Dueling Visions for the Future of the Food System
Wizards and Prophets battle it out to set the agenda. Both are missing the mark.
The conversation about the future of the food system is a fraught one. There are so many competing approaches, priorities, and power dynamics at play that it makes consensus-building nearly impossible.
When we boil down competing narratives, however, a few core themes come out. One side centers on production; on using technology to ‘feed the world,’ harnessing humanity’s scientific ingenuity to overcome environmental challenges. The other side advocates for cutting back, living within planetary boundaries, reducing consumption, and farming in ways that replenish environmental systems.
Writer Charles C. Mann introduces these archetypes in his work through the lens of two influential twentieth-century scientists, William Vogt and Norman Borlaug.
Vogt is the man behind many of the building blocks of the environmental movement throughout the 20th century. He believed that if we did not reduce consumption drastically, ecosystems would collapse. He argued that “affluence is not our greatest achievement but our biggest problem.” (Mann, 2018). We cannot take more than the earth can give, or there will be grave consequences.
Borlaug represents the other side. Often called “techno-optimism,” it’s the idea that “science and technology, properly applied, will let us produce a way out of our predicament.” (Mann, 2018). He is known for his research, which founded the Green Revolution in the 1960s and led to high-yielding crop varieties and increased industrialization of agriculture. In his eyes, “affluence was not the problem but the solution.” We had to get more knowledgeable and apply that ingenuity to solve the problems that face us.
They barely engaged with each other’s ideas, even though they ran in similar circles. Instead, they lofted vague criticisms of the other’s approach during speeches, Vogt referencing “deluded” scientists and Borlaug calling the other side “Luddites.” The conversation between those who subscribe to each scientist’s ideas has not developed much further.
Charles C. Mann refers to the adherents of Borlaug’s and Vogt’s approaches as “Wizards” and Prophets,” respectively. The “Wizards” are those on the side of developing new technologies to make agriculture more efficient, productive, and hopefully reduce carbon emissions at the same time. The “Prophets” see this approach as misguided because they believe that these technologies will simply ramp up production when that’s not the right problem to be solving. What we need, according to the Prophets, is to let go of our narrow focus on productivity and begin farming in ways that restore ecological balance. To embed ourselves back into place, reconnect to the land.
The disagreement between them is bitter and unrelenting. We’ve seen it play out in reality in the recent UN Food Systems Summit, where the “Wizards” arguably won out in setting the technology-focused agenda, but with significant pushback and opposition from the “Prophets.” We see it in the ongoing US-European trade disputes about how to feed the world: to maximize production, as the United States favors, or prioritize sustainability, such as in the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy. The latter seeks to “prioritize sustainability by slashing pesticide usage in half by 2030 and by ensuring that organic production covers a quarter of European farmland.” They are locked in a standoff about how to move forward.
“If we pursue your strategy, food production will drop and prices will shoot up. People will starve!” cries the United States. “If we don’t,” shoots back Europe, “we are going to drive the planet to ecological collapse. Then we all starve!” It’s the classic “Wizard” and Prophet” impasse.
Each side will argue that their approach can achieve the desired result without important sacrifices and that the other side involves unacceptable sacrifices. But we ought to question these assertions. Must we really sacrifice productivity to achieve sustainability? Must we really sacrifice sustainability to achieve maximal productivity? Are these even the right questions to be asking?
The reality is that each one involves sacrifice. Technology often positions itself as a sacrifice-free option: if we can harness our ingenuity effectively enough, the narrative goes, we can outsmart the problem and continue to consume at the same levels — in fact, everyone can (and ought to be able to). But the sacrifices are simply more hidden — the loss of sovereignty and culture, the environmental devastation, and the eradication of rural economies. The Prophet approach also involves sacrifice of some kind; it means changing the way that we live pretty drastically. It means reducing our consumption to levels we (in the Global North) may be uncomfortable with. And it means loss of profit, likely on a massive scale.
The other reality we can’t ignore is that both of these approaches also leave out something crucial: the element of power. Each of the figureheads of these approaches is also coming from a particular background — a predominantly white, Western scientific approach that is notoriously ahistorical and apolitical. It looks forward, promising the antidote to the problems we face, without touching on the legacies of colonialism, extraction, and imperialism that have shaped our food system more than anything else. The silence speaks volumes.
We could pursue either option — techno-optimism or living within planetary boundaries — and the deep hegemonic power structures that characterize agriculture would remain the same. Neither approach is immune from perpetuating the kind of centralization and consolidation of control that keeps access to food stratified and inequitable. And so, regardless of the technical approach, the problems will remain stubbornly rooted in place.
For example, on the techno-optimist side, genetic modification (and the international patent system that accompanies it) have created near-monopolies over seed development, placing control into the hands of a very small number of corporations. This centralization of control makes it easy to exploit farmers, who become their captive audience, increasingly dependent on the chemical fertilizers and pesticides these crops require.
But this doesn’t mean that using scientific methods to develop new seed varieties is unilaterally harmful. The context surrounding it is incredibly important. Farmers in the Philippines, for example, created MASIPAG — a farmer-led rice breeding program that used the same breeding techniques as large, corporate research institutions but bred the seeds to raise yields without requiring synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to grow. The seeds are open source, and over 30,000 farmers across the country are involved in the program. Not all manifestations of a particular technology are equal.
The same goes for the prophet side. Regenerative agriculture is a prime example of “Prophet” thinking — farming in ways that build up the soil, turning agriculture into a positive force for the environment. But many regenerative agriculture institutions have taken knowledge from Indigenous communities and repackaged it into expensive courses designed for a wealthy, white audience. This doesn’t bring us closer to an equitable food system, either. It still consolidates control.
Agroecology, on the other hand, is also a farming practice with similar principles to regenerative agriculture. But it explicitly positions itself as not only a practice but as a social movement that centers the rights and autonomy of landless people, farmworkers, Indigenous people, and other marginalized groups. This makes co-opting its principles for profit much more difficult.
The knowledge and practices themselves — breeding new seed varieties, adopting new farming practices — are not the real points of contention. The real debate is about what happens when these practices enter the context of our deeply unequal society. This is where our attention is needed.
A Crisis of Values
Mann titles his article for the Atlantic with the question “Can planet earth feed 10 billion people?” The answer? Of course, we can. We already grow enough food to feed everyone on the planet, 1.5 times over. The question is whether we will decide to feed everyone on the planet, and what values we will prioritize in the process. The answers to these questions are far from given.
We focus on ability and urgency as a distraction from the more important question — are we willing to do what is necessary to get there? Are we willing to hold governments and corporations accountable for their greed and for commodifying food, and demand that our right to food be protected? It’s important to frame the discussion in terms of political will and sacrifice, rather than ability because case studies around the world have proved the feasibility of ending hunger. Cities like Belo Horizonte in Brazil, for example, have shown that eradicating hunger is feasible in a matter of years if the political will is present.
We are able. But are we willing?
What the Wizard and Prophet framing helps us see is that this conflict about the future of food is, at its core, a crisis of values. Each side has strong arguments to defend its position. One could argue the merits of agroecology or the promises of genetic modification. Or one could fund a study to show that agroecology is insufficient to grow enough yield to feed the world, or that genetically modified crops require chemicals that will destroy the environment. Both may contain truths. We could continue throwing research papers at each other until we are bitter and defeated. Or we could admit that this is not truly about the merits of either technical approach to changing the food system.
The point is, at its core, is not about which approach will yield better results. It’s about what we believe is good. Do we see agriculture as a problem to be solved? An equation for feeding an ever-growing population? Or do we see it as something culturally important that, under the right supportive circumstances, could revitalize rural economies and be a positive force for our environment? Is agriculture something to free ourselves from, or something to embed ourselves back into, with rules and norms rooted in justice?
These are questions that cannot be answered in a laboratory. They are questions that we must answer ourselves; as individuals, and as members of countless communities. What kind of future do we want? What are we willing to sacrifice to get there? Who will this future include? Who will it exclude?
This is why the stories we tell are crucial to the future of the food system. If we ignore our very human connection to food — the way it binds us to each other, to place, to our heritage, to ourselves — we run the risk of allowing others to define it for us. This is the time to ask ourselves these questions. To tell new stories. To radically reimagine our relationship to food — and to each other.