Category Archives: environment

The promise of ecological farming

farming's bright future

According to Reuters, a  recent U.N. report claims that ag production could be doubled within 10 years if farmers switched to ecological farming practices, especially in developing countries…

So far, eco-farming projects in 57 nations had shown average crop yield gains of 80 percent by tapping natural methods for enhancing soil and protecting against pests, it said.

Recent projects in 20 African countries had resulted in a doubling of crop yields within three to 10 years. Those lessons could be widely mimicked elsewhere, it said.

“Sound ecological farming can significantly boost production and in the long term be more effective than conventional farming,” De Schutter told Reuters of steps such as more use of natural compost or high-canopy trees to shade coffee groves.

Typically, ecological farming requires less technology, so adoption would be easier for low-income farmers in developing regions. It’s a long-term strategy for sustainable growth —  build up production and the health of the soil at the same time.


Filed under environment, food, natural

Raising questions about raising beef

happy cows in a happy field

Ever since Frances Moore Lappe authored Diet for a Small Planet back in 1971, some folks have been down on beef. The premise of that early work was that the solution to feeding everyone was to eliminate one of the foods that people love most — beef. It’s a compelling argument for vegetarians. The amount of land it takes to produce a steak is orders of magnitude larger than what it takes to produce the equivalent number of calories of edible vegetables. In addition to the efficiency argument, there was the health issue. In 1971 it was clear — fat is evil, especially animal fat, therefor, beef is the devil’s food. It’s killing us and taking up too much space.

Raising cows in CAFOs — concentrated animal feeding operations — provided beef production with the illusion of increased efficiency; more cows crammed into much smaller area. Problem solved until you look at how much space it takes to grow the corn to feed wall-to-wall cattle. Not to mention the other side effects of grain-fed beef — health and environmental. Forty years down the path we also now know that not all fat is bad. The fat from grass-fed animals might actually be good for us. So now the swing is back to raising animals on pasture. For this I am glad because I like meat. I’m not ready to be a vegetarian yet, and grass-fed makes me feel a lot better about it.

The result is that we’ve circled  back on a version of the original question — is animal production bad for the planet? If so, which is worse, grass-fed or grain-fed animal protein? According to Brian Palmer in the Washington Post this week, we really don’t know. He peruses some of the recent research on both sides and concludes there’s no clear answer.

From a strictly environmental perspective the answer is obvious — grass-fed wins! On a properly managed grass-based system, the land improves (soil quality, soil conservation, species diversity, water quality, etc.). The animals are healthier, and the system is easily sustained, because it takes a lot fewer external inputs to maintain. And animals such as cows can be raised on land that is of marginal quality, leaving the better land for growing higher yields of crops, including vegetables.

The trade-offs are that it takes longer to raise beef on a pure grass system. Ultimately, that results in a higher price for consumers. But within that higher costs, consumers are paying for environmental protection they are not getting from CAFO-raised beef.

Bottom line: eat grass-fed beef (and hogs and chickens and dairy). Go one better and buy these products directly from a local farmer. Doing so will help keep him/her in business and support the protection of the local environment.

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Filed under animal ag, environment, food, food-health connection, local food, natural

Book: a different field

the stories of real farmers in Illinois

Here’s a book I wrote several years ago. You can order it cheap from the University of Illinois.

A Different Field — Innovative Entrepreneurs in Illinois Farming

Grapes, earthworms, buffalo, pecans, honey, and catfish-not typically what comes to mind when thinking about farms in the state of Illinois. But these and other unusual “crops” are featured in a new book about innovative farmers. This book tells the stories of 18 farmers who are exploring alternatives to corn and soybeans: a first look at a growing trend in Illinois as consumers become “more conscious of their health and more particular about their food.”

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Filed under agriculture, environment, local food, organic, small farms

Worthy cause

help this family and save the earth too!

The topic of this post is not related to organic per se, but thought I’d post it anyway. My recent visit to Costa Rica opened my eyes to the beauty of the place and people.

It’s a really clever fund-raising idea that helps a needy family AND preserves a beautiful piece of land and all its ecological services.

Read more HERE and consider making a contribution.

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Farming “extensively”: sustainable aquaculture

fish food

My friend Bruno sent me a link to this awesome video. It’s a great presentation by Chef Dan Barber about a very special fish farm in Southern Spain. The farm is called Veta La Palma, and from the Collaborative Journeys website we learn…

Veta la Palama is a fish farm in southern Spain, located in an island in an estuary 16 kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean.  Tides sweep in estuary water, which a pumping station distributes throughout the farm’s 45 ponds. Because it comes directly from the ocean, that water teems with microalgae and tiny translucent shrimp, which provide natural food for the fish that Veta la Palma raises.

Veta la Palma produces 1,200 tonnes of sea bass, bream, red mullet and shrimp each year.  The land also acts as the largest private bird sanctuary in Europe; including flamingos that travel in the morning to feast on shrimp at the farm, and return the same day, to their brooding ground 150 miles away!   20% of fish and fish eggs are lost to birds each year, and this is good, says the farm’s biologist Miguel Medialdea. “We farm extensively, not intensively.  This is an ecological network.  The flamingos eat the shrimp.  The shrimp eat the phytoplankton.  So the pinker the (flamingo) belly, the better the system.”

Veta la Palma provides an alternative to the more common agribusiness model; i.e., high on capital, chemistry, machines, and questionable-tasting food!

I like how, Miguel Medialdea, describes their approach — they farm “extensively” not intensively. I like that word, “extensively.”  When I heard that word I saw open arms, room enough for everyone, farming the way God himself might farm. Life and living instead death and dying. Veta La Palma looks like an amazing example of sustainability.

Click HERE to access and view the video (~20 mins).

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Filed under agriculture, big ag, environment, food, natural

Declining bee populations: pesticides blamed

the plot thickens

I did not realize this was an ongoing problem or that is was still such a mystery. The article puts forth the premise that increasing pesticide use is to blame for hive collapse, but they are still not certain.

Research conducted in 23 US states and Canada and published in the Public Library of Science journal found 121 different pesticides in 887 samples of bees, wax, pollen and other elements of hives, lending credence to the notion of pesticides as a key problem.

One thing is certain, we need bees to grow food. If our agricultural methods are destroying the worlds bee population than our agricultural methods are not sustainable.

Read the whole article.

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Filed under agriculture, environment

New research to support organic farming’s benefit to the soil

i've never been more proud

This article at highlights some UI research that has got some people stirred up here on campus and out in the state. It is an incredible challenge to the conventional ag party line that has reigned supreme here for so long. But these researchers are not newbies. They’ve all been here a long time, they all have tremendous clout, and they are standing firm, doing what tenured researchers are supposed to do — challenging the status quo and thinking outside the proverbial box.

…the trio argues that the net effect of synthetic nitrogen use is to reduce soil’s organic matter content. Why? Because, they posit, nitrogen fertilizer stimulates soil microbes, which feast on organic matter. Over time, the impact of this enhanced microbial appetite outweighs the benefits of more crop residues.

Read the whole article. It contains links to the published papers.

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Filed under agriculture, environment, organic