Cross-posted from The Green Fork.
Enough with the Earth Day blah-blah-blah--until we start celebrating earth with a small "e" everyday, all the compact fluorescent light bulbs and reusable shopping bags and hybrid cars and stainless steel water bottles in the world won't cut it. We need to learn to love and cherish our dirt, because without healthy soil, we're toast. And that means weaning ourselves off our fossil-fueled food chain and supporting the farmers who grow their crops without pesticides and chemicals.
J. I. Rodale, the visionary whose publishing empire launched the organic movement in America back in the early forties, foresaw that industrialized agriculture would ultimately degrade both ourselves and our surroundings. His motto was simple: "healthy soil=healthy food=healthy people".
Rodale founded the Soil and Health Foundation in 1947 to encourage an alternative to industrial farming. Now called The Rodale Institute, this 333-acre research farm in Kutztown, Pennsylvania has been demonstrating for decades how to nourish ourselves and steward the land by growing foods without petroluem-based by-products. Instead, their energy (i.e., calories) comes from the sun, and farmland that's naturally replenished with compost, manure, and cover crops--the way farmers grew food for centuries before the military-industrial complex started to steep our soil in oil.
Evidence is mounting that what agribusiness calls "conventional" agriculture is, in fact, a disastrous experiment that has failed to feed the world. We now know, too, that industrialized food production is a key culprit in the rising temperatures and reduced life spans that threaten our future.
So, half a century after J. I. Rodale founded the Rodale Institute, I asked Dr. Tim LaSalle, its current CEO, to talk about the Rodale Institute's mission to address these challenges by helping farmers to make the switch to sustainable agriculture.
KT: The Rodale Institute recently delivered a truckload of compost from your research farm in Pennsylvania to the front of the USDA's headquarters near the National Mall--literally helping to lay the ground for the "People's Garden".
But Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack reportedly shattered some Agribiz nerves along with the asphalt when he jackhammered that patch of pavement to make way for a productive--and certified organic--food garden. Vilsack's apparent endorsement of organic agriculture marks a departure from the USDA's long-standing reluctance to acknowledge the advantages of organic food production over "conventional" agriculture.
Why do you think the USDA's changing its tune now?
TS: Perhaps the Secretary sees the need for big changes in US agriculture for human and ecological health. He would be right to point to organic farming for all that it can do. Regenerative organic agriculture is the future-oriented, scientifically documented way to farm--a way that improves soil quality, cleans up watersheds, sequesters carbon in the soil to fight global warming, and produces food with greater nutrient density and enhanced nutrient profiles in vegetables, fruit and meat. Additionally, it out-produces conventional chemical-based farming in weather-stressed years.
Perhaps this is a timely recognition that the USDA runs the National Organic Program, the only third-party accredited, federally sanctioned approach to sustainable agriculture in the country. By their rules, organic farmers can't use most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, don't apply sludge to their soils, use genetically modified seeds, inject their cattle with rBGH and don't routinely give their livestock antibiotics.
This demonstration garden is a chance for the Secretary to highlight that the USDA program works, because organic farming works. It's keeping tons of agricultural chemicals out of waterways, pulling up to 7,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per acre per year from the atmosphere and keeping it in the ground (much more than conventional systems), and restoring biodiversity to farms across America. That's good farming and farming that is truly caring for human and ecological health at the same time.
KT: The so-called "Green Revolution" brought American-style industrial agriculture to developing nations such as Africa and India a few decades back, promising to solve chronic food shortages through the use of high-yield crops and chemicals. But, as NPR reported last week, this resource-intensive system of food production has ultimately proven catastrophic for India's farmers. Depleted water tables and exhausted soil have led to massive crop failures, driving nearly 200,000 Indian farmers to commit suicide since 1997, as the BBC recently reported.
And there was more bad news for biotech crops last week. A study from the Union of Concerned Scientists reported that "genetically engineered crops do little to improve yields and instead promote the proliferation of herbicide-resistant weeds that actually curb production." Germany, meanwhile, went so far as to ban a strain of genetically modified corn from Monsanto, declaring it "a danger to the environment."
You co-authored a report calling for an "organic green revolution" based on regenerative agriculture--i.e. farming methods that replenish the soil instead of depleting it, and draw energy from the sun rather than fossil fuels to grow food. The Rodale Institute has devoted more than half a century to studying the environmental and health benefits of this kind of agriculture, which can produce higher yields and more nutritious foods.
Your report asserts that an organic green revolution may, in fact, be "the only way we can solve the growing problem of hunger in developing countries."
So why do ostensibly well-intentioned individuals and institutions, such as Jeffrey Sachs and the Gates Foundation, continue to bet on biotech and insist that industrial agriculture offers the only viable solution to the global food crisis? Can organic agriculture truly feed the world when our population is expected to reach 9 billion by the year 2040?
TL: The input-intensive, industrial model benefits from most of the research dollars and industry promotion. Its advocates have tremendous influence throughout government and business, so it's what sounds legitimate until we actually look at available peer-reviewed research, as well as successful organic operations and businesses throughout the world. Only truly sustainable farming maximizes on-farm, natural resources, cuts toxic damage to people and the environment, and reduces the overall degradation of soils and water while producing better food and livelihoods for the people involved.
Last year's UNEP report on food security in Africa--which of examined 286 projects covering 37 million hectares in 57 countries--found that when organic and near-organic practices were adopted with all their ecological benefits, crop yields also increased by more than 100 per cent from previous practices. The old "green revolution" failed in Africa because soils were so depleted already.
The principles of organic farming are known and well adapted to local conditions in India and Africa, where many family-owned farms using biodiverse farming systems achieve better water management, more nutritional output per acre, and more economic opportunity than conventional industrial agricultural production of commodity crops.
The Rodale Institute and our partners can show farmers anywhere how to convert some, or all, of their farm to organic management, achieving as much improvement in soil quality and resilience in the face of changing weather as they are willing to undertake. We can help them to find other farmers in their area who have kicked chemicals and fossil-fuel dependent fertilizers, who raise their own fertility through special cover crops and who see more returns in productive capacity every year for their biological improvements.
KT: Industrial agriculture generates a significant portion of the world's greenhouse gases. The regenerative agriculture that Rodale's been pioneering does just the opposite, by pulling carbon out of the air and storing it in the soil.
So, making the switch from industrial to organic agriculture could have a profound impact on climate change. But how do you get people excited about something as abstract as carbon sequestration?
TL: Climate change is not abstract. Ice caps shrinking, the increase in crippling multi-year droughts, wholesale shifts in growing patterns, weather-induced expansion of disease-bearing insects, habitat loss for animals and plants--these are real.
Let us all get excited to know that the most significant single step you can take toward slowing global warming is to buy organic food and promote organic agriculture. It's where we can make the biggest difference the fastest--by locking more carbon in the soil through photosynthesis on more acres. Organic farming of crops and pasture can remove more than 7,300 pounds of carbon dioxide per acre per year from the atmosphere.
The movements to expand organic farming, and get serious and creative about fighting climate change, are overlapping and creating tremendous new opportunities. There's excitement because people are being empowered to do things that matter to them, their families, their communities and the communities impacted by how their food and fiber is grown. This new level of connectivity is electric, really, in waking up our consciousness in this time of economic disruption to how valuable clean water, healthy soil, pure air, whole food and cooperative communities can be. This investment promises the best returns we could ask for.
KT: The White House kitchen garden has generated a lot of enthusiasm and excitement--and the disapproval of Agribiz lobbyists who felt compelled to send Michelle Obama a letter accusing her of setting a bad example by attempting to grow food without benefit of pesticides and chemicals. What would you say in response?
TL: Most mothers try to give their children the most healthy and nutritious food they can. We applaud the First Lady for setting an example of a great way for many families to assure more of what they eat is free from contaminants.
That letter was a little preposterous to suggest that more pesticides are a good thing, and that people really shouldn't waste time growing food for themselves. The letter also shows we're at a tipping point in popular understanding of how our food should be produced. Our nation's dangerous experiment with fossil-fueled fertility and toxic-dependent pest management is coming to an end--that's clear.
People who are still invested in that approach, and who haven't opened their imagination and scientific study to what else is possible that is much better for them and the country, are understandably fearful--even when their system is destroying our soil and water, contributing to climate change and demanding more energy inputs than it produces.
We have to come out of this decade with drastically new ways to raise food. These ways have to use natural systems channeling solar power through crops, pasture and humanely raised livestock that builds soil carbon, doesn't pollute our water and increases economic opportunity for food producers in rural and urban areas.
Organic can do this, and it's doing it now, and with the declining supplies of fossil fuels, it is the only real future we have.