Feeding more people with less land

Thanks to everyone who came out to the farm on Saturday to enjoy a perfect sunny fall day.  We had perfect timing this year, as the raindrops starting falling less than two days later.

As the big anti-proposition 37 campaign ramps up, supporters of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) will be talking a lot about how it is impossible to feed the world without this technology.  Very often in the same breath, these folks will dismiss organic farming as an elitist fantasy that would leave the world’s poor to starve.

I will leave aside for now the discussion of whether a poorly written California proposition will have any effect on the dominance of GMO crops, which now make over 80% of commodity corn and soybeans planted in the U.S.  I will also leave aside whether or not there is enough water or other resources on our planet to provide for 9 billion people, much less food. And finally, I will ignore the fact that plenty of people in the world are still starving, despite the rapid adoption of GMO crops.

Instead, this week I will choose to focus on a scientific study done under the auspices of the USDA that has been mostly ignored by the media.  It appears to have found a way to feed more people off the same land while using fewer pesticides and fertilizers.  And it does this by taking well-established farming techniques that until recently were considered “outdated” and improving them with science.

The study, done at Iowa State University, simply added additional crops to the standard Midwest farming rotation of corn and soybeans.  One of those crops was livestock; grazing animals.  Instead of growing just corn one year, soybeans the next and back to corn, they added oats the third year and alfalfa the fourth.  Both of the new crops were fed to livestock, and the livestock manure was used as fertilizer.  The result:  higher yields of food using less fertilizer and pesticides.  Less pollution and the same profits.  Win, win, win, win.

Industrial agriculture mostly separates livestock from the farming landscape, turning manure into hazardous waste and relying on fossil fuels for fertilizer.  But animal manure — either composted or uncomposted — has been a fundamental component of organic farming since its beginning.  And now studies done in conventional industrial agriculture are finally beginning to document the benefits:  the farm advisor for Yolo County discovered that using composted manure as a fertilizer boosts yields of canning tomatoes by 20 percent.  And two very large farms in our area now routinely graze sheep on their crop residues.

There are plenty of farm operations that use long rotations including livestock — primarily dairies.  And in the last ten years, organic farmers have increasingly chosen to incorporate livestock into their production.  At TFF, we have done so by allowing ranchers to graze their sheep on our leftover crop residues and cover crops.  We have saved money on composted manure — which otherwise must be purchased, trucked in and spread with a tractor — as well as seen our yields increase.  In addition, we use less fossil fuel, as we would otherwise have to chop up the residues using a tractor and mower.

Recently, we are also working with a chicken farmer to graze his flock in our orchards after harvest is complete.  The chickens eat weeds, weed seeds and bugs, and fertilize the trees.  They lay their eggs in mobile coops and he sells them.*

Despite all the positives associated with producing livestock and other crops on the same farms, there are significant hurdles towards widespread adoption of the practice.  Most have to do with industrial efficiencies and scale — for example, livestock processing facilities are not well-distributed across the country, but rather are concentrated in certain areas.

Another factor is the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which has an extremely hostile attitude towards any farm that simultaneously produces livestock and vegetable or fruit crops, due to concerns about microbial contamination. This despite evidence that industrial animal facilities are much more likely to make humans sick than farms that integrate livestock into their crop rotations.
At Terra Firma, we follow all the current Best Practices for safely producing vegetables and fruit.  Livestock are not grazed on fields less than 3 months before harvest of a crop, nor in the vicinity of a crop that could potentially be contaminated via air or water.

There is no real way to discuss the idea of sustainably producing food without addressing other important ecological issues:  population, fossil fuels, and water.  Genetically modified crops cannot feed an unlimited population.  In the end, feeding more people on the same amount of land sustainably will require thinking outside of several boxes, not just using the same box and making it out of GMO materials.


* Note:  Lamb and eggs produced on our land are currently spoken for, but at some point in the future may be available to TFF subscribers for purchase.




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