It is unlikely that the average American knows anyone who farms full-time, unless they visit a farmer’s market or buy directly from a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.
Over the last several decades, the number of people claiming farming as an occupation has declined precipitously. In 1870, 53 percent of the labor force was employed in farming. As of 2012, only one percent of the U.S. population claims farming as an occupation. And half of all current farmers are likely to retire during the next decade.
While the sheer number of farmers (and farms) has declined, methods of agriculture continue to intensify, in terms of mechanization and the use of fossil fuels attributed to the rise of “industrial agriculture,” which emerged after WWII. Overall, it takes fewer farmers today to produce the food needed for the growing population.
To get a sense of scale with regards to livestock production, according to the Centers for Disease Control, “agriculture is dominated by giant factory farms with livestock packed at a huge scale,” writes Clay A. Johnson, author of The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption.
“It’s what allows just four companies to produce 81 percent of the cows, 73 percent of the sheep, 57 percent of the pigs, and 50 percent of the chickens in America.”
Despite the increase in the volume of meat, sugar, corn and soy products, these farming methods have resulted in health risks due to the increased use of antibiotics, pesticides and herbicides. They have also resulted in severe environmental consequences globally due to nutrient mismanagement, including the great U.S. Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and, more recently, massive plumes of nutrient runoff in areas like the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, which are creating huge marine dead zones.
Changing the agricultural paradigm will require new approaches. Ashoka Changemakers recently launched a new initiative that represents their evolution in thinking about how the industrial agricultural system should be evolving — democratically, and with a focus on nutrition and wellness, as opposed to maximized production.
Through their “Nutrients for All” initiative, Ashoka sees tremendous opportunity in economic and social transactions based on the creation, flow and absorption of healthy nutrients as they weave through the environment, agriculture, foods and human health.
Farmers in this new economy play an important role as nutrient stewards. A plethora of new farmers (many of whom do not come from farming backgrounds) are interested in getting engaged in more sustainable farming approaches, but their numbers remain small (using organic certified land as a proxy, they represented less than one percent of total farmland in 2008) because there are significant barriers to entry.
One of the principal barriers is the cost of land. Two major reasons for this are the conversion of prime agricultural land into residential and commercial development and rising land prices in areas surrounding this increasing encroachment.
These dynamics inflate the value of land beyond what many farmers can afford. In many areas, like in the San Joaquin Valley of California, the pace of development is jaw-dropping — for instance, for every four acres developed prior to 1990 another has been developed since then. The average land price has also been increasing; per acre, farm real estate prices have almost doubled over the last decade.
Given these barriers, how are these new farmers going to get involved in the nutrient economy?
A quick Google search on “new farmer programs” brings up a litany of results, including the Center for Rural Affairs, which promises to “establish strong rural communities, social and economic justice, environmental stewardship, and genuine opportunity for all.” Community Land Trusts are also engaged in lowering the price of farming. But these efforts aren’t enough.
The U.S. loses more than an acre of farmland per minute. Wasteful land use, not development itself, is the problem. For example, from 1982 to 2007, the U.S. population grew by 30 percent, but during the same period, developed land increased by 57 percent.
Several groups are trying to conserve prime farmland and rejuvenate regional food systems, including the San Francisco Foodshed Initiative and the New York Regional Foodshed Initiative. One particularly innovative approach worth keeping an eye on is an initiative called The Food Commons, a paragon of this new economic paradigm and whole systems approach to regional food.
The brains behind this initiative, including Larry Yee, are re-envisioning and re-purposing the local and regional food systems that preceded the current industrial production models.
“The twist is that these regional food systems will be updated to reflect the 21st-century advances in information systems, communications, community-based organizational and economic models,” explains Yee, to go along with “the science and practice of sustainable agriculture and the changes in culture and demand.”
Three integral components underpin the Food Commons model:
- The Food Commons Trust, a non-profit, quasi-public entity that will acquire and steward critical foodshed assets;
- The Food Commons Financing Arm, a community-owned financial institution that will provide capital and financial services to foodshed enterprises;
- The Food Commons Hub, a locally-owned, co-operatively integrated business enterprise that builds and manages foodshed-based physical infrastructure and facilitates the complex logistics of aggregation and distribution at different scales all along the moving parts of the system, while providing scale economies, business services, technical assistance and training to new small food businesses.
Ashoka is launching “Nutrients for All,” a movement to encourage leading social entrepreneurs and innovators to look at nutrients as the core deliverable and to design direct nutrient interventions at each stage of the agricultural and food value chains — in ecosystems, farming, food production, and wellness.
The campaign includes a series of Google+ Hangouts that will take us on a journey to understanding the role of each sector and actor in building a “Nutrients for All” world. Join us as we feature stories and conversations between thought leaders, experts, innovators, and media gurus from a wide range of fields, culminating in the launch of a global search for new ideas and innovations in April of 2013.
Keep the conversation going on Twitter! Just follow the hashtag #nutrients4all.
This blog appears here with permission and was originally published at Forbes.com.