Tag food production

Feeding the Masses

Some people ask me if small farms can produce enough food to feed the world. Asking this question lets me know they’ve already been inoculated with the idea that they can’t. The current industrial food system is good at messaging, and they’ve been successful in proliferating this misconception. In addition, I’m not alone in my feelings. Most of my information comes from this report which was submitted to the UN General Assembly Human Rights Council by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter.

According to the FAO the world currently produces enough food to feed everyone. In fact, we produce 17% more food than we need right now. However, starvation and malnutrition is happening in developed and developing countries. Thus the problem lies not in production, but in distribution and access to food. It is an economic problem whereby the poorest people in the world don’t have the resources to obtain adequate nutrition. In addition, if food production were the underlying factor, if you think that we produce all this excess now because of the big corps, “The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) estimates that, even accounting for the energy value of the meat produced, the loss of calories that result from feeding cereals to animals instead of using cereals directly as human food represents the annual calorie need for more than 3.5 billion people.” (UN Report) In other words, we could feed half the world simply by not feeding grain to animals (corn to cows, pigs and chickens). Many small farms do feed grain, but the more sustainable ones don’t and don’t have to (buy 100% grass-fed beef for the love of God!).

Finally, “only by supporting small producers can we help break the vicious cycle that leads from rural poverty to the expansion of urban slums, in which poverty breeds more poverty.” (UN Report) The poorest people in the world, the ones that are starving, are FARMERS. Supporting localized, sustainable food systems around the world means funneling money towards the people that need it in order to buy food. You might think it strange that farmers don’t have access to food, but many of these farmers don’t actually own the food they grow. They work for corporations, which own the crop that is barely edible anyway for people (feed grade corn is not the sweet corn of late summer). If we buy more food from small farmers we empower them to grow a more diverse crop, increase their profit and our money comes back through the local economy in the form of jobs (construction, labor, mechanics, trucking).

Feeding the masses means getting money into the pockets of the world’s poorest people. It requires the redistribution of wealth from the few to the many. It requires the re-education of two generations of non-farmers and the establishment of a supportive farm economy. It requires the support of friends and family, community, to keep the few struggling farms we have. Go to your farmers markets, buy food from farmers you know and help feed the world’s hungry, improve the local economy and feed yourself real, healthy food. Not only that, but you will feel awesome too.

Biodiversity and Food Efficiency

I’ve been toying with some ideas about food production here at the farm. While there is much discussion at a national level about energy efficiency in industrial food production, there is little debate about the differences between food production methods and wasted food. In addition, there is typically little value placed on biodiversity in these discussions, which undoubtedly results in proposals to farm corn from fence-row to fence-row. I’d like to propose two inter-dependent concepts to help guide consumers, farmers and chefs toward a more sustainable food system; biodiversity and food efficiency. Thanks to my brother for helping me to flesh this out.

Biodiversity is difficult to quantify and thus can only be treated in a qualitative and conceptual way. However humans and animals can survive on a limited source of nutrition (currently corn and soy in the developed world), I (and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, quoted below) believe reliance such as this invariably leads to instability, disease and ultimate self-destruction. “The erosion of biodiversity for food and agriculture severely compromises global food security. We need to strengthen our efforts to protect and wisely manage biodiversity for food security. Its sustainable use is central to achieve a secure and sustainable food supply system.” One pest, one string of bad weather, a new bacteria or fungus could wipe out an entire nation’s food source in a system like this. In addition, a  limited source of nutrition provides just that to it’s consumers, contributing to the staggering rise of diabetes and obesity. And, concentrated manure, fertilizer and pesticide use has destroyed habitat beyond saving in many of the world’s waterways and arable lands (see dead zones). This system is eroding soil “…10 to 40 times faster than it is being replenished, destroying cropland the size of Indiana every year.” (Cornell University Study) It has driven farmers to bankruptcy and even suicide through corporate control of seed and genetics. Yes, we can survive for a time on industrial corn and soy, but not for all time and certainly not happily. That brings us to Concept 1: biodiversity is immeasurably important for food security, health and environmental stability.

Now, if you believe in Concept 1, consider having a truly biodiverse landscape. We have grasslands, forests, mountains, rivers, lakes, cold and hot climates and in each of these places a variety of food sources can be found. Instead of fabricating one unstable super-crop to grow in a handful of environments, we can allow natural selection to develop ever more resilient and diverse food sources for each environment. This has essentially been the natural plan for all history, until we started fixing nitrogen and mechanizing farming. Now we can discuss real food efficiency.

Food efficiency does not only consider the human or fossil fuel energy input to food production, but it must consider all energy while retaining biodiversity. It takes much less energy to graze a cow on pasture than to convert that pasture to corn, mill the corn, truck it to a CAFO and then have to deal with all the manure afterwards. Instead the cow grazes, returning much of the vegetable matter back to the pasture, building up the topsoil while making healthier meat. The American Bison, over millennia, made all that topsoil we’re currently eroding. So the cow eats grass, produces milk and meat for the people but also produces a bunch of stuff we don’t normally eat like bones and organs and tough cuts of beef. Those can go into animal feed for our dogs and cats or get ingeniously turned into human food through adventurous cooks. The pasture stays pasture, the cow eats grass and all the product gets used while creating a healthier environment for all. The same can be said for chickens eating bugs and grass, pigs eating rotten food, nuts and roots, goats eating brush, sheep eating leafy weeds and grass on rocky pasture, etc. Concept 2: Feeding animals a natural and appropriate feed creates a significantly healthier product and environment, promotes biodiversity while reducing food waste and increases food efficiency. Waste not, want not.

Of course, there is one glaring problem; food production like this won’t make enough food for an infinitely increasing population. A topic for a future post.

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