Okay, I admit it, I’m a “foodie.”
I can hardly help it, coming from a family where cookbooks were
considered appropriate leisure reading, where Julia Child joined
us regularly during dinner from her TV kitchen, and where the
women find much purpose and pleasure in feeding people and showing
off their culinary skills.
Our long family Thanksgiving table was always spread with
bountiful abundance of wonderful food, far more than all the
members of the extended family could possibly eat. I do remember
one memorable year when the turkey slipped off the pan as
my grandmother was taking it out of the oven and slid greasily
across the kitchen floor. She calmly picked it up, brushed
it off, and carried it proudly past the astonished faces of
my mother and aunts into the dining room to the waiting family
with a big smile on her face. It was delicious!
Talking about and eating good food has always been a primary
activity in our lives. As an adult, the responsibility of
feeding my own young family coincided with our conversion
to organic farming, so growing and eating high-quality feed
took on a vast new meaning and importance. To me, food is
an offering of love, a common language between generations;
food is art, comfort, chore, responsibility, a gift, an investment—and
always we have had far more than enough.
|To me, food is an offering of love,
a common language between generations; food is art, comfort,
chore, responsibility, a gift, an investment—and
always we have had far more than enough.
At a recent dinner at Cornell University, I had the good
fortune to sit next to Cuthberto Garza, Ph.D., professor of
nutritional sciences. We were lavishly fed the finest that
American agricultural and culinary bounty can provide, tender
baby salad greens, artisan breads, three different meats and
a truly exquisite tiramisu. But our conversation did not concern
the wonderful food before us, it centered instead on the topic
of the seminar we were both attending that evening: Ethics,
Globalization and World Hunger.
In addition to being a professor, Dr. Garza is a physician
specializing in prenatal and perinatal nutrition. In explaining
his research, he gave a very interesting analogy. Mother Nature,
he says, is like the toughest banker out there. She demands
that the bank accounts contain certain values at different
critical times, and if there isn’t sufficient iron,
zinc, folic acid, and many other critical nutrients available
at precise points during gestation and early development,
there may be no going back, no second chance. The damage is
permanent. But if she is provided with all the correct items
when needed, she is most generous and the results are truly
Dr. Garza wasn’t just talking about the type of Third
World malnutrition that makes the headlines. He sees the results
of malnutrition, especially of micronutrients, as pervasive
throughout our culture. Much of his recent work has been on
what he calls ‘metabolic imprinting’. Data from
human epidemiological studies and animal models strongly suggest
that nutrition during pregnancy and infancy can give a significant
long-term predispositions to adult obesity, cardiovascular
disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes. This ‘imprinting’
may only occur during a critical narrowly-defined period in
the individual's life; once that time is past, the imprinted
behavior is permanent.
What are we imprinting our children with these days? The
answer: Fat, salt and sugar. Our bin-busting agricultural
policy rewards high-yield conventional farming, churning out
vast quantities of cheap corn and soybeans readily converted
into vast quantities of cheap high fructose corn syrup and
hydrogenated fats. Dr. Garza thinks that since fat, sugar
and salt were extremely limited but much needed for survival
during most of our evolution, we humans have a biologically
hardwired ‘reward system’ that makes us desire
more, even when we have enough. Our bodies crave fat and sugar,
which in nature would come accompanied with valuable vitamins,
minerals and fiber, but instead we eat artificial sweeteners
and hydrogenated trans fats that are chemically akin to plastic.
In the early 1900s, the average American consumed about 4
pounds of white sugar each year. Today, our sugar annual intake
has increased by 2,500 percent to over 120 pounds, mostly
through processed foods!
As our society today constantly hurls these products at kids,
is it any wonder that childhood obesity and its accompanying
long-term health problems are rampant? This is truly an affluent
version of micronutrient malnutrition, courtesy of a typical
McDonalds diet. We have done it to ourselves, and we will
reap the enormous cost to society for generations to come.
But will we recognize it then for what it is?
After dinner, we attended a fascinating lecture by the Hon.
Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and U.N. High Commissioner
for Hunger and Human Rights. She took a wider view of the
world hunger and malnutrition crisis. The World Health Organization
estimates that one-third of the world population is well fed,
one-third is underfed, and one-third is starving. More than
four million people will die from preventable starvation this
year. Worldwide, one in twelve people is malnourished, including
160 million children under the age of five. Every seven seconds,
one of these children die. Malnutrition is implicated in more
than half of all childhood deaths worldwide, a proportion
unmatched by any infectious disease since the Black Death.
Ms. Robinson says that these most visible symptoms of the
world hunger problem are only the tip of the iceberg. We are
now facing a world population starving both from calorie deprivation
and from more hidden nutrient deficiencies.
||The World Health Organization
estimates that one-third of the world population is well
fed, one-third is underfed, and one-third is starving.
Micronutrient malnutrition takes many forms and it is estimated
to affect more than 40 percent of the world population. Symptoms
of this condition include blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency,
scurvy from by vitamin C deficiency, anemia from lack of iron,
and spinal cord birth defects from lack of folic acid in early
pregnancy. But deficiencies of other micronutrients and vitamins
are more subtle and insidious, causing depressed growth, problems
with reproductive and mental development, impaired absorption
and usage of other essential nutrients, and impaired immune
functioning among other things. The common scourges of developing
countries—such as diarrhea, malaria, respiratory infections—are
most severe in people who are malnourished.
Indeed, Ms. Robinson says the biggest challenge (and the
most preventable) with the AIDS crisis in Africa is malnutrition.
Having an adequate supply of nutrient-dense foods and vitamins
would do much more to prolong productive life for people infected
with HIV than the current tactic of supplying antiviral drugs
and condoms. Because so much of the adult population is unable
to farm due to illness and social dislocation, coupled with
the depleted, eroded soils typical of many parts of Africa,
food is often scarce and of poor quality. Hunger makes people
very vulnerable to exploitation and secondary infections.
Feeding the world
Organic critics love to claim that organic agriculture could
not feed the world, but it is useful to turn the question
around and ask, “How well is high input agriculture
feeding the current and growing world population now?”
The answer to that, most will agree, is “not well at
all” due to political unrest, poverty, poor distribution,
storage loss, soil degradation and the unfortunate fact that
adequate nutrition is not the same thing as sheer calorie
count. A diverse diet provides the best nutrition, but high
input monoculture agriculture discourages dietary diversity
and self-sufficiency. High input agriculture is also marked
by a serious ‘leakiness’ as soil, fertilizer,
and pesticides move out of the fields, polluting the streams
and ground water. Massive outputs of manure are produced thousands
of miles from where the crops are grown for animal feed. This
results in salinization, eutrophication, pesticide and nitrate
contamination, depletion of water, high fossil fuel consumption
for farm machinery and transportation, and destruction of
biodiversity. This is not a sustainable situation.
|Hunger is simply not a matter
of absolute worldwide pounds of food . . . In
the United States . . . between 40 percent
and 50 percent of all food suitable for consumption in
the U.S. never gets eaten
Most world relief agencies agree that there is enough food
to feed everyone in the world. If the total food grown worldwide
was divided in equal portions for the world’s population,
there would be plenty for everyone with some to spare. In
fact, there would be about 10 percent more food than is needed.
Even if the world’s population continues to rise as
predicted, there should still be sufficient quantity of food
produced for the foreseeable future.
Hunger is simply not a matter of absolute worldwide pounds
of food. The huge surpluses of grain produced in developed
countries make their way slowly, if at all, to developing
countries where food is needed. International trade does not
reap profits from providing grain to poor people; in some
places, such as the Sudan, hunger is being used as a cruel
but highly effective political tool.
In many hungry countries, it is not unusual to find the best
agricultural land devoted to growing cotton, coffee, tobacco,
soybeans or other export commodities, while only the poorer
land is used to grow food to feed the local people. Marginal
and fragile lands cleared for export crop production rapidly
become infertile and erosion prone. Although it may make political
and economic sense to encourage the production of cash crops,
especially in countries carrying crushing national debt, a
balance must be found to ensure that a country’s food
needs are not sacrificed for export income.
In the United States, we see another perhaps even more disturbing
trend. A new study, conducted by Timothy Jones, Ph.D. at the
University of Arizona, has found that between 40 percent and
50 percent of all food suitable for consumption in the U.S.
never gets eaten. Under a grant from the USDA, Dr. Jones has
traced the food distribution chain for the past 10 years from
farms, through warehouses, retail outlets, restaurants and
finally landfills. Capturing this loss, even if only partially,
could provide a massive amount of food to combat hunger…and
could also reduce environmental degradation and save U.S.
consumers and corporations tens of billions of dollars annually.
But you never hear politicians talking about this, do you?
Perhaps in a way, we Westerners are proud of being affluent
enough to be able to afford to waste.
Was it really a Green Revolution?
In the 1950s and 1960s, agricultural scientists and agribusinesses
actively spread ‘modern agriculture’ throughout
the world. High yielding grain varieties, pesticides, synthetic
fertilizers and massive irrigation all contributed to a dramatic
rise in worldwide grain yields (including a 200-percent yield
increase in rice and a 400 percent yield increase in wheat).
This marvel of American agricultural ingenuity that came to
be known as the Green Revolution looked like a major miracle.
||Even though grain yields were
increasing, the quality of many people’s diets actually
declined. Studies now show that, throughout the developing
world, the adoption of Green Revolution techniques has
directly paralleled the rising anemia and other nutritional
Unfortunately, the costs of this “miracle” are
now becoming very apparent. The new grain cropping systems
were accompanied with a decrease in the production of traditional
foods that have a higher micronutrient and protein density,
particularly vegetables and legumes. Even though grain yields
were increasing, the quality of many people’s diets
actually declined. Studies now show that, throughout the developing
world, the adoption of Green Revolution techniques has directly
paralleled the rising anemia and other nutritional diseases.
Use of heavy irrigation has resulted in soil salinization,
erosion, and the depletion of soil organic matter and minerals.
The use of pesticides and fertilizers have resulted in contaminated
water supplies and microbially dead soil, which in turn leads
to more erosion, more runoff, more salt buildup and the tying
up of soil nutrients. Many environmentalists are cautioning
that the next big world crisis will be a shortage of clean
drinkable water, as so much of the world’s fresh water
is now contaminated.
Regional biodiversity has plummeted, with seeds from multinational
corporations routinely replacing traditional varieties. It
is estimated that just 12 crops and 14 animal species now
provide most of the world's food, and these are not particularly
nutrient-rich. The traditional foods and practices that provided
a varied diet are rapidly becoming extinct in the wake of
modern agriculture, leaving behind the debris of a shattered
environment and hungry people.
Soil + Plant + Animal = Health . . . or
We organic farmers have a very important mission. We know
something that most of the most vocal agricultural experts
do not. We know that soil matters. The quality and health
of the soil directly affects the quality and health of the
plants, which in turn directly affects the health of the animals
(including us) eating those plants. We organic farmers know
that the practices we use to improve soil—crop rotation,
increasing organic matter, adding deficient minerals like
calcium, wisely and responsibly using animal manure for fertility,
and avoiding devastating practices like using pesticides and
synthetic fertilizers—also improve the nutritional quality
of the crops and the health of animals.
While this may sound revolutionary, it isn’t rocket
science, nor is it exactly new news. As early as the 1930s,
a few daring scientists—including William Albrecht Charles
Northern and Carey Reams—warned that the nutritional
value of food and feed crops were plummeting, and they showed
what must to be done to improve crop quality and human and
|We organic farmers . . . know
something that most of the most vocal agricultural experts
do not. We know that soil matters.
In 1947, Sir Albert Howard developed a philosophy that directly
speaks to us today. In The Soil and Health
(Faber and Faber, 1945), he wrote that real security against
want and ill health can only be assured by an abundant supply
of fresh food properly grown in a healthy living soil. This
book is an examination of history, showing that declining
soil health was frequently accompanied by political unrest
and widespread disease. He concluded that “no one generation
has a right to exhaust the soil from which humanity must draw
In 1943, Lady Eve Balfour noted that pigs fed soil from a
field rich in humus where no chemicals had been used were
cured of white scour disease within 48 hours, while soil from
exhausted land or land treated with chemicals had no effect
in curing the illness.
Also in 1943, William Albrecht, Ph.D., a soil scientist at
the University of Missouri writing about micronutrient malnutrition
said: ”These hidden hungers originate in the soil and
reach us by way of plants that also suffer hidden hungers.
So also animals that feed on the plants suffer their hidden
hungers and so humans, in their turn, consuming the products
of plants and animals suffer. The whole series of torments
is caused by nutrient shortages in the soil.”
In the ensuing 60 years, the soil and crop nutritional levels
have continued to dive and agricultural scientists are scratching
their heads looking for answers. Animal nutritionists have
constantly needed to reformulate feed rations, raising the
level of protein concentrates and adding additional minerals
as grain and forage nutrient content has dropped. In 1997,
Dr. Anne-Marie Mayer compared the copper, sodium, calcium,
iron, magnesium, and potassium levels in 20 fruits and 20
vegetables from 1940 to 1991 using data from the UK Ministry
of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF). Her study, "Historical
Changes in the Mineral Content of Fruits and Vegetables,"
was presented at the Agricultural Production and Nutrition
conference held at Tufts University School of Nutrition Science
and Policy. She found that most fruits and vegetables have
dropped dramatically in nutrients, with fruit losing on average
20 percent of mineral density while vegetables lost nearly
40 percent. Specifically, the average content of calcium in
vegetables has declined to 81 percent of the original level,
while the magnesium level in the fruit declined by 89 percent.”
||One of the easiest ways to
increase the productivity of a vegetable is to increase
its ability to retain water. Some of our increased productivity
of vegetables actually reflects our ability to sell water
Selection criteria used in modern plant breeding also contribute
to this nutritional decline. Crops are more often selected
for high yields and storability than for their nutritional
value. Selection for such non-nutritional qualities usually
reduces nutrient content. One of the easiest ways to increase
the productivity of a vegetable is to increase its ability
to retain water. Some of our increased productivity of vegetables
actually reflects our ability to sell water to people.
In a terrific article in the November 23, 2004 New York Times
entitled ‘Food without Fear,” chef Dan Barber
write “A serving of broccoli is naturally rich in vitamins
A and B, and has more vitamin C than citrus fruit. But raised
in an industrial farm monoculture, shipped over a long distance
and stored before and after being delivered to your supermarket,
it loses up to 80 percent of its vitamin C and 95 percent
of its calcium, iron and potassium. Fruits and vegetables
grown organically, however, have higher levels of antioxidants.
That's largely because a plant's natural defense system produces
phenolic compounds, chemicals that act as a plant's defense
against pests and bugs. These compounds are beneficial to
our health, too. When plants are grown with herbicides and
pesticides, they slow down their production of these compounds.”
What can we do?
World hunger statistics tend to be so staggering and numbing
that most of us feel impotent to make any significant difference.
However, we must remember the words of that great piece of
cultural literacy and wisdom, the song ‘Alice’s
Restaurant’: “If one person comes in, they’ll
think he’s crazy…But if 50 people come in, they’ll
think its a movement, and folks, that’s just what it
is.” One person alone usually can’t make much
of change to such huge problem, but together we can indeed
accomplish remarkable things.
First, we must be proud of what we are trying to accomplish
on our own organic farms. We are doing the right thing. We
have a responsibility to do organic farming the very best
we know how. We are indeed feeding the world, both with nutrition
and with hope. Remember and share what you intuitively know:
We humans can’t be healthy unless the food we eat is
healthy. Healthy nutrient-rich food comes from healthy nutrient-rich
soil. We might be fooled in the short run, but sustainably
there can’t be any other way.
Recently, my high school son came home from school commenting
that they had served nachos and processed cheese for school
lunch, and my middle-school daughter added that all the kids
really lit into the brownies and Cool Whip on the salad bar
that day. Malnutrition is not unique to developing countries,
but people there don’t have the choices we do. Affluent
malnutrition is due to sheer laziness and ignorance. We have
absolutely no excuse for feeding our children junk, and yet,
as a society, we do so aggressively.
|Affluent malnutrition is due
to sheer laziness and ignorance. We have absolutely no
excuse for feeding our children junk, and yet, as a society,
we do so aggressively.
Medical science is now making the link between nutrition
and physical health, but even more chilling is the emerging
link between nutrition and mental health. Biochemical evidence
is mounting that diets high in sugar and fat, or low in vitamins
and essential amino acids can affect rational thought, learning,
and moral and social behavior and can predispose us to allergies,
depression, anxiety, and more serious psychiatric symptoms.
A recent study from Denmark showed that even moderate intake
of caffeinated beverages can significantly raise blood pressure.
We need to start at home first, making sure that our own kids
get the best quality food possible. The initial cost is minimal,
the costs of not doing so are enormous, and we will see the
results before our own eyes. This is a choice we must make.
We all make other choices everyday with our wallets. But,
if you’re like me, sometimes it is easy to forget what
those choices really mean. Personally, I am trying to choose
to spend our money on Fair Exchange coffee, farm market vegetables
and pastured meats instead of corn chips, Hamburger Helper
and McDonalds. This is both for the health of my family and
for the farmers producing the food. Although it can be remarkably
difficult, I am trying to use our money to reward farmers
around the world who are seeking better ways instead of rewarding
those companies that foster globalization and its ensuing
agricultural, personal and environmental disasters.
We should contact our agricultural colleges to offer our
expertise with soils and organic production. Here is one area
that, without a doubt, we organic farmers know much more about
than the so-called experts. Our experience is a valuable gift
we can give to the future. We have to put aside bitter feelings
from previous slights, look beyond the biotech and other offensive
technologies that command an inordinate proportion of research
dollars, and be there to help when the researchers ask for
alternatives. Because they will ask eventually. Chemical agriculture
is in its twilight, the experts know that, and the honest
ones know that biotech is merely a Band-Aid that solves none
of the inherent problems and failures. Chemical agriculture
will not feed the world, even at its current rate of failure.
Can we grow enough food with organic agriculture techniques
throughout the world now? It is well documented that organic
agriculture works well on healthy, sound soils in temperate
areas, producing yields equal or better than conventional.
However, there is much we do not yet know, especially how
to optimize and sustain an organic system on depleted and
fragile soil. If the huge amount of money and brilliance that
has been invested in researching and promoting conventional
agriculture for the past 50 years had been spent on organic
agriculture, then I do not doubt that the answer would be
“yes.” If similar research and development could
be done now on all soil types, especially those in tropical
areas, then I do not doubt that improved, modern, intentional
organic agriculture would become the norm. We organic farmers
must lead the way with our expertise and experience to achieve
that goal as quickly as possible.
||Chemical agriculture is in
its twilight, the experts know that, and the honest ones
know that biotech is merely a Band-Aid that solves none
of the inherent problems and failures. Chemical agriculture
will not feed the world, even at its current rate of failure.
A couple of years ago, our friends Mike and Maria decided
to take a sabbatical from their farm and volunteer in Central
America with Mercy Ships International. Mike’s organic
agriculture skills and Maria’s nursing skills make them
uniquely valuable, but from their incandescent emails it sounds
like they really believe that they are the most fortunate
recipients. Another friend, Terry, has taken her organic vegetable
growing skills to India, where she is helping to organize
urban community gardens. These people, and so many others,
are true inspirations to a changing world.
On Christmas morning, my family will find goats, chickens,
sheep and manure in their Christmas stockings – along
with the hope and health that these things bring. But the
barnyard smell will not disrupt our bountiful Christmas breakfast.
My family will find cards giving contributions in their names
to Heifer Project International, a fine organization that
recognizes that sustainable help provides food production,
not just food, and that giving a poor village a flock of chickens,
a cow, or a herd of goats feeds more than just the people
and the soil, it also fosters health, hope, peace, education,
pride, community and independence. There are other fine organizations
like Heifer Project that need our support, now more than ever.
Groups like these put readily our help to good use, and even
better, giving to Heifer Project (www.heifer.org)
is so easy. No muss, no fuss. We don’t even have to
get our hands dirty. All you need is a telephone and our trusty
ubiquitous plastic money!
We can all do a better job, here at home and worldwide. But
first, all of us have to truly want to do it. That is our