Due to the rising costs of oil, in the form of fertilisers and pesticides, in the distances produce travels from farm to plate and in the energy it takes to process it, farming has the potential to go through the greatest upheaval since the turn of the last century, bringing harvests that are more healthy, sustainable and better tasting.
The change is being pushed along by market forces that influence how our farmers farm. Until now, food production has been controlled by Big Agriculture, with its macho fixation on “average tonnage” and “record harvests.” and a mind-set that relies on capital, chemistry and machines. Industrial agribusiness focuses on maximum extraction from the land – takes more, sells more, wastes more.
For decades, environmentalists and anyone with an awareness of soil biology have claimed that this is several kinds of madness. But industrial agriculture has simply responded that if we’re feeding more people more cheaply using less land, how terrible can our food system be? The GM movement is the latest on this band wagon!
Now that argument no longer holds true. Small farms are the most productive on earth. Big farms have long compensated for the disequilibrium with sheer quantity. But their economies of scale come from mass distribution, and with diesel fuel costing more it’s no longer efficient to transport food 1,500 kilometres from where it’s grown.
Also consider how we measure the value of food by size and price. If we stop calculating the cost per quantity and begin considering the cost per nutrient value, the demand for higher-quality food would rise. On average organic fruits and vegetables contain 40 percent more nutrients than their chemical-fed counterparts. And where good soil nutrition goes, flavour tends to follow. Chefs seek such foods as they know that flavour-filled food has nothing to do with their cooking but rather to do with growing the right seed in healthy, nutrient-rich soil.
As Jerry Brunetti and others point out, animals raised on pasture provide us with meat and dairy products containing more beta carotene and at least three times as much C.L.A. (Conjugated linoleic acid, shown in animal studies to reduce the risk of cancer) than those raised on grain. Jerry also advocates diversified farming operations, where there are built-in relationships among plants and animals. Pasture cropping is a prime example of the benefits of allowing nature to find its balance along with judicious grazing management.
To encourage small, diversified farms is not to make a nostalgic bid to revert to the past. It is to look toward the future, leapfrogging past the age of heavy machinery and pollution, to farms that take advantage of the sun’s free energy, the atmosphere’s free nitrogen and carbon and to use the waste of one species as food for another and to allow the soil microbiology to do its work.
What farmers need is to get support for a system of well-coordinated regional farm networks, each suited to the food it can best grow. Farmers can organize marketing networks that can promote their common brands and ease the economic and ecological burden of food production and transportation. But regional systems will work only if there is enough small-scale farming going on to make them viable. With a less energy-intensive food system in place, we will need more muscle power devoted to food production, and more people on the farm. We also need to rethink how we educate the people who will grow our food.