The industrialized, globalized food system is based on oil. It is under threat because of the inevitability of “peak oil.” It is also under threat because it is more vulnerable than traditional agriculture to climate change, to which it has contributed. Industrial agriculture is based on monocultures. Monocultures are highly vulnerable to changes in climate, and to diseases and pests.
In 1970 and 1971, America’s vast corn belt was attacked by a mysterious disease, later identified as ”race T” of the fungus Helminthosporium maydis, causing the southern corn leaf blight, as the epidemic was called. It left ravaged cornfields with withered plants, broken stalks, and malformed or completely rotten cobs. The strength and speed of the blight was a result of the uniformity of the hybrid corn, most of which had been derived from a single Texas male sterile line. The genetic makeup of the new hybrid corn, which was responsible for its rapid and large-scale breeding by seed companies, was also responsible for its vulnerability to disease. At least 80 percent of the hybrid corn in America in 1970 contained the Texas male sterile cytoplasm. As a University of Iowa pathologist wrote, “Such an extensive, homogenous acreage is like a tinder-dry prairie waiting for a spark to ignite it.”
Industrial agriculture is dependent on chemical fertilizers. Chemically fertilized soils are low in organic matter. Organic matter helps conserve the soil and soil moisture, providing insurance against drought. Soils lacking organic matter are more vulnerable to drought and to climate change. Industrial agriculture is also more dependent on intensive irrigation. Since climate change is leading to the melting of glaciers that feed rivers, and in many regions of the world to the decline in precipitation and increased intensity of drought, the vulnerability of industrial agriculture will only increase. Finally, since the globalized food system is based on long-distance supply chains, it is vulnerable to breakdown in the context of extreme events of flooding, cyclones, and hurricanes. While aggravating climate change, fossil fuel-dependent industrialized, globalized agriculture is least able to adapt to the change.
We need an alternative. Biodiverse, organic farms and localized food systems offer us security in times of climate insecurity, while producing more food, producing better food, and creating more livelihoods. The industrialized, globalized food system is based on oil; biodiverse, organic, and local food systems are based on living soil. The industrialized system is based on creating waste and pollution; a living agriculture is based on no waste. The industrialized system is based on monocultures; sustainable systems are based on diversity.