Posts Tagged ‘sustainable agriculture’

The  New York Times

Nov. 18 2014


By  Mark Bittman


It’s hard to imagine maintaining the current food system without Iowa. Yet that state — symbolic of both the unparalleled richness of our continent’s agricultural potential and the mess we’ve made of it — has undergone a transformation almost as profound as the land on which cities have been built. A state that was once 85 percent prairie is now 85 percent cultivated, most of that in row crops of corn and soybeans. And that isn’t sustainable, no matter how you define that divisive word.

It’s easy enough to argue that one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world could be better used than to cover it with just two crops — the two crops that contribute most to the sad state of our dietary affairs, and that are used primarily for animal food, junk food and thermodynamically questionable biofuels. Anything that further entrenches that system — propped up by generous public support — should be questioned. On the other hand, if there are ways to make that core of industrial agriculture less destructive of land and water, that is at least moving in the right direction.

For now, many Midwestern farmers believe they are maximizing income by growing row crops in what is best called industrial fashion. (Many prefer the word “conventional,” but as common as it is we do not want chemical farming to be the convention.) This near monoculture, for the most part, fails to replenish soil, poisons water, increases flooding and erosion, spills carbon, robs indigenous species of habitat and uses fossil fuel resources at unnecessarily high rates. Despite this, for the last several years the economic pressure has been on farmers to plant more and more, even in marginally productive areas, land that requires more work and greater applications of chemicals for fewer benefits.

Incredibly, there is a scientifically informed, direct and effective planting tactic that can mitigate much of this. Called STRIPS, for (ready?) “science-based trials of row crops integrated with prairie strips,” it means just that: Take around 10 percent of your farmland (in most cases, the least productive part), and replant it with a mix of indigenous prairie plants. Then sit back and watch the results, which are, according to researchers and even some farmers, spectacular.

Lisa Schulte Moore, a researcher at Iowa State University, has been working on the principles behind STRIPS for more than 10 years. (In 2003, she worked with Matt Liebman and Matt Helmers, two other pioneers in making contemporary American agriculture more sensible; I wrote about Liebman’s work a couple of years ago.) “It’s well-known that perennials provide a broader sweep of ecological function than annuals,” she told me last week, “so our hypothesis was that if you put a little bit of perennials — a little bit of prairie — in the right place, you get these disproportionate benefits. That is, without taking much land out of production, you get a lot of environmental benefit.”

The research has produced impressive numbers: If you convert 10 percent of a field of row crops to prairie, soil loss can be reduced by up to 95 percent, nutrient loss by 80 to 90 percent, and water runoff by 44 percent. Biodiversity nearly quadruples, and some of those species are pollinators, predators of pests, or both. And, unlike some ecological management techniques, the process is not expensive.

In general, reports Moore, seven years into this process, “Though science is messy, it’s amazing how clear our results are.”

By the end of the year, there will be 17 commercial farms integrating prairie strips in Iowa and Missouri — a mere 1,000 acres or so (the corn/soy belt is about 170 million acres this year), although the program is increasing rapidly. And because it’s difficult to find fault with it, the approach has the potential to unite farmers and environmentalists in a way that few other things do.

Among the first adopters was Seth Watkins, a “conventional” (his description) farmer of corn and soybeans who uses his crops to feed his cattle near the southwestern Iowa town of Clarinda. His explanation of the system is eye-opening: “There’s a lot of land we’ve been farming that was never intended to be farmed, and those areas of poor production are perfect for prairie strips. You do that, and it doesn’t reduce overall production, and it increases environmental benefit.” (He also loves the way it looks.) Watkins claims that his profit has gone up “because there’s land where you can lose a dollar an acre on corn.”

In recent years, many Iowa farmers have believed that if they weren’t 100 percent “in” corn, they weren’t doing a good job. Because of the pressure to plant, many of them have expanded their cultivated areas beyond where it makes sense, creating erosion and runoff problems. Iowa is among the major contributors to the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone,” a direct result of fertilizer runoff into the Mississippi water system, and half of Iowa’s topsoil has been lost.

Some common solutions to these problems — like terracing, or simply patching areas where runoff is extreme — are expensive and/or temporary. But the STRIPS experiment seems to demonstrate that being 90 percent “in” results in unheard of environmental benefits with little or no sacrifice to the bottom line. And, says Watkins, “I’ve felt for years that environmentalists and farmers should be friends, and we are starting to see that in Iowa.”

Prairie strips are both cheap and permanent, and they come with little opportunity cost. There does not seem to be an argument against them, other than that they make an imperfect — or even destructive — system less so. But while we’re figuring out a better way to do things on a big scale in the Midwest, this is a sensible interim step.



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National Geographic


Ancient grains and “orphan crops” like fonio and amaranth have advantages for farmers and consumers

By Andrea Stone
for National Geographic

Once as popular as corn in Mexico, amaranth was more or less forgotten for centuries before its recent revival there and in other countries. Now, the crop’s edible seeds could be “the new quinoa.”

That is, unless teff—a tiny grass seed eaten in Ethiopia for millennia—becomes “the next quinoa.”

Then again, the “next quinoa” might just be fonio, a hardy cereal that’s been grown for thousands of years in West Africa.

Ever since quinoa was rediscovered a decade ago—launching a worldwide craze for the Andean grain that sent prices soaring so high that many Bolivians are now unable to afford their own staple crop—farmers, foodies, and marketers have been hunting for other forgotten “orphan crops” with global market potential.

There’s a lot more at stake than food fads. As the global population grows, climate change eats at farm yields, and food becomes more processed and less nutritious, sustainable agriculture advocates are looking to the past for healthy ways to feed the nine billion people expected to inhabit the world by 2050. (Read “Food Ark” in National Geographic magazine.)

They’re increasingly turning to grains that have been the basis of subsistence farmers’ diets in Africa, South Asia, and Central and South America since the time of earliest agriculture. Because such grains adapted to grow on marginal land without irrigation, pesticides, or fertilizers, they are often more resilient than modern commodity crops are.

And the grains have undergone little if any genetic tinkering, which is appealing to the growing organic and non-genetically modified food markets. Another selling point: These nutrient-rich, often gluten-free grains are considered by many health experts to be “superfoods” that can help people lose weight and live longer.

Benefits for Producers, Consumers

Take fonio. As the cost of imported rice has risen, a Senegalese nonprofit group called Environmental Development Action in the Third World is trying to expand the market in sub-Saharan Africa for this drought-resistant, protein-rich cereal, the continent’s oldest.

Though cultivated for more than 5,000 years, fonio is rarely eaten by city dwellers, who prefer wheat or rice. Yet the translucent, gluten-free grain—which has been found in ancient Egyptian tombs and is considered “the seed of the universe” in Mali’s mythology—can survive drought and needs no fertilizers.

Those qualities make fonio a good crop for developing nations in West Africa and elsewhere that are dealing with the fallout from climate change, which has withered or drowned crops as extreme weather events have multiplied.

Consumers in industrialized nations have their own reasons for trying heritage grains. Millet, sorghum, wild rice, and teff contain no gluten, a big selling point at a time when wheat intolerance and celiac disease are on the rise.

Ancient wheats such as spelt (also called farro), Khorasan, einkorn, and emmer also rate lower on the glycemic index, which measures how carbohydrates raise blood glucose. They also provide more protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals than commonly available grains do.

Quinoa alone has seen a fivefold rise in consumption in the past five years, according to the Whole Grains Council, an industry group. Chia, the seeds of a Latin American herb once known mainly as a novelty item that grew “fur” on terracotta “pets,” is gaining in popularity on kitchen tables as a topper for yogurt, cereal, and salads.

Sales of amaranth are soaring as well. The seeds have plenty of calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium, as well as protein and fiber. Yet the grain disappeared in Mexico five centuries ago, after Spanish conquistadors and the Catholic Church banned it because it was mixed with human blood in Aztec rituals.

Now, efforts are under way in Mexico, which was recently declared the world’s most obese country by the United Nations, to reintroduce the gluten-free seeds in hopes of encouraging a more healthy and sustainable diet.

Plants like amaranth are “resilient to drought, high temperatures, and disease, so they might be the crops of the future,” says Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, a think tank focused on sustainability. “It’s a case of where going forward means we need to go back.”

Nierenberg says many local, ancient grains were originally neglected by the so-called green revolution of the mid-20th century, which promoted hybrid commodity crops that “grew faster, grew bigger, and produced more yield.” With their relatively low yields, the ancient foods just couldn’t keep up.

Diversifying for Doomsday

Today, the world has more than 50,000 edible plants, yet just three commodity crops—rice, maize, and wheat—provide 60 percent of the plant-derived calories we eat. With such heavy reliance on so few foods, the consequences of crop failures due to disease, drought, floods, and other catastrophes that could be driven or exacerbated by climate change mean more food insecurity for the planet.

“This narrow food basket cannot sustain ever-growing populations,” says Stefano Padulosi of Bioversity International, a global research organization that helps smallholder farms grow and market neglected and underutilized species. “We must diversify.”

That impulse fueled the founding of Norway’s Svalbard Global Seed Vault, nicknamed the “Doomsday Seed Vault,” a repository deep inside an Arctic mountain that has set itself the ambitious mission of safeguarding seeds from every known species on Earth. (See “Doomsday Seed Vault’s New Adds: ‘Space Beer’ Barley, Brazil Beans.”)

Besides preserving common varieties, the vault has sought ancient seeds and wild crops that are particularly resilient to harsh conditions, which could come in handy in a worst-case scenario. For now, the seeds are being kept safely in the deep freeze.

Native American Rice

For North American Indians working to conserve and cultivate heirloom seeds that are closely linked to their history, identity, and health, the mission is more local but no less urgent.

Tribes in the American Midwest and Southwest are “reclaiming their own cultural resources as a way to deal with contemporary problems” like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, says Craig Hassel, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Food Science and Nutrition.

He works with the Anishinaabe nations of Minnesota, which, like other native tribes, suffer from some chronic diseases that were virtually unknown before they were exposed to European foods.

In recent years, the tribes have reached out to plant scientists at the University of Minnesota to relay concerns about the threat of genetically modified varieties of manoomin, their ancient wild rice. Manoomin is integral to Anishinaabe culture; their creation story tells of prophecies that instructed the tribes to move west in search of food that grows upon the water, like rice.

In 2007, Minnesota adopted legislation mandating research and an environmental impact statement before any field release of genetically modified organisms near tribal lands.

The move was welcomed not only by native peoples but also by their artisanal-minded clients, including the Common Roots Café and the Wedge Community Coop, both in Minneapolis.

Hassel, an extension nutritionist, understands the yearning for what he calls “food sovereignty” over the food supply.

“When Western science comes in,” Hassel says, “the response almost universally among indigenous communities is, ‘How can you perfect what is already perfect?'”

Jeff Hertrick contributed to this report.

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