If our industrial food system leaves you feeling a little queasy, Sarah Elton has just the medicine you need: a powerfully hopeful account of the gathering efforts to take down our ‘too-big-to-fail’ agribusiness empire and replace it with something that makes sense for our planet and our communities!
— Bill McKibben, author of Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist
A terrific new book!
— Michael Pollan, author of Cooked, Food Rules, In Defense of Food and Botany of Desire
An ambitious and optimistic book, that takes on the food sustainability issues with clarity and skill, and warm understanding too. Through the stories and situations of farmers in India, China, France, and North America, as well as through discussions with scientists, we come to understand how local farming can indeed feed the world. A must-have for anyone interested in food.
— Naomi Duguid, author of Burma: Rivers of Flavor and co-author of Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet
For anyone who gives thought to what we consume at our meal tables, this book will take you on a heart-warming trip around the world and return you home enlightened, informed and inspired. A winning argument for the sustainable food movement.
— Gill Deacon, author of There’s Lead in Your Lipstick and Green for Life
Sarah Elton has written a delectable and entertaining guide to the new food revolution. How will we feed the planet’s hungry billions in the decades to come? The failed experiment of more pesticides and plastic foods is not the answer. Elton travels from rural India, to the mountains of France to that most surprising epicenter of modern agriculture—downtown Detroit—to weave a hopeful story of the global reconnection with the food that sustains us. A must-read for anyone who eats!
— Rick Smith, co-author of Slow Death by Rubber Duck
By 2050, the world population is expected to reach nine billion. And the challenge of feeding this rapidly growing population is being made greater by climate change, which will increasingly wreak havoc on the way we produce our food.
At the same time, we have lost touch with the soil. Few of us know where our food comes from, let alone how to grow it.
We are increasingly at the mercy of multinational corporations who control the crops and give little thought to the damage their methods are inflicting on the planet.
Our very future is at risk. While food might be the problem, author Sarah Elton (see About the Author below) points out in Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet, it is also the solution.
The food system as we know it was assembled in a few decades — and if it can be built that quickly, it can be reassembled and improved in the same amount of time.
Elton walks fields and farms on three continents, not only investigating the very real threats to our food, but also telling the little-known stories of the people who are working against time to create a new and hopeful future.
From the mountains of southern France to the highlands of China, from the crowded streets of Nairobi to the banks of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, we meet people from all walks of life who are putting together an alternative to the omnipresent industrial food system.
In the arid fields of rural India we meet a farmer who has transformed her community by selling organic food directly to her neighbors. We visit a laboratory in Toronto where scientists are breeding a new kind of rice seed that they claim will feed the world. We learn about Italy’s underground food movement; how university grads are returning to the fields in China, Greece, and France; and how in Detroit, plots of vacant land planted with kale and carrots can help us see what’s possible.
In Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet, Elton lays out the targets we need to meet by the year 2050. The stories she tells give us hope for avoiding a daunting fate and instead help us to believe in a not-too-distant future when we can all sit at the table.
Traveling the globe to research her new book Elton reports on the efforts of people — in cities and on farms, from New York to rural India — who are putting together a new way of feeding the world that is resilient to the inevitable shocks that climate change will throw our way.
In Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet, Sarah tells the untold stories of this massive but little known global social movement that is changing all aspects of food. With her eye on the year 2050, Sarah lays out the decade by decade targets we must meet so that by mid-century we can feed ourselves in an ever increasingly turbulent world.
Consumed definitely is a must-read for anyone who eats, and cares about and wants to be part of the solution!
See below for an excerpt from Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet.
And i love this blog-post-tuned-column in the Globe and Mail, where Sarah shares what we all can learn from her Grandmother who practiced sustainability way before it became a concept (her original headline was: Grandma would know how to survive a zombie apocalypse — we should too!)
Sarah Elton is the author of Locavore: From Farmers’ Fields To Rooftop Gardens—How Canadians Are Changing the Way We Eat.
She has written for publications such as the New York Times, Atlantic, Maclean’s, and Globe and Mail and is the food columnist for CBC Radio’s Here & Now. She lives in Toronto.
We should be supporting sustainable food systems for many reasons. To begin with, sustainable agriculture is simply better for the environment.
The industrial food system does not offer us a long-term solution to feeding the planet because it destroys land and soil, consumes too much water, emits tonnes of greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide, and is utterly dependent on fossil fuels.
Sustainable or regenerative agriculture, on the other hand, produces food at the same time as it provides society with ecological goods and services. Sustainable agriculture helps to conserve water, it protects the soil from erosion, and it nurtures biodiversity by creating a hospitable habitat for pollinators rather than killing them with pesticides.
When the Rodale Institute, a Pennsylvania-based organic advocacy not-for-profit, compared the soil health of organic farms and conventional farms in a thirty-year-long side-by-side farming systems trial, they found that conventional agriculture produces 45 percent more greenhouse gases than organic. That's because on agroecological farms, more carbon is sequestered in the soil.
The organic soil also held on to nitrogen longer, meaning that less leached away in the water runoff from rain or melting snow. And in times of drought, crops planted in the organic soils fared better because the soil was richer in organic matter and microbes and was therefore better able to support plants under stressful conditions.
A study published in 2009 in the Journal of Cleaner Production found similar results. The study compared the greenhouse gas emissions of organic wheat and conventional wheat. It concluded that conventional wheat production released more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than organic, largely because of the emissions from the artificial synthesis of nitrogen used to make conventional fertilizer.
Another study, published in 2010, found that fields farmed organically supported more butterflies than conventionally farmed fields--an indication that organic agriculture supports more biodiversity.
Agroecological farms are also more resilient. In October 1998, one of the most deadly hurricanes of the last two hundred years tore through Central America. Hurricane Mitch damaged billions of dollars' worth of industry and infrastructure.
Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of Food First (also known as the Institute for Food and Development Policy), compared how conventional and agroecological farms had fared in the storm. Working with information collected on 880 smallholder plots across Nicaragua, he found that farms where agroecology was practised were more resistant to storm damage than conventional farms.
On average, the plots farmed agroecologically retained 40 percent more topsoil after the storm passed and lost 18 percent less arable land in landslides.
The way these farmers worked the land helped to protect them in the kinds of extreme weather events predicted to increase as we move towards the year 2050.
The industrial food system is praised for the efficiency of its large farms, but it is the small farms that perform better. Many studies have shown that small farms are in fact more efficient at transforming natural resources into foods. If you consider their total food output rather than yield from only one staple crop, small farms produce more food on the same amount of land than large industrial farms do.
This is because, whereas large farms tend to grow crops in monocultures--one crop, one field--small-scale farmers practising alternative agriculture will typically plant many different kinds of crops on their land, even sowing a second crop in between the rows (a technique called intercropping).
Small farmers also tend to incorporate livestock into general farm production, and work to produce a variety of fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat, and dairy. All this edible output will exceed the amount of food that is grown per unit of land on a large farm.
The idea that a smaller farm can produce more per hectare than a big farm sounds counterintuitive, but there is a term for the phenomenon: "the inverse relationship between farm size and output"--IR for short.
To better understand it, social scientists have built mathematical models that measure the output of different kinds of farms, accounting for variability in land quality and population concentration. They ask questions like, how fertile is the land? And, are farmers in one area simply working harder and growing more food because they live near a large market where they can sell more?
While there is some debate in the literature, the overriding consensus is that small farms produce more gross output per hectare per year. Even in parts of the world where farmers use green revolution technology on their small plots of land, it seems that they are able to produce more than their large counterparts.
Various theories explain this, but the most widely recognized interpretation reasons that small farmers are free to invest more of their labour in their land, thus producing more food. Big farms, on the other hand, have to dedicate resources to managing labour and technology, which eats into their productivity.
This phenomenon is striking in Cuba, where farmers largely have been forced off fossil fuels and into organic agriculture. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the country lost a prime source of cheap oil and gas and the United States tightened its trade embargo, the Cuban government had to figure out how to produce food for the island without fossil fuels.
Specialists in low-input agriculture from the universities taught farmers how to grow without the green revolution's help. On farms and in cities, organic agriculture took over. Today in Cuba, farmers produce 65 percent of the country's food on only 25 percent of the island's land, growing more per hectare than a commercial farm.
According to statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization, Cuba imports grains, pulses, coffee, dried milk, and meat, but is able to produce a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, pork, and dairy. A lot of the organic vegetable production is done in cities, in urban gardens they call organopónicos.
News of their success has spread wide, and there are even trips organized for tourists to see what Cubans have accomplished. Agroecology has many advantages, and small farms can be more efficient than large farms. However, whether or not organic agriculture can produce crop yields per unit of land that are as high as what industrial farms achieve isn't as clear-cut. How much food one way of farming yields over another is an important part of the picture because the amount of food a piece of land produces determines how much land we need to farm and how much land we can leave to be wild.
Proponents of industrial food often argue that it is better for the environment because its high yields allow us to spare farmland and leave it fallow. And although there are studies that show organic agriculture outperforms conventional, a lot of research demonstrates that it can't compete.
The academic work that supports the idea that organic agriculture is just as productive includes the Rodale Farming Systems thirty-year trial. Not only did it find that organic agriculture delivered ecological benefits but it also recorded organic yields that matched conventional ones.
During drought years, organic corn yielded 30 percent more. Yet another study, overseen by Jules Pretty at the University of Essex, looked at how a transition to agroecology improved crop production on more than twelve million farms in fifty-seven countries.
It found that sustainable methods increased yields an average of 64 percent, rising to as much as 100 percent in some cases. Yet other studies show that conventional farming grows more food.
In our search for the best way to feed the world, it can be hard to make sense of all the conflicting evidence. That's why Verena Seufert, a PhD student in geography, and her colleagues at McGill University decided to study the studies.
They extracted data from 125 scientific studies and searched for patterns as well as for factors that could explain variations between results. They found that--it depends!
In some cases, depending on soil type and farming practices, organic yields can come close to conventional yields. Mostly, however, they do fall short. Overall, organic yields were 25 percent lower. The team's results were published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature.
I buy organic food. I believe fundamentally in the holistic philosophy of regenerative farming--the idea that we should be cycling nutrients in our food system, striving for ecological balance. I also believe that we should design our food system in whatever way minimizes its environmental burden. So I wasn't sure what to make of Seufert's findings. But she explained to me that although the study isn't a slam dunk for the organics movement, it doesn't prove that industrial agriculture is the answer either.
"Our study shows there is not a yes or no answer to this question," she told me. "We have to look at the context. It depends on how you manage the system. It depends on where you grow crops. It depends on what crops you grow."
For example, it is harder to match the yields of organic cereal crops to conventional ones, but organic legumes such as the pigeon peas Chandrakalabai grows, as well as perennials like her sweet lime trees, fare well under organic agriculture. To figure out how to apply this information to the design of the most sustainable food system, we have to understand what explains these differences. And when thinking about yields, one element is key.