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Agriculture

Industrial agriculture is a key driver in the generation of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, heavy machinery, monocultures, land change, deforestation, refrigeration, waste and transportation are all part of a food system that generates significant emissions and contributes greatly to global climate change. Industrial agricultural practices, from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) to synthetic fertilizer-intensive corn and soy monocultures, genetically modified to tolerate huge amounts of herbicide, not only contribute considerable amounts of GHGs, but also underpin an inequitable and unhealthy global food system. Modern conventional agriculture is a fossil fuel-based, energy-intensive industry that is aligned with biotech, trade and energy interests, versus farmer and consumers priorities.
Ryan Zinn of Organic Consumers

I am not able to put it any better than that. Mr Zinn has summed up the problems with agriculture in one short paragraph. Of all the systems under consideration, this is the one most in need of reform, and in some ways, the easiest to reform. The reform has already started and each of us can do our bit to make sure it continues here in the USA. The influence of American Agribusiness on the rest of the world is another matter.

Dictionary.com defines agriculture as “the science, art, or occupation concerned with cultivating land, raising crops, and feeding, breeding, and raising livestock; farming.”

I will talk about three “scientific” breakthroughs that, in my opinion, have put food security and adequate nutrition back many years, and contributed significantly to pollution of the environment, greenhouse gas emissions and the increasing scarcity of water. I am talking primarily about agriculture in the United States, but we all know that what happens here is transferred – for good or bad - to the rest of the world. They are potting mixes, NPK fertilizers and GMOs. I should say from the start that I have come to accept that even GMOs are not intrinsically bad, but all three “breakthroughs” have encouraged monocultures and discouraged the return of organic matter to the soil.

The first “It seemed like a good idea at the time” breakthrough was the introduction of soilless potting mix. This was developed at Cornell in the early 60s. As I understand it, the idea was that a soilless mix, that is, a sterile mix, would be good for emerging plants as there would be no danger of disease. True, but there are also few bacteria in a soilless mix and, as we now know, bacteria are the mechanism by which nutrients are transferred from soil to plant. Well, that’s OK, the thinking went, we will just add nutrients. And the fertilizer industry took off. To be fair to the scientists at Cornell, synthetic fertilizers have been around for a long time and poor farming practices pre-date their developments.

But at a stroke, the nature of growing plants for the home gardener changed. Even I have to admit that highly fertilized plants out-perform others. However, I compare them to athletes on steroids.

I have worked at a garden center where the plants were watered every day (sometimes twice a day) and fertilizer was routinely added to the water. This resulted in gorgeous plants. But you know what? You take those plants home and, just perhaps, you do not fertilize them daily. Maybe not even every week. If they are shrubs or perennials, maybe you fail to fertilize them at all. Next year, when you expect to see the same robust, luxuriant plant come up, you are going to be disappointed. The finely- tuned athlete has reverted to a moderately healthy, run-of-the-mill individual.

For years I thought that the potting mix my plants came in was going to add something to my soil. You know what? When that plant dies after a couple of years (and they often do) you can dig it up, and the same plug, the same mass that was in the original pot is totally unchanged. It has not broken down. It has not been incorporated into the surrounding soil. Nothing. It is as sterile as when you planted the unfortunate shrub in the first place.

The “soil” provides nothing, and if you do not fertilize regularly the plant will die. It is just a little like giving your children daily vitamin pills, but no food. Then you wonder why they are not very healthy.

Nevertheless, the same idea is applied to field crops. The followers of Norman Borlaug consider him a saint. It is true that his contribution to the Green Revolution saved millions of lives by

increasing yield through his semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease- resistant wheat varieties. But I remain skeptical.

A major critic of the Green Revolution, U.S. investigative journalist Mark Dowie, wrote:

The primary objective of the program was geopolitical: to provide food for the populace in undeveloped countries and so bring social stability and weaken the fomenting of communist insurgency.

That does not seem too far-fetched. And then there is the profit motive. US conglomerates tend to look at the rest of the world in market terms. While not strictly agricultural, I want to mention the Electrify Africa Act, which passed in May 2014. I was asked, by Bono’s organization One, to sign a petition in support of the bill. The stated goal “to provide sufficient electricity access to people living in rural and urban areas in order to alleviate poverty and drive economic growth” sounded noble and altruistic. Curious about how renewable energy fitted in, I read the whole thing.

Line 9 actually explains the motivation behind the act: Africa's consumer base of 1,000,000,000 people is rapidly growing and will create increasing demand for United States goods, services, and technologies, but the current African electricity deficit limits this growth in demand by restricting economic growth on the continent; It’s not about economic growth for Africans; it’s to develop another market for American goods and services. The word solar does not appear even once, renewable makes one appearance, while transmission, and distribution feature in every section.


Local resources (coal) are mentioned. This is another example of globalization. Although the end result may well lift millions out of deep poverty, it will also funnel a lot more money into the pockets of the already rich, while extracting and burning yet more fossil fuels. The word exploitation comes to mind.

One line from one song from Miss Saigon also comes to mind, referring to the half-caste children of GIs :

They're called Bui-Doi,

The dust of life Conceived in hell,

And born in strife

They are the living reminders
Of all the good we failed to do...

Every time I hear this I want to cry. I do cry. It pretty much sums up most wars, and it pretty much sums up Western intervention in the rest of the world. Sometimes the intentions are good; sometimes, good things come out of projects with dubious motives. But the good we fail to do comes about because of unintended consequences. Either no one thought about them, or worse, they knew what would happen and didn’t care. I think that the latter is true for many agricultural endeavors.

Back to the Green Revolution. The high-yielding seed was obviously a boon to farmers, but they were encouraged to give up traditional farming methods in favor of technology- and energy- intensive (and expensive) monoculture methods of farming. As in the United States, this has led to a serious loss of biodiversity, and soil degradation through the heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides. The increased irrigation needed to grow crops in marginal lands or unfriendly climates has strained water supplies. Aquifers are being depleted far faster than they can be replenished. One reason is that degraded soil does not readily absorb rainfall and much of it is lost to runoff.

Monoculture farming is completely unnatural and very susceptible to weather and other environmental factors. A flood, a drought or a new infection can wipe out an entire crop. Instead of a community relying on a variety of locally produced food sources, they have become dependent on centrally produced crops, which must be transported to the areas where they are needed. In good years, that works well. But if there is one crop failure, a lot of people go hungry because there is no plan B. And no Planet B.

The Union of Concerned Scientists states bluntly that: “Industrial farming, once hailed as a revolution, is now an outmoded and unsustainable approach to producing our food.”

Not surprisingly, degraded soil produces less nutritious plants. There are estimates that the food grown today is only 70% as nutritious as that grown in our grandparents’ lives. And then it is processed to give it shelf life, which essentially means removing any life from the food.

Back to processed food. Or even further back, to the corn and soybean fields of the Mid West. You know, industrial agriculture, the only way that we will be able to feed the growing global population. Of the millions of tons of corn produced almost half is fed to animals both here and abroad, and about 40% is converted to ethanol. That leaves maybe 11% for human consumption. And the vast majority of that is in the form of high fructose corn syrup. No one actually eats the stuff.

We do, however, eat the products of the other face of industrial agriculture – factory farmed animals. CAFOs are an abomination. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations include battery chickens, huge hog farms, many dairy operations and the feedlots where most beef cattle are “finished” before slaughter, even if they were previously pastured. Apart from the appalling conditions in which most of these animals are raised, there is the question of pollution of ground, water and air: so many animals in close proximity produce more excrement than can easily be coped with.

One group of environmentalists is adamant that the only way to save the planet is for us all to become vegans. Their argument is that cattle produce about one third of methane emissions (EPA figure) and degrade pasture lands by grazing and therefore are the cause of all our problems. Although, I can’t find hard figures, at least one third of that comes from manure management, the politically correct way to describe lagoons of excrement. Another view, championed by Alan Savory and described by Judith Schwartz in her book “Cows Save The world” maintains that actually cows are a very good thing.

The different ways cattle are managed makes both arguments valid. The vegans have a point, but they are not looking at the big picture. They are ignoring the fact that in many environments, eating meat is the only option. In her wonderful book, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”, Barbara Kingsolver talks about life in the high Andes. In a deforested, extremely arid area call Piura, goats are surviving on the few remaining mesquite trees, and dried seed pods. They provide meat, milk and manure, and more goats. Families who were given goats agree to give the first female kid to another family, spreading the largesse. Small, irrigated plots provide supplemental beans and vegetables, but the goats keep the people from starving. The project is sponsored by Heifer International, an organization worthy of substantial support.

The vegan crowd is only looking at cattle raising as most commonly practiced – turn the cows loose on rangeland to graze at will, and/or confine them and feed them grain. The Savory view, taking a clue from ruminants in the wild, suggests that a better way is to concentrate large numbers of animals in a small area for a short while. Just long enough, in fact, for them to mow the pasture, but not long enough to eat it down to soil level. As you know from your own lawn, mowing encourages growth, and the cattle leave behind a layer of extremely rich fertilizer. They move on and rotate through the area, mowing and fertilizing, until they get to their first pen rich in newly grown grass, and the process starts again. Savory calls the process holistic managed grazing. His critics, and there are surprisingly many, say it doesn’t work. This is probably because is it hard work. You have to consider the conditions every day. Sometimes, if the grass is lush, the cattle can stay for a few days; other times they may need to move on after just a few hours.

But it is not just moving the cattle. Savory insists that the ground must be kept covered at all times to reduce evaporation and to return organic matter to the soil. Absolutely no burning. Obviously, in many parts, winter is a problem and that has to be factored in. Some pasture needs to be left for cutting to provide winter feed, and in some areas it is necessary to provide supplemental feed.

Critics also say that it takes longer to get the cattle to a marketable weight. Savory counters that you can run more head per acre than with conventional ranching, more than making up for slightly lower finished weights.

What is undisputed is that tall grasslands sequester carbon. The carbon enriches the soil and increases its water-holding capacity so that next year, the pastures will be richer. Seems like a no- brainer to me.

Diet is like religion. If someone wants to be vegetarian or vegan (the fanatics of the diet world) that's fine but they should stop trying to force it on other people.

"Science" has led to some remarkable innovations and improvements in our quality of life, but I question very seriously whether messing about with nature is in our best interests. There are so many influences in a natural ecosystem that they cannot all be controlled in a lab or even a field study. You saw “Jurassic Park” - nature finds a way.

I am more inclined to accept observed behavior of both plants and animals rather than scientific studies. It is generally accepted that animals and very small children will choose the foods that provide the nutrients they most need. There has been a lot of anecdotal reporting that animals, given a choice between GM feed and non-GM food, always chose the latter. Unblinded by science, they seem to know something we don't.

Wake Up Before It Is Too Late: Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate” is a recent report from UNCTAD, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development which uses over 300 pages to expand on the already lengthy title.

Miguel Altieri, Professor of Agroecology at UC Berkley, and contributor to the report said, “What people are realizing is, first of all, industrial agriculture is not feeding the world, most of what it produces is biomass, which is for cattle, biotech crops, and biofuels.” I don’t know how many times I have said that to supporters of biotechnology, particularly GMOs. To my mind, the jury is still out on whether they are safe because there have been many studies supporting both sides of the argument. I agree with sustainable farming’s poster boy, Joel Salatin that “The science is only as good as the integrity of the patrons” which eliminates many of the pro-GMO reports.

“Wake Up Before It Is Too Late” is not directly critical of GMOs, but it is of the Green Revolution. In the 1960s, Norman Borlaug, an agronomist, helped transition farming in Latin America and Asia to modern hybrid wheat and rice varieties grown with the assistance of irrigation and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. For this he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. However, one of the UNCTAD report’s Key Messages reads, “The world needs a paradigm shift in agricultural development: from a ‘green revolution’ to an ‘ecological intensification’ approach”.

Unfortunately, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is working to continue Borlaug’s approach, although with half an eye toward sustainability. They see biotechnology—not just hybrid varieties— as the key tool in what some are calling a second Green Revolution. Heaven help us! It will not help the rural poor anywhere in the world. They will not have food security while they depend on staples that are grown in some distant location and may or may not get to their intended destination. And it will do nothing to help the climate.

Of the many conferences I have been to over the past couple of years, only one left me feeling that there really is hope that we can avoid the catastrophic changes to our planet that are predicted if we continue with business as usual: Biodiversity for a Livable Climate, Restoring Ecosystems to Reverse Global Warming held at Tufts University. One of the speakers, Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association writes as well as he speaks. He recently penned an article entitled “Regeneration: Global Transformation in Catastrophic Times”, which begins by quoting the Pope’s encyclical:

Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention.... It is not enough to balance, in the medium term, the protection of nature with financial gain, or the preservation of the environment with progress. Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster.

He goes on the say:

"The inconvenient truth of course is that our degenerate “profit-at-any-cost” global economy is killing us. The living Earth—our soils, forests and oceans—and the “rhythms of nature” are unraveling. Greed and selfishness have displaced sharing and cooperation. Land grabs, Empire-building, resource wars, and out-of-control consumerism have become the norm.”

Then he outlines how regenerative agriculture can change all that. Regenerative agriculture is not only a better way going forward, it is the only way.

What exactly is regenerative agriculture? A recent article in The Guardian explains:

Regenerative agriculture comprises an array of techniques that rebuild soil and, in the process, sequester carbon. Typically, it uses cover crops and perennials so that bare soil is never exposed, and grazes animals in ways that mimic animals in nature. It also offers ecological benefits far beyond carbon storage: it stops soil erosion, remineralises soil, protects the purity of groundwater and reduces damaging pesticide and fertiliser runoff.

(The Guardian, I might add is becoming a go-to source for all things environmental. Among other things they have launched a “Leave it in the Ground” campaign to take the UK away from coal and other fossil fuels.)

Cummins goes on: "We must begin to connect the dots between fossil fuels, global warming and related issues, including world hunger, poverty, unemployment, toxic food and farming, extractivism, land grabbing, biodiversity, ocean destruction, deforestation, resource wars, and deteriorating public health. As we regenerate the soil and forests, and make organic and grass-fed food and fiber the norm, rather than just the alternative, we will simultaneously develop our collective capacity to address all of the globe’s interrelated problems."

While I don’t suppose many of my readers are going to rush out and start farming, there is a lot individuals can do, starting with divestment. Before you start making things better, you have to stop making them worse. So take your money out of Shell and Exxon/Mobil, and Nestlé and Archer Daniels Midland and the other corporations who exploit our natural resources for profit, and invest in something local. Farmers’ Markets are great but they usually only happen once a week and the farmer expends a lot of time and energy to be there. CSAs are great. That is Community Supported Agriculture. Members of the community buy shares in a CSA giving them the start up money to plant the season’s crops. Each week they harvest what is ready and share it between the members.

How we get our food has to change. If we concentrate on real food and not calorie-rich, nutrient-poor food-stuffs, the change should be easy. 

In this context, the word “science” raises huge red flags for me. I just don’t think that science and agriculture fit comfortably together. These may seem like a stupid comparison, but I have been several times over the past few years to see eye doctors to explain why I don’t see very well. The answer has been that there is no problem, I test so close to 20-20 that glasses make no difference. I passed enough exams to get a degree in Mathematics yet two weeks later I could not even define cosine. Tests, even the most rigorously controlled ones, do not always translate into success in the real world. Perhaps that is because of the rigorous controls: there are always things in nature that you can’t control.

I have just had a moment of inspiration/insight, literally, as I wrote that last sentence. Could it be that the reason fresh fruit and vegetables are so good for you is not because they are loaded with phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals, but because they are loaded with bacteria? It works for the soil, why not also for our digestive systems? I must look into this idea further, but I suspect it is going to be one of those ideas that just will not go away. Rather like the connection between tobacco and knee pain. This is a complete tangent, but it is another idea that won’t go away. Maybe someone who reads this will be as fascinated as I am, and explore further. A few years back, I spent a month in Nicaragua teaching at a small community school. After about ten days my right knee swelled and began to hurt fiercely. I self-diagnosed water on the knee and bought analgesic creams and pills to little avail; it still hurt. I limped around for about two weeks and then we, the half-dozen volunteer teachers, went on a tour of a cigar factory. The tour lasted about two hours and I walked back to my lodgings afterwards. At some point I realized that my knee did not hurt anymore. Nothing. Not even a twinge. And the pain has never come back. Whoever finds out what it was about the cigars that made it better could make a fortune.

We can't all suddenly rush out and become farmers, but we can all grow more.  And we can fine-tune our growing habits so that not only are we reducing carbon emissions, but also we are increasing carbon sequestration.

  • compost 

  • mulch and use ground cover

  • plant natives

  • grow an edible landscape

  • reduce use of chemicals

  • use IPM 

  • eat locally

  • eat seasonally

  • start a community garden

  • regenerate the parks

  • plant trees

  • use renewable energy (manpower)

 

 

 

 

 

 

We must literally "grow" our way to prosperity.  And I don't mean economic growth!

As Kenneth E. Boulding has written:


"Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist."