Sunday, November 21, 2010

Can organic/biodynamic (as opposed to chemical-based) agriculture feed the world?

If you've read The Omnivore's Dilemma or watched Food, Inc., you have been introduced to Joel Salatin, the owner and proprietor of Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Readers of Acres USA are also well familiar with him; he is a regular columnist.

In the September 2010 issue of Acres USA, Salatin addressed "by far and away the most frequently asked question" he is asked. Specifically: "Ecological farming--compost and pastured livestock and all: It sounds nice, but can it really feed the world?"

Common answer, "even true blue defenders of the ecological/local food approach" offer: "Well, . . ." (embarrased silence).

Salatin suggests we should take an historical view. And if we do, we may find a different, very well-informed answer.

I like history. I am intrigued by the answer he suggests. I hope to do further study to find out exactly how accurate his claims really are.

First thing to note: Scientific agriculture, whether chemical or organic/biodynamic, is a relatively recent phenomenon. "Up until 1900, both the United States and Australia had plenty of new ground to exploit. Although the American colonial period wore out land, the virgin soils of western expansion always offered an alternative." As a result, no one (at least not here in the United States) was paying much attention to how one might replenish the soil.

By the 1930s and the dust bowls, no one could remain indifferent. It was becoming obvious to all: there were major problems afoot with agriculture as it had been and was still being practiced.

Right about then, however, there was a great divide. One group followed a guy named Justus von Liebig, the father of the [chemical, NPK (Nitrogen, Potassium, Phosphorus)-based] fertilizer industry, the other listened to a guy named Albert Howard, a man often viewed as the father of organic agriculture.

Transfixed by von Liebig's prescient claim that organic and inorganic chemistry were really one and the same and that all the organic compounds one could find in nature would eventually be synthesized through human ingenuity, the von Liebig group pursued the idea (here expressed in a slightly over-simplified form, but really way too close to the truth for comfort) "that living things were only configurations of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. No microorganisms in the soil, no fungi, no molds—-just these three elements." [See my "'Weird' Science" posts #5 and #6 about microrganisms, fungi and molds in the soil!]

And the other group? Well, they quietly--and sometimes not so quietly; think of J.I. Rodale and Rodale Publishing--pursued their own path that sought to understand and utilize "the complexity of biological systems."

Where would we be today in world agriculture if a little event called World War II hadn't intervened and "focused unprecedented brainpower and economic investment on explosives, which interestingly, were primarily nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus"?

"America spared nothing to develop the chemistry, production and distribution for munitions," Salatin writes.
This simultaneous research and development favored the chemical approach. In short, the Pentagon paid for the ancillary and related innovation necessary to metabolize Liebig's NPK discovery and make it widely useful. By the end of the war, the huge and highly profitable munitions companies could take their development, paid for by the war effort, and unleash it on agriculture.
And the organic/biodynamic agriculturalists? They continued to plod along, without government subsidy, doing what they could to improve their understanding and their practices and methods.
It's as if in 1950, at the threshold of the industrial economy's golden age and with urbanization in full swing, farmers came to a one-mile track meet, a race to meet the burgeoning demand for food with fewer farmers. The race would be four laps around the track. One side started on the starting line. The chemical side started with a two-lap head start.
"Make no mistake," Salatin opines,
if we [I imagine he is talking about human beings in general] had had a Manhattan Project to capitalize on Howard and [André] Voisin, not only would we have fed the world during that time, but today we would not have a Rhode Island-size dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. We would not have lost half of Iowa's topsoil in a mere 100 years. We would not have degenerated the landscape with three-legged salamanders and infertile frogs.
Yes, organic/biodynamic agriculture has lagged chemical agriculture, Salatin agrees. But at this point, "our side has not only caught up with the chemical pushers, we're lapping them. We eco-farmers do not have to apologize for anything. We built the knowledge, developed the protocols, paid for the distribution when the USDA pooh-poohed everything we were doing."

Salatin comments about a common misconception many people have, that modern organic farming is, if you will, nothing more than returning to the ways of our agricultural forebears of 70 years ago and before. That idea, he says, is completely wrong.
If you visit any living history museum in the Western world set in a time period before 1950, you will not see a compost pile. Plymouth Rock, Williamsburg, the Museum of American Frontier Culture — none of them has a compost pile. Scientific aerobic composting developed and sprang onto the world stage from Sir Albert Howard's research in India from about 1920-1940.
"One of my pet peeves," he says, "is when people visit Polyface Farm and remark, 'This is like they used to do things. Like Grandpa's farm.'"
I have to bite my tongue sometimes. It is not like Grandpa's farm. He would have given his right arm to have the infrastructure and sophisticated diagnostic gadgets we have today.

In just ten minutes I can show visitors a dozen things that Grandpa could not have even conceived: computerized, dependable, 1-amp, 10,000-volt electric fence energizers; PTO-powered manure spreaders; hoop houses with UV-stabilized, laminated 15-year plastic; magnetically charged foliar sprays applied while stomata listen to calypso music and open wide for big gulps of biologically-enhanced nutrients; PTO-powered, hydraulically-fed three-point-hitch-mounted chippers that can handle an inch of wood per 10 horsepower; a real biomass accumulator. Wow! And power steering, four-wheel drive shuttle-shift diesel tractors with automatically leveled front-end loaders. Baby, I'm levitating.

Oh, don't forget 800-pound, 20-horsepower Honda-powered bandsaw mills cheaper than an old used car that puts any farmer in the self-sufficient lumber business. How about polyethylene, stainless-steel filament, built-in fiberglass post netting for poultry, sheep, goats and children. (That was just to see if you were awake.) Good gracious, folks, this farm is nothing like Grandpa's. Electric fence fault-finders and hand-held laser range-finders to pinpoint acreage and paddock allotments. . . .

Dear people, our side has not stood still since the 1920s. The advertisers in Acres U.S.A. and kindred publications have already solved the pathogen, erosion and fertility problems that the chemical Neanderthals (to use the late iconic Charles Walters' term) are still scratching their heads about. . . .
There's no need for shame, Salatin concludes. Yes, our side started slowly. But now we've caught up and are leaving them in the dust. . . .

Y'know, this is the first Joel Salatin article I have read. I knew of him from The Omnivore's Dilemma and Food, Inc., as I mentioned above. I have listened to one of his lectures from the Acres USA 2008 conference. But I am now motivated to read more of his works. The one title our daughter Amy has mentioned--and the one whose title particularly appeals to me--is Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal: War Stories From the Local Food Front. I guess that will be finding its way to my reading pile soon!
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