In March 1935, a dust storm kicked up in New Mexico and started heading East. When it reached Kansas City, people walking the city streets could barely see two blocks in front of them. Growing in size and stamina, the dust cloud crossed the Mississippi River near Quincy, IL at 35 miles an hour, and on March 21st made it all the way to Washington, D.C. That same day, a House Committee hearing was convened (and fittingly scheduled) by soil conservationist Hugh Hammond Bennett to solve the imminent threat of soil erosion in the US. The story goes that Bennett had to stop discussions during the meeting as attendees watched the topsoil from New Mexico accumulate on their windowsills and the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. They got the message.
It’s Climate Week 2019, 84 years after Bennett’s effort, and once again a crisis is on our doorstep. Unlike the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the problem is now well beyond our soil, but the threat is just as imminent. Around the world, young people are taking to the streets and imploring slow-moving governments to take action. Scientists have issued a warning that “If greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced by 50% by 2030 we will suffer the sustained effects of global warming.”
How did we get here? The causes of global warming are vast and interconnected, but if you’re looking for answers, the food on your plate is a good place to start. Our current agricultural system is a marvel of productivity. We irrigate over 55 million acres of land in the US, farm many millions more, and coordinate year-round harvests to connect growers to global supply chains and distribution networks. We put American wheat, corn, meat and fruits in every corner of the world. Despite these accomplishments, the development of a global food system has come at an enormous cost.
To feed the world’s 7 billion people we need arable farmland, of which we’ve lost nearly 30% over the last 40 years. When we want to make more, we clear forest and reduce natural habitats to neatly planted rows — a practice that has destroyed over eight million hectares of forest each year. Simultaneously, agriculture continues to consume 70% of the Earth’s freshwater, a finite resource, to feed animals, irrigate fields, and prepare produce for sale.
Still today, soil health remains challenged. Fifty-two percent of the land used for agriculture is moderately or severely affected by soil degradation, and the US alone uses over 1 billion pounds of pesticides per year. These pesticides make their way into our waterways and soil, where they kill non-target species and harm a rich array of microorganisms and invertebrates. There must be a better way.
In the race to feed the world affordably, we’re now met with serious environmental consequences and challenges. There is no question that this is a path paved with good intentions, but in prioritizing productivity, we’ve left our planet in deep environmental debt. As if matters weren’t complicated enough — the world population is growing. By the year 2050 there will be nearly 10 billion people on Earth, which will require us to produce as much as 70% more food with an agricultural system that’s already pushed to the limit.
We’re well past the visual cue a dust storm afforded us some eighty years ago. It’s now the world’s responsibility to act on what we cannot see ahead before it’s too late and we’re reacting in the dark. We need scalable solutions that can feed the world’s growing population in a sustainable way.
When I founded Bowery Farming in 2015, vertical farming certainly wasn’t new. But to many, the concept as an answer to feeding a hungry planet was far more a dream than a reality. However, here we are, just four years later, and Bowery has two fully operational farms and more in development. Our controlled indoor growing environment enables us to use zero pesticides and 95% less water to grow fresh produce — all of which make it on local store shelves within just a few days of harvest, minimizing food miles and extending shelf life to reduce food waste.
However, on the first day of Climate Week, I acknowledge that indoor vertical farming still has a way to go. Our sector is in its infancy, and we too have work to do in curbing our own emissions, investing in alternative energy sources, moving away from plastic packaging, and selling beyond just leafy greens. Fortunately, these are all areas that we’re aggressively making progress toward at Bowery. We have seen meaningful gains on many of these fronts already, and I am not dissuaded by the work ahead; in fact, I’m energized by the opportunities that are still in front of us. Today, our effort is now recognized as a scalable solution tailored to our most pressing problems.
The good news is that we are far from alone in this fight. We’re inspired by the innovative work of people like Alex Weiser of the Tehachapi Grain Project in California who utilizes no-till or conservation tillage methods — a way of farming that reduces erosion while using less energy. Others, like White Oak Pastures in Georgia, are rethinking our relationship with the land and how to raise livestock through permaculture — a type of ecological design that mimics the connectedness of nature while producing food and resources.
And of course there is the leading edge work of Chef Dan Barber, James Beard Award winner and co-owner of Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. In partnership with his brother David and Jack Algiere, they are pushing into new frontiers of sustainability by repositioning the role chefs have in creating market demand for more sustainably grown food. The work Barber is also doing at Row 7 Seed Company, co-founded with seedsman Matthew Goldfarb as well as breeder Michael Mazourek, is proving that we do not need to sacrifice flavor for yield.
It’s the work of innovative farmers and their partners, both in the field and indoors, that will pave a more sustainable path forward. Like anything worth doing, the road ahead is hard. But as climate change escalates and our population grows, we have no choice: we need to feed more people while using fewer resources without damaging our environment.
To pull this off, we’ll need to challenge the status quo in our food system. Let’s not wait inside to watch the dust storm pass us by — we have the opportunity to get in front of it and act. “There is no Planet B.”
Follow @boweryfarming for more Climate Week content this week. Also, if you’re an educator, check out our free two-part lesson plan about the relationship between agriculture and sustainability here.