Saturday, October 9, 2010

Joel Salatin – So right and yet so VERY, VERY WRONG

I’m finally catching up on my reading. The other day I picked up the September issue of one of my magazines, Acres USA, and found Joel Salatin had written the feature article.

I like reading Joel’s books and articles. He has tons of great ideas, and I usually find something I can adapt to our little farm. His Polyface Farm, and his work as an advocate for ‘eco-agriculture’ are inspiring. So I was excited to see what Joel had written for ACRES. Wow, was I disappointed. He’s gotten so much right, how could he be so wrong about feeding the world.

Doing it right.

At Polyface farm (and many other small eco-farms around the world including mine) farming is based on well managed animals on perennial pasture. Those animals, or products from those animals go to feed people locally. Almost all the resources (minerals , water, energy, etc.) stay on the farm and support more diverse life. The small amounts that leave the farm stay in the local area, and can be easily returned to the local resource pool to support life in that area. Well managed, multi-species rotational grazing builds topsoil faster than any other method, so the farm becomes more productive over time without needing imported resources. This kind of farming can produce food for people in that area forever. It can also be adapted to almost any climate. There are a few issues that still need some fine tuning, but it’s pretty close to a perfect system. This is the content I expected to find in Joel’s article.

What I found was an article about how unfair the comparisons between eco-ag and conventional ag have been, how under-funded eco-ag research has been, and how we are as good as conventional ag because we have developed techniques and products that produce the same kind of harvest results. All of this is true, but it leaves out one important thing. Feeding the world, at least feeding the people of the world the type of food they now eat, requires a lot of grain. Grain is an annual and it requires a different production system than multi-species pasture farming. Nothing about annual grain production builds soil, even using organic fertilizer inputs. To grow grain efficiently, you have to eliminate the other things living in that space. All other plants have to be eliminated. Eliminating those plants removes the structure that holds the soil together. It breaks the symbiotic relationships that exist between microbes and plants that create humus. The animals, insects, microbes etc. that lived on those plants, on the plant waste, or on the waste of other creatures living in that space are also eliminated. They either die or go away because there is no longer a food source in that place or we kill them because they use the grain as a food source. This further depletes the resource pool in that area. This kind of farming quickly requires inputs from elsewhere. This depletes the resource pool in another place and doesn’t replenish the resources on the farm. There are a few places in the world where soil type, precipitation, and temperature combine in a way that might make it possible to grow annual grains in rotation with long term perennial pasture and animals. These places are very small niches around the globe, and even there the best you can hope is to maintain the topsoil, not build it.

Joel says, “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.” I’ve looked at the products advertised in Acres and other publications. They are great. They let you grow your annual grains and do less harm to the environment. But they don’t solve the fundamental problem. Growing annuals destroys the system that builds soil and maintains the local resource pool. Using these products is a way to slow one kind of environmental damage and to produce better quality food, but it isn’t ecologically sustainable.

Joel is right, eco-agriculture can feed the world. But to do that we will have to radically change what we eat, more animal protein and fat, more perennial fruits, and little or no grain. We will also have to change how food and waste are distributed. Ecologically sustainable food is local food. It maintains a local, diverse population, and all the “waste” from the production and use of that food is returned to the local resource pool to continue to grow food. It is a closed loop. That’s the only way eco-agriculture can feed the world.
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