CT NOFA's Organic Advocate
How are we going to eat?
By Bill Duesing
"Coincident with the rise of industrialism, people started to see food less as a connection between one's body and the natural world and more as a barrier between humans and the imagined savagery of the natural world."
Against the Grain: How Agriculture has hijacked civilization, by Richard Manning
First the good news.
CT NOFA had record attendance at our 32nd annual winter conference. Over 900 attendees created "... a contagious sense of community and passion at this event," according to one reporter.
In Connecticut, as in all New England states, the number of farms, and the amount of land in farms, are both up in the most recent USDA Ag Census.
For carnivores, this week brings the New England Meat Conference with the goal of enhancing "the production, processing, and marketing of sustainable, nutritious, humanely-raised, and delicious meat from New England farms and processors by providing educational and networking opportunities for meat producers, processors, and consumers."
Vermont had to add more meat inspectors because of the growth of local meat production.
Even the United Nations is on our side. The Conference on Trade and Development's "Trade and Environment Report 2013," published last September, was subtitled "Wake up before it is too late: Make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate."
The report says "Farming in rich and poor nations alike should shift from monoculture towards greater varieties of crops, reduced use of fertilizers and other inputs, greater support for small-scale farmers, and more locally focused production and consumption of food." That sounds very close to NOFA's vision for the last 43 years. Perhaps that has something to do with the trends captured in the Ag Census. Many of the new farms in Connecticut are under 10 acres and most of the others are between 10 and 40 acres.
Speaking of "sides" in the food war, Robert Paarlberg, a political scientist and long a defender of industrial agriculture, admits that "we" have won the intellectual/cultural war but states that conventional agriculture is winning on the commercial and technological fronts. "As for who's winning in this cultural arena, I would say flat out the advocates for alternative agriculture have already won," Paarlberg said, speaking at the University of Nebraska.
"Conventional agriculture as practiced in states such as Nebraska 'is under strong attack' from people who believe it is unhealthy, unsafe, environmentally unsustainable and socially unjust," Paarlberg said. "These forces want a shift from large-scale, specialized, highly capitalized farming systems to smaller scale systems that integrate crop and livestock production. Instead of internationally traded foods, they want local foods and instead of genetically engineered food, they want organic food."
Where will our food come from?
Will it connect us with the Earth in an organic/ecological system that engages many people in meaningful work? Or will it distance us from the destruction of the industrial food system which tells us (in the phrase Fred Kirschenmann used at the CT NOFA Winter Conference keynote) to "just eat it?"
What will happen to the natural world?
Will it be nourished and healed by smaller scale, local, bio-diverse, organic and ecological systems or devastated by large scale monocultures?
Connections with the Earth
Dr. Daphne Miller describes the many benefits of being closely connected to the Earth and to our food supply as gardeners, farmers or consumers in her book Farmacology: What innovative family farmers can teach us about health and healing. Our bodies and healthy soil share many of the same microorganisms. It is literally true that our health is intimately connected with that of our soil.
However, the industrial system continues to devour the Earth's surface, displace humans and nature and then replace both with chemical intensive monocultures to feed the "just eat it" industrial food pipeline. Increasingly people the world over are eating wheat, soy and palm oil, all grown in these monocultures.
Very large farms are seen as keys to "feeding the world."
In Brazil, multi-thousand acre farms growing soybeans, corn and cotton usurp former rain forests and grasslands. Read about farms of 10,000, 21,000 and even 300,000 acres here. These are defended as triumphs.
These pictures will help you understand the vast, inhuman scale of these farms.
In this surreal image, 31 combines harvest GMO soybeans in formation followed immediately by a similar formation of corn planters.
Turns out the Roundup Ready corn has become a serious weed in the Roundup Ready soybean fields, requiring lots of hand work and even more herbicides.
In such large monocultures, it is not surprising that diseases are a huge issue. For example, a serious rust disease resistant to many fungicides is a growing problem.
These much praised "efficient and productive" systems defy nature's rules, but nature always wins.
China is moving 250,000,000 people (that's a quarter of a billion mostly small scale farmers!) off their land and into cities to make room for their version of "efficient and productive" industrial agriculture.
Some of the farms there, as well as in India, produce the organic grain which is increasingly used in organic animal feed here.
(To help with your organic feed costs, see, NOFA's Spring 2010 The Natural Farmer focused on "Alternative Organic Animal Feed.")
Long Distance Meat
Apparently, some of these displaced Asian farmers add thousands of miles to our diet and keep our food cheap by processing American grown meat for us to eat. So that beautiful piece of Alaskan salmon you ate for dinner may have taken a trip to China for processing between Alaska and your mouth.
There's a petition to have the USDA prohibit American chicken from taking a similar trip to China before it is served in school lunches. The reality of flying salmon provides evidence of the favorable economics of this otherwise absurd system.
It is likely that last year's purchase of the largest American pork producer, Smithfield Foods, Inc. by the largest Chinese pork producer Shuanghui International will provide many more opportunities for meat to be moved between countries to maximize profit and minimize cost while always trying to sell more pork. There you go: "Just eat it."
Against the Grain
The quote at the beginning of this essay comes from one of the most thought-provoking books I have read, Against the Grain:How agriculture has hijacked civilization. Reading it helped me understand the industrial food system's incredible push for ever more production and sales, even of foods that are bad for the Earth and for our health. For example, we already eat more meat than most any other country. Yet the beef industry, the pork industry and the chicken industry all want us to eat ever increasing quantities of their industrially raised meat.
As Manning writes "The goal of agriculture is not feeding people; it is the accumulation of wealth... The major forces that shaped and shape our world - disease, imperialism, colonialism, slavery, trade, wealth - all are a part of the culture agriculture evolved."
Manning contrasts the industrialized agriculture with the increasingly productive local food system which provides, in the words of Alice Waters, "...food that is alive and ripe and delicious." He sees the vibrant colors and flavors of farmers markets as the opposite of "agriculture" and a way to help regain the sensuality that industrial food lacks.
Manning suggests a fundamental redesign of our food system, drawing especially on permaculture and perennial polycultures.
That is happening all over the planet. It is great to be working with the vibrant and passionate NOFA and local food community. We are the front lines working to replace the wealthy, powerful and destructive industrial agriculture and food system.
I welcome your thoughts.