Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Planet of the Cows

Five years ago my wife, Ann-Helen, and I bought this small farm, Sunnansjö, in Sweden, some 30 km east of Uppsala. I have all my life been keen on growing vegetables and lately my interest has been more into trees and perennial plants. So the main idea was to use most of the land for such crops.

But a place has its own conditions, its own genius, as expressed by Wes Jacksson. Most our lands are wet and heavy, prone to floods. For me, having farmed for more than thirty years on light sandy soils, where water was almost always short in supply, it was a shock to realize that I knew almost nothing that was relevant for our new farm. Mud and water were all over the place, all over me.

Slowly, we began adjusting our plans to reality, to the local conditions, opportunities and limitations, I had to rethink my role from grower to ecosystem manager. The real treat of our land is that is so varied. We own a long stretch of the shore of a lake, there are rich wetlands, peat bogs, meadows, old growth forests and many fields with what we call ”field islands” in Swedish, i.e. bigger rocky patches with scattered trees in the  fields. Overall, we have a lot of ecotone zones (edges, borders) between the various biomes, and such border zones are often very rich in diversity and productive in their own way. Our mission now on the farm is to manage and enhance all those transition zones.

For sure, some fields which are a bit higher and sloping, we ditched and drained for intensive horticulture, including a green house. Other fields we have planted with tree crops, mostly apples and hazel nuts and we grow crops in between the trees while they are small.

When we moved in, we could hardly see the lake. Looking at old maps and even aerial photos we could observe that the landscape was much more open some 60 years ago. Like all farms at that time, they had cows here, and the cows were grazing a lot, even in the forest. Gradually we realized that we needed companions in our landscape management. For sure, we could use some more hands here, but what we really needed where quadrupeds to graze the meadows, the wetlands and many of the border zones. We settled for cattle some three years ago, and gradually we are transforming the landscape together. Admittedly, it is not only for ecosystem functions we opted for grazing, to have an open parkland (pastoral in its true sense) landscape to live in is esthetically appealing. And yes, we will get some meat and tallow as well; the first animal was slaughtered last fall.  

Learning to know each other (the cows and us) and see how we together shape the farm made us think more about cows and cow-man interaction and dependency.

In media there is a binary debate about cows. They destroy the climate or they maintain precious grasslands, they are resource wasters or resource enhancers, their meat is deadly or healthy.

My friend Chris Willie, long time engaged in the Rainforest Alliance and the Sustainable Agriculture Network call cattle for “eco-destruction machines” and he tells me that that grazing is the leading cause of species destruction in the US West. Still, he doesn’t advocate cow eradication but engages in the Grassland Alliance, that support grazing operations that protect the environment and public health; maintain high animal welfare; and treat ranchers, farmers, and workers fairly.

Reality is not black and white and a lot of it depends on how we manage the cows. Industrial farming practices, including feed lots and the feeding of grain and soy to dairy cattle, have changed the ecological role of the cow and it has also changed the way people see cows. Farmers are told to run their farms as businesses and to lower costs or increase productivity again and again. Many consumers have lost the connection with farms and farm animals and see livestock rearing as a brutal and unethical activity. And of course, industrial farming is confirming and aggravating that impression. To some extent, industrial agriculture and vegans share the same view on why we have cows: they are only kept to be exploited. 

But then there are millions of farmer who keep their animals in a good way, both ethically and environmentally. They are sticking to the old contract between man and cattle, a contract which benefitted both. An extremely successful partnership. Some would even say too successful as cattle and humans together are totally dominating the mammal planetary zoo, leaving little space to other species. In the case of Sweden, despite a doubling of human population in hundred years there is only a third of the number of cows compared to the peak in the 1930s. Meanwhile, the number of elks and deer have expanded their numbers to be bigger than in many hundred years. In Sweden, loss of semi-natural grassland is the major threat to biodiversity these days.

Rarely are cows discussed as cultural beings and human – cattle interaction with the perspective multi-species organization. We have not only bred cattle and farmed plants to suit our needs, we have also shaped whole cultures and landscapes according to the needs of those animals and plants. And they have shaped us, body and soul. And cattle perhaps more than any other domesticated organism (in competition with rice). All the early civilizations had some kind of cow or bull gods or myths. In the Norse creation myth, the cow Audhumla even created the giant and the gods.
By having those cows, interacting with them, see how they interact with each other and with the landscape, we realized that there is a story to be told. A story about the co-evolution of man, cows landscape, culture and society. We are now busy writing that story, which will be published (in Swedish) early 2020.  

Monday, March 25, 2019

Why did local go global?

When discussing the food system, I find that few seem to understand why the system is like it is. Some discuss the system in a way where it sounds like Big, Bad and Ugly corporations made the system into what it is today, and all we have to do is to decide that we want a local food system instead. But that view is underestimating the drivers of the economy. My own experiences in food processing and farming has made me understand that the workings of competition ("the market") is the main factor influencing how and where production takes place.

Some thirtyfive years ago, the farm where I lived, Torfolk, wanted to pursue the value addition of local resources and we started making jam out of local berries. First we picked lingonberries - a North European berry similar to cranberries - ourselves in the forest. But quite soon we reverted to buying from pickers. But the buckets were full of bad berries, leaves, twigs and droppings from roe deer so we had to spend a lot of time cleaning them. We converted an old grain cleaning machine, but when the berries were really ripe and soft, they were mashed inside the machine, and it was impossible to get them clean. In addition, one of us got an involuntary exotic haircut, when leaning too close to the fan of the cleaner. 
Next solution was to buy from a local berry trader who had a purposely built lingonberry cleaner. But also with this one we had quality problems and ended up having to pick many leaves by ourselves. In addition, as most berry pickers know, the berries don’t grow equally well every year, there is frost in the florescence, it is too dry, too rainy or there is a pest, so we could not rely on the local berries alone. And neither could the local berry cleaning operation, so it closed down. 

Then we were left buying from one of the two big companies controlling the market. They have wonderful machines where each berry is individually quality frozen. Each berry rolls in dedicated tubes where size, color etc. is detected and anything that is not according to specs is blown away. The end product is amazingly clean and comes in 25 kg bags with free flowing berries.  Of course, this means that the berries now are transported all across the country, as such machines existed only in two places in the country. 
The local business is therfore now part of a global production system whether it likes it or not. And the same companies also trade in berries from China, Chile, Serbia, Ukraine and Russia. We could still get berries from specified areas – for a premium prices. The organic sugar in the jam was imported from Paraguay and the people picking the berries in the Swedish forest were flying in from Thailand. While we made no “local” claim on the label, many of our customers seemed to expect that the berries were local; some even thought we picked them ourselves. 

The story does give a rather good insight is why “local” disappeared. In this particular case, when it comes to physical product quality, the “globalized” standard IQF frozen berry is superior anything we could get locally, unless you think some moss and rotten berries should be part of the recipe. At the same time this kind of development has disconnected us, most of us, from the landscape and natural process that is the basis for human existence. In the end it has also changed what we eat, how we eat, where we eat, with whom we eat – even why we eat. 

Mostly it is not quality concerns that drives the competition, but price or costs of production and the effects are in most cases not benign. I have written extensively about the effects of competion in food and agriculture in many articles, including

Competition, not consumption, drives global destruction

Milk: the global market works as it should - but we don't like the results


Friday, March 1, 2019

Only possible to feed people sustainably in an equitable society

A recent report from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) confirms that the current food system isn’t sustainable neither for the environment nor for our health. Organic agriculture, conservation farming and agro-ecology are key technologies for a transition to a sustainable food system, which also has to shun artificial nitrogen fertilizers. Regardless of how food is produced, an equitable society is essential for fighting hunger and malnutrition.

The report, The future of food and agriculture – Alternative pathways to 2050, analyses three future scenarios that reflect, to varying degrees, the challenges to move food and agricultural systems towards “a world in which food is nutritious and accessible for everyone and natural resources are managed in a way that maintain ecosystem functions to support current as well as future human needs”, as wished by FAO.

The first scenario is “business as usual”, whereby several outstanding challenges facing food and agriculture are left unaddressed. The second scenario, “towards sustainability”, embodies proactive changes towards more sustainable food and agricultural systems. The third scenario, “stratified societies”, outlines a future with exacerbated inequalities across countries and throughout different layers of societies. For all scenarios, the FAO revise the earlier projections made by itself and others that agriculture output need to increase with at least 70 percent to cope with a bigger population and changing consumption patterns. For the “towards sustainability” scenario agriculture output needs to increase with “just” 40 percent, and for the other scenarios around 50 percent.

The results suggest that it is still possible to move food and agricultural systems along a sustainable, equitable pathway that will meet growing demand. A global transformative process and concerted efforts that involve all the stakeholders is needed, however. As “business as usual” is not an option and further “stratified societies” certainly are not desirable, let’s focus on the “towards sustainability and how the FAO understand the meaning of it and how to get there.

In the report the FAO states that there will be a transition towards a more sustainable use of natural resources. Chemical will be restrained:  for example, regulations on nitrate usage or fertilizer quantity and type are in place, which favors precision and/or organic agriculture. Food systems generating low GHG emissions are favored, and fresh food consumption is promoted. Adopting conservation agriculture, agro-ecological approaches, agroforestry, and other environmentally-friendly techniques allows yields to increase against current levels and to converge across countries, while food systems drastically reduce GHG emissions compared with current levels. Greater crop diversification and integrated pest management approaches strengthen resilience to shocks. Agricultural prices will rise worldwide, reflecting both pressure on demand and the adoption of sustainable production practices.

The flip side of that is better income for farmers and considerably less food waste. The flop side is that people depending on cash income to buy food may suffer. Therefore “Ensuring a more equitable distribution of income within and across countries is indispensable in the quest for food security, better nutrition and environmental sustainability of food systems.” The report does note, however, that increased agriculture prices will benefit many of the rural poor as they either are farmers or farm workers and that such a development will reduce the “urban premium”, i.e. change the rural-urban balance. 

Contrary to the EAT Lancet Commission, the FAO doesn’t think that continued use of artificial fertilizers and drastic cuts in meat consumption are necessary for a sustainable food system. The per capita consumption of animal products and vegetables is projected to increase substantially in low and middle income countries, while consumption of animal products will have to go down around 10 percent in high income countries. Despite that agriculture production will expand considerably to cater for a bigger population and livestock herds will expand with 26 percent, the total greenhouse gas emissions are projected to go down. There is a need for a small expansion, less than six percent, of agriculture area, even though the regional distribution varies, in Sub-saharan Africa acreage need to double. The most remarkable feature of the scenario towards sustainability is that nitrogen fertilizer use has to stop.

For those in the food movement or in the agro-ecological, organic or regenerative agriculture movements the messages are hardly surprising, controversial or radical enough. But that FAO publishes a major report that even has a scenario for future agriculture where no artificial nitrogen fertilizer is used is nothing but a minor revolution. According to sources in the agency there was no launch, no press, no printed copies and a message from management to “keep a low profile”, regarding the report.