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
By LISA ABEND
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
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
Read more great Fight Back Friday posts here: http://www.foodrenegade.com/fight-back-friday-january-29th/