Sustainable farming in the news

Some article from the past week. The first one is such a great idea – Mom

Making Family Farms Profitable

In 1959, the U.S. was home to 4.1 million farms. Today, there are just 2.2 million. Some 40% of American farmers are 55 or older, and young people aren’t exactly lining up to replace them. But a new program in North Carolina hopes to make farming a viable career option once again.

Rutherford County, N.C., has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. Yet some 6000 families own between 5 and 20 acres of land, and chefs in nearby Charlotte, N.C., are in need of fresh produce for their restaurants. Timothy Will, a retired telecommunications analyst, helped wire the region for broadband Internet access and set up an online ordering system—Farmers Fresh Market—that lets Charlotte chefs place orders directly with Appalachian farmers. Next, he convinced the locals to grow more exotic items like lacinato kale and purple beans. (“They’d never seen beans like that before,” Will laughs. “Here, beans are green.”) Two years later, Farmers Fresh Market counts 90 local farmers among its members.

In addition to teaching farmers computing skills and converting a vacant plot into a demonstration garden, Will and his colleagues have introduced sustainable agriculture courses for adults and high school students. “It’s kind of a resurrection of our history,” says Lindy Abrams, a 25-year-old who, after losing her job and enrolling in Will’s adult-education class, now grows vegetables and salad greens on land her granddad once farmed. “People are really excited.”

— Jocelyn C. Zuckerman


Why Big Ag Won’t Feed the World

by Josh Viertel

A year ago I sat in a room at the Earth Institute at Columbia surrounded by executives from big food companies. One of them, I believe from Unilever, clicked to a slide that read “The solution to global hunger is to turn malnutrition into a market opportunity.” The audience—global development practitioners and academics and other executives—nodded and dutifully wrote it down in their notebooks; I shuddered. The experience stayed with me and I haven’t gotten over it. Last month, I had a flashback.

On a Tuesday evening I sat in a room on the 44th floor of a building in the financial district of lower Manhattan with representatives from General Mills, Monsanto, Dean Foods, Deutsche Bank, and the Rainforest Alliance. We were there to speak to institutional investors—the hedge fund managers, bankers, and others who invest in big food companies—about sustainability and food. In particular, we were there to talk about how sustainability and hunger issues may give these companies both exposure to risk and access to opportunity.

    At first glance, these answers make both Monsanto and Deutsche Bank look virtuous. But they rest on a false premise.

It was not your average sustainable food panel discussion. Reflecting back on it, three things jump out at me. The first was a false premise that is taken for fact. The false premise:

Both Deutsche Bank and Monsanto made it clear that they are basing their business strategy on answering a simple question: How will we feed the world in 2050, when the population reaches over 9 billion and global warming puts massive strains on our resources? The answer for Deutsche Bank: increase yields by investing in industrial agriculture in the developing world, with an emphasis on technology; put lots of capital into rural land to shift subsistence and local market agricultures to commodity export agriculture. The answer for Monsanto: increase yields by decreasing resource dependence using genetically modified crops.

At first glance, these answers make both Monsanto and Deutsche Bank look virtuous. But they rest on a false premise: “There will be over 9 billion people by 2050. We have less than 7 billion today, and people go hungry. We need to increase food production if we are going to feed them.” Indeed, there will be over 9 billion people by 2050, and indeed, with less than 7 billion today, people still go hungry. But we don’t need to increase crop yields to feed these people. In 2008, globally, we grew enough food to feed over 11 billion people. We grew 4,000 calories per day per person—roughly twice what people need to eat.

Eric Holt Gimenez, of Food First (The Institute for Food and Development Policy) put it eloquently in a conversation earlier last year: “In 2008 more food was grown than ever before in history. In 2008 more people were obese than ever before in history. In 2008 more profit was made by food companies than ever before in history. And in 2008 more people went hungry than ever before in history.”

Hunger is not a global production problem. It is a global justice problem. We need to increase global equity, not global yields. There may be profit to be made in exporting our high-tech, input-reliant, greenhouse-gas-emitting agricultural systems to the developing world. But let us not pretend it will solve global hunger or address climate change. After all, high-tech, input-reliant, commodity agricultural is a major cause of global hunger and climate change.

So what changes are necessary for us to feed the world? In 2005, the World Bank, the FAO and the UNDP brought together 400 leading natural and social scientists, representatives from government (including the U.S.), private sector and non-governmental organizations to ask how we would feed the world in 2050. It’s called the IAASTD report, and it just came out last year.

The scientists concluded that genetically modified crops and chemical agriculture had failed to show much promise in feeding the world. They won’t be a big part of the solution. Instead, tomorrow’s agriculture will need to be much more regionally controlled and locally adapted, and will need a diversity of approaches to meet the challenges of climate change and resource scarcity. The result is a farming system that uses water frugally, sequesters carbon, and doesn’t require external inputs.

A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists called Failure to Yield found that genetically modified crops have not delivered on increased yields. In fact, nearly all of the gains in yields over the last two decades can be attributed to other practices. Vast tracts of rainforest are indeed being cut down to plant commodity crops, particularly soy. This deforestation isn’t happening because the varieties are old, unimproved, and not intensive. These are acres of chemically farmed, genetically modified crops.

The IAASTD concluded that if we want to feed the world, we need regional ownership and control, locally adapted varieties and practices, and farmers to grow for subsistence and local markets—and we don’t need export commodities.

“So,” I said to the institutional investors, “I’ve got good news, and I’ve got bad news.” The good news is that feeding the world in 2050 is completely possible; these solutions are within reach. The bad news is that there isn’t a ton of money to be made by a small number of companies in doing it. You can make money investing in technology and putting great gobs of capital into rural land that currently doesn’t have it, but you will likely be exacerbating climate change and global hunger, not fixing it.”

This, of course, gets to the heart of what it means to help.

When I was a little boy, my dad was building a tool shed in our back yard. It looked like fun, and I had always wanted to use a hammer. I wandered out to help him as he sawed a two-by-four. I picked up a hammer and some nails and started pounding them, without any particular plan, into a piece of wood. My dad looked over at me and said, “Josh. Tell me, what are you doing?” “I’m helping.” I responded, completely sincerely. He gently explained to me that if you want to help, first you have to ask the people you want to help what they need. In this case, he told me, he could really use someone to sit on the sawhorse to hold down the piece of wood he was trying to saw, so it didn’t bounce all over the place. When I protested that that wasn’t nearly as fun as pounding nails, he agreed with me.

“You are welcome to pound nails into that board,” he explained. “Just don’t pretend you are helping me build this shed.” Yes, global hunger is a market opportunity; some corporations will make money treating it as such. But it in so doing they are about as likely to end hunger as seven-year-old me was to build a shed by pounding nails into a piece of plywood.


Save the Planet: Eat More Beef


Grass feeding required Cattle on this Hardwick, Mass., farm grow not

on feedlots but in pastures, where their grazing helps keep carbon

dioxide in the ground

On a farm in coastal Maine, a barn is going up. Right now it’s little

more than a concrete slab and some wooden beams, but when it’s

finished, the barn will provide winter shelter for up to six cows and

a few head of sheep. None of this would be remarkable if it weren’t

for the fact that the people building the barn are two of the most

highly regarded organic-vegetable farmers in the country: Eliot

Coleman wrote the bible of organic farming, The New Organic Grower,

and Barbara Damrosch is the Washington Post’s gardening columnist. At

a time when a growing number of environmental activists are calling

for an end to eating meat, this veggie-centric power couple is

beginning to raise it. “Why?” asks Coleman, tromping through the mud

on his way toward a greenhouse bursting with December turnips.

“Because I care about the fate of the planet.”

Ever since the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization released a 2006

report that attributed 18% of the world’s man-made greenhouse-gas

emissions to livestock – more, the report noted, than what’s produced

by transportation – livestock has taken an increasingly hard rap. At

first, it was just vegetarian groups that used the U.N.’s findings as

evidence for the superiority of an all-plant diet. But since then, a

broader range of environmentalists has taken up the cause. At a

recent European Parliament hearing titled “Global Warming and Food

Policy: Less Meat=Less Heat,” Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, argued that reducing meat

consumption is a “simple, effective and short-term delivery measure

in which everybody could contribute” to emissions reductions.

And of all the animals that humans eat, none are held more

responsible for climate change than the ones that moo. Cows not only

consume more energy-intensive feed than other livestock; they also

produce more methane – a powerful greenhouse gas – than other animals

do. “If your primary concern is to curb emissions, you shouldn’t be

eating beef,” says Nathan Pelletier, an ecological economist at

Dalhousie University in Halifax, N.S., noting that cows produce 13 to

30 lb. of carbon dioxide per pound of meat.

So how can Coleman and Damrosch believe that adding livestock to

their farm will help the planet? Cattleman Ridge Shinn has the

answer. On a wintry Saturday at his farm in Hardwick, Mass., he is

out in his pastures encouraging a herd of plump Devon cows to move to

a grassy new paddock. Over the course of a year, his 100 cattle will

rotate across 175 acres four or five times. “Conventional cattle

raising is like mining,” he says. “It’s unsustainable, because you’re

just taking without putting anything back. But when you rotate cattle

on grass, you change the equation. You put back more than you take.”

(See the top 10 scientific discoveries of 2009.)t works like this:

grass is a perennial. Rotate cattle and other ruminants across

pastures full of it, and the animals’ grazing will cut the blades –

which spurs new growth – while their trampling helps work manure and

other decaying organic matter into the soil, turning it into rich

humus. The plant’s roots also help maintain soil health by retaining

water and microbes. And healthy soil keeps carbon dioxide underground

and out of the atmosphere.

Compare that with the estimated 99% of U.S. beef cattle that live out

their last months on feedlots, where they are stuffed with corn and

soybeans. In the past few decades, the growth of these concentrated

animal-feeding operations has resulted in millions of acres of

grassland being abandoned or converted – along with vast swaths of

forest – into profitable cropland for livestock feed. “Much of the

carbon footprint of beef comes from growing grain to feed the

animals, which requires fossil-fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides,

transportation,” says Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s

Dilemma. “Grass-fed beef has a much lighter carbon footprint.”

Indeed, although grass-fed cattle may produce more methane than

conventional ones (high-fiber plants are harder to digest than

cereals, as anyone who has felt the gastric effects of eating

broccoli or cabbage can attest), their net emissions are lower

because they help the soil sequester carbon.

From Vermont, where veal and dairy farmer Abe Collins is developing

software designed to help farmers foster carbon-rich topsoil quickly,

to Denmark, where Thomas Harttung’s Aarstiderne farm grazes 150 head

of cattle, a vanguard of small farmers are trying to get the word out

about how much more eco-friendly they are than factory farming. “If

you suspend a cow in the air with buckets of grain, then it’s a bad

guy,” Harttung explains. “But if you put it where it belongs – on

grass – that cow becomes not just carbon-neutral but

carbon-negative.” Collins goes even further. “With proper management,

pastoralists, ranchers and farmers could achieve a 2% increase in

soil-carbon levels on existing agricultural, grazing and desert lands

over the next two decades,” he estimates. Some researchers

hypothesize that just a 1% increase (over, admittedly, vast acreages)

could be enough to capture the total equivalent of the world’s

greenhouse-gas emissions.

This math works out in part because farmers like Shinn don’t use

fertilizers or pesticides to maintain their pastures and need no

energy to produce what their animals eat other than what they get

free from the sun. Furthermore, pasturing frequently uses land that

would otherwise be unproductive. “I’d like to see someone try to

raise soybeans here,” he says, gesturing toward the rocky, sloping

fields around him.

By many standards, pastured beef is healthier. That’s certainly the

case for the animals involved; grass feeding obviates the antibiotics

that feedlots are forced to administer in order to prevent the

acidosis that occurs when cows are fed grain. But it also appears to

be true for people who eat cows. Compared with conventional beef,

grass-fed is lower in saturated fat and higher in omega-3s, the

heart-healthy fatty acids found in salmon.

But not everyone is sold on its superiority. In addition to citing

grass-fed meat’s higher price tag – Shinn’s ground beef ends up

retailing for about $7 a pound, more than twice the price of

conventional beef – feedlot producers say that only through their

economies of scale can the industry produce enough meat to satisfy

demand, especially for a growing population. These critics note that

because grass is less caloric than grain, it takes two to three years

to get a pastured cow to slaughter weight, whereas a feedlot animal

requires only 14 months. “Not only does it take fewer animals on a

feedlot to produce the same amount of meat,” says Tamara Thies, chief

environmental counsel for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association

(which contests the U.N.’s 18% figure), “but because they grow so

quickly, they have less chance to produce greenhouse gases.”

To Allan Savory, the economies-of-scale mentality ignores the role

that grass-fed herbivores can play in fighting climate change. A

former wildlife conservationist in Zimbabwe, Savory once blamed

overgrazing for desertification. “I was prepared to shoot every

bloody rancher in the country,” he recalls. But through rotational

grazing of large herds of ruminants, he found he could reverse land

degradation, turning dead soil into thriving grassland.

Like him, Coleman now scoffs at the environmentalist vogue for

vilifying meat eating. “The idea that giving up meat is the solution

for the world’s ills is ridiculous,” he says at his Maine farm. “A

vegetarian eating tofu made in a factory from soybeans grown in

Brazil is responsible for a lot more CO than I am.” A

lifetime raising vegetables year-round has taught him to value the

elegance of natural systems. Once he and Damrosch have brought in

their livestock, they’ll “be able to use the manure to feed the

plants, and the plant waste to feed the animals,” he says. “And even

though we can’t eat the grass, we’ll be turning it into something we



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