology as the cause of why we're overpopulating the planet. Farmers today have become too good at growing food, and if we continue to make advancements in agriculture, we will remain on an unsustainable rate of population growth with billions more people producing carbon and intensifying global warming.

Not to mention, those in wealthier countries will have to endure a declining standard of living as more human beings compete for the same resources.

The solution? Flick the switch on technology and send agriculture back to where it was before the post-WWII technology boom. Problem solved.

What they won't admit publicly is the desired consequence of reducing population via a tighter food supply. That is the only real viable solution, they reason, by which we can derail the current unsustainable trend in population before we careen into a global crisis.

As Paul Ehrlich stated in his book The Population Bomb, "We must cut the cancer of population growth." That will require, as Ehrlich puts it, "many apparent brutal and heartless decisions."

Restricting production and distribution of food is apparently one of those solutions. But as long as that happens elsewhere in the world and the standard of living in the U.S. is not sacrificed, that's something the sustainable Ag movement is willing to look past.

This begs some serious questions of the sustainable Ag movement. Does it represent the elusive concepts of environmental, social and economic justice, or something more tangible like population control via mass malnutrition and starvation? 

Given the sustainable Ag movement's rejection of technologies that are friendlier to the environment, more profitable for farmers and use fewer resources while feeding more people, I'm inclined to assume the latter.

About the Author(s)

Tanner Ehmke 1

Staff writer

Tanner Ehmke is a writer and agricultural producer in Lane County, Kansas, where his family has farmed since 1886. Located in the semi-arid High Plains of western Kansas, he grows dryland wheat, rye, triticale and grain sorghum in reduced-till and no-till systems. Tanner graduated from Kansas State University’s Master of Agribusiness program in 2011 after completing his thesis on seed wheat prices, and is currently in the Kansas Agriculture and Rural Leadership program’s Class XI.

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