One of the biggest modern myths about agriculture is that organic farming is inherently sustainable. It can be, but it isn’t necessarily. After all, soil erosion from chemical-free tilled fields undermined the Roman Empire and other ancient societies around the world. Other agricultural myths hinder recognizing the potential to restore degraded soils to feed the world using fewer agrochemicals.
When I embarked on a six-month trip to visit farms around the world to research my forthcoming book, “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” the innovative farmers I met showed me that regenerative farming practices can restore the world’s agricultural soils. In both the developed and developing worlds, these farmers rapidly rebuilt the fertility of their degraded soil, which then allowed them to maintain high yields using far less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.
Their experiences, and the results that I saw on their farms in North and South Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ghana and Costa Rica, offer compelling evidence that the key to sustaining highly productive agriculture lies in rebuilding healthy, fertile soil. This journey also led me to question three pillars of conventional wisdom about today’s industrialized agrochemical agriculture: that it feeds the world, is a more efficient way to produce food and will be necessary to feed the future.
Myth 1: Large-scale agriculture feeds the world today
According to a recent U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, family farms produce over three-quarters of the world’s food. The FAO also estimates that almost three-quarters of all farms worldwide are smaller than one hectare – about 2.5 acres, or the size of a typical city block.
Only about 1 percent of Americans are farmers today. Yet most of the world’s farmers work the land to feed themselves and their families. So while conventional industrialized agriculture feeds the developed world, most of the world’s farmers work small family farms. A 2016 Environmental Working Group report found that almost 90 percent of U.S. agricultural exports went to developed countries with few hungry people.
Of course the world needs commercial agriculture, unless we all want to live on and work our own farms. But are large industrial farms really the best, let alone the only, way forward? This question leads us to a second myth.
Myth 2: Large farms are more efficient
Many high-volume industrial processes exhibit efficiencies at large scale that decrease inputs per unit of production. The more widgets you make, the more efficiently you can make each one. But agriculture is different. A 1989 National Research Council study concluded that “well-managed alternative farming systems nearly always use less synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics per unit of production than conventional farms.”
And while mechanization can provide cost and labor efficiencies on large farms, bigger farms do not necessarily produce more food. According to a 1992 agricultural census report, small, diversified farms produce more than twice as much food per acre than large farms do.
Even the World Bank endorses small farms as the way to increase agricultural output in developing nations where food security remains a pressing issue. While large farms excel at producing a lot of a particular crop – like corn or wheat – small diversified farms produce more food and more kinds of food per hectare overall.
Myth 3: Conventional farming is necessary to feed the world
We’ve all heard proponents of conventional agriculture claim that organic farming is a recipe for global starvation because it produces lower yields. The most extensive yield comparison to date, a 2015 meta-analysis of 115 studies, found that organic production averaged almost 20 percent less than conventionally grown crops, a finding similar to those of prior studies.
But the study went a step further, comparing crop yields on conventional farms to those on organic farms where cover crops were planted and crops were rotated to build soil health. These techniques shrank the yield gap to below 10 percent.
Consider too that about a quarter of all food produced worldwide is never eaten. Each year the United States alone throws out 133 billion pounds of food, more than enough to feed the nearly 50 million Americans who regularly face hunger. So even taken at face value, the oft-cited yield gap between conventional and organic farming is smaller than the amount of food we routinely throw away.
Building healthy soil
Conventional farming practices that degrade soil health undermine humanity’s ability to continue feeding everyone over the long run. Regenerative practices like those used on the farms and ranches I visited show that we can readily improve soil fertility on both large farms in the U.S. and on small subsistence farms in the tropics.
I no longer see debates about the future of agriculture as simply conventional versus organic. In my view, we’ve oversimplified the complexity of the land and underutilized the ingenuity of farmers. I now see adopting farming practices that build soil health as the key to a stable and resilient agriculture. And the farmers I visited had cracked this code, adapting no-till methods, cover cropping and complex rotations to their particular soil, environmental and socioeconomic conditions.
Whether they were organic or still used some fertilizers and pesticides, the farms I visited that adopted this transformational suite of practices all reported harvests that consistently matched or exceeded those from neighboring conventional farms after a short transition period. Another message was as simple as it was clear: Farmers who restored their soil used fewer inputs to produce higher yields, which translated into higher profits.
No matter how one looks at it, we can be certain that agriculture will soon face another revolution. For agriculture today runs on abundant, cheap oil for fuel and to make fertilizer – and our supply of cheap oil will not last forever. There are already enough people on the planet that we have less than a year’s supply of food for the global population on hand at any one time. This simple fact has critical implications for society.
So how do we speed the adoption of a more resilient agriculture? Creating demonstration farms would help, as would carrying out system-scale research to evaluate what works best to adapt specific practices to general principles in different settings.
We also need to reframe our agricultural policies and subsidies. It makes no sense to continue incentivizing conventional practices that degrade soil fertility. We must begin supporting and rewarding farmers who adopt regenerative practices.
Once we see through myths of modern agriculture, practices that build soil health become the lens through which to assess strategies for feeding us all over the long haul. Why am I so confident that regenerative farming practices can prove both productive and economical? The farmers I met showed me they already are.
I have just been tipped off to this fantastic Joel Salatin video…… I think it’s ironic that Eclipe, a fan of Polyface Farm, is in complete disagreement with Joel who is totally anti hi-tech farming. In fact, like me, Joel believes in walking away from the Matrix (exemplified in this video by McDonald’s), and he lets both barrels go at the establishment…..
Last night, I attended the Huon Producers’ Network’ AGM, and at the end they showed this 20 minute TedX talk by Graeme Sait whom I knew fairly well due to my involvement with Permaculture Noosa….. what Graeme doesn’t know about soil isn’t worth knowing as far as I’m concerned.
Why I wasn’t aware he was part of this Ted talk which is now three years old is beyond me, but I guess you can’t be aware of everything. I even recognised a couple of faces in the audience…!
The core message of this talk is so important, I decided to put it up here to share it with all my followers. If there’s anything that needs changing, it’s our farming practices. We must change from farming for money to farming to improve soil. Improve the soil, and the money side of things will simply fall into place (for as long as money remains ‘a thing’!). But the real message here is how we could alleviate the worst of climate change by altering these practices…
I met Daniel Zetah this past summer, while interning on a small-scale vegetable farm in northern Minnesota. He arrived one Thursday in a white, well-worn Toyota, together with his fiancée, Stephanie. They brought with them two coolers full of meat (which they raised and butchered themselves), a few baskets of vegetables, a live turkey and her poults, two dogs, some camping equipment, and an old friend from their eco-village days who they had fortuitously seen hitchhiking along the side of the road. Daniel had interned on the farm years ago, and he was now returning to be married.
I learned over the course of their visit that Daniel had spent years living in Tasmania, where he had been a “freegan” (someone that scavenges for free food to reduce their consumption of resources), and full-time environmental activist, then a permaculture student, and then a natural builder. I learned Daniel had spent nine months on The Sea Shepherd—an anti-whaling ship vessel that uses direct-action tactics to confront illegal whaling ships—and played a very active role in Occupy Wallstreet.
I learned, too, that after ten years of vegetarianism, Daniel had become a big-time carnivore. As I had recently given up meat in an effort to mitigate my environmental impact, this choice struck me as incongruous. We ended up having a conversation about ethical and environmental eating, which challenged, angered, intrigued, and enlightened me. Daniel and his wife returned to their once-farm in central Minnesota, to finish packing and preparing to move to Tasmania. I called him at home to get the whole story, and record it for this article.
Would you describe yourself as a long-time farmer and environmental activist?
Not at all. I used to be a redneck. I used to race cars and motorcycles and snowmobiles… I was a motorhead. I don’t want people to think I was always like this, because then they’re like “oh, they were just brought up that way by parents that…” it’s like no, no: I was raised by wolves.
I ate nothing but garbage growing up. Until I was probably in my early 20s I ate nothing but shit. Like, garbage, American, supermarket food. When I would go shopping, I would buy the cheapest food I could possibly find, I was literally after the cheapest calories I could possibly find at the supermarket, right up until my mid-20s.
When did that start to change?
Well, I met a girl that I ended up getting married to and she was vegetarian, and so I started eating a vegetarian diet. Which is still completely disconnected and completely clueless as to what you’re eating and where it’s from, it’s just you’re not eating meat. And that’s where I was at for probably a good eight years, until my early 30s.
Eating shit tons of grain, lots of dairy and cheese, but just no meat.
But then I met a guy in Tasmania that basically just said “Dude, what are you doing?” and kind of told me in a very blunt manner that what I was doing was really not conducive to what I was telling myself I wanted to do, which was actually care. He just told me the blunt truth, and I couldn’t refute what he was saying. It was tough… but, like…
A lot of people, when you tell them the truth, they get pissed off, because their egos can’t handle it, and so they want to dismiss what the person said, but I couldn’t do that in this situation. I was just clueless and when this guy gave me a clue, I couldn’t return to being clueless.
So at that point, I started looking at labels of everything that I was eating, it’s like whoa okay, so now I’ve got to worry about this and this and this… and it was a rabbit hole.
The more I learned about what was actually destructive the more I had to look for on labels and after a time I couldn’t actually shop at the supermarket anymore because there was nothing I could eat there in good conscience and then I started shopping at the food co-ops, and then I ended up as a two-year freegan –freeganism.
And I thought that’s my way out of guilt, my way of absolving my guilt from staying alive and eating food, is just eating food that’s getting thrown out, so I spent probably a good year and a half in Hobart, eating nothing but discarded food from restaurants and from market stall owners, and I got to know all of them by name, and they would just save me a set amount of food, whatever they had left over, and I actually had a rounds, so I never actually had to go to the dumpster, I just went straight to the source.
What were you doing?
I had quit my job, and I was a full-time environmental activist, because when I started going down this rabbit hole and learning more about peak oil and climate change I was like, ‘oh god’, here I was, just a couple years ago being completely clueless, and then this guy told me this stuff, and now I have the responsibility of the world on my shoulders, to tell everybody what I know, and I just thought at the time that it was literally a lack of awareness by people, and that if people like me would just get out and talk enough that it would all be okay, but I had no idea that it wasn’t a lack of information, it was just a lack of willingness to change. So that’s what I was doing, was just going around and speaking to school groups, speaking at different engagements… I was going to the state government of Tasmania and doing lobbying for energy policy reform, studying energy policy really really heavily, reading everything I could about climate change and human behavior, trying to figure out a way to engage with people that would allow them to absorb what I had to tell them. But yeah, that’s what I did for a year and a half.
And where does the Sea Shepherd fit into this?
I was living on my boat, when the Sea Shepherd pulled up and docked next to me. So I ended up going over there and volunteering. They invited me to come along, so I sold my boat, and ended up on that ship for about 9 or 10 months. So then I was a vegan all of the sudden, because the ship is a vegan ship. So I didn’t really have much choice. And I remember seeing the disconnect there—seeing people eating these soy based meat replacers, and veganase, and all this horrible packaged shit, that had all these ingredients that were grown in industrial agriculture, but they were eating them quite happily, knowing that there wasn’t any animal product in it. Their idea, their reasoning behind being vegan, was apparently to minimize animal suffering, but in my mind, they were actually causing more harm than they [would] if they were eating meat.
Well even if you’re eating CAFO meat, which– that’s horrible, don’t get me wrong, I think everyone should stop immediately eating packaged meat if they don’t know where it came from– but if you’re eating all of your calories through a vegan diet, let’s face it, most vegans I know anyway, and I’ve known many many many, most of their food is heavily processed, and most of those ingredients are coming from– I would say the lion’s share of those ingredients in a vegan diet—are soy based, and soy, like, growing soy beans is not an easy thing to do for the land. Most, I would say 99.9% of soy beans grown, are grown in a monoculture, and they rely on outside inputs for fertilizer, they rely on lots of toxic chemicals to be sprayed on, for insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, more and more they’re GMO in the seed. So it’s all kinds of bad.
So at least with meat, it’s more concentrated, at least the misery is more concentrated. And if you’re eating stuff that contains palm oil and high fructose corn syrup, or anything with corn or soy beans, anything that’s grown monoculturely in industrial agriculture. To me, the misery is just more spread out.
I mean, I grew up with cows, and I love cows more than most people I know, but why is their right to live more than the right for a whippoorwill to live or a snake to live or a mouse to live? Why is it that their rights trump the thousands of species that die in monocropped, industrial agricultural fields every year. Why does it trump all the species that have damn near gone extinct, or have gone extinct, since industrial agriculture has plowed up millions and millions and millions of acres of prairie in this country and destroyed their habit? Like why do their rights not exist?
I mean, and this is the same thing: I love whales, that’s why I was on that anti-whaling ship, but why does the whales right to exist supersede that of those other beings? Just because they’re cute and they’re big and they’re high profile? So we only like big animals? It just didn’t really compute with me.
What happened when you got off the Sea Shepherd?
After I got off the Sea Shepherd I ended up moving to a small village up in the mountains of Tasmania called Lorena, to do a permaculture course—my first permaculture course—and ended up getting offered a job by an awesome guy that was building straw bale houses in that valley, and I ended up staying there for a year and a half/ two years. That’s when I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which helped me realize the complexity of our food choices.
There is no magic bullet. There is no one way to eat that is going to be just devoid of guilt or devoid of the creation of suffering. There is no way to exist without killing something. And that concept I guess was missing for me, and it’s still missing for a lot of people. They believe, and they’re allowed to believe, due to their disconnect of not understanding how anything is grown… they just go to this magical place called the supermarket, and these magical trucks come in the middle of the night, and magical ferries put all this stuff on eye level shelves, where you just go in there and give this magical money to somebody, and they give you all the things you need to survive. That’s all really convenient, but it’s really disconnecting. And as long as you’re doing that, you can believe this myth that you can eat and survive without doing any harm to anybody else, and that myth was shattered when I read that book.
As a result, I decided that I needed to take more personal responsibility for the calories that were keeping me alive, and I decided that if I ever hit an animal with my car again, I would feel like I had to eat that animal, and the same day that I decided that, I hit a humongous wallaby, and I decided that I was going to bring it home, and go through the process of gutting it, skinning it, butchering it, cooking it, and eating it.
That was the first time I’d eaten meat in over 10 years.
And that event set you down the path towards raising livestock?
Well I guess that path led to learning more and more and more, and realizing, that while there is no magic solution for what a human being should eat, or what the perfect diet is, in terms of minimizing suffering of other beings, there is an ideal diet for each region and each situation, and where I chose to farm, which is south-central Minnesota… that bioregion, was a tall-grass prairie or an oak savanna biome, and that oak savanna biome evolved over hundreds of thousands of years from grazing animals.
Like, I can’t eat grass, I can’t break down cellulose, but I can eat meat. And the fact is that every time we plant some kind of a monocultural crop, we have to effectively destroy an intact ecosystem to do that, because it’s an annual. Annuals are only meant as a tool in nature to stabilize soil that has somehow become open to the elements, that’s their job, they come up right away, after a flood or a tree falls or whatever, and they stabilize that soil so it’s not going to erode, and then overtime the perennial plants will say “okay, we got this. Thanks for doing that, you did a good job, but we’re back now and we’re going to be an intact ecosystem of perennial plants and grazing animals.”
And so I realized that I wanted to gain as many of my calories from that perennial ecosystem as possible, and in this biome, I can do that quite easily with nuts, and with some vegetables that we grow non-monoculturally, wild edibles, wild greens, berries, nuts, fruit, and with meat!
I mean having one animal, that’s eaten nothing but grass all its life, and that grass is actually benefiting from it because that whole system evolved to have that animal in it, as part of it, so it’s putting its nutrients back into the system in the form of urine and feces, it’s eating and trampling the plants, and putting litter back in the soil, feeding the soil microorganisms, and it’s all just this beautiful cycle that annuals can’t match…
So by killing one animal that’s going to feed me literally hundreds of meals, versus eating soy beans that I know are just destructive, it just seemed to make so much more sense.
And I felt like as long as I was growing that food and preparing that food, and preserving that food, and getting at least 90-95% of our calories from our land, I’d felt more peace in just being than I have in years. Because I felt that burden lift.
Even when we’re clueless I think we have this burden, like this unconscious burden, of just being, because we know deep down somewhere in our core, that what we’re doing and what agriculture is doing, is just bad. And so when I broke that tie, and that reliance from annual agriculture like that, I just felt much more peaceful. Even though I had to shoot animals directly in the head and watch them die, that I knew and loved, I felt still that I was actually more peaceful because I was causing less death and suffering in this world than I had before.
Even more at peace than when you were a freegan?
When you’re a freegan, you’re removing yourself from all responsibility. Which is good, because… it’s one step to say “no” to bad. And that’s what vegans do. And that’s having some kind of an impact, on how many resources flow towards that bad system, of keeping animals in confined barns, standing in their own shit, but it’s not actually benefiting, or creating, what you want to see.
And what I want to see is systems that are going to mimic natural systems and be good for everything, not just the humans or the domesticated animals, but the wild species as well. I want to see food that is grown in those systems in harmony with an intact ecosystem. And if I stop eating CAFO meat, like I said, that’s better than bad, but good, on the other side, is actually supporting those small farmers that are doing agriculture in a completely different way.
And it’s the same thing with vegetarianism. It’s admirable that people care enough to want to do something different from most people, which is not to give a shit about what they consume, but it just doesn’t go far enough, or look at the bigger picture enough, to realize that they are also consuming things that are producing suffering in this world.
Like I used to eat so many grains, I can’t even tell you, I probably ate most of my calories through grains. And anyone that’s actually been to an annual grain farm, and watched what needs to happen for that to be grown, will have no other illusions that it’s harmless. Because it’s far from harmless. Especially, like, most grains are not organic, but even organic stuff.
I’ve traveled enough and seen enough things grown around the world to know that even organic food, most of it, 99% of it, is grown in monocultures. Go out to California and see the organic almond orchards that go for miles and miles and miles with not one other species in the mix, it’s just those trees, there’s no biodiversity at all, all of the native animals are gone, because all of their habitat is gone.
Like that is not sustainable, that is not ethical, it’s just bad. But because technically they’re not spraying toxins…
I look at organics kinda like I look at vegetarianism. Organic food is better than bad, but it’s still not good. And so if your goal to be better than bad, by all means, just buy organic food from people you’ve never met from the supermarket or co-op. Better than bad! But if you want to go a step further and actually try to create a system that’s going to feed people into perpetuity, and not destroy the ecosystem, you gotta do better than bad. You gotta do good.
So now you’re heading back to Tasmania, and you’ll be trying get your calories from an intact, local ecosystem?
I’ll be eating a lot of wallaby.
This interview was conducted August 1, 2015. Daniel and Stephanie are now kicking off their new life in Lorinna, Tasmania. You can learn more and connect with them online at newstoryfarm.com. And you can check out their new project at facebook.com/ResiliencySchool/.
As the financial system unravels, the weather goes ballistic all over the world, and the demands of a growing population increase the pressure on food production, breaking strains are starting to appear. The perfect storm of Peak Debt, Climate Change, and even Peak Oil in its own pervert way are starting to even emerge in mainstream media. Except of course, they don’t call it what I call it, but nonetheless, the signs are here.
This appeared on the ABC’s news website this morning:
Graziers struggling with debt in drought-declared North Queensland have lashed out and broken down in front of visiting politicians and economists.
The Rural Debt and Drought Taskforce met about 40 farmers in Ayr on Thursday to discuss what some called “criminal” and “disgraceful” behaviour by banks.
“You will starve — the whole country will starve” if governments do not “pull their heads in” and bail out the industry, one man warned.
People always look at me blankly when I mention food shortages in Australia…… ‘Is he mad?’ But there you have it, the farmers aren’t stupid. AND we still have oil to farm with! What do they think…….. no, know, will happen when we start having fuel shortages? And not too soon either the way the price of oil is going, now under $30 as I write.
The gathering heard some lenders were devaluing properties across the region by up to 30 per cent, forcing graziers to pay higher interest rates because the loans were now considered higher risk.
Nicole Foss was right all along, obviously….. deflation is here alright.
Taskforce chairman and Mount Isa MP Rob Katter again argued the Queensland Government should set up its own bank to takeover loans from private lenders.
“These things are effective instruments. They keep industries going,” he said.
Proof politicians have no idea. Mind you, what else could you expect from someone wanting an ethanol industry?
Once upon a time, farming was about producing excess food to feed the masses. Now, farmers buy food in supermarkets, and work for money, trapped in the Matrix. Now I have an aware farmer for a neighbour, we have interesting discussions over the fence or over a beer or cider…. Thank goodness some people understand me, and what is going on…. otherwise we’d all go the way of the suicide wave happening in the Indian farming sector.
If you haven’t read it yet or viewed the video, I recently posted an item about Dr Julian Cribb’s recent (October 2013) presentation to the Wheatbelt NRM Annual General Meeting. It’s difficult when running a blog such as this to give someone you don’t know the right of reply, but this time Julian has taken the time to leave a reply, and as a mark of respect to him and in fairness to all opinions, I’ve decided to post it here as a proper article rather than see it lost in the thousands of comments which pepper this site. I’m glad Julian has done this, and I fully understand his point about the difficulty of solving the world’s problem in a 30 minute talk; I haven’t managed it myself yet either!
Anyhow, some of you frequent readers might like to enter into a conversation with Julian, if he so desires here…. I personally cannot see how Julian’s assertion that ” it is going to take another 100 years or so to get the population (smoothly) back to 4-5 billion” can ever happen… this particular subject is one I’m passionate about, so let’s hear it from you…
I also thought I had given Julian some credit for thinking about the issues we face when I wrote “I have come across more and more ‘experts’ who appear to be very well informed on the state of the multifaceted predicaments we face”. Maybe a bit ambiguous, but…….
I think you are unfair Mike. It’s not possible to solve all the world’s problems in a 30 min talk, especially one that is specifically directed at a farming audience. But give me some credit for thinking about them, at least. As to population, read my book: the women of the world are already solving it – reducing their fertility in all regions globally. However it is going to take another 100 years or so to get the population (smoothly) back to 4-5 billion. The simple reason – that never seems to occur to rich western people who scream about population – is that part of the upward pressure is due to them living longer lives, not just to birth rates. If you want to control it, you are not only going to have to enforce family planning at gunpoint – but also impose euthanasia on the over-50s. See how much popular support you get for that.
Of course I know about the energy cliff and have heard Ian Dunlop speak wisely on the issue, as regards oil especially. But there are innumerable forms of energy available. You may have noticed my observation that the entire world’s transport fuel could be produced from an area of algae farms about a tenth the size of the Pilbara. That’s just one option. So I don’t buy the ” ‘We’ll all be rooned’ said Hanrahan” philosophy. There are viable options, especially for those who don’t simply give up.
If you want to know what I really think, here it is: humanity has the brains and the technical skills to carry us through the population and demand ‘hump’ and into a measured decline to a sustainable number. But we don’t have the governments, the economic structures or the educated society needed to achieve it.
Worst case is the Schnellnhuber scenario, or about 9-10 billion dead and a billion survivors, mainly in north Russia and Canada, by the end of the present century as a result of climate, resource and religious wars, famines, migratory conflict and disease. That’s also pretty much the CSIS worst case scenario too. Both presuppose limited use of nuclear weapons.
Personally I think there will be a few big wake-up calls well before we get to that. Like Bob Rich I think we’ll see a couple of megacities fall over, right on our iPhones. Mass killing, cannibalism, suicide, explosive emigration. If that doesn’t wake people up, then Homo don’t deserve the ‘sapiens’.
So rather than just grumble from your armchair, Hanrahan, lets start hearing some practical solutions.