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


29. Agriculture and Climate Change — and the Farm Bill

The bad news is, in a sense, nothing new.  Farmers have always worried about droughts, floods, hail, unseasonable frosts, harvest-decreasing heat waves, and the insect and disease outbreaks that might be associated with unusual weather.  It merely does not help that global climate change can make all of these likelier, more severe, and less predictable.

The good news is very new, however:  the quite recent discovery that certain agricultural practices can take huge amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it into the soil for the long term.  We’re talking tons of carbon per acre that can be removed from being greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and turned into increased soil fertility with each growing season.  Which could both mitigate climate change and its rougher weather, and make the same amount of land more productive.  Sounds like a massive win-win.

The only problem is that just some agricultural practices do the trick, while the practices commonest in the developed world are a big part of what created the problem.  The erosion caused by overgrazing, and also industrial-agriculture tilling done by huge gas-guzzling machinery for growing commodity crops on farms of thousands of acres, both release a lot of carbon into the air.  The practices that sequester carbon, in contrast, are the ones that work with nature.  They may be called agroecology or regenerative or sustainable agriculture.  They minimize the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, using green manures, cover crops, and compost to increase soil fertility, and using companion planting and crop rotation to minimize loss to pests. When they graze animals, they limit their numbers and keep moving them around to maintain a healthy greensward.  These practices are all easier to do as part of a smaller operation.  And yes, these techniques do produce enough food for all — if their produce is not wasted on animal feed and biofuels.

So we actually know what our global civilization’s  agriculture needs to do to stop and reverse climate change, and we have good ideas of how to do it.

The problem is that national policies, much influenced by corporate profit motives and expressed, for example, in the U.S. Farm Bill, are all still pushing the wrong way.  And as long as government subsidies set up a situation in which mechanized industrial-scale farming is what farmers have to do to stay in business, that’s what they’re going to do.

I’m making a good guess, though, that for most farmers the real bottom line is that they just want to make a living growing food for people to eat.  Change the rules so that they could make a good living using agroecology practices and producing vegetables — instead of erosive practices growing, say, commodity corn — and most farmers would be fine with making a switch.

To feed the world, we need both a livable world and a situation in which farmers can grow food for its citizens.  Identifying the areas in which agricultural policy needs to change is a necessary first stop towards getting there.

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

24. Problems of Factory-Farming Livestock, Revisited

I just read a truly alarming book:  Ellen K. Silbergeld’s 2016 Chickenizing Farms and Food:  how industrialized meat production endangers workers, animals, and consumers.

As the title promises, the book reports on how raising livestock changed from small farmers’ pastures to industrial-type “factory farm” schemes where animals are packed tight into huge buildings and raised to slaughter-weight as fast as possible.  It apparently began with broiler chickens in the area where Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia meet, but has now spread all over the world and involves pigs and cattle as well as poultry (both for meat and eggs).

This model has spread fast and widely because it does produce lots of cheap meat, for which there is a huge global demand.  But as Silbergeld discusses at length, it does so with serious downsides.  These include the massive (and as it turns out, superfluous) use of antibiotics, which are rapidly breeding antibiotic-resistant strains of disease-causing organisms and threatening to cause epidemics of dangerous illnesses that could not be treated.  They also include horrendous pollution from the animals’ manure, which is not treated as the contaminant it is.  The reason for that has to do with the way in which the  big corporations that control the industry contract with farmers to actually raise the animals, but on terms that are so strict and pay so little as to leave these contractors no resources for effectively treating the waste yet absolve the corporations from responsibility for it.  This abuse of the contractors carries over to the vile conditions of employment for workers involved in  raising and slaughtering the animals.  And these workers are not only at risk themselves of terrible injuries and of contracting antibiotic-resistant disease, but they could also infect anyone they come in contact with when they go home.  The now-almost-complete erosion of regulations to protect either the workers or consumers is part of this picture that Silbergeld paints.

Silbergeld asks readers to respect the food choices of people who want to eat the meat that these factory farms produce, and so she insists that industrialized livestock raising is here to stay.  Her solution to the problems she describes is therefore that we should openly acknowledge that livestock raising is now an industry rather than anything that can be called farming and must be regulated as an industry, not treated as agriculture at all.  She proposes tough standards for worker safety, pollution control, and contractor and consumer protection, and posits that government should be held accountable for holding this industry to passable standards.

If this could be accomplished, it might very well solve the abuses Silbergeld describes.  I believe there are only two catches (besides the difficulty of getting governments to buck the interests of large corporations).  One catch is that in Silbergeld’s proposal to control and regulate factory farms, such huge portions of the corn and soybean crops would still be inefficiently feeding livestock as to continue to challenge our farmland to feed us all.  The other is that if the livestock industry really had to pay its workers and contractors a living wage and really had to control and treat the manure adequately, it would surely raise the cost of meat and other animal foods by a considerable margin.  And then the huge amounts of cheap animal foods that are the whole purpose of the factory farms would no longer be cheap.  This would unravel the whole scheme:  the economies of scale provided by industrial-agriculture livestock raising require a massive market, but if the necessary regulation raises the cost of meat significantly then that mass market is no longer massive enough to support the industrial-agriculture scale.

I do accept Silbergeld’s belief that we have no right to disrespect people’s desire for meat.  But I do not see any way for the industrial-model production of animal foods to feed the world.  It co-opts too much of our crop production and, if properly regulated, would probably not permit heavy meat-eating for most people for economic reasons.  This does not mean that people who want meat can’t have it.  But it does mean that meat would mostly be a minor ingredient in foods on most days, and a feast-food just occasionally, if we really want a healthy and well-fed world.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

19. Models For Field Agriculture

For ending hunger, field agriculture must not be neglected — regarding which there are two vastly different models.  The pluses and minuses of each must be considered.

In the developed world/ global north, the Enlightenment’s scientific method and the Industrial Revolution combined to produce a form of agriculture that relies on machinery for plowing, sowing, reaping, and irrigation, on manufactured fertilizers and hybrid seeds, and since about 1950 on chemical pesticides and herbicides.  The push for genetically modified seeds and the use of such innovations as self-driving tractors, condition-monitoring drones, and smartphone-c0ntrolled irrigation are all just logical next steps for this model.  These techniques were adopted enthusiastically in the global north not least because they were a very good fit with the economic philosophies of capitalism and mercantilism  that dominate these geographical areas.  And without question, industrial agriculture has vastly increased yields (at least in the short term).  Indeed, the shunting of much of U.S. corn production to ethanol and high fructose corn syrup arose when U.S. corn harvests at one point in time were too great to profitably sell for food.

So industrial agriculture’s big plus is its high yields — and that is not negligible.  Nonetheless, it also has a few big problems.  The high cost of the machinery, hybrid seeds, and chemicals is one.  Another is the way the chemicals pollute water, which kills fish and frogs and creates ocean dead zones, while they also kill pollinators and beneficial insects and the birds that depend on the insects:  the threat of mass extinction in the biosphere we ultimately depend on is also not negligible on general principles, besides that destroying pollinators will surely decrease food production.  Industrial agriculture is also highly erosive, further undermining its sustainability.  And in many areas it is dependent on unsustainable levels of irrigation, drawing on groundwater and surface water faster than it can be replenished.  The huge wheat harvests on North America’s High Plains, for example, depend on persistent overuse of the Oglalla Aquifer, which keeps drawing it down further — and once it’s gone, there won’t be any wheat harvests there.  California, Russia’s Aral Sea, and India’s Punjab region are a few other places where this last phenomenon is occurring.

The Punjab situation brings up yet another problem with industrial agriculture:  it has not transferred  well to the global south.  We know this because that transfer is exactly what the Green Revolution tried to do, and while the Green Revolution boosted yields wildly in the beginning, it then foundered badly.  Free seeds and fertilizer were offered for the first few years to get developing world farmers started, but once these incentives were withdrawn most peasants farmers could not afford expensive hybrid seeds and chemicals, yet they had by then lost their locally-adapted heirloom seed varieties and been taught to plant pest-attracting monocultures.  The hybrid seeds did not perform well without the chemicals and irrigation that were simply unaffordable to many in the developing world, leaving them mired in debt and with farms that were often less productive than before the Green Revolution started.  Nor had the temporarily increased yields actually relieved hunger, since the population had grown in lockstep with the temporarily higher harvests.  The promise of industrial agriculture’s Green Revolution has thus fizzled thoroughly in the global south.

Industrial agriculture’s unsustainability  in the north and inapplicability to the south make it worth looking at the other agricultural model, which has come to be called agroecology.  First, it is important to state that agroecology is not a step backward to preindustrial subsistence.  What it does do is look at the productivity, stability, sustainability, and equitability of an agricultural system, considering these four properties as interconnected and all integral to each other and to a successful form of agriculture.  Agroecology is not averse to technology;  for example, I read this week of an initiative to bring drip irrigation to peasant farmers in Guatemala’s highlands who are suffering from a climate-change-induced decrease in rainfall.  But it does use technology selectively and includes organic practices.  It seeks to work in harmony with each ecosystem, and to grow food in ways that are both ecologically sustainable and enable locally indigenous people to hold and farm their traditional lands by combining useful modern technologies with the sophisticated practices that their ancestors had developed over centuries to grow enough food in accord with each area’s own climate and soil and biotic community.  Agroecology thus supports food sovereignty and justice as well as food production.  Its apparent drawback is that it does not get nearly as high a yield per acre of any particular crop as industrial agriculture does.  But it is crucial to note that because it uses companion planting and succession cropping, it often gets more tons of food per acre than industrial agriculture’s mono-crops.   And it does so in ways that conserve and enhance the soil, sequester huge amounts of carbon, preserve local cultures and communities, and can continue to do so indefinitely.

Agroecology is especially well suited to the global south where the capital needed for industrial agriculture is hard to come by.  But it is just as useful in the global north, where small farmers use organic and biodynamic and IPM practices and raise livestock on pasture and sell through farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture  and local co-ops and local restaurants.

Industrial agriculture’s high yields can be useful in solving the problem of world hunger, especially if they can be turned from growing commodities and livestock feed to growing food directly for people.  There is even such a thing as “industrial organic” production.  But for producing good food that people can grow themselves or otherwise access and afford, in ways that mitigate climate change and preserve pollinators and the rest of the biosphere, agroecology needs to become a whole lot more dominant — everywhere.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley