The Law of Declining Marginal Returns

The Law of Declining Marginal Returns applies to all aspects of life. If you follow this thread, the law actually determines life itself. Declining returns cause markets to implode, governments to fall, environments to collapse causing civilizations to fail. Here we are today, sitting on that edge.

The Problem

Archeo-anthropologist Joseph Tainter defines “declining marginal returns” laying the cause at the feet of energy and agriculture. When societies reach their peak, they find themselves at a tipping point where the energy and food needed surpasses their environment’s ability to provide. Yet mankind is very adept at ignoring these threats having developed in our DNA “laissez les bon temps rouler” … translated “let the good times roll on”. With this mindset, we turn to technology as our crutch to prevail. It isn’t for mankind’s lack of “ingenuity” to survive but our lack of “understanding” how.

Agriculture is an example of “ingenuity” versus “understanding”. In the mid-1970’s the US Department of Agriculture under Nixon set out to change U.S. agriculture with the goal to lower the cost of food. Their slogan, “Get big or get out”. The unintended consequences of relying on GMO and chemical-based technology has devastated the economies of rural communities, caused massive erosion of precious soil, tainted our water supply and fouled our air, but food prices did come down. The new motto of the agriculture industries that adapted to “get big or get out”, now defend the need to continue this course in order to better “feed the world” … which actually has yet to be proven.

The Solution

In contrast, there is a growing cadre of farmers who “understand” that sustainable farming practices don’t have to rely on technology alone to better meet our need for an increased food supply. Groups like Practical Farmers of Iowa have promoted many alternative farming practices. Among these is the practice of using cover crops. Cover crops do just that, they cover the ground to prevent erosion by keeping rainfall in place and add biomass to soil improving soil vitality. Cover crops also offer the opportunity to add an additional crop to a growing season. The result makes our declining farmland more resistant to the ravages of an erratic climate.

In 1990 a unified Congress passed the National Organic Program signing into law strict farming standards for growing certified organic food. Since then, organic food consumption has grown from a one-billion-dollar market in 1990 to over $50-bilion today. Consumer demand for healthy and environmentally responsible food is the fastest growing segment in the grocery store aisles.

Our Role

To help meet this demand, Sustainable Farm Partners’ organic investment program is doing its part to advance the “understanding” of regenerative organic farming to rural communities across the Midwest, one farm at a time.

In his book “Collapse”, Jared Diamond so clearly states, “societies choose to fail or survive.”