Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Sustainable Farming: The True Green Revolution?

Food is a major topic these days. By some measures it is more expensive than it was a few years ago when there were numerous food riots. Various estimates place the number of “food deprived” individuals at about one billion out of a world population of six billion. The population is expected to grow to about nine billion before leveling off. If we are having trouble feeding everyone now, clearly something has to be done if we are to be able to deal with an extra three billion people.

Most of the proposed solutions to this problem look to extending the modern techniques that increased production so greatly in the past to more of the earth’s surface. A problem with that approach is that those methods are not sustainable in the sense of overusing water and degrading the soil. They only work by introducing large amounts of fossil fuels into the agricultural economy in order to enrich soil and transport the produce.

A recent New York Times article by Mark Bittman reminds us that we need to find another way forward. Bittman refers to a UN report.
“.... Olivier de Schutter, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the Right to Food, presented a report entitled ‘Agro-ecology and the Right to Food.’ (Agro-ecology, he said in a telephone interview last Friday, has ‘lots’ in common with both ‘sustainable’ and ‘organic.’) Chief among de Schutter’s recommendations is this: ‘Agriculture should be fundamentally redirected towards modes of production that are more environmentally sustainable and socially just’.”

“Agro-ecology, he said, immediately helps ‘small farmers who must be able to farm in ways that are less expensive and more productive. But it benefits all of us, because it decelerates global warming and ecological destruction.’ Further, by decentralizing production, floods in Southeast Asia, for example, might not mean huge shortfalls in the world’s rice crop; smaller scale farming makes the system less susceptible to climate shocks.”
Those are statements that are hard to argue with, but there are few details provided in the article as to how this might work. Bittman’s comments did remind me of a fascinating example of a sustainable farming operation presented by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Pollan took the reader for a tour of the Polyface Farm in Virginia. While industrialized corn is the basis for the modern agricultural economy, Pollan tells us that the basis for nature’s agriculture is grass. In fact, Joel Salatin, the owner, refers to himself as a “grass farmer” whose techniques are designed to imitate nature.
“Grass farmers grow animals—for meat, eggs, milk, and wool—but regard them as part of a food chain in which grass is the keystone species, the nexus between the solar energy that powers every food chain and the animals we eat. ‘To be even more accurate,’ Joel has said, ‘we should call ourselves sun farmers. The grass is just the way we capture the solar energy.’ One of the principles of modern grass farming is that to the greatest extent possible farmers should rely on the contemporary energy of the sun, as captured every day by photosynthesis, instead of the fossilized sun energy contained in petroleum.”

The approach used to feed cattle will serve as an illustration of this approach.
“....the pasture beneath me....had been beef cattle, which after each day long stay had been succeeded by several hundred laying hens. They’d arrived by Eggmobile, a ramshackle portable henhouse designed and built by Salatin. Why chickens? ‘Because that’s how it works in nature,’ Salatin explained. ‘Birds follow and clean up after herbivores.’ And so during their turn in the pasture, the hens had performed several ecological services for the cattle as well as the grass: They’d picked the tasty grubs and fly larvae out of the cowpats, in the process spreading the manure and eliminating parasites (....the reason his cattle have no need of chemical parasiticides). And while they were at it, nibbling on the short, cattle-clipped grasses they like best, the chickens applied a few thousand pounds of nitrogen to the pasture—and produced several thousand uncommonly rich and tasty eggs. After a few weeks rest the pasture will be grazed again, each steer turning these lush grasses into beef at the rate of two or three pounds a day.”
Managing the grazing of the grass is critical to the efficiency of the process. In nature, grazing animals will eat the most desirable parts of the vegetation and move on looking for more tasty offerings. If one confines the animals to one location, they will overeat and kill the favored species leaving behind only the less desirable. Consumption and weight gain will suffer. If the grass is not grazed at all, it will grow to a certain point and pause to begin setting seeds and turn woody and less appetizing. If one pays attention, the cattle can be returned to graze at the optimal growth point for the grass and efficiency can be peaked.
“Joel calls this optimal grazing rhythm ‘pulsing the pastures’ and says at Polyface it has boosted the number of cow days to as much as four hundred per acre; the county average is seventy. ‘In effect we’ve bought a whole new farm for the price of some portable fencing and a lot of management.”
We are what we eat—and farm animals are what they eat. Some might quibble about corn fed beef being tastier than grass fed beef, but the Salatin’s produce generally gets rave reviews, especially from those with memories long enough to remember the way it used to be. The important thing is that this approach can be very productive and ecologically neutral—if not positive.
“By the end of the season Salatin’s grasses will have been transformed by his animals into some 25,000 pounds of beef, 50,000 pounds of pork, 12,000 broilers, 800 turkeys, 500 rabbits, and 30,000 dozen eggs. This is an astounding cornucopia of food to draw from a hundred acres of pasture, yet what is perhaps still more astonishing is the fact that this pasture will be in no way diminished by the process—in fact, it will be better for it, lusher, more fertile, even springier under foot (this thanks to the increased earthworm traffic)."
There is another concern for modern society besides trying to figure out how to feed the people of the world. Industrialized economies have become increasingly more efficient at making things with less and less required labor. They may face a future with chronic and high unemployment. One has to struggle to foresee a future where large numbers of modestly skilled workers would again be needed.

If the sort of sustainable farming depicted in Pollan’s book could be reproduced widely in other parts of the world we would not only have a sufficient and healthy food supply, but we would have an economy that would require a huge number of additional workers. The notion of mankind returning to its roots—wiser, but a bit chagrined—and saving himself from an overzealous immersion in industrialization by once again working the soil with his hands, provides a certain degree of poetic satisfaction. The symmetry and the arc of evolution provide the narrative for a good story. Any science fiction writers out there?

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