33. Soil!

I just read a new book, The Ground Beneath Us by Paul Bogard (NY: Little Brown, 2017), which examines how humans treat soil/ ground/ earth — and gives us pretty low marks for the way we have paved it, doused it with chemicals, and let it erode.

Two of the issues Bogard addresses are directly relevant to feeding the world.  One is the prevalence in the US of chemically-maintained lawn-grass.  Turf is, as he points out, the largest US crop by acreage, gulping 200 gallons of potable water per US citizen (that’s 700 million gallons per year in an increasingly thirsty world);  lawn grass is also a primary recipient of the chemicals that kill bees, butterflies, birds, earthworms, and the microorganisms that make soil alive (and able to sequester carbon).  Because our lawns are so extensive — and such a biotic desert — I have already pointed out in these posts that switching sunny lawn areas around homes and in urban parks to food gardens could have a major impact on alleviating hunger.  (Posts 11, 12, 14, 15, 16)

The other issue Bogard discusses that involves the problem of feeding the world is how we treat agricultural soil.  For one thing, as American Farmland Trust has been pointing out for decades, cities tend to have been founded near good farmland — so our suburbs have for the last 70 years been paving our most fertile soil, diminishing the acreage available for growing food.  Second, where we are still farming, political and economic forces during the same period have pushed towards maximum production of chemically-managed commodity crops.  But this has resulted in dead soil, habitat loss for wildlife, poisoned surface- and groundwater, factory farms for livestock, and most dangerous erosion of the topsoil, that precious few inches just beneath our feet in which life thrives and food can be produced.  This erosion is not negligible.  Bogard cites scientific estimates that at current rates of erosion, there will be topsoil to grow food in for only another 30 to 90 years of harvest (p. 114-116).

If that were to happen, this loss of topsoil would be a show-stopper for much of Earth’s life — starting with us.  And note that while we can lose an inch of topsoil in just 4 or 5 years at current rates, it takes between 500 and several thousand years for nature to create a new inch thereof.

There are in fact corrective measures that could be taken, both to build new soil and revive what’s still there but mistreated.  They all involve regenerative methods of food production.

I have personal experience with soil revitalization.  In 1990, when I was living in Milwaukee, I married a man who had grown up on a farm in the next county (which was fast becoming a suburb).  We bought a house whose sunny back patio was paved with concrete.  We wanted a kitchen garden, so in Spring we had half the concrete busted up and removed, and we trucked in soil for raised beds from my in-laws’ farm — with their permission, even though they were retired and renting the land to a soybean farmer.  I should have been warned by noticing that the whole load of dirt contained only two dying earthworms, but I planted a variety of food crops anyway.  They all germinated, and all but the green beans promptly died — clearly the chemicals that had been applied were  deadly to all but beans.  I was therefore afraid to eat what did grow:  I planted some more beans as a cover crop and just dug them all under in the Fall.  The next year I added a bunch of composted manure and live compost and planted again, and this time everything lived (though not very vigorously) and I dared to eat it.  The third year I again added organic amendments, and by then I was seeing a healthy population of earthworms that had arrived from the adjacent lawn, and my crops thrived.  Within a few years I dug out dandelions whose roots were long enough to be reaching below the level where the pavement had been.  It is generally considered that it takes three years to transition a plot of ground from chemical to organic growing, and this garden was an example of how this works.  By simply withholding chemicals and adding organic amendments full of soil life, dead soil can be revived.

Similar tactics, if industriously pursued, can also build useful topsoil in a very few years. Work compost into sand or subsoil while withholding chemical fertilizers, and you’ll be able to grow certain forbs and grasses that thrive in very low-nutrient conditions.  Dig them under, add additional organic amendments, and repeat for three or four years — at the end of which time you’ll have soil you can grow anything in.  This should not be news, by the way.  In 1899, Peter Kropotkin wrote about Paris-area market gardeners who work in effectively making their soil was so well recognized that “it is now a usual stipulation of the renting contracts of the Paris maraichers that the gardener may carry away his soil, down to a certain depth, when he quits his tenancy.  He himself makes it, and when he moves to another plot he carts his soil away, together with his frames, his water-pipes, and his other belongings.” (Fields, Factories, and Workshops Tomorrow, Freedom Press, 1985 edition, p. 65)  The Parisians of that time had copious amounts of horse manure to draw on for their soil-building purposes;  we do not.  But even if avoidable food waste is ended, there would still be plenty of compost ingredients for us to use instead.

Considering how badly we’ve mistreated our soil, it is a very good thing that soil can be revived and rebuilt.  But this does not happen by itself.  As human activity has caused the harm, so it will take focussed human effort to reverse the damage.  The sooner we start switching to growing in regenerative and sustainable ways, the less damage we’ll have to work to undo, and the sooner we’ll be feeding all of us decently.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley


27. Hunger, Poverty, and Food Justice: First Thoughts

In 1998, Amartya Sen was awarded a Nobel prize in economics for his work showing that famine deaths in India had been primarily due not to lack of available food but to hungry people not having enough money to afford to buy what food was available.

He could have cited as another example the Irish Potato Famine, when over a million people starved to death and millions more emigrated while English absentee landlords who owned Irish farmland were exporting Irish-grown wheat that the Irish poor could not afford to buy.

On a different note, American Farmland Trust reports on the growing number of aging farmers who have no one to pass their farms on to, while a growing number of young would-be farmers cannot afford to buy farmland — at the same time that weekly newspaper Wisconsin State Farmer reports on a trend in which non-farming millionaires buy farmland as an investment (WSF, 1/6/17, p. 9B).  They hire people to work it, but these are employees who are required to produce a profit over stewarding the land or growing what feeds people (and will not become independent farmers themselves).

Similarly, nations like China and Saudi Arabia that cannot feed their people on their own land are increasingly buying up agricultural land in places like Africa.  African governments are happy to accept payment for this — but local Africans whose ancestors have farmed these lands from time immemorial (often without formal title because their tenancy stretches back prior to such notions) lose their lands and thus their ability to feed themselves and their families, and inequity increases while hunger is merely shifted, not solved.

Meanwhile, food pantries in the U.S. are needed because minimum wage jobs plus SNAP/ “food stamps” together do not enable people to buy enough food for their families.  The need for free and reduced-cost school lunches is part of the same picture.

Even the factory-farming of chickens and pigs for “cheap” meat and eggs is deeply  abusive.  For the typical set-up is that a big corporation owns the animals and contracts with a farmer to raise them.  But the farmers do not get paid unless they do exactly as the corporation specifies, no matter how inhumane or unsanitary that may be, yet they are paid so little even when they comply that they can barely scrape by and have no extra money left over to, for example, control manure safely, while if anything goes wrong it is the farmers and not the corporations that take the financial hit.

In short, there’s an abundance of evidence that hunger and misuse of agricultural assets is very often not at all a matter of inadequate food supply or agricultural capacity, but rather a direct result of poverty and oppression.  So any discussion of solving the hunger problem needs to include consideration of economic equity.   A well-fed world would be one in which the farmers who work the land and raise the animals are the people who own those assets, and in which they are able to make a living because everyone is able to pay enough for food to make farming economically viable.  But this is decidedly not the system we have now.

For this ideal to come about, a lot of changes would have to happen.

One area to look for changes would be the US Farm Bill, which is passed by Congress twice a decade (the next one is in 2018) and which shapes government food policy for the subsequent five years.  For some time now, it has mostly benefited industrial agriculture, with subsidies that support mega-farms at the expense of small family-size ones, chemical use as opposed to IPM and organic practices, commodity crops including high fructose corn syrup, animal feed, and ethanol as opposed to vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts and seeds (which are all amazingly called “specialty crops”) that people would eat directly.

A different area for action would be increasing the wage scale for low-level workers so that anyone willing and able to work could afford to buy adequate food — even at prices that would pay farmers enough to support their families decently through farming.

Land reform also has to be part of the picture, for while it may be profitable for governments and corporations and millionaires to buy large tracts of land to grow crops for trade, this dispossesses people who had been feeding their families on those lands’ production, thus increasing hunger and injustice simultaneously.

Changing all these things will require enormous political effort, and is unlikely to come either easily or quickly.  But if hunger is to be ended, such changes in the status quo will have to be implemented.  The sooner we get started, the better.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

22. What Should US Corn Cropland Do?

A chart I found on the internet showed US “Corn Usage by Segment” for 2015.  If I’m reading it right, only 30.3% of US corn for that year because fuel ethanol;  12.5% was exported (some of this for animal feed);  3.5% became high fructose corn syrup and another 2.2% became other “sweeteners;”  1.5% was listed as “cereal/ other” i.e. corn eaten by people as corn;  and a whopping 47.1% (plus some of the exports) was fed to livestock.

This is not how to feed the world.

I discussed the problem of corn ethanol in my last post.  There is a great deal of data these days to indicate that sugar of any kind is neither healthful nor nutritious.  And while I addressed the concerns with using human-edible crops for animal feed in posts 6 and 7, a few of these points bear a quick revisit.

For one thing — and most to the point when discussing world hunger — livestock is incredibly inefficient in turning feed into food.  After all, some of what any animal eats is simply excreted (a dairy cow that produces 11 gallons of milk per day, for example, also produces some 80 pounds of manure).  Some food is burned for energy;  some becomes fur, feathers,  bones,  teeth/beaks, hoofs, hide, and discarded internal organs.  Crickets,  chickens, and fish turn a full 25% of what they’re fed into food humans can eat, but they are the most efficient.  For pigs, sheep, and cows it takes about 8 to 20 pounds of feed for the animal to produce one pound of food for people.  From the perspective of ending hunger, feeding animals many pounds of grain and soybeans to produce each pound of human food instead of feeding all those many pounds of grains and beans directly to the hungry is simply not excusable.

If that is not enough, there are other problems with the Confined Animal Feeding Operations/CAFOs, i.e., factory farms that use all that feed.  When animals are treated as production units and crowded by the thousands into buildings, they are so stressed and miserable that they are prone to mass die-offs from disease, so continual antibiotics are needed to keep them alive (and putting on weight as fast as possible) — creating antibiotic-resistant disease organisms.  In such conditions the amount of manure they produce can equal that of a small city per CAFO, but inadequate regulation leads chronically to water and air pollution.  That many animals drink vast quantities of water, which removes water from streams and groundwater and can cause environmental damage and shortages of water for other uses (like drinking, bathing, laundry, and irrigating crops for human consumption).  And the industrial-agriculture model that produces the feed has serious environmental problems (as noted in post 19).

Beyond question, factory farms based on subsidies for growing the feed are the pre-eminent way to produce lots of cheap meat, eggs, and dairy.  And cheap animal foods are in high demand.  But producing cheap animal foods in this way directly and seriously impedes ending hunger.

So what should US corn cropland be doing?  How about growing corn and other grains and beans and vegetables for people to eat?

There are two interlocking keys to transforming the current situation into this better one.  One is for people to switch their dietary expectations from high to low consumption of animal foods.  (Vegans and low-dairy vegetarians  are exemplary, but moving to plant-based diets which just use small amounts of animal food would do for most.)  A serious drop in demand for animal foods would leave room for sustainable and appropriate pasturing of livestock but could eliminate CAFOs.  The other key is to adjust farm policies and subsidies so that farmers who now grow commodity corn for feed and ethanol could instead make a living growing corn for eating as corn, while adding the growing of other grains and vegetables that people would eat.  Farmers basically want to make a living growing food.  If government policies provide different ways of doing this — as long as the making-a-living thing is guaranteed — it should not be unacceptable, even if it does mean making some changes.

This brings us to the realm of national politics and policies.  The first step in working towards policies that are better at ending hunger than what we’re doing now is to start the discussion of their necessity.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley