Facebook philosophy: Humans are a global virus

Recently a friend posted the Matrix-esque idea that humans are a disease that has been inflicted upon the earth. Sometimes it seems hard to disagree, but throughout history there have been clear counter-examples. For example, American Indians set fires that maintained grassland and savanna ecosystems in an otherwise forested landscape. This alteration of canopy structure (i.e. plants at different heights) promoted amazing pockets of biodiversity. These landscapes hosted many species that are now extinct or threatened in some way.

At least three types of agriculture ARE sustainable. (And by sustainable, I mean they could sustain civilizations for thousands of years) Delta systems (eg ancient Egypt), aquaculture systems (I think the best examples are in Asia, but I’m not sure on their longevity) and Integrated crop-livestock systems* eg. medieval Europe). The last one is basically the opposite of our current system: Corn everywhere, cattle on feedlots (neither near cities). In the old system:pasture everywhere, corn/grain/vegetables on food plots (near cities). The modern system took a lot of tricks to figure out how to make it work. It’s pretty wasteful and ends up contributing hugely to the Mexican Gulf’s dead zone.

So, here’s how integrated crop-livestock systems work: Grazing (in well-managed pastures) helps stimulate belowground root production. Through mechanisms we don’t totally understand, the nutrient cycling in the system changes. A positive feedback loop of higher nutrient availability, more productivity and still further increases in nutrient availabilty builds up over 4-10 years (the minimum seems to be around 4, but it’s clear if there is a cutoff for this nutrient build-up, though a look at the great plains would indicate not really). After a while (5 or so years), though, the process slows down so we convert a section of the pasture to crop production. These crops (and tillage) use up those nutrients. When the nutrients are used up, we convert the system back to pasture and start over.

There’s not enough data to be sure, but this system could probably produce *more* food (and *healthier* food too) than current systems. AND crappy former-farm wastelands (particularly here in the southeast) could be put back into grassland production. You may think “Oh, but nature will fix it better than humans” but you’re wrong about that. Without help from humans to restore those ecosystems, these farms are often covered with invasive species that make terrible wildlife habitat. Also, to rebuild the soil resources that we strip-mined, it takes dozens of years. With pastures, we can rebuild those soils in around 10 or so years.

So, there you are. By looking into the past we can find examples of sustainable systems that worked for almost a thousand years. An estimated 400+ million people lived in Europe (about 3.9 mil. sq. mi.) for hundreds of years without the benefit of fossil fuels. By comparison there’s about 300+ million people in the US (about 3.8 mil. sq. mi.) right now. Sure, we’re currently addicted to fossil fuels, but it seems like we should be able to figure this out.


Strip-till Agriculture

I recently stumbled upon a cool article about strip-till agriculture. Most folks that might be interested in RethinkAg probably have heard of no-till agriculture, a cool way to directly drill seeds or transplant into a cover cropped or mulched field. As exciting as no-till is, it may not work in every soil and climate.

Mahdi Al-Kaisi at the Southeast Farmpress (twitter:@FarmPress) neatly sums up why strip-till is a great option for farmers in the southeastern US:

Strip-tillage, which creates a soil environment that enhances seed germination, is an alternative to no-till in areas where poorly drained soils are dominant.

As most southerners know, the heavy clay soils we have down here sometimes classify as “poorly drained”:

This soil in Georgia has been inundated. Credit: mikemol@flickr

As Mr. Al-Kaisi indicates, the typical way to implement strip-till farming is with a new tractor implement that incorporates shanks and seeders:

Tractor image from southeastfarmpress.com

These implements are too expensive for many first-time farmers (myself included) joining the local food movement.

At CEFS Small Farm unit, we replicated strip-till techniques using a small walk-behind BCS tiller, similar to those silly Mantis brand tillers you see on TV. Once tilled, we had a nice clean seedbed to drive a push-seeder down or to transplant into.

At RethinkAg, we advocate incremental improvements on large, established farms as well as radically innovative systems thinking on small, local start-up farms. Strip-till is a useful tool for both applications.

Thanks to @cowgirljesse at the Pearl Snap Ponderings blog for the idea for today’s post.


The problem isn’t roundup. It’s the roundup mentality.

Round-up resistant weeds are many farmers’ nightmare. They suck up time and resources. Call in a consultant and they may suggest “use another pesticide.” When I suggested integrated crop-livestock systems to an Australian extension agent wringing his hands about how fast pesticide resistance genes can spread, he said, “sure, we used to rotate crops with pasture, but now we grow one crop of no-till wheat every year and take the rest of the year as vacation at the beach.” To say that pesticides have provided some farmers temporary yield boosts and improvement in their quality of life would probably be an understatement.

But those temporary gains seem to be at risk. Recent articles chronicle Roundup‘s dwindling effectiveness. Still, I think it’s important (if unpopular in some communities) to recognize that glyphosate has been an effective tool for around 30 years. Demonizing Roundup prevents us from learning Roundup’s lessons, both the good and the bad.

Farmers and ecosystems alike have benefited from Roundup in some ways, especially through the most common forms of no-till agriculture. In the most common no-till implementations, the bio-control of cover cropping (through competition and sometimes allelopathy) is combined the chemical control of glyphosate. This combination helps growers replace tillage and reduce erosion. When glyphosate application is timed so that soils are dry and rain is not forecast (for about a week), it gives a chance for the chemical to break down and prevent its escape into the environment.

Expanding our pest management toolkit beyond “spray-first” reduces build-up of pesticide resistance that is causing an epidemic in “Roundup Ready” systems. Even the farmers at Rodale used glyphosate when they were perfecting usage of their really cool roller-crimper.

In the same way that I think it’s important to learn from the Roundup era, I think it’s important to realize that organic can be very much like the high-input conventional systems that many in the organic food movement hope to replace. When you replace synthetic inputs with organic, consider that you might be trading the carbon cost of manufacturing a synthetic chemical with a similar carbon cost in terms of fuel. Similarly you may be offsetting a reduced carbon footprint from synthetic inputs with increased fuel costs if you are using more frequent tillage as a way to control weeds.

The reality is that no system is perfect. Learn what you can from farmers that you meet. Experiment. Relying on Roundup every year to control weeds is just asking for trouble, but a one-time application of glyphosate could save your bacon when you have a troublesome rye cover crop that just won’t die. It could also save you a huge loss of organic matter if your primary tool for control is tillage. Replacing “spray-first” with “till-first” can result in just as many super weeds and still have negative environmental outcomes such as erosion and greenhouse gas emissions. So please remember, the problem isn’t Roundup. It’s the problem of abusing your “best” tool.

Resilient Food Systems

Resilience, Fairness, Sustainability and Food systems

In a lot of recent conversations I’ve had both in person and online, there’s this idea that local=sustainable that underpins a lot of the discussion. Recently I’ve had some good back and forth in the comments section of a post about an online market for Durham. While I’m of the opinion that more local is usually more sustainable, it’s not always true. For one thing, over-dependence on any system results in vulnerability.

Here’s the Twitter exchange from the #sharedtablessymp that jump-started my thought process about vulnerability and resilience in food systems:

Resilience, Fairness, Sustainability and Food systems

As one of my commenters (thanks Eric for inspiring this post!) points out, some local producers may “greenwash” their product in order to access premium prices. In other words, they are using practices that are pretty questionable to cut corners. This can have a detrimental effect on the people that ARE doing all the right things, which ties into RafiUSA’s emphasis on fairness and sustainabilty. While keeping in mind that greenwashing is something to be aware of, I’d like to focus on the benefits that local food systems can provide in terms of resilience. Local food systems (and economies as well) are a huge part of any effort to build more resilient society.

To understand resilience, I thought it might makes sense to look at vulnerability. I’d like to take a look at an example of vulnerability and disaster: the housing derivatives bubble and crash of 2007. (Keep in mind as I discuss this topic, I’m trained as an ecologist not an economist, so please look elsewhere if you’re mostly unfamiliar with this topic). For years, our economy has been reeling from mistakes that were made by a pretty small elite group of individuals. They built a house of cards built on speculation and sale of derivatives and are wasting an increasing amount of money. Still, they make up a huge portion of the economy. When Wall Street fails, our economy suffers immensely. That’s the definition of over-dependence and vulnerability.

The same type of fluctuation and speculation has hit agricultural commodity prices in the past. If everything is tied to that system, society remains vulnerable to price shocks that we can’t afford. In my mind, to build resilience, we need more than one food system. America’s national food system, for all it problems, provides a surplus of calories at relatively low cost. Local food sales, which have traditionally been anchored by fresh fruits and vegetables provide comparatively little. In my mind, to really succeed, local food systems need market capitalization. They need growth. They need it now.

Local food systems lack a lot of things right now. According to the USDA’s deputy Secretary in the recent #KYF2 (Know your farmer, Know your food) livetweet conference, the number one challenge is that we lack farmers. Accessibility is another significant problem as is consumer education.

Finally, in America, where we are led to believe there are usually two possible answers, we often think of mutually exclusive solutions. If the existing food system sucks, get rid of it and go local! This thinking seems a bit limited to me. We should do what we can to reform the existing system, while also helping local food systems grow. Over-dependence on any one region engenders vulnerability. We will always depend on (and hopefully have access to!) food that comes from other places. This is definitely a good thing if something wipes out this year’s crop!