Guest Columnist

After the pandemic: Challenges for agriculture

A farm in Vinton on Wednesday, May 13, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
A farm in Vinton on Wednesday, May 13, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

The global pandemic has revealed some of the fragility that exists in our food system. However, the risks revealed only scratch the surface of the significant challenges facing global food security. This pandemic has taught us the importance of anticipating and preparing for potential crises. Our ability to survive and flourish as a society and civilization depends on putting these challenges into context and thinking differently as we look forward.

We believe agriculture faces vulnerability in three areas:

Agriculture could face a viral pandemic equal to or more dangerous than the coronavirus. You may recall Carl Sagan’s 1983 article describing the consequences of nuclear war leading to a “Nuclear Winter,” shutting down sunlight for years or decades (who knows). Such a shutdown would paralyze plant growth, and the livestock (and wildlife and fisheries and our civilization as we know it) dependent on marine algae and diatoms and green plants would within a few weeks struggle to find food. But, closer to reality, the more probable concern is the introduction of a virus that accomplishes a similar outcome by attacking the most fundamental of life’s processes on earth, namely photosynthesis, the process by which green plants and some other organisms use sunlight to synthesize foods from carbon dioxide and water.

The COVID pandemic has placed the bull’s-eye squarely on our backs and we are fighting and suffering, unsure of how this all ends. Doctors and nurses are playing MacGyver to keep us breathing. But if the bull’s-eye were placed on the green plants essential for human food globally — corn, rice, wheat, soybeans, cassava — a global disaster would ensue. While sheltering at home is comfortable, unlike COVID it sadly would offer no protection from hunger.

Food crop resources limit our food security. Without rice and corn, two of civilization’s most vital food sources would be at risk causing billions of us to be impacted overnight. Initial pangs of hunger and malnutrition would be followed by illnesses and disease. We would not be equipped to quickly build our way out of danger with millions of acres of greenhouses with artificial light. Without photosynthesis, the oxygen supply on earth also would be depleted as the decomposing dead and rotting plants and animals, and as marine diatoms and other green plants shut down.

Is food crop diversification — from the half a dozen species on which we are now reliant, to many more species that provide our nutritional and food quantity needs — a vital strategy to ensure food security? A Covid-19 vaccine is predicted to require one-to-two years; a short time period compared to diversifying and rebuilding new food supply chains; which likely would require decades.

Depleted natural resources and super bugs threaten the quality and quantity of the food supply. Depletion of soils, food nutrient quality, water quality and supplies, climate change, and “superbugs” — antibiotic resistant bacteria and other life-forms — super weed plants, insects, bacteria, and viruses; have scientists sounding the alarms.

COVID-19 is a rude awakening, a predicted trend in human health following on the heels of Ebola, HIV, SARS, Swine Flu and Avian Flu. The medical and science community identified and informed us about these serious risks. COVID -19 is a fire drill to heed the call to work together to plan the future. And, that brings us back to food!

A New Mindset

The coronavirus has taught us a number of lessons about being prepared, about ourselves and how we interact with others. We have begun to learn about the fragility of our national and global food security. Media coverage has chronicled produce wasting in the field as restaurants closed; packing plants shutting down because of worker safety; milk being dumped and eggs being buried while, in contrast, long lines persist at food banks. The supply chain problem between production and the consumer is illuminated by COVID-19 revealing the fragility and the need to develop strategies to avoid future problems.

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The forces that threaten our food security; climate change, soil degradation, insects, diseases, weeds, post-harvest storage problems and distribution are real. However, these assaults on food security are usually perceived as a quantity issue. But real food security is a quality issue: How do we reorient food production on providing the most nutritious food possible? This is possible, as many producers have discovered high quality grains, produce, and even grasses for animals is all possible and results in healthier land and water resources, in addition to improved human health and well-being.

Agriculture is on the verge of an awakening, in realizing that we need to focus on quality rather than only quantity. Production is dependent on good weather during the growing season; “abnormal” seasonal weather causes crop losses and openings for insect, disease, and weed pressures, not to mention planting and harvesting disruptions. Civilizations have collapsed as soils are depleted and water supplies dry up. We are experiencing these downward spiraling trajectories currently.

Food Security + Food Quality + Soil Health

Agriculture is an ecosystem — not just farm fields with “dirt” that grow plants. We rely on its many functions beyond high quality food including a clean environment, social value and diversity on the landscape. To achieve these goals, we must recast our approach to agriculture to achieve food security, food quality, and soil health. The global pandemic is now being equated with clean air above our cities, as fewer cars are on the road; cleaner water in our rivers and estuaries as industry has shut down. This suggests a commitment to change agriculture and the food we depend on can also result when we think differently. We must right the ship, lest we go the way of previous civilizations.

Jerry Hatfield, PHD is an agricultural scientist from Ames jerryhatfield67@gmail.com. Steven I. Apfelbaum works for Applied Ecological Services, Inc., in Brodhead, WI. steve@appliedeco.com

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