Time to big-dig American agriculture?

By Kathleen Merrigan

A few months ago, Bloomberg published a series of maps about How America uses its land. While we may quibble about the details of the maps, the timing is right to be thinking about what and where we grow things in this country. We need to be talking more about the land we use for agricultural production, and also about issues of limited farm labor, climate change, and changing dietary demands. Now is the time to be asking ourselves if there are better ways to farm, if there are more sustainable practices, and if we can be more equitable in the way we use land.

I lived in Boston during the “Big Dig.” Anyone who lived in or around the Boston area from 1991 to 2006 is likely to have a story or two about the Big Dig era. The Big Dig is the unofficial name for the massive project to bury the highway that coursed over and through Boston. Many could not imagine changing such a massive historic city so dramatically. The Big Dig transformed the city of Boston, and took years of planning, investment, and public engagement. It seemed impossible to most at the time, and many thought it would never be completed! But these days incoming freshmen at Boston University likely can’t imagine a city without the highway running beneath it. And it has changed the city for the better, opening new public spaces and increasing pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

What would a Big Dig look like for the food system? We need visions that help us reimagine agriculture and create new opportunities for the future of food. That’s what we’re working on at the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems. The Big Dig of agriculture will require interdisciplinary analysis, modeling, and scenario planning. We’ll be pulling in ideas from all fields and perspectives to identify and promote sustainable solutions, and, pardon the pun, we’re ready to dig in!

Below are some of my ideas for what a Food Systems Big Dig could look like. There are a lot more questions than answers. What are your thoughts? Be sure to connect with us on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter to be a part of the conversation!

Land use
Between 1993 and 2009, the world lost 3.3 million square kilometers of wild lands to human activities, including farming. More than two thirds of our total global land and nearly 90% of the oceans are affected by human use. How can agroecological systems improve biodiversity and enhance natural systems rather than degrading them? What if we can recouple crop and livestock agriculture, using regenerative grazing and perennial crops to restore some of these wild places? Biotechnology may open the door to more efficient crops that reduce the acreage needed for food production, allowing more land to be put into conservation and natural preserves. Migration corridors that follow highways and rivers could be integrated into farm programs so that pollinators, birds, and other living things can thrive while also feeding the growing population.

Dietary Patterns
While serving as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, I was involved in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), a guidance issued every five years by the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services. Most people know the DGAs food pyramid image, which was updated in 2010 to become MyPlate, a simplified representation of how people should be planning their diet. The basic message we wanted to get across with MyPlate is that fruit and vegetables should make up a bigger part of your diet-- in fact, a half of your plate. But studies of Americans’ diets estimate that as little as 4% of adults eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. Beyond that, a huge amount of the produce at the grocery store is imported. What if we used more of our cropland for fruits and vegetables, and increased the amount of available domestic produce for our population? How would the water and energy requirements change if some of the land used for ethanol and animal feed were instead used to grow tomatoes and spinach? And how do plant-based meat alternatives fit into the picture?

A Big Dig might mean getting more serious about urban farming, including the ‘ponics” -- that’s -hydro, -aero, and -aqua -- which reduce water usage and increase yield per square foot without using any soil. Vertical farming, either in-home or in-store gardens, and farms inside of old warehouses can bring food production closer to the urban centers and reduce acreage dedicated to annual crops like lettuce, herbs, and tomatoes. Some of my friends in the organics world cite hydroponics as outside the organic labels true intent (though if you go back to the Senate Report that accompanies the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, you will see a reference to hydroponics and the eventual need for organic standards for their production).
But if organic agriculture is about environmentally sound practices, and various kinds of non-soil based systems can reduce environmental impacts on water and soil without the use of synthetic inputs, we need to be including them in the conversation about sustainable food systems.

Robotics and AI
Over the last few years I’ve become obsessed with the idea of cows being milked by robots. These Automatic Milking Systems reduce the labor need for small dairies, improve animal welfare, and are entirely compatible with pasture based dairy farming. What other types of robots and artificial intelligence can we integrate into modern farming, both on small family farms as well as larger farm and agribusiness enterprises? How can smart computing systems, like blockchain and the internet of things increase sustainability and improve food safety and quality?

Land Tenure Disruption
I’ve always been a fan of farm cooperatives. Cooperative ownership structures allow communities to invest in themselves and profit from community assets. A group of ranchers in Washington State, frustrated by the lack of market opportunities for their grassfed meats, recently opened a cooperative slaughter facility which allows small farms to provide consumers with entirely traceable and local meat options. What other types of cooperatives can we establish to help drive innovation and sustainability throughout the value chain? Young farmers are connecting with retiring farmers on an ad-hoc basis, how can we improve those networks and create incentives for maintaining farmland? How can ownership models improve environmental outcomes and maximize equity and access?

Okay, that’s enough for now. It’s a taste of what conversations are like at the Swette Center. We hope you find ways to join our work.