Late this summer, I embarked on a journey with several classmates from Washington University in St. Louis along with landscape architecture professor Jesse Vogler. Our field-based seminar took me across the Midwest, investigating our industrial food production system. As a group of landscape architects, we wanted to see and understand this productive landscape as it is, and learn to read and identify the visible and less-visible elements that relate to food. We met with organizations and companies in the field, hoping to understand their points of view.
Confronting the Machine
The design of the Midwestern landscape is a marvel, the accumulation of historical and technological infrastructure that has transformed a vast expanse of earth into a machine of production. What was so powerful about my experience was seeing this so broadly.
Among the people and institutions we met along our journey I observed a relentless ambition to solve problems with this machine related to land and water use, pollution, and a loss of biodiversity. There was a humane impulse to temper the momentum towards further development.
Innovation has been central to the expansion of agriculture in the United States. But moving forward, innovation can’t just be about increasing crop yield, it also has to be about promoting the goals of social and ecological sustainability. In confronting the Midwestern agricultural machine, we must ask: is there a way to create an engine of innovation productive on a large scale but also informed by a deep sense of ethics?
The Innovation Spectrum
The field of “social innovation,” which has been explored by Stanford Social Innovation Review, offers thinking that may help, explaining how productive landscapes can be sources of positive change if “social entrepreneurs” are able to act. The language of social entrepreneurs is also increasingly useful in speaking to leaders across non-profit, business, and government sectors about environmental, social, and economic justice issues.
Many social entrepreneurs believe that true sustainability comes from investment in both financial returns and positive social and environmental impact. As such, we must explore both for-profit and philanthropic efforts in industrial agriculture:
Innovation for social good often comes about because the market has failed to provide a solution. Many non-profit institutions we visited focused on what the local agricultural markets won’t deal with because they can’t make any money doing it. For example, The Nature Conservancy is an organization that manages prairie restoration on the Great River grasslands and buys easements on surrounding properties in order to conserve them. The Land Institute is research center developing a perennial agriculture system that will take decades to market its first profitable crops. Harvest Public Media is a radio production that fills a critical information void, covering issues of food, fuel, and field from the Midwest. Each of these institutions commit to a mission that the market doesn’t support.
On the other side of the spectrum, we also visited companies and organizations like Monsanto, John Deere, and the Chicago Board of Trade, which have been major players in shaping the productive landscape. These firms create market innovations that offer new opportunities in emerging markets. These institutions have the power of scale. They are effective at riding the market wave over the long term. Even within the profit-centered framework of a traditional corporation, companies like Monsanto and John Deere have the opportunity to do good through sustainability initiatives. They can drive profits by identifying new business opportunities that also happen to address shared value or responsible corporate citizenship.
Social entrepreneurship is really about creating institutions that bridge the gap between purely social or environmental and the market-oriented. Of the institutions we visited, there were several that blur the lines by combining a positive mission with a creative business model that reduces dependence on inconsistent funding sources like donations and grants. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture is a public institution housed within Iowa State University, but it’s funded entirely by appropriated fees on nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides. Another example is the Seed Savers Exchange, which is partially funded by the production and sale of seeds through widely available catalogs. Institutions like these offer the possibility that what is now excluded from the market system may one day become included, making the system as a whole more sustainable.
Industrial agriculture, as a for-profit system food production system, is the force stocking our grocery stores, satisfying the increasingly high-protein diet of the developing world, meeting the demands of population growth. But it’s also spurring rural-to-urban migration, using much of our fresh water, and creating pollution.
A more sustainable agriculture system must understand anew the relationship between cities and the productive landscapes in their region. The spread of urban gardens in landscape architecture design work has inspired the public to imagine how small scale, bottom-up interventions can advance sustainability, but without integration into a larger system, these gardens will not be effective in challenging the industrial food system. Furthermore, the urban farming model has largely fallen short because it doesn’t acknowledge our diet is based primarily on grains rather than vegetables.
We must acknowledge the successes of the industrial system, but then also make room for social entrepreneurs that seek more environmentally and socially-sensitive solutions. These actors can set new standards and truly change the way that companies, organizations, and even governments operate. Market, social, and environmental innovation must be viewed as symbiotic.
This guest post is by Ylan Vo, Master’s of Landscape Architecture and Architecture candidate, Washington University in St. Louis.
Image credits: (1) Jesse Vogler, (2-3) Ylan Vo