by Bill Duesing
There has been remarkable positive movement toward growing food for people near where they live, which is often called agroecology. Methods used in this local, healthy and sustainable food system model maximize use of local resources, including sun and waste products and minimize use of fossil fuels, agro-toxins and abuse of people.
Almost two decades ago, I was inspired by a speech delivered by visionary organic farmer, Fred Kirschenmann, to write "Two Visions" for my October 3, 1997 Living on the Earth broadcast.
Two distinctly different visions for the future of our food system have emerged: one is industrial, the other is ecological.
The industrial paradigm urges society to amplify research and the application of intensive, high-input technologies for growing, processing and marketing food in order to feed an expanding human population.
Proponents of the ecological paradigm for our food system believe that if the human species is to survive, the work of feeding ourselves must be incorporated into the "larger task of restoring the health of local ecosystems" and communities. They "suggest that this requires not only a redesign of farming methods, but also of the entire food and agriculture system." Producing and preparing food should become an integral part of our lives.
The basics of a food system are really quite simple. Soil supports plants which use sunlight to turn air and water into delicious things to eat. Animals turn some of the plants into other good food. Meals are prepared and eaten.
In the ecological model, the plants, animals and eaters share the same ecosystem. Wastes from one species nourish others by way of nature's elegant cycles. Growing and preparing food are integral to the culture, education, joy and the spirit of each community. While home, school and community gardens are the most important elements of an ecological food system, community-supported-agriculture projects, farmers markets, organic farms, as well as small and part-time farms (especially in urban and suburban areas) are also critical. All of these human-scale endeavors are expanding steadily here in the US and around the world. Grassroots organizations believe that these elements help restore the health not only of people and local ecosystems, but of rural and urban communities, as well.
The approach of the industrial food system is very different. This system disconnects people from direct experience in producing food and disconnects food production from the elegant natural cycles that allow ecosystems to function. Instead it creates concentration of ownership, extremely large-scale monocultures and highly-subsidized facilities which produce, for example, millions of hogs or chickens, millions of pounds of margarine or millions of gallons of herbicide each year. It also tends toward boring, inhumane and oftentimes dangerous employment for its workers.
Because food is produced very far from where it is eaten, distribution becomes the most important element in the industrial model. Large agribusinesses use contracts with farmers, vertical integration and other forms of coordination to control the flow of food from "farm to mouth." Large chemical, drug, seed and equipment companies take an increasing share of farmers' earnings for their high tech, toxic, dangerous, and genetically-engineered inputs. Globalization of all these activities is big right now, with the overriding goal in all cases being higher profits to please investors.
While the ecological approach maximizes the use of solar energy, recycles organic wastes and uses non-renewable resources sparingly, the industrial approach voraciously consumes soil, water, packaging materials and energy.
In fact, energy from fossil and nuclear sources used for growing, processing, transporting, packaging and marketing has become the most important ingredient in the industrial food system.
This system discards farmers and their knowledge as it eliminates locally-adapted plants and animals in favor of laboratory creations. The industrial system is quickly narrowing the diversity of food plants that we eat and the diversity of plant and animal species on Earth.
Proponents of the industrial vision would have us forge recklessly ahead on their path, putting all our hopes for future eating into the hands of genetic engineers, large-scale, far-away farms and global food processors. Their record so far is not good.
Practitioners of the ecological system strive to involve as many as possible in the rewarding work of feeding themselves. They have found that local, ecological food production nourishes more than bodies. It nourishes spirits and communities, too.
(This transcript, and those from all of my weekly Living on the Earth broadcasts from late 2005 through the fall of 2010 are archived online by the University of Massachusetts Library. The special collections unit there also houses the NOFA archives.
That was 1997. The issues haven't changed much. Progress in the last 18 years, however, toward the ecological vision is evident all over Connecticut (and indeed the planet). It is inspiring what people can do. There has been a veritable explosion of gardens, small farms, community farms, college farms, farmers markets, and food and farming related organizations. Each of these inspires and connects more people directly with their food.
In 1997, the Hartford Food System and at the time, all-volunteer CT NOFA had been around for about 20 years and Common Ground High School (on a farm in New Haven) was just beginning. The founding of the Working Lands Alliance and from that the Connecticut Farmland Trust wasn't even on the drawing board. Farmers markets were few and mostly small. There were only a handful of CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture farms) offering a weekly share of the produce.
In this century, notable markets such as CitySeed's four in New Haven and the famous Coventry Regional Farmers Market got going. Those markets and others all over the state stimulated farmers to produce more food and grow more kinds of crops for a longer season. They encouraged a wave of new and young farmers which in turn encouraged CT NOFA and UConn to begin beginning farmer-training programs. The new farmers started their own organization, the New CT Farmer Alliance.
Community Farms are one of the most promising of these developments. They are run by non-profit, community-based organizations to produce food for people where they live, to provide education and a connection to the soil. Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven, New Britain and New London all have one or more community farms. Many suburban towns have them too, connecting with school children and enthusiastic volunteers from local businesses. The Community Farm of Simsbury trains new organic farmers as well as providing food for the needy.
Land trusts and churches are growing food for food pantries and towns are establishing Agriculture commissions. There's now a ConnecticutFood System Alliance.
In our town, the number of people producing eggs and maple syrup increases each year. More of our neighbors are growing their own food.
We have a long way to go, but based on this growth and the concomitant benefits (called positive externalities) they have a very promising future.
Small Farms Feed 70 Percent of the World's Population
Local agriculture has a good track record. According to a report from the ETC Group, 70 percent of the world's population is fed by a variety of peasant and small-scale food systems. The ETC Group is an international organization which is dedicated to "the conservation and sustainable advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights." It traces its roots to Eleanor Roosevelt's work to help poor, mostly black tenant farmers in the 1930s.
That means that only 30 percent of the earth's population is fed by the agro-industrial food system. However, the system that fills our supermarkets and chain restaurants to overflowing uses 75 to 80 percent of the arable land and 70 percent of the water and fuel used for agriculture. Not so efficient, but they always want us to buy and consume more.
Despite the widespread benefits of agro-ecological systems, the agro-industrial system is growing steadily because of its power and wealth, and the fact that it can spread many of its real costs (called negative externalities) elsewhere: the planet, people, even, maybe especially, farmers. Recent news provides good examples.
Big agriculture was a huge supporter of the recently-passed Trade Promotion Authority (and the Trans Pacific Partnership that it enables) in part because it would mean more hog factories and more corn and soy farms to feed them in Iowa. (To my thinking, more hog factories is a sufficient reason to reject this trade process.) However, as one farmer there said, "It's really important that we are able to export our product. We have a moral duty. We're feeding the world here." I guess she hadn't read the ETC report about who really feeds the world.
This chart indicates the drastic reduction in diversity of crops on Iowa farms in the last century. You can imagine a lot of delicious meals on farms and in communities in 1920. Especially since many of the farms had large, bountiful gardens, too. It would be tough to eat well from the farms in 2002. Any other crops are only grown, if at all, on less than one percent of the farms. All the Roundup, and now 2-4,D to control weeds in the GMO corn and soy makes gardening much harder.
One aspect of the system used to produce more pork for people to eat in Asia is particularly negative: the millions of tons of nitrogen applied to and leaking from corn fields and draining out of confined hog feeding operations. Nitrogen is a critical ingredient for growing corn to feed pigs, cows, chickens, people and cars. (Covering 90 million acres, corn is the most widely grown crop in this country. Except for the produce section, corn is a part of almost everything in the supermarket: meat, dairy, one or more ingredients for many processed foods and a key ingredient in soda.)
A recent study by an international team of scientists found that the annual human and environmental costs of nitrogen pollution attributable to agriculture is twice the value of all the corn produced! The nitrogen running off of farms and animal factories already adds a million dollars a year to the Des Moines, Iowa water company's costs. Nitrogen is also a major cause of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico (the size of Connecticut this year, I hear) and the trouble in our own Long Island Sound. Nitrogen fertilizers also release greenhouse gases when applied to the soil.
Nitrogen pollution is just tip of the iceberg when it comes to the environmental costs of the industrial approach to growing food. Broad spectrum herbicides and insecticides greatly diminish biodiversity and resilience, above and below ground, over vast swaths of the Midwest which was once one of the planet's most diverse and productive ecosystems.
And, it looks as if even the farmers who apply the nitrogen will bear some of the costs this year. According to the University of Illinois, farmers who grow corn in central Illinois, some of the best land in the country, may lose money on every acre they harvest after paying rent for the land. However, we taxpayers will make up some of the difference through crop insurance and other subsidy programs. You can see complete crop budgets here.
The barrage of low cost meat and processed and fast food adds another external cost - to human health. A recent Brookings Institution Study found that "if all of the American children who are now obese mature into obese adults, the cost to the nation would be $1.1 trillion in additional health care expenses and lower productivity over their lifetimes." What are the costs of other diet-related diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and dementia?
This system is clearly not sustainable. Environmental pollution, farmers driven out of business and sick people do not bode well for our future.
And yet industrial agriculture isn't giving up. It is deeply committed to growing more of a few, largely genetically-modified crops for processing into foodstuffs to be shipped to wherever people have money to pay. As Richard Manning says in his very thought-provoking and provocative, 2004 book, Against the Grain: How agriculture has hijacked civilization, "The goal of agriculture is not feeding people; it is the accumulation of wealth." Powerful voices from many public sectors are aware of how unsustainable and dangerous the industrial food system is. And they are speaking out about it.
Pope Francis, for example, recently said: “A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
And The People's Test on Climate in 2015 stated: "Nothing less than a systemic transformation of our societies, our economies, and our world will suffice to solve the climate crisis and close the ever-increasing inequality gap."
It's challenging work to make social change, but in this case, our lives depend on it.