Saturday, April 17, 2010

Sustainable Food

Perhaps it involves models like Veta La Palma, or agroforestry, or perennial wheat polycultures, like the ones being developed at The Land Institute. These are systems that demonstrate natural resilience and ecological stability, which are essential for facing the challenges ahead.

I think we're heading for a vastly different food experience, in our lifetimes. I think the conventional food system -- which is based on lots of cheap energy, lots of cheap labor, lots of available water, lots of soil erosion -- is going to dead 20 years from now. And that's because the things it relies upon are not going to be available.

If you look at the carrying capacity of agricultural areas throughout the world, their ecological habitats are changing. So I think we're looking at -- in our lifetime -- great collapses of food services. We need the humbleness and clarity to see that our food, while benefiting from technological advances, has benefited even more from free ecological resources: Cheap energy, lots of water everywhere, and a stable climate. But studies have shown these are eroding. And if you take these away -- if you don't have those in abundance -- you're not only going to NOT feed the world, you're not going to be able to eat the way we do now. We're going to be forced into a new system. The question is: Is that going to be a traumatic transition, or are we going to start preparing for it now?

Yield is generally defined by economists as yield for a particular crop. When you farm in a monoculture, that's easy to measure. But when you farm organically, you grow several different crops. So your yield per individual crop is lower, but your total output of caloric foods is higher. The TOTAL CALORIC yield on an organic farm far surpasses a conventional farm. That's on every credible study out there. That's not even an issue.

Let's talk about grain. Because if you're talking about feeding the world, it's really about grain. Now, if you're an organic corn farmer, by definition, you can't grow corn every year. You have to get nitrogen back in the soil. So you'll grow corn, and then you'll grow a legume, and so you'll fix the nitrogen and improve the soil structure. Now, if you're a conventional farmer, you're growing just corn and nothing else but corn. So you might look at this system and say the conventional farmer got more corn. But what that doesn't show is that the organic farmer also got soybeans, switchgrass, vetch, alfalfa ...

the single most important thing you can do to improve your food supply >> Buying at a farmers market is the biggest difference you can make overnight. I think it's important to get people to realize they have a very powerful set of decisions to make when they eat. And those decisions have a huge effect on how the world works. That's very powerful!

The second thing you could do is grow your own food. It sounds crazy, but it's not. It's not about providing 100% of your food; it's about doing something that connects you to a natural system, and gets you closer to the food you're eating.

It's all about the flavor. Because when you taste really fresh, delicious food -- food that's been grown the right way -- you become greedy for more. And then you are by definition being an environmentalist, because that's the food that's the most ecologically responsible, and by definition you're a nutritionist -- because that's the food that's the most nutrient-dense. And you're being a community activist, because you're engaged in the kind of community system you want to support. So a lot of important things flow from good food. But at the end of the day, it's about food that tastes good. This idea has spread through hedonism.

Breed for flavor. You get flavor from flavinoids, and you get flavinoids from biologically diverse soil -- this means there are nutrients in the soil that are feeding the plant, as it's being grown, and you're tasting that.

The refractometer — a small, hand-held device that measures Brix, the sugar content of a fruit or vegetable. Traditionally it was used to help winemakers determine when to harvest their grapes.

I'm not radically opposed to the science of genetic modification, but so far there’s been no evidence of significant progress, in part because it’s embedded within the same tired agribusiness thinking. Yes, there is a way to use biotechnology, but the research needs to be conducted independently (not for profits and patents), and understood as one tool in a toolkit, rather than a silver bullet. Autar Mattoo, a scientist who works for the USDA, exemplifies that. Autar argues for what he calls a “bio-sustainability” solution—marrying genetic engineering with sustainable principles. His research has shown a synergism between transgenic tomatoes and organic cover crop. It’s brilliant stuff.

- Chef Dan Barber of Stone Barns Center, NY - Taken from TED interview after his talk.

About perennial polycultures:
A farm that looked like the prairie would require fewer inputs by farmers, allowing them to keep more of the profit. It would feature a mixture of crops that could be harvested from the early spring to late fall; and perhaps most importantly, it would regenerate the soil into a thriving ecosystem.

The main problem farming with perennials is that they must devote more energy into building a larger root system and have less energy for growing seeds, thus have a lower food yield. Researchers at the Land Institute and several universities are searching for varieties of perennials whose yields can compete with annual crops. The Land Institute has had some success with wheat, sorghum, and sunflowers by cross breeding perennial strains with annual strains. Some lines of wheat have been developed that yield 70% of the best annual varieties.

Perennials are hardier than annuals and more resistant to weeds once they are established. In addition they contain stronger resistance to disease. A polycrop field, imitating the prairie, further increases resistance to disease since each type of plant is further separated making the spread of disease more difficult.

Designing farms in the image of nature would be a second agricultural revolution. Wes Jackson believes that the first agricultural revolution was the beginning of our estrangement from nature, and claims that, “It is fitting then that the healing of our culture begin with agriculture."

Bonus: about permanent aquaculture in Argentina.
"They take about 20 per cent of our annual yield," he told TIME. "But that just shows the whole system is working."

Located on an island in the Guadalquivir river, 10 miles (16km) inland from the Atlantic, Veta la Palma produces 1,200 tonnes of sea bass, bream, red mullet and shrimp each year. Yet unlike most of the world's fish farms, it does so not by interfering with nature, but by improving upon it.

"Veta la Palma raises fish sustainably and promotes the conservation of birdlife at the same time," says Daniel Lee, best practices director for the U.S.-based Global Aquaculture Alliance. "I've never seen anything quite like it." --

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