Farming in Nature’s Image

Humans spent the last 10,000 years struggling to obtain enough calories, often just squeaking out an existence.  Here we are in the 21st century and we grow far more than enough food to provide adequate calories to every man, woman and child on earth. Consider that the population at the advent of farming was 3M (rough estimate) and we’ll hit 7B this year and the feat’s even more remarkable. So, when talking food, why is it that all anyone talks about are the issues surrounding the ‘food system’?

The cliff notes answer: Our industrial agriculture requires massive amounts of fossil fuel energy (for fertilizer, pesticides, transportation, processing) and irrigated water. Because the system is controlled by a handful or so of multibillion dollar corporations we lack choice in what we eat (and what most can afford). We shovel in processed commodities laden with fat and sugar that lack the nutrients our bodies need. Even though 1B go to be hungry each day, we feed a large portion of our grains to livestock and to cars. The billions of tons of pest control we apply to our food pollutes the air, water, soil and our bodies (there is no “away”). The worst part? Our politicians and our tax dollars support and encourage this behavior.  Oh, and the other result of our success: more than 1B of us are overweight, and our worst chronic diseases are diet related.

And yet, I’m upbeat. We’ve hit rock bottom and the system is rife with opportunities. Every day for the last six months, I’ve witnessed this food movement gaining momentum. It’s unorganized, diverse and unconnected, but it all has to do with replacing the status quo with something that makes more sense. The efforts have a variety of names, e.g. local, organic, diverse, small-farm, grass-fed, community supported, but they all mimic what nature would do if in our predicament.

By that I mean, consider how nature has figured out how to do what we have yet to: feed life with the current energy of the sun, cycle all it’s nutrients, celebrate diversity, reward cooperation over competition and demand local expertise (paraphrased from Janine Benyus, Biomimicy). So, polycultures replaces monocultures and composting replaces fossil fuel based fertilizers. Healthy plants in a diverse setting manage pests without synthetic chemicals. What small organic farms do require: more eyes per acre, more hands getting dirty and more know-how of how to work with natural systems.

How do we speed up this revolution towards better tasting food that supports and enriches life? Well, every decision we make has an impact and as Michael Pollan says, “vote with your fork three times a day.” So, consider spending an increasing amount of your food budget on local and organic (and better tasting food that helps grow community).

More importantly, we follow David Brower’s advice, “politicians are like weather vanes. Our job is to make the wind blow.” Cumulatively, an informed and engaged public can demand elected officials change policy so all the costs of the current food system are factored into the price of food. We want “to get the economy going” bringing in revenue by taxing waste and pollution and leveling the field of competition so we grow jobs that restore and enrich life. And provide great food.  Now, that would be a jobs bill we could believe in.

Thyme for Peas, Tim.

Note: The most impressive ‘farmers in nature’s model’ experiment has been going on in Salina, Kansas. Check out Wes Jackson and his Land Institute.

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