As you may already know, I'm working on a graduate degree in nutrition. Part of that includes learning about food systems and food policies. Where does our food come from? How does it get to us? What is going on behind the scenes? This is something that I've probably looked at more than most, but still always fun for me to dig into some more. So we were given an assignment to watch some videos on food systems and discuss them. Specifically, to compare and contrast though I am not great at following directions... At any rate, I got into it. Really into it. And I realized that it needed shared with more than those in my class. So I decided to bring it to you :D So here are the videos to check out if you're interested...
Out to Pasture: The Future of Farming? (~ 34:10)
Starting a movement: Changing the global food system: Lilia Smelkova (~ 15:50
The U.S. of Agriculture (~24:40) - From the Founding Farmers to the modern Farm Bill, what has 200 years of progress brought to the table? More food at lower prices for sure, but also food fights over the environment, hunger, nutrition, and waste. In this closing episode of Food Forward, politicians, policy watchdogs and food experts take us on a personal tour through the history of food and agriculture in America.
I have something of a unique perspective on this. My mom was raised on an angus ranch in Nebraska, my dad on an alfalfa farm that supported another ranch, and I have spent the last 3 years working with a 21 acre biodynamic farm with chickens, sheep and lots of vegetables modeled something after Joel Salatin's Polyface farm. This is something that I think about a lot, not only in terms of what is good/bad about the current food system or the other systems fighting for their place, but a lot in terms of what can you or I do about it, because really, that's the important part.
Everyone can agree that CAFO farming is not good for the planet, the animals or the people who eat them. In fact, they are often not even beneficial for the "farmers" operating them. The part that frustrates me when these discussions come up is that people all jump to the fact that it is more "affordable". This is the only "pro" that they can claim. However, that is not strictly true. The true costs are just hidden. Without the government subsidies for the grains that these animals are fed, and only because the companies are not held held accountable for their impact, they are able to price them differently. But this is an artificial devaluation of the cost. Traditionally, farmers and ranchers would have always been (and still are) primarily concerned with the land they use, because it is going to be their source of income and stability for all generations to come. Their focus and perspective is different. They need a healthy environment to keep raising healthy animals, so they would never do things that negatively impact either. Animals are actually a vital part of any type of truly sustainable agriculture. They are perfectly designed to work together- plants and animals. They feed each other. Polyface Farm does a beautiful job of balancing this in a modern way, and if you aren't familiar with that operation, you really should look into it. Joel Salatin, referred to as the "lunatic farmer" has written extensively on modern farming and offers valuable insight as well as ideas for the future.
The "cons" for "organic" or sustainable farming are always that it is "too expensive" and "less efficient". But again, compared to what? How is this measured or assumed? There are plenty of models that show how food can be raised without the chemicals, without treating animals poorly, and still be competitively productive (Ponisio, et al, 2014). In fact, a 5 year UN study (2012) concluded that small, traditional farms are the ONLY way to feed the world into the future. This isn't a compare and contrast thing. The way food is being raised in "modern" systems does not work. We know that. It does not work for the planet, for the animals, for the soil, for the air, for the water or for anyone eating it. But the beauty is that there are so many brilliant answers out there. There are so many possible ways to do it right. And while in many ways it feels like it will take these huge cultural shifts, and that would absolutely do it, it can also take just a thousand small changes. Both the farmers in the first video, and those involved with the Food Day project have it right. Participating in a meatless Monday, or buying a CSA from a farm that's doing it right, taking a political stand and fighting for better standards, or just growing your own food in a window box are all little changes that add up and that anyone could do.
The idea that there is not enough food or that there will be a shortage if we don't continue factory farming are also simply not true, thus invalidating that argument for those methods. There is actually an overabundance of food in our country and in many others. Check out this article and the linked report from the UN or this report from the NRDC. Far beyond what gets thrown away in your home (you know you forget the celery at the bottom of the drawer sometimes!), beyond what restaurants and schools and hospitals and supermarkets and other institutions throw away, there is so much food that never even makes it that far and simply goes to waste. It isn't a problem with supply, only in access and distribution and regulation. In a sustainable farm, the food that is not "suitable" (another concept that varies widely but is abused badly in the US) is simply used for feeding animals or turned into compost to feed the soil. Actually, a truly sustainable farm requires practically no outside inputs and also has no waste, but I digress. Small, simple changes include buying the "ugly" produce at the store or the farmer's market; utilizing your food scraps to make stocks, feed animals or turn into compost (some places even offer drop-off locations for your compost materials!), buying and ordering less food in general, and eating what you have.
I realize that I went beyond the scope of the assignment a bit, but this is, as I said, a big part of my focus and my world right now. I don't think that the systems themselves are the true problem, so much as the general lack of knowledge surrounding them. Regular Joe or Jane on the street doesn't have any idea about a lot of this, and the parts they do know, they often feel overwhelmed to do anything about. So education, getting this out there, telling people why it is important and mostly giving them small things that they can do to make a difference is what will really take us into the future and create the food systems we need.
Ponisio, L., M'Gonigle, L., Mace, K., Palomino, J., Valpine, P., & Kremen, C. (2014) Diversification practices reduce organic to conventional yield gap (Links to an external site.). Proc. R. Soc. B 2015 282 20141396; DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.1396
Giovannucci, D., Scherr, S., Nierenberg, D., Hebebrand, C., Shapiro, J., Milder, J., & Wheeler, K. (2012) Food and Agriculture: the future of sustainability. A strategic input to the Sustainable Development in the 21st Century (SD21) project. New York: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division for Sustainable Development