Our ability to feed ourselves sustainably is our most valuable resource, but unfortunately our current food systems, whether fisheries or agriculture, are contributing heavily to the deteriorating health of the atmosphere and oceans, while simultaneously subject to the detrimental effects of climate change. We cannot address the problems of climate change, ocean health, or energy security and independence without also reforming our food system and ensuring food security by promoting local, organic, and ecologically sound agriculture.
Ironically, the very act of growing food itself has proven disastrous for our land, atmosphere, and oceans. According to Michael Pollan in his open letter to the next “Farmer in Chief” (The New York Times, 09 October 2008) our current agricultural system is responsible for approximately 19 percent of our economy’s fossil fuel consumption and 37 percent of our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. For every food calorie an American consumes, on average 10 calories of fossil fuel energy were used to produce and transport this food. With the combined specters of climate change and peak oil looming, these statistics are indeed alarming. Thus, growing food and feeding ourselves is contributing to climate change and energy insecurity to an extent unsurpassed by any other economic activity. Additionally, agricultural run-off, composed largely of artificial fertilizers and animal manure from industrial farms and feedlots, has polluted our nation’s rivers and oceans, creating hypoxic “dead zones” where few marine organisms can survive. This problem ultimately arises from the spatial separation of crop and animal farming, resulting in a pervasive failure to compost animal wastes and return these nutrients to the soil as food for plants.
There is a solution to these intersecting problems of climate change, food and energy security, and ocean health. Our current food system relies largely upon heavily mechanized farms, growing food in monocultures, using artificial fertilizers and pesticides synthesized from fossil fuels, transporting food long distances, and lacking effective means of recycling farm wastes. Collectively, these characteristics of industrial agriculture contribute to intensive greenhouse gas emissions, uncontrolled pollution, and inefficient fossil fuel consumption. In contrast, we can alleviate all of these symptoms of our food system by switching focus and support to small, local organic farms where the labor is largely provided by humans and animals, products are marketed to nearby communities, the plants and animals are raised in diverse polycultures that deter pests and prevent diseases, the animals feed the soil with their composted wastes, the soil feeds the plants, and the plants in turn feed the animals in a tight recycling of wastes and nutrients.
We at Orizaba Farm embarked on our journey into organic farming in part because we realized that small, local organic farms present an elegant and simple solution to climate change, resource scarcity, food and energy insecurity, and agricultural pollution. We wanted to be an integral and active part of this solution. In the face of peak oil and natural gas depletion, we cannot forget how to grow our own food sustainably by harnessing the energy of the sun rather than fossil fuels. Threatened with potentially disastrous climate change, we should not have to choose between healthy food and a stable, healthy atmosphere. As our fisheries are collapsing and oceans are becoming increasingly polluted, fishermen and farmers must learn to work in mutual cooperation and appreciation of each others’ efforts, rather than compromising one another’s livelihoods. These goals can all be achieved through thoughtful, comprehensive reform of our food system. If we wish to protect our land, atmosphere, and oceans for future generations, conserve our scarce resources, and create a national or global community where growing healthy food and maintaining a healthy environment are mutually inclusive, then food reform must emphasize the importance of local, organic agriculture.
No ecologist can deny that the land, oceans, and atmosphere are all intricately interconnected. This point is made ever clearer when one reads scientific reports about pollutants produced in industrialized nations that have found their way to the Arctic and accumulated at high concentrations in the bodies of indigenous hunter and gatherer cultures located far from population centers. The interconnectedness of Nature is again underscored when one hears of the manner that low-lying islands are increasingly threatened by sea level rise resulting from global warming, which is caused not by the islanders’ activities but rather by the excessive greenhouse gas emissions from nations located on continents far removed from the threatened islands.
Likewise, how we choose to grow our food and heat our homes is deeply tied to the ability of fisherman to land their catches, farmers to irrigate their crops, forests to provide clean air, water, and wildlife habitat, cities to offer secure homes for their residents, or people to safely enjoy, recreate, and reside along coastlines. For instance, the overuse of nitrogen fertilizers in farmland along the Mississippi River drainage basin (watershed) has resulted in massive algal blooms throughout the Gulf of Mexico, whose subsequent decay causes “dead zones” of very low or no oxygen (hypoxia and anoxia), which in turn has catastrophic effects upon the Gulf’s fisheries.
Just as we cannot ignore the integral role that farming plays in the health of our atmosphere and oceans, we must also acknowledge the importance of a stable climate for agricultural yields and the ability to feed our nation. In our inaugural seasons of farming at Orizaba Farm, we are beginning to appreciate our dependence on a stable and healthy climate system to deliver the essential conditions and resources we need to grow our food. From the specific daily temperature swings required for the sugar maple harvest, to the predictable frost times we rely upon to schedule garden plantings, to the effects of precipitation patterns on the local hay harvest, the role of a stable climate in farming is undeniable and pivotal. Indeed, climate change and the instabilities it brings poses a serious threat to our family and our farm’s very livelihood and survival, and by extension to all those in our community who may depend on us for their food and sustenance. As an agrarian society, none of us are alone in this boat; let us not allow it to sink.