Thursday, June 05, 2008

Factory farming - kosher but deadly.

Planting the Seeds of Crisis
Monocropping, loss of plant diversity and factory farming have created a global food crisis. Is it too late to change?
By Alastair Bland 5/28/08

The global agriculture market is busy cooking up a recipe for disaster. World grain production is on the rise, but this cheap oversupply has put millions of farmers in developing nations out of work. Equally problematic, policy makers are increasingly directing edible calories toward biofuels and animal feed. Meanwhile, impoverished humans starve.

At center stage in this misallocation of food is the modern practice of monocropping, or monocultures, in which one plant is sown exclusively. At first glance, selecting for the most lucrative, high-yield variety of plant and covering one's acreage with it and nothing else seems like a very methodical and sophisticated idea; such crops are easily planted and tended, and entire fields can be harvested in one fell swoop. But monocultures facilitate two serious matters: pests and soil depletion.

The latter results when a farmer perpetually cultivates a single type of plant on a given parcel of land, which steadily drains the earth of a particular spectrum of soil minerals. Eventually, such farmland grows off-balance and may eventually be rendered completely inadequate for agriculture. In fact, experts guess that at its current rate, soil depletion will leave the planet without farmable land in three to five decades, at which point the game will be up for biodiesel engines, cows and human beings alike.

Victory Gardening

John Jeavons, an innovative farmer, lecturer and author based in Willits, says that solutions as simple as home gardening can alleviate such serious problems. Jeavons is an advocate of biointensive farming, an ancient system of agriculture that he has helped rediscover over the last 30 years and which fosters biodiversity, intersperses different crops on small and vibrant plots of land, retains groundwater in the earth and naturally replenishes soils. Jeavons' hope is to see a return to a local, organic, regenerative farming system in which people everywhere embrace the lost art of growing food.

"With soil loss, the world is entering a new time of crisis," he says. "But the wonderful thing is that we have the power to change it in our own backyards."

But is home gardening enough? Can it supply the calories to feed families, not to mention the world? Devlin Kuyek is a Montreal-based researcher with GRAIN (Genetic Resources International), an organization that advocates sustainable agricultural biodiversity. Kuyek says the problems facing agriculture today are global in scale, and that most communities, especially urban ones, have lost all power over where their food comes from.

That, he says, must change...

And the change starts in our own backyards. Our communities have to get over irrational stringencies that pretend growing your own food in your own backyard garden and canning, drying, or freezing it yourself is something you're incompetent to do. Jews have been doing it for thousands of years now - no rabbinic supervision required. It is imperative that we move quickly to address the issues of factory farming which face us today - from the Rubashkin scandal to the silliness now passing for intelligent reasoning concerning microscopic details of fruits and vegetables. What these things have in common is that the food is processed far away from our communities, so we don't see with our own eyes what is and is not being done. Relocalizing food not only solves that problem, but also helps our communities to be more self-sufficient using sustainable and organic small-scale farming practices. Giant monoculture farms are producing unnatural products that are harming our health and costing us untold amounts of money in long-range shipping costs. Using hundreds of small-scale back and side yards and container gardening, along with medium sized community gardens and green houses, a community can actually grow more produce (and obviously, more different kinds and varieties of produce) than an equivalent amount of monoculture factory farm acreage.

...Localized, diverse, healthy agriculture was once the way of the world, before land consolidation, global markets and the capacity for long-distance transportation changed everything. People ate strictly what they grew locally, and gardeners and farmers cultivated a wide and colorful range of edible plants. In turn, this biodiversity maintained soil health and mineral balance, as did composting, which recycled organic matter back into the earth. The soil stayed rich and a diversity of foods sustained societies...

...One study, published in 2006 and directed in part by UC Berkeley postdoctorate Lora Morandin, at the time a student at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, found that Canadian canola farmers who allowed 30 percent of their land to grow wild and uncultivated produced higher gross yields and more than double the profits due to an increased presence of pollinating insects inhabiting the brush.

Jeavons' biointensive farming system also produces dramatically boosted yields—nearly double that of conventional agriculture—while replenishing the soil. Jeavons cultivates one-third of an acre with a systematically diversified array of many edible plants, including a backbone of grains and high-calorie root crops. The land serves as a classroom and lab for Ecology Action, a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing high-yield farming methods by which individuals can grow all their own food on small plots of land while consuming a minimum of resources and sustaining soil balance...

Relying on imports of factory farmed monoculture products to our communities not only has negatively affected our own health, but has actually caused us to have less food security.

...Monocultures are devastating the security and stability of food production, says Kuyek, whose book Good Crop / Bad Crop: Seed Politics and the Future of Food in Canada hit shelves in December. The postmodernized world has seen a drop in nutritional value in staple crops, an increased reliance on pesticides and fertilizers and a severe loss of genetic diversity...

The real genetic diversity and adaptability of natural crops has been replaced by inadequate and ineffective Genetic Modification of crops, whose goal is not to produce better nutrition, but to enable the plants to withstand the application of toxic petrochemicals. Once those petrochemicals are no longer available due to peak oil prices or actual shortages, those "engineered" crops won't have a snowball's chance in heck - mother nature will bite back with a vengeance (and already is in some places) and severely affect the unnatural, unadaptable GMO-frankenfood monstrosities.

...The United Nations FAO estimates that soils worldwide are being depleted between 13 and 80 times faster than they are being restored. Rising fertilizer costs due to climbing oil prices have prompted many farmers to curtail their use, in turn producing less food of decreasing nutritional value on soils of diminishing quality. Soil is lost to erosion and weathering, too. Cover crops would prevent such deterioration, yet most of the world's farmers disdain "weeds," preferring fields, vineyards and orchards uncluttered by alien plant life.

...Many experts agree: Poorly managed monoculture farm systems are draining the earth of its vitality, and by some estimates the earth bears as little as 36 to 52 years' worth of farmable soil. If communities only fed themselves, says Kuyek, such uncertainty might dissipate.

"There has to be a return to local food systems. That's the only answer. That's the only way that people can take charge of feeding themselves again. Only local food systems provide a sense of a community's needs."

The idea is that when people produce their own food, they take better care to produce it right. Diversification of crops inherently follows, which keeps life on the table interesting. Plant health improves and soils thrive.

Unfortunately, few of us know anymore how to care for and cultivate the earth...

"It's not only our water tables, genetic diversity base and soil base, but we've lost our skill base," Jeavons says. "Just one person in 625 in the United States is a farmer on a tractor. Almost no one grows their own food supply anymore, and it's very important that we rejuvenate our skills as farmers."

But we can learn - there are books and videos and clubs and elderly people who still remember how things were done before our communities became parasites off of the world system we claim to not be part of. We can experiment. We can bring in experts in sustainable farming to teach us, while the opportunities are still available. Each community should be planning and implementing this strategy right now, because it will take a couple of years (or more) to get sustainable community gardens, greenhouses, yards and containers up to full production capacity. Gardens don't just happen, they require planning and careful attention to detail. Our ancestors did this - so can we.

...For now, television coverage of food riots and famine worldwide gives Western viewers a comforting distance from the severe problems of the 21st century's global agriculture system. But Americans depend on soils and farming as much as any other nation, and it may be just a matter of time before the crisis hits home.

And it will hit us far worse than the average community - and not just fruits, vegetables and grains, either. We have to have our own dairy products, chickens and eggs, and red meat farms (lambs, beef, bison, goats) to make sure the animals are being raised humanely, slaughtered properly, and receive the proper certifications. The only real way to continue to do this economically and sustainably is to do it locally - be in charge of our own small livestock farms that service our local communities and don't rely on shipping items slaughtered and packaged by cheap, shady, unreliable processing plants far away from where we can see them. These farms can provide local access to naturally composted manure fertilizers for our home and community gardens and greenhouses, as well as the meat and dairy products we need.

We can do this. We need to do this. And if we refuse to do this, we have no one to blame but ourselves for the results of our refusal to pay attention to what is going on in the world and prepare for it. Not much consolation when you're broke and starving - knowing everyone else in the community is, too.

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