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
|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
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 amazing.
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, 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
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 diseases.
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
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 Disease
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 animal health.
|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 its sustenance.”
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
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 to people.
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 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
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
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
||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
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 challenge.