Understanding the parts, the whole, and then some
Irrigation pipes sit along a dry irrigation canal on a field near Stockton, Calif., in 2015.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP/File | Caption

Thanksgiving 2050: To feed the world we have to stop destroying our soil

Can complexity science provide new views of our food systems?

At the height of the slave trade in 1785, an English divinity student, Thomas Clarkson, won a Latin essay contest considering the question, “Is it lawful to enslave the un-consenting?”

Few read it. Fewer took it seriously. But Clarkson, along with a small band of similarly inspired people, went to work, designing and executing a set of coordinated tactics to reveal the atrocities of legal slavery in the systems that brought sugar to British tables.

Wherever he went, Clarkson carried a wooden box filled with the slaver’s tools – iron handcuffs, shackles, thumb-screws, branding irons, and instruments for forcing open slaves' jaws. Clarkson’s moment of grace changed his course. Clarkson’s box showed consumers the intolerable violence in their sugar bowls.

The violence that we do to our planet’s soils, while by no means a crime comparable to the brutality of chattel slavery, is inseparably tied to our modern economic system, just as slavery was. And the mounting evidence of the violence we are doing to our soils is as obvious as the shackles in Thomas Clarkson’s box.

The extractive farming methods that have been used since World War II to drive massive increases in agricultural yields and human population have brought our species and planet to a set of historic extremes – with unknown, but not unforeseeable, possibly devastating consequences for our food supply.

In May 2012, I lifted off from the Des Moines airport in a helicopter with a philanthropist and another scientist to take a look at America’s soils. From above, the land looked tired, the beginning of the worst drought in 25 years. That afternoon, planters scuttled hopefully back and forth in the haze, plumes of dust rising in the late afternoon sun, symptoms of the damage we have inflicted on some of the richest soils on Earth.

Soil organic matter has dropped 30 percent to 50 percent since we began cultivating this ground. Compounded by erosion and agricultural practices that reduce soil life and damage soil structure, the injury to American soils is stunning and ongoing.

During these 150 years, our national anthem in agriculture has been “yield, yield, yield,” the uncontested route to prosperity and abundance. But the harm we’ve done to our soils under this spell was plainly clear from the cockpit that afternoon in the rising trails of dust in the sky.

Despite millennia of traditional knowledge, and some major successes inspired by the Dust Bowl, it is estimated that nearly a third of the world’s arable land has been eroded, lost at a rate of more than 20 million acres per year. The UN Convention to Combat Desertification estimates that more than 50 percent of land used for agriculture globally is “moderately or severely” degraded.

Injured soils lose resilience to drought and reduce agricultural productivity. When production fails, food systems more often go awry. When food systems go awry, people get frightened and desperate and angry. Chronic environmental stresses, somebody else’s new dam, poor governance, and “sub-acute” events can and recently have added up to suffering, rebellion, violence, war, even the Syrian Crisis.

By 2050, scientists estimate we will need to feed 9 billion people with enormous implications for the world’s resources. Already, geologists have graduated us from the Holocene, the comfy and stable geological period in which humankind evolved, to a new era called the Anthropocene. In the Anthropocene, humankind’s actions shape the way our planet works, and agriculture is both our lifeline as a species and the dominant mode by which we care for our planet.

Yet, as British housewives once did, we are still earnestly ignoring the atrocities embedded in the food on our tables, and denying ourselves the possibility of much better. Our 20th century fragmented views, our inch-size glimpses of the elephant in the living room do not reveal the dimensions of opportunities for radical innovations to better meet our needs – or a full understanding of the risks we face.

Further, our Whac-a-Mole responses to the range of symptoms we now detect, from degrading agricultural resources to epidemic obesity to mass species extinction, constrain our ability and our will to innovate. Our narrow views shackle us to incremental, stepwise change – and to the delusion that doing a little less bad and a little more good will be enough.

Always, the most dangerous lies are the lies we tell ourselves.

For all of human history, farmers have known that their soil is the living foundation of our species’ future. For more than a century, scientists have formally confirmed these insights. Intensified and diversified crop and livestock rotations, “cover” crops, healthy microbial soil flora, no-till planting, and grazed, cropped systems are taking hold across America. These soil-care practices can slow the damage, even heal and regenerate soils while they boost and buffer agricultural productivity.

Innovations in the food and beverage sectors are also taking hold in the United States, which allow farmers to accelerate their commitments to improving soil health. Sustainability scorecards, wired-up farming systems, market differentiation, labeling innovations, and distributed sourcing are all schemes that allow farmers and their supply chains to fulfill their commitments to best care for our soils. As these innovations take hold, we often find win-win-wins…including improved profitability and resilience to extreme conditions.

But the question remains: Are we moving in the right directions fast enough? Are we reducing the annual rate of soil loss and degradation? Can we objectively show we are actually starting to heal our soils? Is what we are doing enough to secure the agricultural future for our nation and our children?

The best science we have today signals the answer to these questions is no.

Thomas Clarkston started his lifelong journey toward abolition with a simple now famous observation: “if the contents of the essay are true, it is time some person should see these calamities to their end.”  

Today, a new science enables us to better see – and grasp – our challenges and opportunities. “Complexity science” investigates how relationships between parts give rise to the behaviors of a whole, how systems move, interact, form and re-form.

Just as Clarkson’s box and my view from the helicopter make obvious large-scale features of systems that we are unable or unwilling to see from the ground, complexity science can better illuminate the relationships between our individual and collective choices and their consequences. Cut free from disciplinary boundaries, complexity science systematically defines and reveals the elements of a system, how those elements may change or be changed, and how systems evolve.

These new views are like a “macroscope,” bringing into sharp focus new ways of seeing what’s already there. Complexity Science, thus, can reveal strategies for systems change, the value of risk avoided, and open new paths forward. It can even reveal the power in a moment of grace – a phase change in the system sparked by an idea pushed into the system with forays of coordinated actions – with the potential for vast and amplifying benefits for humanity.

Advanced analytical approaches enable us to see how boundaries move, how feedback cycles work, how human and biophysical conditions interact. With new sight from billions of networked devices, and new science of the Earth system, human understanding of the violence, the tolerated-intolerables in our food systems is starting to change before our eyes.

The view from the helicopter cockpit that May afternoon was clear. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, the idea that American agriculture can be profitable AND that our practices on the land must heal, even regenerate, our soils is still generally considered to be as preposterous as Clarkson’s strong opinions about human bondage.

Last week, I flew into my home airport in Madison, Wisconsin. Looking down, I could see most of the harvested cornfields in my state famous for its progressive agriculture are “no-till” fields – fields where crop residues are left on the soil to “feed” the next crop and protect the soil from erosion. Other fields showed the dewy green of the winter wheat crop and cover crops that can hold the soil against the off-season winds and rains. Almost nowhere did I see the old-fashioned naked fields we used to leave open for erosion and exposure through the winter. Wavy “contours” of alfalfa, a perennial crop that restores fertility to the soil, and grassy waterways to limit erosion weave their way through the corn fields of western Wisconsin. Change is evident on the landscape.

But we know we can do better, and we are expecting a big crowd around the 21st century table. The science says we have to do better. I say we must do better.

Armed with new scientific approaches to “see” our challenges, opportunities, and the benefits of the actions we take, armed with a wide range of social and technical innovations, bands of farmers, scientists, and many other partners in new cross-sector alliances are becoming empowered with new tools, broader views, and new inspiration to “see these calamities to their end.”

Molly Jahn is a member of the Science Board at the Santa Fe Institute, a professor of agronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and joint faculty at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. She served as dean of the college of agricultural and life sciences at UW-Madison, as deputy undersecretary of research, education, and economics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and currently leads a global research federation focused on global systemic risks, The Knowledge Systems for Sustainability Consortium. She also serves on many boards including the U.S. National Academies of Science/National Research Council Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources. She teaches a course on the systems view of life and consults widely on agriculture, food security, innovation and risk in global food systems.