This afternoon I took some time off from dealing with my own personal food crisis to read about the global one, as chronicled in this month’s National Geographic. I found Joel Bourne’s article fascinating, but also deeply aggravating, and it left me with a number of questions. The jist of the report is that Malthus may have been right all along (eventually the population will demand more food than our resources can supply), and the developments in agriculture that silenced him over the last century are no longer sufficient: they may even be doing more harm than good.
World grain production had been rising mightily over the last 50 years, thanks to hardier crop varieties that thrived with new pesticides, fertilizers, and irrigation techniques—a phenomenon ironically called the “Green Revolution.” But now famine threatens to strike again as yields flatten and food prices rise. So what do we do? Big agribusinesses like Monsanto, a top producer of pesticides and genetically engineered crops, urge more of the same: chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and GMOs—just newer, better ones. In the article, their chief technology officer essentially claims that they can invent new species of crops that will push yields even higher. Given that these techniques have worked in the past, leaders and policy makers have some incentive to listen to the big conglomerates. But the problem is, they’re not working anymore, and they’re creating more problems than they can solve: cancers, birth defects, and poisoning are on the rise while chemically treated soils get more and more depleted.
I am not a farmer, and I didn’t grow up in a farming state. I have a bad track record when it comes to keeping even houseplants alive. But it still seems sinister to me that we would need corporations like Monsanto to “design” crops that will meet desperate conditions. You know what else “designs” species to meet the challenges of their environments? Nature. Natural selection does. One of the biggest problems with monoculture is that since every plant is genetically identical, every one of them is vulnerable to the exact same things. So wouldn’t an unexpected pest, frost, heat wave, or whatever knock out an entire crop, wasting farmers’ money and labor, and driving food prices even higher? Doesn’t having a diversity of crops—and genetic diversity among each species—protect against some of those problems, and provide a wider variety of nutrients?
Perhaps the most sinister aspect of the solutions proposed by big agribusinesses is the fact that using their methods means consistently buying their seeds and their chemical products. According to the article, more than 40,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide in the last 20 years because of the debts they incurred from buying pesticides. To me, sustainability and self-sufficiency should be synonymous. Isn’t it kind of sick to introduce “miraculous” new farming methods in developing countries that leave them dependent on toxic products created by a handful of western corporations? New organic farming projects in Africa that use composting and nitrogen-fixing crops to preserve the integrity of the soil are getting the same yields as their conventional neighbors, but at much lower costs. I really believe these methods that improve the soil, rather than depleting it, are leading us in the right direction. Unfortunately, Monsanto and friends will always use their political clout to push for the policies that bring in the most profits for them—and why shouldn’t they? That’s what businesses do. But in my opinion, the stakes are too high to allow them to do that: companies farm to make money, but most of the world farms to survive.
Of course, Monsanto isn’t the only bad guy to enter into the picture. It’s hard for me to talk about anything food related without railing on the meat industry, but this time around I feel very vindicated. The article gives some staggering statistics. 35% of world grain is used to feed livestock instead of people. That has some frightening implications right there. Keep in mind that most species of livestock do not naturally eat grain: they eat grass. But when you’re cramming thousands of animals into dark sheds, grass is not an option. And when you want those animals to get so big and fat that their legs break under their own weight, grain is an option. (Never mind that the unnatural diet makes the animals sick, requiring the widespread use of antibiotics. According to author Viktoras Kulvinskas, 80% of antibiotics manufactured go into animal food.)
Having meat on the table may be a sign of new prosperity in China, where consumption of pork has gone up 45% since 1993. But Bourne states that “eating meat is an incredibly inefficient way to feed oneself. It takes up to five times more grain to get the equivalent amount of calories from eating pork as from simply eating grain itself—ten times if we’re talking about grain-fattened U.S. beef.” So why are we wasting so much food and energy on something that’s a very poor protein source, and nutritionally inferior to plant foods? Cooking meat causes its proteins to coagualate, or bind together in a way that makes them extremely difficult to digest. In a recent lecture, Kulvinskas stated that these twisted proteins, which are foreign to the body, can neither be used nor stored: instead, they build up in the bloodstream. According to his research, this diminishes the blood’s ability to transport oxygen. Cancer cells develop because they have 20 times the capacity to absorb excess proteins than normal cells do. Folks, we are not making ourselves any healthier by eating more meat. Or at least more cooked meat, that is. You can eat as much raw meat as you want. I’ve never seen a bear grill himself a steak, have you?
Something else that concerns me is the nutritional viability of what global agriculture is producing. Meat is a poor choice, but are grains really that much better? Both create acidic environments in the body, and most grains have to be boiled or milled into flour to become edible—losing a lot of their nutrients in the process. Malnutrition is getting to be a serious problem worldwide. In developing countries, people are starving for both nutrients and calories; in developed countries, people are starving for nutrients while their bodies degenerate from an abundance of calories. What I want to know is, if we could grow more nutritious food, would we have to grow as much of it?
I’m not suggesting that farmers scrap grains altogether. But I wonder what would happen if they started sprouting them. Although I haven’t tried growing sprouts myself and I don’t get to have them that often, they are supposedly one of the most nutritionally dense foods on the planet, with a vitamin and enzyme composition that increases dramatically as the seeds begin to germinate. Maybe people do this already, or maybe I’m being naïve. But I do wonder how the global health situation would change if more and more people had access to these powerfully nutritious foods, along with things like leafy greens and vegetables. Cereal grains have been staple crops for millennia, but is this out of tradition, or necessity? Clearly different plants are suited to different climates, but is it prohibitively difficult or expensive to grow things like leafy greens? The largest, most powerful mammals eat mostly leaves and grasses—even carnivores: the free amino acids and blood-building chlorophyll in these plants are doing them a lot more good than the chemical nightmares in our cooked food are doing for us. Maybe it’s a foolish notion, but I wonder if taking a cue from the animal world and growing more greens for local consumption in addition to grains for export wouldn’t help alleviate some of the new challenges of agriculture and some of the existing nutritional deficiencies.
I don’t know what the future of farming will look like, but I sincerely hope it favors diversity and sustainability. I don’t think humanity has much of a future on a diet of hamburgers for a lot of reasons, and Joel Burke’s article has opened my eyes to a lot of new ones.