Monday, June 29, 2015

Two Visions Revisited

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 Visions

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.

External Costs

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.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Product and Process

by Bill Duesing

To understand the importance of organic agriculture, we need to look beyond the difference between the possible pesticide contamination of conventional produce and the possible blemishes of organic produce.
Organic farming and gardening work by using the processes that have allowed the Earth to evolve to its current beautiful and exciting state.
Photosynthesis, the growth, death and decay of an incredible variety of organisms, constant change and the nearly total recycling of materials are the processes of nature and of organic agriculture.
This agriculture uses sunlight, carbon dioxide, water, minerals, local waste products and the genetic information in seeds to build and maintain complex ecosystems. These ecosystems produce food while they build topsoil and fertility, hold water, protect diversity and create beauty and pleasant work.
This contrasts with the focus on the product in our current food system, which in striving for the perfect marketable fruit or vegetable, is willing to use toxic materials and methods such as monoculture, widespread irrigation, and annual agriculture on the dry high plains to produce its product. The results of this approach are soil erosion, depletion of aquifers, pollution of wells, a decline in the diversity and stability of our ecosystems, and one of the most energy- intensive food systems in the world.
Long-distance food shipping, modern packaging, processing, freezing and food-irradiation techniques have put an ever greater amount of energy, time and space between the plant absorbing sunlight and the reversal of that process in our bodies, as energy is released from the food.
Our current food system (and therefore our ability to live) is dependent on Chile's political stability, Mexico's pesticide regulations, California's water resources, Kuwait's oil, a small and shrinking number of farmers, and the very few corporations which control any given commodity.
This focus on product has produced farmers who grow a square mile of wheat and then buy all their food from the supermarket. Peasants in Mexico labor to grow winter vegetables for us on land that used to produce corn and beans for them. Many can barely afford the imported American fast food they now get to eat. The traditional small farms of old and New England, with vegetable gardens, small orchards, chickens, cows and a few pigs, produced most of the fertility for the farm and the food for the farmer's family, with surpluses of several kinds for their neighbors. This agricultural model is nearly forgotten and almost extinct.
Our current system uses fossil fuel-powered factories instead of leguminous plants like peas and clover to obtain nitrogen. We grow lettuce (which is 95 percent water) in the desert and then use oil to move it 3,000 miles to our mouths. We use millions of pounds of chemicals that are toxic to much of the life on our planet, but the apologists for the chemical industry say it's okay because there is little or no residue left on our food. The cheapness of taxpayer-subsidized chemical fertilizers, pushed by industry and their government partners, has caused materials like food wastes, animal manures, and leaves to change from being valuable resources, to being garbagenow a global problem.
The real key to organic gardening and agriculture is a healthy soil, full of living things (6 billion to a teaspoonful) and decaying organic matter. The understanding and care needed for good garden soil is symmetrical with the understanding and care needed by our Earth.

I wrote and delivered this essay in the winter of 1991, nearly a quarter of a century ago, early in the decade-long series of my Living on the Earth radio pieces on WSHU from Fairfield, CT. It was included in the collection Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful Future published in 1993. I'd certainly use a few different details now: perhaps Mexico's political environment, China's pesticide regulations, and fracked natural gas. And California's water resources are worse than ever.
I dedicated this essay to NOFA/CT as the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut was then known.  At the time, CT NOFA was a small, all-volunteer organization that educated and advocated for a local and organic food system, certified organic farms in Connecticut and was just beginning its education and advocacy program in organic land care. NOFA was a pioneer in this work.
Think for a minute about the changes in the food and farm landscape in Connecticut (and nearly everywhere else) since that time. I believe that there is more local food availability now than at any time since the 1950s.
In the past 24 years, there has been tremendous growth in local, small and sustainable farms, in farmers markets, community and college farms, and many more young people are actually interested in growing food.  There are more community gardens and school gardens as well as a greater focus on food justice and sustainability. Enthusiastic believers in good food, social justice and ecological care now bring these issues to the educational, environmental and faith communities who are joining in this work. Farmers and gardeners are growing food in inner cities, in the suburbs and in traditional farm country.
CSAs or farm-share programs, food delivery businesses and farm stands connect growers and consumers in new ways.  Federal, state and municipal programs, local agricultural commissions, food policy councils and non-profit organizations support this growth in many ways.  Producers and consumers alike are excited by the increasing diversity of foods grown or produced here.  There are more kinds and varieties of vegetables available, many year round, as well as cheeses, fruits, grains, meats, other dairy products and fungi.  Nearby food is fresher, tastier and better for the climate. It has helped to create vibrant communities around farms and markets, as people learn more about our essential connection with Earth.
Meanwhile, in the intervening years, genetically-modified seeds have become the norm in the industrial system.  The first round of herbicide tolerant crops is failing to perform (because nature works like nature and evolves) so soon our industrial food crops will be sprayed with a cocktail of not one, but two toxic herbicides.
Agricultural suppliers, commodity traders, meat processors and food marketers have consolidated to gain market share at the expense of farmers, consumers, democracy and the planet. They all seem to have unlimited money for lobbying and marketing and to make sure we don't know which foods come from genetically-modified seeds.
This evermore distant, industrial, capital intensive, high-tech food system marginalizes and impoverishes farmers for the benefit of the folks who control the inputs as well as the space between the soil and our mouths. This system has also caused an enormous increase in the very expensive chronic diseases which are diet related: diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and some cancers. Besides the confined animal feeding operations, food processors and fast food operators, other beneficiaries of this system include the venture capitalists who buy and sell restaurant chains like so many monopoly pieces in order to take advantage of cheap food inputs and tax benefits.  In contrast, this year, Illinois corn farmers, growing on some of the best farmland in the world are projected to lose money on every acre they harvest. Wisconsin dairy farmers are going out of business because of plummeting milk prices which approach just half of their production costs.  Clearly something is very wrong.
The industrial system and its allies are now in a full court press to convince us that its way is the only way to feed ourselves. It is exciting that so many people are involved in the critical work of re-creating a local, sustainable and just food system.  It is likely to take much of our energy for the rest of our lives to make this happen. However, the vision of a triumphant industrial system that destroys biological and food diversity, worsens climate change, pollutes the planet with excess nitrogen, drives farmers out of business and greatly increases health care costs, is bleak indeed.  
So grow some or more of your own food, find farmers or a community garden in your area, learn to eat and cook local, seasonal food. These are the most powerful things we can do for our health and the health of the planet that our grandchildren will inherit.