Sara Newmark, Vice President of Social Impact, MegaFood | April 2019
We at MegaFood love farmers but believe that modern industrial farming is a busted system. We also believe farmers offer the greatest opportunity to affect change and run the greatest risk of losing their livelihoods if they don’t. Small tweaks within the current system won’t work. The whole apparatus needs an overhaul. The practice of regenerative agriculture holds the key to fixing the problem, and MegaFood shares a commitment to both organic and regenerative agriculture with each of it's trusted farm partners. When we say we're out to change the world, starting with food, we aren't kidding.
This is a serious set of claims, so we’re breaking our case into three separate posts. I hope you read my first one that provided a general overview of key concepts such as soil health and regenerative agriculture. This one zeroes in on the main problems introduced by industrialized farming methods. (It’s not a pretty picture.) A third article will explore solutions to these problems and what we’re doing about it.
And so, without further ado, our second installment:
We’re killing our soil
Harsh, right? Well, in recent decades, scientists have seen a sharp decline in healthy soil worldwide. The chief culprits are farming methods that depend heavily on the use of herbicides, chemical fertilizers, genetically modified seeds, and intensive tilling, all working together to squeeze more productivity out of an acre at the expense of its long-term health.
If you’ve been following our ban glyphosate initiative, you know that synthetic herbicides like glyphosate, which are used to kill weeds, can also kill the beneficial microbes on which soil heavily depends. The problem owes to the way giant agribusinesses, such as Monsanto, both design the chemicals that kill plant life as well as the genetically modified seeds that are able to survive the chemical onslaught.
A win-win for Monsanto, to be sure, but not for the soil.
Tilling is widely accepted as the best way to prepare fields for new crops and keep weed growth under control; but it’s also been proven to weaken the topsoil and leave it vulnerable to erosion by wind and water. Combined with chemical inputs, over-tilling reduces the earth to sand.
The loss of the world’s fertile soil and biodiversity, along with the loss of indigenous seeds and knowledge, pose a mortal threat to our future survival. Soil scientists figure at current rates of soil destruction from decarbonization, erosion, desertification, and chemical pollution, within 50 years we will not only suffer serious damage to public health due to a qualitatively degraded food supply characterized by diminished nutrition and loss of important trace minerals, but we will literally no longer have enough arable topsoil to feed ourselves.
Let that sink in. 50 years isn’t that far away, and it affects you and your family.
We’re driving down nutrient density
Let’s break down that last thought more. The way herbicides such as glyphosate kill plant life is by serving as a “chelating agent,” binding to minerals in the soil and preventing the uptake of nutrients by the plants themselves. This means that plants — and the livestock that eat the plants — contain fewer vital nutrients such as iron, manganese, zinc, and boron. Move on up the food chain and we, too, are consuming less nutritious food as a result.
That’s one way in which industrial farming deprives us of nutrients. A second likely way is that the herbicides we ingest from consuming industrially produced food may disrupt our own gut bacteria. This bacteria, or microbiome, produces a variety of nutrients, such as short-chain fatty acids, B vitamins and vitamin K. These vitamins help aid digestion and fight against inflammation and disease that arise from “bad” bacteria.
But it all begins with our extractive relationship with the soil. To be perfectly blunt, it’s all take, take, take and no give on our part. And guess what, someday soon the soil is going to say, “I’m done with this!”
We’re taking money out of local economies
Let’s switch from the exhaustion of the soil to the undermining of economic opportunity and fostering inequality. The government, which is to say we, are disproportionately subsidizing crops that form the backbone of what public-health experts are telling us to eat less of: processed foods and meats. Yes, we should continue to help farmers reduce risk through insurance-premium help, but today those that benefit most are large-scale farms growing commodity crops, primarily corn and soy.
I encourage you to read Josh Tickell’s influential Kiss the Ground for insight into how much of these commodity crops don’t even end up as wholesome food but rather as high calorie / low nutrition ingredients in mass-produced junk food.
Small, local, family farmers are the big losers precisely because they tend to favor more crop diversification. Just think how about the great abundance and variety of produce and protein available at your local farmers markets and farm stands. Now, imagine a farm system that produces more of this rather than less. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves...
We’re accelerating climate change
Plant life uses photosynthesis to draw carbon from the atmosphere and turn it into sugar that fuels its growth. Industrial farming techniques and government crop insurance policies that reward single crop production strip the soil of plant life, accelerating drought conditions and leaving more — make that a lot more — carbon unabsorbed into the ground.
On top of the deforestation arising as new farms replace exhausted ones, we also have the emission of greenhouse gases resulting from modern farming technologies. Small wonder scientists estimate the current industrial food system is responsible for 44% – 57% of all global greenhouse gas emissions.
Consider, the carbon in the atmosphere is currently at 410 ppm (parts per million). Even the most conservative estimates say we need to get back to 350 ppm to sustain life on earth. How about them numbers?
Climate change fosters more extreme weather, which in turn hurts crop growth, which in turn leads to companies applying yet more carbon-producing technologies to “combat” nature. It’s an unproductive cycle with no good ending.
We’re not feeding the world
In my opinion, the “Green Revolution” has failed in its promise to apply postwar technologies to feed the world. First, it produces a roughly 30% waste of food when we account both for food production and consumption. Second, climate change has challenged small farms, where much of the world’s food is still produced, to maintain adequate yields. Yields are not growing and people are still hungry.
While modern agriculture has often been portrayed as a reason for so many climate and nutrient problems, we also know that it’s the solution. No matter what the rest of us do, the environmental impact of farming is in the hands of the people who are actually doing it. It is a breathtaking responsibility, and the farmers I’ve talked to take it very seriously.
Everyone agrees that reducing pollution, safeguarding soil and sequestering carbon are important, but no one knows how to do that on any particular farm, or particular field, better than the farmer.
As a company that believes in the power of farmers — that knows regenerative and caring agriculture is the solution — MegaFood has developed a sourcing standard, in partnership with our farming partners, that will provide farmers the assurances, support and community they need to lead this revolution. Our sourcing standards will also furnish MegaFood with the data we need to know we are actually making a difference. And we will do it all transparently.
Want to help us change the world? Stay tuned for my next post! I’ll go over innovations that are already in place to make this happen!
Want to learn more about the trusted farm partners who work with MegaFood? Meet our farmers.
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