Thoughts From Eco-Farm

February 8, 2008

fieldsEvery January, the CUESA staff looks forward to heading down to the Ecological Farming Conference in Pacific Grove. The 2008 meeting of farmers, activists, researchers, educators and others, put on by the Ecological Farming Association, was as inspiring and informative as ever. We came home with our heads full of new information to ponder.

Said CUESA staff member Christine Farren of the event, “Yes, there were grim forecasts about the state of food, but these were mixed with lots of hopeful optimism about what is working, and why organic and sustainable agriculture matter and are making a difference. With the poor report on the planet and the promise of change through a better food system came a very strong sense of urgency. Those of us in this movement have an imperative to stay focused, stay motivated, and continue to educate and impassion the public.”

Here are brief summaries of a few of the many sessions we attended:

A bright future for our farms and our food?

There is now plenty of scientific proof that ecological farming is viable and productive, and that conventional farming is dangerous to the land and our health. Fred Kirschenmann of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University spoke about two presumptions upon which industrial agriculture is based: that there are unlimited resources to fund and fuel growth and that there are unlimited sinks to absorb the waste from this process. As we know, neither of these presumptions is true, and any food system predicated upon them will eventually collapse. Dr. Kirschenman calls for a paradigm shift in agriculture. But to move on from the industrial norm will require drastic change. It is human nature to resist change, especially when we feel we will be asked to give up something. In order to achieve the needed changes, he asserts, we must imagine a future that is even better than the present.

Is there a pollination crisis?

Colony Collapse Disorder has entered the popular lexicon this year with countless news stories about the mysterious disappearance of honeybees. Researchers Eric Mussen from UC Davis and Mace Vaughan from the Xerces Society gave their perspectives on whether or not honeybee decline has led to a pollination crisis for the more than 30% of our food crops that require insects to transfer their pollen. Dr. Mussen gave some history on vanishing bees and pointed out that this phenomenon might not be as novel as the media has made it seem. He also addressed the various hypotheses that have been put forth as to why colonies are collapsing, and spoke about what he believes is the main cause of collapse: malnutrition. Mace Vaughan talked about the thousands of pollinators that are native to the United States, and the factors that have led to their decline. He also talked about how farms can encourage native bees by setting aside uncultivated land. Both researchers warned about the possibility of a future crisis, but said that they don’t believe we are in a serious pollination predicament yet.

Learn more:

Is environmental protection at odds with food safety?

After the spinach E. coli outbreaks of 2006, a conflict between environmental protection and food safety arose. There’s no decisive information about the best agriculture practices to avoid E. coli contamination in leafy greens, but many of the proposed solutions and buyer regulations are expensive, impractical and contrary to environmental values. A survey of Monterey County farmers by the Resource Conservation Distict revealed that “buyers, auditors or others had suggested to [farmers] to either discourage and/or eliminate the presence of non-crop vegetation, waterbodies, and wildlife around fields. In many cases growers had lost points on their food safety audits, the basis for which their crop is approved and purchased, due to the presence of non-crop vegetation, waterbodies, and wildlife near their crops.” When environmental practices are pitted against food safety, what are ecological farms to do? And does removing wildlife make food more, or less, safe?

Learn more:

The roots of food quality

The number of studies on nutrition in produce has exploded! There is a real interest especially in the nutrition of organic vs. conventional produce. These studies are extremely hard to do because no farm is typical–each is unique. Alyson Mitchell, a researcher at UC Davis, talked about a recent study that measured plant compounds like flavonoids and carotenoids (linked to numerous human health benefits) in tomatoes. A three-year study showed that flavonoids were 10 to 30 percent higher in organic tomatoes than in conventional ones, though the levels varied greatly from year to year. Researchers hypothesize that pest pressure, which is higher in organic systems, increases these compounds in plants because plants use them as a natural defense. A test on commercial tomato sauces showed no difference in conventional vs. organic (possibly due to the decrease in nutrients associated with heating, storing, and reheating tomatoes).

Some other interesting tidbits from the conference:
We currently operate on a “yoyo” economy: you’re on your own. We could operate on a “wait” economy: we’re all in this together.
–Fred Kirschenmann

Out of 80,000 farmers in California, only about 400 are African American.
–Will Scott, President of the African American Farmers of California

Two out of three Americans recognize the organic symbol and see it as an added value that they’d like to purchase.
–Bill Wolf, Wolf, DiMatteo and Associates

US cattle produce 10 times more excrement than US humans.
–Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation

74% of Americans don’t know GMO foods are sold at the supermarket.
–Eric Schlosser

One of our major illusions is that we can come up with a prescription for sustainability. Jared Diamond observed that civilizations that correctly assess the situation, anticipate changes, and get a head start are the ones that survive. This is what sustainability is.
–Fred Kirschenmann

“You are not a consumer, you are a creator.”
–Cesar Chavez, as quoted by Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety

We never treat things we care about with competition or efficiency. Why do we operate our food system this way? We need to manage our food system based on the values of empathy and love.
–Andrew Kimbrell

“Progress” is an incomplete sentence. Progress towards what?
–Andrew Kimbrell

CDs of all the sessions at the 2008 Ecological Farming Conference can be ordered through the Ecological Farming Association’s website:

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