Spring Growth 2005

By Jean English

Local and Organic: A Path Toward Permanence

The Spring Growth Conference held by MOFGA in March asked what roles farmers, consumers and citizens may play in the global food economy. Lawrence Woodward, director of the Elm Farm Research Centre in Berkshire, United Kingdom, brought his perspective from that leading institution of organic agriculture research and education.

Woodward complimented MOFGA on its widely-respected conferences and on being genuinely grassroots organic, “a rare and valuable thing in a sector that is increasingly losing touch with or selling its soul.”

An alternative to the global food economy is urgently needed for nutritional, development and socioeconomic reasons, Woodward began, and “to preserve anything that resembles a democratic and civilized society.” The inequitable and immoral global growth economy “is in fundamental conflict with the biological base of our planet and must be replaced as our civilization’s central organising principle.” Soil erosion, rapidly diminishing water and hydrocarbon energy reserves, and climate change mean that “business as usual” cannot continue.


Climate-Friendly Farming Project Underway

Agriculture accounts for 7% of U.S. greenhouse gases. For example, cows release methane; N fertilizers can create nitrous oxide emissions; and tilling speeds the breakdown of soil organic matter, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. But direct seeding without tilling; using perennial crops; applying fiber from anaerobically digested manure to soil; and using N fertilizer better can lower agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gases. Such efforts are being studied by the Climate Friendly Farming team led by Chris Feise, director of Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Source: Agricultural Research Service News Service, USDA; Jan Suszkiw, (301) 504-1630, June 16, 2005.

International food trade increased by 184% between 1968 and 1998, Woodward noted, resulting in millions of tons of extra CO2 emissions. Between 1989 and 1999, movement of agricultural and food products on U.K. roads increased by 90 percent. Now the farming and food system produce some 22% of the U.K.’s CO2 emissions.

In theory this energy- and pollution-intensive system provides exotic food year-round, but it also transports staples around the globe, simply because this is cheaper for packers and retailers-including many who import organically certified products, which are always available in U.K. supermarkets.

Woodward showed that the cost of negative externalities (pesticides in water, CO2 emissions, soil erosion, etc.) would be about 75% less if all U.K. agriculture were organic. Several tables also showed the clear environmental, nutritional, and ultimately economic, value of local, organic food.

While the development of agriculture spawned what we regard as the first civilizations, “its mismanagement and over exploitation was probably responsible for their collapse,” said Woodward. Destruction of tree cover and over grazing apparently started desertification, which precipitated loss of soil fertility, nutritional collapse, climate change-and ultimately the end of the great Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures. “Is this history or current affairs?” he asked, noting that in recent years the world’s food stocks have fallen to 48 days’ supply, compared with the previous low of around 60 days. Water supplies are overstretched, with some grain-producing regions depending on water reserves that are falling or nearly depleted. Likewise, fertile land is being lost. “The world grain growing area declined from 735 million hectares (mh) in 1981 to less than 600 mh today,” and much of what remains is subject to erosion and salination. Finally, consumers are increasingly separated from the land and production that feeds them; and the emphasis of production is for commodity trading, not for food.

Global Organic is Not the Sole Answer

Simply converting to organic production is not the answer. “However, we can be more positive about organic agriculture when considering the relationship between soil fertility and food quality and nutrition.” Woodward described benefits to human health and the environment from organic production that are recognized scientifically, although he noted that different nitrogen regimes, conventional or organic, can affect food quality. In an organic experiment, scab, sooty blotch and saw flies damaged apples less in a low-N than in a high-N system.

Secondary metabolites also differ in foods grown organically vs. conventionally. For example, organic carrots had more aromatic compounds that improve flavor and defend carrots against pests. Organic carrots also suffered less infestation with carrot flies than conventional-even though the conventional carrots were sprayed with pesticides.

“Organic plants seem to be more resilient to stress and in this context show differences in natural toxin levels to conventional plants,” he said. Concentrations of the very strong toxin furanocumarin were the same in organic and conventional celeriac and parsnip-until the plants suffered damage. Then concentrations in damaged, conventional plants rose more than in organic plants, to unsafe levels.

“Organic agriculture is the only farming system that has as its underpinning philosophy a concept of health and making that concept a viable reality as its goal.” Woodward cited Lady Eve Balfour: “The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible.” He also noted Sir Robert McCarrison’s observation that food in the healthiest peoples’ diets “is, for the most part, fresh from its source, little altered by preparation, and complete; and that, in the case of foods based on agriculture, the natural cycle is complete. Animal and vegetable waste – soil – plant – food – animal – man; no chemical or substitution stage intervenes.”

Studying Whole Systems

Methods for studying whole biological systems and their relationship to the whole quality of food have been lacking, Woodward continued. Now, however, government-validated, holistic methods might provide tools “to study living organisms without taking them to pieces.” For example, the German government has accepted a repeatable and statistically valid method that compares delayed luminescence in organic and conventional crops. “The premise is that all living organisms transmit energy that can be measured as low-level light. Measuring this can detect a quality or character of that organism that has hitherto remained unacknowledged but might be important to the vitality of the organism.”

The idea that “the health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible” is revolutionary “because in order to give form, shape and structure to that concept, we would have to fundamentally alter the way our civilization relates to the biological base of the planet … and … [to] the way we relate to each other as communities, regions and as individuals.” That is our role as farmers, consumers and citizens; and, “this certainly means opposing globalization,” asserted Woodward.

Woodward ended by quoting E.F. Schumacher: ‘”…to replace our growth and consumption based economy by evolving a new lifestyle, with new methods of production and new patterns of consumption: a lifestyle designed for permanence.’ This lifestyle must be built upon the principle of limitation, ‘because the environment in which it is placed is strictly limited.’ It must only employ methods and equipment ‘which are cheap enough so they are accessible to virtually everyone; suitable for small-scale application; and compatible with Man’s need for creativity.’ Out of these three characteristics ‘is born non-violence and a relationship of Man to nature which guarantees permanence.’ A local and organic food economy seems to be a good place to start.”

Lawrence Woodward can be reached at Elm Farm Research Centre, Hamstead Marshall Newbury, Berks RG20 0HR UK; Tel +44 (0)1488 658298 Fax +44 (0) 1488 658503; [email protected]; www.efrc.com or www.organicresearchcentre.com.

Burchstead-and-Schrock
Amy Burchstead (left) and Jan Schrock told how Heifer International tries to address the problem of hunger in the world. Burchstead is available to help Maine farmers with projects. English photo.

Heifer International: Stocking and Fixing the Pond

Jan Schrock of Heifer International said that her father witnessed relief workers giving powdered milk and used clothing to Spanish Civil War victims. As the milk was running out, relief workers decided to give the remaining milk to the children. “The idea of a cow, not a cup, was born” in her father’s mind, said Schrock.

Heifers (young cows that had not yet produced calves) were chosen because they’re easy to transport and, once they have their own calves, recipients can give the offspring to others in need. Hiefer International now distributes 38 kinds of locally adapted and locally produced livestock in 36 countries to help communities end hunger and poverty and care for the earth.

In Peru, HI gave a community funds to build greenhouses, where vermiculture helps produce vegetables. In Gainesville, Florida, HI helped a nutrition network teach youth to grow, market and cook nutritious vegetables. “God’s Gang” in Chicago raises tilapia, while a project in Milwaukee produces fish and hydroponic vegetables.

Still, more people are hungry now than when HI began. “We need to work at the root causes of poverty and hunger,” said Schrock. “We’re spending money to learn and educate how lifestyles in rich countries affect hunger and poverty.”

Amy Burchstead of Buckwheat Blossom Farm in Wiscasset is the program leader for HI in northern New England. She noted that Maine urgently needs a state-inspected poultry processing facility, and HI is interested in helping with this effort. In Maine, HI has provided livestock and draft horses to families; replaced cattle that died and treated those that survived after a summer drought followed by severe winter storms; provided livestock, equipment, supplies and training after area industries closed; helped low-income families use land to produce supplemental income and food; and helped with a farming program for Somalis and Latinos in Lewiston.

Local farmers create projects, while HI facilitates groups before providing funding; for three years while they’re funded; then for two more years. Projects are part of the HI community as long as they exist, with participants networking during annual Northeast events. HI field coordinators can help with grant writing and community organizing.

Burchstead is willing to work with anyone in the area who wants to farm. For example, she helped beginner farmers in New Hampshire acquire livestock and share equipment, and the group may do bulk purchasing and cooperative marketing.

“We can teach a person to fish, and stock that pond with fish,” concluded Burchstead, but, since other forces are draining that pond, “we really need a broader approach” to ensure access to land, capital, livestock, equipment, a supportive community, training and markets that pay a fair price.” HI is addressing these needs and is becoming more educated about political and global forces in agriculture.” For more information, see www.heifer.org.

Panel of speakers
A panel including (left to right) Jim Amaral, Kirsten Walter, Florence Reed and Jo Barrett provided abundant food for thought about local and global agriculture. English photo.

A Panel of Ideas

Spring Growth ended with a panel including Jim Amaral of Borealis Breads; Florence Reed of Sustainable Harvest International (SHI); Kirsten Walter of Lots to Garden; and Jo Barrett of King Hill Farm. Barrett recalled the psychological concept of “emotional distance from the victim – It’s harder to be cruel or dishonest or irresponsible when the victim has a face,” she explained. “The degree of personal contact we have with someone is directly proportional to the likelihood of our acting with compassion. So who do you want to get your food from?” Likewise, “we’re more likely to do bad things to people if we’re not easily identifiable” and if individual responsibility is diffused.

Barrett quoted reporter Robert Hinkley: “The human being who would not harm you on an individual, face-to-face basis, who’s charitable, civic minded, loving and devout, will wound or kill you from behind the corporate veil.” Barrett thinks “that’s a good reason for doing business locally.”

Florence Reed supports local agriculture but urged people to consider things like chocolate and coffee used in their daily lives. She suggested that local farmers’ markets connect with farmers in Honduras, where SHI works, and sell their cocoa and coffee “so that we do operate on a global level but in a more human manner.” [MOFGA’s El Salvador Sistering Committee is doing this with coffee and indigo.]

Kirsten Walter directs Lots to Gardens, which transforms vacant lots into community gardens in the Lewiston-Auburn area. She suggested that the many alliances relating to food systems connect, starting from the ground up; i.e., asking: What does each local farmer need? What do local agencies working on hunger and nutrition need? What resources can we share? A resource co-op and regular retreats could help people share ideas and prepare to address issues on a statewide or national level.

Jim Amaral believes that selling a relationship with consumers is the ace in the hole for local foods. Local food “enriches and enhances our lives in a way that you really can’t put a dollar figure on.” After the Goranson farm in Dresden lost a barn to fire last January, 400 people came to a fundraising community dinner of local foods and raised over $7,000 as a result of “what Jan and Rob have done with tens of thousands of interactions over the decades … It’s incredibly inspiring and a great example of the value of local food that far surpasses what we normally think of when we take a stroll down the supermarket aisle.”

While Maine’s small farm economy is vibrant, small and medium-sized value-added producers still need to be convinced to use local ingredients, he continued. The infrastructure to store, process and transport local ingredients into local markets needs work. Having all farmers’ markets run year-round is one solution, and every service center in Maine should have a year-round farmers’ market operating at least twice a week. Amaral praised Maine’s independent grocers, such as French and Brawn in Camden, and the family-owned Graves Supermarkets, which are beginning to understand the importance of local foods.

Barrett urged farmers to create an alliance of reciprocity. “In a family-owned hardware store, we need to say, ‘I chose to come here to pay you your price, because you are a family store. I know I can get it cheaper at Home Depot.'”

Amaral added that “it is important to honor and value the people who are creating and growing your food for you. They’re doing something amazing. I look at what Matt Williams is doing in terms of growing wheat for us; our product is much, much better for it, and it gives us the opportunity to differentiate our product in the marketplace.” Twelve years ago, no bread in Maine was made with locally grown wheat. Now Borealis alone produces about 700,000 loaves of artisan bread using about 80,000 pounds of organic wheat. “As individuals we can all take those small steps to make those things happen, and Maine will be an amazing place to live in 20 years.”

Lee Humphreys, a farmer who attended Spring Growth, noted that while she donates fresh vegetables to soup kitchens, the kitchens tend to be dumping grounds for unhealthy food, and most clients are overweight. Kirsten Walter added that in working with soup kitchens in her area, she asks how each interaction can build power and knowledge and clients’ ability to feed themselves better, challenging that model of charity that keeps good food away from them and keeps them malnourished. Richard Rudolph, another farmer, said to think of food as a basic human right. “We can wait for the government to do it, or we can do it ourselves. We’ve given some [nutritious food] away in Portland. We hope to do more … It’s one thing to sell food to high-end [buyers]; it’s another to get food into the hands of low-income people.” Walter suggested offering frequent buyers’ cards to people who shop at farmers’ markets.

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