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Eating Tomorrow: A conversation with Timothy A. Wise

Originally published on Fern's AG Insider, May 1, 2019 by Leah Douglas

For decades, conversations about global agricultural production have revolved around one question: How do we feed the world? Those conversations have often been driven by philanthropies, governments, and companies that share an interest in the industrialization of agriculture. But the introduction of monocropping and agrochemicals has not brought us closer to achieving the goal of food security, according to a new book on how to feed the world’s people in an environmentally and economically sustainable manner.

Timothy A. Wise, senior researcher at the Small Planet Institute and senior research fellow at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute, spent four years researching the industrialization of agriculture and the influence of agribusiness on policy creation around the world. His research took him to Iowa, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Mexico, and the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Everywhere he went, he saw how governments and philanthropies have committed to a vision of hunger eradication that heralds industrial, large-scale agriculture. His new book, Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food, details how this vision has largely failed to bring countries closer to food security even as it has imperiled our water, soil, and farming communities. FERN’s Leah Douglas spoke to Wise last month. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Much of your book traces agricultural industrialization trends that originated in the U.S. How are we in the U.S. “eating tomorrow” with unsustainable agricultural practices?

I was struck in my research in Iowa by how badly the industrial model of agriculture was working for Iowans. Waterways are heavily polluted by agricultural runoff, which only got worse when farmers took some 500,000 acres out of conservation to grow more corn, trying to take advantage of the ethanol-induced run-up in prices 10 years ago. The state has lost half its topsoil, with conservation tillage practiced on only a small share of its corn and soybean acres. When that bomb cyclone hit a few weeks ago, the floods washed away topsoil that was completely exposed.

The constant expansion of factory farms creates the need for excessive manure applications, adding to the water pollution. Those farms are also draining aquifers, since it takes about five gallons of water a day to raise a hog in confinement. Even the nutritional quality of the corn is deteriorating, as starchier varieties, with lower protein content, are released to adapt to declining soil quality and the changing climate. Climate change, of course, only increases the environmental costs of industrial-scale farms. Rains are more inconsistent, droughts are projected to be more frequent. “Hundred-year” floods now happen every 25 years…. (Read the full interview at FERN)

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