Sustainable Farming – Is It Practical and Can It Feed Us All?

www.mypicshares.com

I’ve had many conversations with a variety of people about the subject of sustainable farming and whether or not it is feasible on a large scale to switch over from conventional farming methods to non-petroleum, non-chemical methods, and eliminate the practice of concentrated animal feeding operations and factory farms.

Whether the idea of sustainable farming conjurs up in your head the picture of a horse pulling a metal plow through a field or you imagine tractors and columbines doing the work as many do on many modern farms (organic as well as conventional), the question of how we can change our farming practices to make our efforts more sustainable is on the forefront of the most pressing and critical issues in the world with regard to health, prosperity, and our future.

There’s always someone wanting to debate this, so I’d like to discuss some of reasons why it is important for us to understand the impact of conventional farming on our world, how it  cannot continue on as it has over the last 100 plus years, and why I believe the claims made about sustainable farming not being possible to feed the world are simply unfounded.

Thicke for Secretary of Agriculture

A very important thing is happening in Iowa – a sustainable farmer who knows the issues we are facing as a nation and in the world with regard to our food safety, laws, and supply is running for Secretary of Agriculture in Iowa this election season.

Why should we care? For starters, Francis Thicke knows sustainable farming methods can be both efficient and modern.  He has been a farmer for nearly 30 years, has been active the agricultural movement in various capacities since that time. He has been an integral part of the grass-roots movement to alter the face of farming from conventional to sustainable.  He has a long-standing public service record in the agricultural and government policy realms. Among other things, he has served on the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission, the Iowa Food Policy Council, and the Iowa Organic Standards Boards.

“While we can learn and apply many things from earlier traditional farming methods, advances in technology and increased understanding of biology and ecology have taken organic farming far beyond the farming methods of 100 years ago,” he writes. “Organic methods optimize the use of locally available resources and biologically produced resources on site, rather than relying on expensive external inputs that are not readily available and are often too expensive for limited-resource farmers.”

In his campaign, he discusses the importance of how our focus on organic farming has allowed us to advance our knowledge and techniques, such as with improved machinery and technology. He’s not necessarily in favor of turning back the clock – in fact, he wants to use science and technology to further our abilities to produce food, but with safe and sustainable methods. We are acquiring a better comprehension as time goes on of how to deal with weeds and insects with natural methods such as beneficial insects and crop rotation to control these factors without the use of toxic chemicals.

He has also observed that although a lesser amount of funds are dedicated toward “official” research of organic farming, organic and sustainable farming maintains its position and continues to be a player in agricultural business. This, he believes, is solid proof of the strong principles and success of sustainable farmers and methods.

Thicke calls witness to the fact that organic agriculture has continued to progress despite the relative availability of research funds dedicated to it, as compared to those directed toward conventional methods. Indeed, this points to the strength of organic farming’s methods, principles, and practitioners. As conventional farming tends to be more concentrated in developed countries, the rest of the world’s farmers and food growers still use sustainable practices. Most everyone else is simply too poor to even conceive of using methods used by conventional farming with expensive, petroleum-based fertilizers and chemicals.

“Organic methods optimize the use of locally available resources and biologically produced resources on site, rather than relying on expensive external inputs that are not readily available and are often too expensive for limited-resource farmers.” From the Thicke for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture site.

When candidates like this get behind important issues that affect everyone, it is our duty to get behind them and help them succeed. Find out how you can make a difference and help Francis Thicke become the Secretary of Agriculture in Iowa – state that has a great deal of influence on our country’s farming culture and habits. Spread the word about his candidacy on your blog, on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks, or donate to his campaign.

Read this great article about Francis Thicke on Grist.org.

What is YOUR diet for a hot planet?

I have been reading Anna Lappé’s Diet For A Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at The End of Your Fork And What You Can Do About It, and I’m really interested in some of the points she makes in this well-written book:

  • Many people are so busy pointing the finger at the cause of global warming being the carbon monoxide emissions from our vehicles and other operations requiring carbon-based fuel (which may or may not be the case), but very little attention is aimed at the damage and pollution from factory farming facilities which produce a large majority of our food (especially meat).
  • Lappé makes a strong case for the move toward sustainably-produced meat, in ways that many other authors have not. Various arguments are made and discussed about the emissions of grass-fed versus grain-fed meat and which has the ultimate negative impact on the environment. As we are shown, meat from grain-fed cattle “produces greenhouse-gas emissions at nearly every stage in the process”. And although the constant request is made for yet “more scientific evidence” to prove once and for all that grass-fed is superior to grain-fed, Lappé readily admits to there being a preponderance of evidence that factory-farming damages the environment in ways sustainable farming doesn’t.

Like Michael Pollan, Lappé talks a number of times about reducing the “amount of meat” we eat, and it’s true that she has been quoted as saying that she is making an effort to cut meat out of her own diet. Although I’m not about cutting meat our of our diets, I do believe the natural result of eliminating factory farms and confined animal feeding operations would be a lower consumption of meat.

Currently, most people eat hormone and antibiotic-treated meat from animals and birds eating a diet heavy in soy, grains, and corn (among other things) which contributes to health imbalances such as obesity, heart disease, cancer, auto-immune disorders, and many other problems – among them a feeling of lingering hunger and insatiable appetite. If consumers did start eating less of this meat and more of the grass-fed meat from healthy animals and birds on pasture, nutritional imbalances would change and so would our health and food cravings. So the honest truth is, we really would be eating less meat as a result. But it wouldn’t be because meat isn’t healthy for us to eat, because it is when it’s from healthy animals and birds raised correctly.

At a recent book signing in Portland, OR, Ms. Lappe was questioned by a man about the nutritional content of organic crops as compared to conventional crops. Before her answer came, she said, “What you call conventional farming I prefer to call ‘industrial farming’ or ‘factory-farming.’ What is conventional? We’ve only been engaging in industrial farming for the past 50, maybe 100 years, so it’s not conventional or traditional.”

Here is a public presentation from WGBH featuring the author and her mother, Frances Moore Lappé (also an author) about her recent book. Whether you agree with her meat-reducing ideas or not (I don’t), I still believe this book has a great deal of in-depth and convincing data that tells us sustainable farming is the way we need to go.

Here are a few of my own points:

  • The idea that sustainable and organic farming can’t possibly feed larger populations of people is unfounded because up until the Industrial Revolution occurred, sustainable farming occurred all over the planet for thousands and thousands of years. These efforts fed large populations of people, as large or even larger than some of our modern cities. Listen to this great podcast from Our Natural Life (Jon and Cathy Payne) and their interview with Kimberly Hartke, publicist for The Weston A. Price Foundation and writer of Hartke Is Online! Besides talking about how she became acquainted with the notion of sustainability and how it has affected her life, she also discusses the myths that sustainable farming and living isn’t solvent or capable of feeding communities on the large-scale.
  • The mantra that sustainable farming cannot work is something that has been propagated by the big agricultural companies as a way to counteract efforts to move away from conventional farming. This idea has become so pervasive and has been so successful you will hear many people mouthing it over and over again – to the point that they can’t even support their arguments with well-documented research or intelligent arguments.
  • Besides the risk to human and animal health, at the current rate that top soil and other natural components of land are being polluted and destroyed by conventional farming practices, the choice for sustainable farming is one of the only things that will prevent the land from becoming completely incapable of growing food in the future. By using heavy machinery and chemicals, conventional farming disintegrates soil tilth. This process causes compaction of the soil and destroys nutrients.  In the process, very little if any organic material is supplemented back. What is added in are inorganic nutrients from synthetic fertilizers. These substances are used excessively and as a result seep down beneath soil areas to contaminate groundwater. Surrounding soil areas and water, then, are also polluted. This negatively impacts many species of native plants and animals
  • According to Food First: “Looking at 293 examples comparing alternative and conventional agriculture from 91 studies, a group of University of Michigan researchers were able to demonstrate that current scientific knowledge simply does not support the idea that a switch to organic and sustainable agriculture would drastically lower food production and lead to hunger. Instead, we found that current knowledge implies that, even under conservative estimates, organic agriculture could provide almost as much food on average at a global level as is produced today (2,641 as opposed to 2,786 kilocalories/person/day after losses). In what these University of Michigan researchers considered a more “realistic” estimation, organic agriculture could actually increase global food production by as much as 50% (to 4,381 kilocalories/person/day).”

What’s at stake for the future?

The truth is, in order to really make a difference, much about the way we view farming has to go through a massive change – obviously from the conventional perspective, but even from organic many so-called sustainable standpoints as well.

Recently, I came across an amazing documentary from the BBC titled, “A Farm For the Future” which addresses these important considerations in a unique way.

Here is Part I of this show:

This insightful production filmed in the UK features wildlife filmmaker Rebecca Hosking discussing the current global food and farming crisis in great detail, and the alternatives we have to feed the planet for the future. She grew up on a small, traditional family farm and is now returning to her childhood home to learn about the prospect of running the farm and making it profitable while still preserving the amazing wildlife and landscape there. She brings up some very important and interesting points, some of which I agree with, and some not.

Some of the farmers and caretakers of the land Rebecca visits with on the documentary show her how the plants, insects, and animals play an integral role in sustaining the land, crops, and food that grow. Seeing just how self-maintaining the land is provides a great example of just how much you can yield with minimal work. The topic of permaculture in forest gardens is also discussed and the ways we learn about how the land takes care of itself is utterly fascinating and quite miraculous.

Watch the rest of this documentary:

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

How can you make a difference?

  • Cook at home, from scratch, and with healthy ingredients
  • Consume less – reuse, recycle, and stretch out your food and other resources by using every part of what you have and buy, whenever possible.
  • Do your own research and learn about how you can make a difference

How do you you live sustainably? Do you grow your own food or buy from sustainable farmers? I’d love to hear about your habits!

Learn more about eating well, saving money, and being sustainable in your life:

Embrace and Perfect Your Home-keeping Skills

Is Cheap Food Really Cheap? The Hidden Costs of Industrial Food

The Truth About Raw Milk, Part I

Can You Afford Not To Eat Healthy?

Fortified and Processed Foods: Are Label Claims About Nutrition True?

Food Budgets – Using Creativity and Prioritizing For Healthy Eating

This post is part of Kelly The Kitchen Kop’s Real Food Wednesdays Carnival.

17 Comments

  • Tim
    October 26, 2010 - 12:44 PM | Permalink

    You take one example of a crappy farmer and label us all the same. We have been forced to farm as we do to make a living in the lifestyle we love. I would make far more doing about anything else. It’s sad that I make more selling turf grass, than I could raising food. Our labor costs will not allow us to compete. The complaint is the high cost of food, why is wallmart grocery so successful? If the consumer wants something, I will raise it, but I have to make a living at it. Perhaps more illegal aliens (Chinese?) so I can farm sustainable.

  • October 26, 2010 - 1:06 PM | Permalink

    Tim – I am unsure what you are saying here – I did not take one example of bad farming and label everyone that way. I am saying that sustainable farming is something we need to be focused on and committed to in order to make the future healthy and solvent for everyone. The point is that the way we are going now, by using cheap labor, materials, ingredients, equipment, and unsafe farming practices, we are in over our heads and if we don’t change, things are just going to get worse. We’ve farmed sustainably for thousands of years, as is evident by our existence and the examples I’ve given here – both personal, observational, and scientific. What exactly is it that you are looking for here?

  • October 26, 2010 - 1:43 PM | Permalink

    Another terrific post. Raine, I have yet to see a post from you that is anything less than outstanding. Thanks again for all your work.

    I would like to add two points – that feeding grains to animals in feedlots uses a lot of farmland – by switching to grassfed only we can greatly increase the amount of farmland used to feed humans. Cattle, bison, goats and sheep can graze and thrive on land that is unsuitable for farmland. There are huge amounts of unused pastureland, in the western united states, canada, china, and the former soviet union.

    The other is the fact that mixed use, sustainable farms, farms that raise a variety of crops and animals, while rotating the use of land, produce much more food than a farm that grows only one crop.Mixed use farms enrich the land, and food from these farms is much better because the soil is much richer. Mono cropping depletes the land, and actually produces much less food in total than a sustainable, mixed use farm.

  • October 26, 2010 - 1:43 PM | Permalink

    Great post. The answer to the question is both “yes,” and “no.” Organic methods can produce enough to feed the world, and will certainly be better for the environment and our health that the huge AgriBus of today. The problem isn’t exclusively, or even primarily production, though, which is why the answer is “no.”

    More food produced does not equal starving people being fed–that’s a straw man. It’s the “production myth,” and it’s unfortunately what so many people use to justify conventional agriculture. It’s also just plain wrong. We already produce far, far more food than it would take to feed the world, yet people starve to death or go undernourished across the world (and even right in our backyard) everyday. Producing more isn’t going to feed the world, because the problem isn’t production or we’d already be feeding it. Wouldn’t it be great if it were really that simple? But, until we deal with things like food justice, resource management, politics, etc., no production method can feed the world.

    I did a blog on this a while ago, if you’re interested: http://eclecticedibles.wordpress.com/2010/09/28/clearing-the-air-knocking-down-straw-men-part-i-the-production-myth/

  • October 26, 2010 - 8:21 PM | Permalink

    Excellent, Raine! The myth that we need industrial farming and genetic engineering to feed the world has held sway for far too long. Keep on busting it, way to go!

  • Nicci Cagan
    October 26, 2010 - 8:55 PM | Permalink

    excellent examples! Beautiful images. Thank you

  • October 27, 2010 - 4:16 AM | Permalink

    Evidently Walmart thinks sustainable agriculture is the way to go…… at least “their version” of it. This causes me concern……. see: http://world.edu/content/walmarts-version-sustainable-agriculture-sustainable/

  • Rose
    October 30, 2010 - 11:26 AM | Permalink

    Thank you for this great post. I think we should all follow Lappé’s example, and use the more accurate term “industrial” food production rather than “conventional” to describe the practices we oppose. Maybe Tim is neither a true industrial producer nor a sustainable one–a lot of small producers are in this middle range. I also would not even use the word “farm” to describe CAFO operations; they are “food”-producing factories, plain and simple. Producing eggs, turkeys or beef inside of huge buildings is not agriculture, defined as the cultivation of land.

  • October 31, 2010 - 12:19 PM | Permalink

    Good information and examples of what people can do to make a difference, Raine. Supporting the farmers who are practicing the methods you want to see is essential. If they cannot make a living farming this way, they are unsustainable and will fail. The relationships you make will be meaningful and your food will taste better! I am glad to see that Lappe has changed her tune about meat production. When I was in my 20s I read her book “Diet for a Small Planet” and was a vegetarian for several years. I’ve just now put together my depression, joint pain, and low energy in my 20s with my diet at that time. I am practically pain free, feel younger and have more energy as I near 60 on my grass fed diet high in healthy saturated fats. I do purchase the majority of my food from local farmers and produce more and more of it myself now that I am farming. It has been reported that many conventional farmers in the midwest suffer from cancer, and their subsidized commodity crops do not feed their families. What a disconnect!

  • November 1, 2010 - 9:12 PM | Permalink

    Hi Cathy – I am always glad to hear from you and especially appreciate you giving your testament about real food helping you.

    This book is actually the original author, Francis Lappe’s daughter, Anna. I think Francis was and still is a vegetarian, and her daughter definitely says we should eat less meat (which I don’t agree with), but defines the virtues of eating grass fed meats and how much better for the environment they are – which I definitely like and agree with. It’s so good to see more and more people telling their stories about how real food helps their health, and especially in light of all the fat-phobic and cholesterol fear mongering rhetoric there is in health and medical communities. We have to keep spreading the word, and with your great web site and others like it, we can keep doing it! :)

  • November 6, 2010 - 11:26 AM | Permalink

    I actually read an anti-organic tirade today. They pretty much espoused the same old tired-out junk that I’ve heard all before. Its the same thing with anti-alternative health tirades. They are not taking into account the accumulative affect of all those toxins (and yes they are unnatural chemicals). Once again this person had no understanding of how widely used chemicals are and what they do over a long period of time. Primitive man knew exactly what he was doing. He knew you had to move your crop fields around every year. When will people wake up? Then they went on to call organic growing pseudo-science, but of course this is complete crap as the usage of unnatural chemicals is the most vulgar display of scientific ignorance. It doesn’t even matter if health authorities require these chemicals to be used in low dosages still they accumulate and end up places they shouldn’t be. I got a better idea lets just quit encouraging that kind of industry altogether and stop using chemicals period. No, we don’t need Monsanto’s round-up which causes documented birth defects. That is not the way to a progressive future that involves the survival of humanity. That is the way corporations control us and propagate more of their myths against a sustainable future.

    • November 6, 2010 - 11:48 AM | Permalink

      Hi Kelli – you are so right, all of this anti-organic propaganda is just nonsense and doesn’t amount to anything logical or rational. It’s about control, power, and profit. And it doesn’t make sense to defend something that is a relatively new practice, and that causes widespread environmental and human health damage as opposed to farming and growing practices that have been around for thousands and thousands of years, and which have fed people in massive populations. The only thing that adds up in this equation is that the large companies are trying to control the information for their own benefit – and to wipe out practices that preserve human and environmental health for their own benefit. We’ve all unwillingly been made to become part of this enormous, sickening experiment with chemicals and toxins. And unless we moblize and make it known that we won’t stand for these practices and activities, it won’t stop. But don’t worry, I’ll never stop. :)

      • Kelli
        November 7, 2010 - 2:25 PM | Permalink

        Exactly. People farmed organically for thousands of years just like they used herbs to cure there ills. It seems as if everything new in this century is making us ill. Synthetic drugs, synthetic chemicals. All based on the myth that synthetics are an improvement over nature. Totally ridiculous.

  • April 25, 2011 - 9:53 AM | Permalink

    If anyone is interested in how this can be done, I highly recommend Gary Zimmer’s new book, Advancing Biological Farming. It’s short and super-easy to read. He uses non-synthetic fertilizers and intensive cover cropping to grow 200 bushel/acre corn and get great milk yields from his dairy cows. No dogma, no ideology (refreshing!), he just does what’s best to increase his earthworm numbers and keep his cows healthy and comfortable on his 1,000 acres. We’re adopting biological farming methods for our new farm, and i long for the day that every American farmer farms this way. i have hope, though, because his methods result in PROFIT, and farmers are starting to pay attention.
    Thanks for posting, Raine!

  • April 25, 2011 - 10:42 AM | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing Kelly, sounds like a great book! Another great book I’d like to suggest that I just received from Chelsea Green Publishing is Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture. I really like the concept of permaculture and how it can simplify our farming methods/techniques. It’s similar to what you are describing here from Gary. Thanks for your comments and keep doing what you are doing, your work is appreciated! :)

  • October 4, 2014 - 7:41 PM | Permalink

    Most people will have to settle for the more mediocre fare of the same foods they have been eating for
    most of their lives. Organic certification is the public’s assurance that products
    have been grown and handled under persistent toxic chemical inputs.
    If animals survive with chemicals in their systems, they can poison larger animals that eat them.
    The crop wastes occur very naturally, it is a process
    that takes place throughout the year. Less room, growing time, and labor involved.

  • October 12, 2014 - 5:27 PM | Permalink

    According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
    (OECD), the current global eco-market amounts to around 330-410 billion EURO.

    Takao Furuno has singlehandedly changed the way in which organic farming is both practiced and viewed.
    And by Bronx flair, I mean a elderly customer swearing at the cash register clerks for moving “too ******* slow. The ground growing the produce must be free from synthetic chemicals for at least three years, in most states. In August, Herbana Farms will be among green-driven businesses, eco-entrepreneurs, government advocates, industry organizations, and green representatives from the academe, in joining the first Philippine International Eco-Show (PIn – ES) at the SMX Convention Center in Pasay City.

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