The second principle is eating clean food produced without chemicals, preferably using biodynamic or permaculture standards. Even the average American today understands the concept of “organic,” although the reality is not quite the same. USDA organic certification is most certainly better than conventional agriculture in terms of spraying fewer nasty chemicals on our food, which adds up to less poison in our air, water and bodies and healthier farm workers.
It does not however, mean that there are zero poisons on the veggies. Organic standards allow for naturally occurring pesticides, herbicides and fungicides to be used. In addition, these standards, in practice, do not do anything about feeding soil fertility, or about the quality of life for livestock. In fact they can be downright cruel. Federal organic standards do not allow for any antibiotics at all, even if the animal is sick. It is important for human health for us to not eat meat that is constantly dosed with antibiotics and hormones, but it is inhumane to not treat a sick animal. Nor do federal organic standards mean that cows graze, or chickens go outside. Cows can wander in a dirt lot, and chickens have a small door to an outside yard. In practice, the chickens are kept in for the first few weeks for “health” reasons, and once past a certain age, they will not exit even when the door is open.
If organic is the next step up from conventional agriculture, then permaculture and biodynamics are the frontier. Permaculture originated in New Zealand and biodynamics came out of the work of Wilhelm Reich. Both methods seek to create food systems that are productive – if done well, incredibly so – easy, and in harmony with Nature. There are known principles of these systems that can be taught and are widely applied, but it is up to the individual farmer to figure out what is the best and most efficient method of working their own land.
Techniques include but are not limited to: crop rotation, companion planting, ground covers, attracting predator bugs and composting. Animal inputs are considered crucial for their valuable manure, and for calcium and phosphorus, two essential soil nutrients. Healthy plants and animals, living as they evolved, do not need large inputs of chemicals or antibiotics in order to thrive and be strong. Permaculture and biodynamic systems are ideally closed, producing everything needed in order to grow.
For example, aquaponics is the combination of fresh water fish farming with hydroponics and vermaculture (worms). Like conventional agriculture, both systems alone are wasteful. Both require huge water inputs and hydroponics requires a steady flow of artificial fertilizer. But combined, they create and elegant interaction. The water containing fish poop is pumped into the plant beds, which fertilizes the plants and cleans the water. The addition of worms provides essential bacteria, and makes the system self-contained except for some additional fish food, and the power to run the pump. This is a high tech example, but most farmers are much lower tech.
The farmer from whom I buy my chickens and lamb, does his cultivating with draft horses. They are quiet and run on hay and grain instead of fuel oil, and they add to the soil. Regularly. At Polyface farm in Virginia, they compost cow manure in a unique way. During the winter, the cows are kept indoors and instead of the manure being removed, it is covered with clean straw and a few kernels of corn tossed about. As the winter progresses, the pile gets higher and produces heat which keeps the cows comfortable. In the spring, the cows go out to pasture, and the pigs come into the barn. They small the fermenting corn kernels and root them up with enthusiasm, turning the pile in the process. This makes for a fine compost, which is then put down on the hay fields and pastures.
When food is produced in this way, not only are there no chemicals being sprayed into the environment, but because the animals are so much more healthy and happy, they hardly ever get sick and do not need the constant intervention required on a factory farm. Produce grown organically generally has a higher content of vitamins and minerals. Mineral content in particular is better because natural inputs contain a complete spectrum of minerals, not NPK only.
Factory farming – either with plants or animals – is highly destructive to the planet, and utterly unnatural. Growing plants without animal inputs is just as destructive as the inverse. But combining the two mimics Nature and creates elegant and productive solutions. Farms that operate in this way are also highly productive, growing much more food per acre than a factory farm.
Finding farmers that use permaculture and biodynamic methods is more challenging, but it is easy to ask the person you are considering purchasing from how they farm. Do they use compost? Does the compost have animal inputs? Do they use pesticides? If so how much? Some farmers spray on an “as needed” basis, which is vastly better than the amount of chemicals dumped on the average factory farm. Next time I will talk more about how feeding grass to herbivores plays into this equation and how this binds carbon.
Photos are from Buckwheat Blossom Farm in Wisscassett Maine, producing biodynamic food since 2005.