A Culinary Modernist Reader | Volume Four | On the Farm: The Quest for Better

No-till farming to prevent soil erosion, canton of Bern, Switzerland [Wikicommons CC]
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In volume three of this series, we “stress tested” the legs of the locavore stool: Small. Local. Organic. Here we turn to efforts to farm sustainably at scales that could have major impact on the environmental trade offs in agriculture.

ON THE FARM: THE QUEST FOR BETTER


JONATHAN FOLEY
| NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
A Five Step Plan to Feed the World
Unfortunately the debate over how to address the global food challenge has become polarized, pitting conventional agriculture and global commerce against local food systems and organic farms. The arguments can be fierce, and like our politics, we seem to be getting more divided rather than finding common ground. Those who favor conventional agriculture talk about how modern mechanization, irrigation, fertilizers, and improved genetics can increase yields to help meet demand. And they’re right. Meanwhile proponents of local and organic farms counter that the world’s small farmers could increase yields plenty—and help themselves out of poverty—by adopting techniques that improve fertility without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. They’re right too.

But it needn’t be an either-or proposition. Both approaches offer badly needed solutions; neither one alone gets us there. We would be wise to explore all of the good ideas, whether from organic and local farms or high-tech and conventional farms, and blend the best of both.

NATHANAEL JOHNSON | GRIST
For Farmers, Using Pesticides is a Lot Like Picking the Wrong Smartphone
A lot of the debate over feeding the world is actually a debate over technological lock-in. There may be a much better system for growing food; it’s just too hard and too expensive for us to switch over, since we’ve already built out a big food system, but the countries that haven’t done so yet could get on that alternative path.

NATHANAEL JOHNSON | GRIST
Farm Tech Isn’t a War Between Good and Evil — It’s a Quest For Whatever Works
We’re used to thinking of two separate and oppositional forms of farming: One that uses technology to suppress nature, and another that works in low-tech harmony with nature. But in reality, it’s not two separate paths — it’s a spectrum. There are farms that use all sorts of high technology to stay in sync with natural cycles, and even the best low-tech organic farmers find themselves fighting nature every year.

MICHAEL LIND | THE BREAKTHROUGH INSTITUTE
The Future of Food
Ending Agriculture to Feed and Re-Wild the Planet

What passes for modern agriculture is essentially Neolithic agriculture plus fertilizers, tractors and the occasional GM crop.

Because food is enmeshed in all sorts of taboos and personal obsessions, any discussion of manufacturing it rather than growing it tends to produce defensive and slightly hysterical ridicule, as a short survey of the literature on in vitro meat demonstrates. Even so, the technology of using stem cells to grow safe and healthy food in laboratories rather than in croplands and pastures is developing rapidly. And two trends almost certainly ensure its eventual widespread adoption: the increasing desire for meat, fruit and vegetables in the diet, as populations grow more affluent, and the limits to the land that can be used, particularly for free-range livestock. If a richer humanity is not going to go vegan, and if there is not enough range land to support free-range beef, chicken and pork for billions of people, then the choice between cruel and filthy and unsanitary feed-lots and clean, well-lit food factories will be pretty easy to make.

JANE BLACK | THE WASHINGTON POST
Smarter Food: Does big farming mean bad farming?
Size, as they say, isn’t everything. As shorthand, the big-equals-bad equation is convenient. But it obscures an inconvenient truth: Plenty of small farmers do not embrace sustainable practices — the Amish farmers I know, for example, love their pesticides — and some big farmers are creative, responsible stewards of the land. “Tony’s is a fantastic operation,” says Helene Murray, executive director of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. “And he just happens to grow a lot of corn and soybeans.”

… “I know I am sending corn into a commodity stream that I have very little control of and very little knowledge of,” Thompson admits. “But I have spent my life trying to understand the margins, trying to slow down the next raindrop and help that raindrop produce a little flower for a bird. It is, maybe, less exciting to talk about. My only opportunity to make change is with the tools I have on the farm.”

MARK BITTMAN | THE NEW YORK TIMES
A Practical Farmer Who Showed the Way
In the mid-’80s he was a co-founder of the Practical Farmers of Iowa (P.F.I.), and between then and his death, he and his wife showed more than 40,000 visitors how a relatively small farm could support a modern family while stewarding the land. Farming in Iowa is not as monolithic as most Easterners believe, but there are not many shining beacons of sustainable agriculture; Thompson was one.

He was not, however, an organic farmer. He used herbicides when he believed they were necessary, he occasionally augmented his compost with chemical fertilizer, and he was even a convert to BT (genetically modified) corn. But he strongly believed in natural soil amendment through the use of manure and cover crops (and the application of sewage sludge, which the city of Boone was happy to supply him), and he steadily increased the organic matter in his farm’s soil to about twice that of neighboring farms.

MARK BITTMAN | THE NEW YORK TIMES
Not All Industrial Farming is Evil
IT’S far from paradise, but it isn’t hell either. The basic question is this: Are the processes and products healthy, fair, green and affordable?

Workers in the fields have shade, water and breaks; they’re not being paid by the piece. Workers in the plants are not getting rich but they’re doing better than they would working in the fields, or in a fast-food joint.

Rominger is managing his fields conscientiously and, by today’s standards, progressively. He’s also juggling an almost unimaginable array of standards set by the state, by P.C.P. and other processors, and even by his customers, who may say things like, “What are you doing about nitrate runoff?”

The canner P.C.P. is running what appear to be safe and clean production lines while producing close-to-“natural” tomato products that nearly anyone can afford.

TOM PHILPOTT
| MOTHER JONES
One Weird Trick to Fix Farms Forever
Chatting with David Brandt outside his barn on a sunny June morning, I wonder if he doesn’t look too much like a farmer—what a casting director might call “too on the nose.” He’s a beefy man in bib overalls, a plaid shirt, and well-worn boots, with short, gray-streaked hair peeking out from a trucker hat over a round, unlined face ruddy from the sun.
Also see: How Cover Crops Make Healthier Soil

Brandt farms 1,200 acres in the central Ohio village of Carroll, pop. 524. This is the domain of industrial-scale agriculture—a vast expanse of corn and soybean fields broken up only by the sprawl creeping in from Columbus. Brandt, 66, raised his kids on this farm after taking it over from his grandfather. Yet he sounds not so much like a subject of King Corn as, say, one of the organics geeks I work with on my own farm in North Carolina.

… “Our cover crops work together like a community—you have several people helping instead of one, and if one slows down, the others kind of pick it up,” he says. “We’re trying to mimic Mother Nature.” Cover crops have helped Brandt slash his use of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides. Half of his corn and soy crop is flourishing without any of either; the other half has gotten much lower applications of those pricey additives than what crop consultants around here recommend.

But Brandt’s not trying to go organic—he prefers the flexibility of being able to use conventional inputs in a pinch. He refuses, however, to compromise on one thing: tilling. Brandt never, ever tills his soil. Ripping the soil up with steel blades creates a nice, clean, weed-free bed for seeds, but it also disturbs soil microbiota and leaves dirt vulnerable to erosion. The promise of no-till, cover-crop farming is that it not only can reduce agrichemical use, but also help keep the heartland churning out food—even as extreme weather events like drought and floods become ever more common.

Volume One: Opening Salvos
Volume Two: COMESTIBLES: WE NEED BETTER FAST FOOD, JUNK FOOD, AND CONVENIENCE FOODS
Volume Three: A CORRECTIVE TO [SMALL. LOCAL. ORGANIC.]
Volume Four: ON THE FARM: THE QUEST FOR BETTER
Volume Five: BIOTECH CROPS: A TOOL FOR SUSTAINABILITY

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3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. A Culinary Modernist Reader | Volume Three | A Corrective to [Small. Local. Organic.] | Food and Farm Discussion Lab
  2. A Culinary Modernist Reader | Volume Two | Comestibles: We Need Better Fast Food, Junk Food & Convenience Food | Food and Farm Discussion Lab
  3. The Culinary Modernist | Volume Six | Nathanael Johnson’s Panic Free GMOs | Food and Farm Discussion Lab

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