NEWS2U Health & Wellness
Living Healthy in an Unhealthy World

Sunday, March 11, 2007

You Can't Eat Gasoline

Big Food's Lie About Feeding the World

by Bob St. Peter

Since the beginning of the Green Revolution five decades ago, the standard line from industry and government has been: "We need industrial agriculture to feed the world." The producers of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers; the designers and patent owners of hybrid and genetically-engineered seeds; the farm machinery suppliers; the shipping conglomerates that control the flow of food; and the governmental and non-governmental food policy makers have all been in agreement about their great beneficence. Sure they make billions of dollars and control the food supply, but don't worry, it's for our own good. In fact, they're doing us a favor. Without high-tech advancements in food production, aka "progress", food would cost too much and poor people throughout the world would remain hungry because, their logic apparently concludes, they can't very well feed themselves.

In their December 9, 2006 piece Good Food?, the Economist wrote:

"Following the "green revolution" of the 1960s greater use of chemical fertiliser has tripled grain yields with very little increase in the area of land under cultivation." "Organic methods, which rely on crop rotation, manure and compost in place of fertiliser, are far less intensive. So producing the world's current agricultural output organically would require several times as much land as is currently cultivated. There wouldn't be much room left for the rainforest."

The argument about higher yields on industrial farms is rooted in an industrial mindset that quantifies as a rule and leaves the qualifying for the liberal arts majors. With respect to industrial farming, the logic goes like this: If you're looking to maximize production of a given commodity, like corn, the highest yield per acre will come from planting vast acres of genetically-engineered or hybrid seed, applying chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, and employing heavy machinery in the planting and harvesting. The yield from an acre of corn produced this way will always beat the yield of an acre of heirloom corn planted by hand and fertilized by healthy soil and compost. Or so we're told.

The longest running study comparing organic and non-organic ("conventional") farming systems, the Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial, found yields to be comparable. Not only were yields similar with the organic methods, and in some cases higher, the reduction in fossil fuel use and pollution and the increased soil health made organically-managed systems the clear winner. Perhaps the most important finding was that "In the drought years, 1988 to 1998, corn yields in the legume-based system were 22 percent higher than yields in the conventional system." In a world experiencing water shortages and drought, this is good to know.

Research conducted by the Institute for Food and Development Policy, or Food First, has found that throughout the world smaller, diversified farming systems are upwards of 1000% more productive in terms of the overall amount of food produced than large scale industrial farms. According to these findings, if we transitioned to a world of knowledgeable small-scale food producers, we could in fact reduce the amount of land that is currently being used to grow food. And we would save the rain forest. And we would preserve traditional agriculture and indigenous communities. And we would protect the health of the lands, the waterways, and the farmworkers caught in the crossfire of chemical agriculture's reign of terror.

So if your goal is to produce a variety of highly nutritious foods in a way that sustains the land, your community, and your culture, then well-managed small farms are clearly the way to go. This is common knowledge among small-scale farmers, gardeners, and homesteaders, but apparently not readily known to the folks at the Economist. Might I suggest to the author(s) of Good Food? a summer apprenticeship on an organic farm?

While it is true that the Green Revolution has tripled world-wide grain production, the vast majority of that increase is going to feed cows, pigs, and chickens in horribly cruel Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO's), or what we commonly know as factory farms, who are turn in processed into beef patties, breakfast sausage, and chicken nuggets to feed the appetites of an affluent fast-food culture. This is just one of the nasty outgrowths of the Green Revolution: the wide-spread, systematic torture of billions of animals each year.

Factory farms are also an ecological nightmare. Hog farms in North Carolina, for example, create about 19 million tons of waste a year, more than the amount of human waste created by New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta combined. Wendell Berry keenly observed that when we took animals off the farm and began confining them in feedlots and factory farms we took a perfectly good solution (animals eating perennial grass and bugs while distributing their natural fertilizer throughout fields) and created two new problems: the loss of fertilizer for farms and the pollution that results from having all that drug-riddled shit in one place. Another obvious problem is the amount of time, fossil fuels, and crop lands that are being devoted to raising animals in this way.

Then there is all the corn that is turned into sweeteners, plastics, and increasingly, fuel for our cars. Surely if the reason for chemicalizing, industrializing, centralizing, and genetically modifying our food supply is to feed the world, then the benevolent folks at Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, ConAgra, Monsanto, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and the U.S. Treasury must be working day and night to ensure that all people are fed before converting coveted grain into soft-drinks, take-out containers, and gasoline. Surely.

Take ethanol as one example of Big Food's insincerity. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 18 to 20 percent of the total U.S. corn crop will be diverted to the production of ethanol; By next year it will be 25 percent. The demand for ethanol has driven the price of corn up by nearly 70% in the last six months, sending shock waves through the food system. In Mexico, the price of tortillas has tripled since November. In the U.S. the price of corn-based chicken feed has risen 15 percent. Clearly those who are already hungry or marginalized by a market-based food system are going to be most affected by this diversion of food for fuel. The folks who will be most harmed are the same folks Big Food claims to be working for.

When an agribusiness executive says his or her company is in the business of feeding the world, he or she is lying. Regardless of the personal inclinations of agribusiness executives, as publicly-held corporations (excluding privately-owned Cargill) they are mandated by law to maximize profit for their shareholders, not to give away their "product" to starving peasants. Anything said to the contrary is just a marketing gimmick designed to get you to buy their product.

If you can't pay, then you don't eat. That's their business.

Bob St.Peter is the executive director of The Good Life Center at Forest Farm in Harborside, Maine, the last home of pioneering homesteaders Helen and Scott Nearing.