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May 2011 - Part 2

GLEANINGS: n. 1. That which has been acquired by gleaning. 2. The monthly eNewsletter of CT NOFA. [Glean:v. 1. to gather relevant information or material by patient effort, bit by bit; to find out. 2. to gather grain or other produce (often: left by reapers); to harvest.]

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Bill Duesing


From the Executive Director


CT NOFA and Agroecology: Local action and global vision

Food is our most important connection with the Earth, after air and water. 

The essential question we need to ask is:  “Will our connection to the Earth be a damaging industrial one or a healing ecological one?”

holcomb farmFor nearly 30 years, CT NOFA has promoted a local and organic food system consisting of organic and sustainable small farms selling nearby, community and urban farms, home, school and community gardens and informed consumers who eat more locally and seasonally.

Growing food near where it is eaten and using organic and sustainable methods are important ecological strategies many of us are using.  Now there is an overarching term, agroecology, which includes these ecological strategies and others that are beneficial to humans, culture and the environment.

Agroecology connects our work here with solutions that can work all over the world.

What’s the buzz about agroecology now? 

Agroecology is more or less what many Americans would simply call "organic agriculture," although important nuances separate the two terms. (See reference note #1 below)

To feed 9 billion people in 2050, we urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming techniques available. And today's scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers  in boosting food production in regions where the hungry live. Olivier de Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.  December  2010. (See reference note #2 below)

Brazilian farmers, health and environmental NGOs, and student groups have responded [to the vast increase in herbicide use on genetically engineered crops] by launching the "Permanent Campaign Against Agrochemicals and For Life” to protest the corporate takeover of their agriculture and spiraling contamination. Their proposal: “In the context of climate change, energy crises and the depletion of natural resources, producing healthy food based on agroecological principles, on small farm properties, respecting nature and workers, is the only viable way of ensuring a better quality of life for current and future generations.” www.panna.org  April 2011

What is agroecology anyway?

According to agroecology.org, agroecology is based on these principles:
Using renewable resources
Minimizing toxics
Conserving resources, including soil, water, energy, genetic resources and capital.
Managing ecological relationships
Adjusting to local environments
Diversifying landscapes, biota and economics
Empowering people
Managing whole systems
Maximizing long-term benefits and
Valuing health of people, cultures, the environment, animals and plants

You can see how these principles fit in well with what many CT NOFA members are doing. I think you’ll agree that agroindustrial methods, with fossil fuel fertilizers, increasing herbicide use and enormous genetically modified monocultures, do pretty much the opposite of most of those.

Advantages of Agroecology

Back in 1998, Miguel A. Altieri Peter Rosselt and Lori Ann Thrupp wrote “Proponents of a second Green Revolution generally argue that developing countries should opt for an agroindustrial model that relies on standardized technologies and ever-increasing fertilizer and pesticide use to provide additional food supplies for growing populations and economies.

In contrast, a growing number of farmers, NGOs, and analysts propose that instead of this capital- and input-intensive approach, developing countries should favor an agroecological model, which emphasizes biodiversity, recycling of nutrients, synergy among crops, animals, soils, and other biological components, and regeneration and conservation of resources.

It is argued here that agroecology - a science that provides ecological principles for the design and management of sustainable and resource-conserving agricultural systems - offers several advantages over the conventional agronomic or agroindustrial approach.

• First, agroecology relies on indigenous farming knowledge and selected modern technologies to manage diversity, incorporate biological principles and resources into farming systems, and intensify agricultural production.
• Second, it offers the only practical way to restore agricultural lands that have been degraded by conventional agronomic practices.
• Third, it provides for an environmentally sound and affordable way for smallholders to intensify production in marginal areas.
• Finally, it has the potential to reverse the anti-peasant bias of strategies that emphasize purchased inputs as opposed to the assets that small farmers already possess, such as their low opportunity costs of labor.” Document link here.

The proponents of an agroindustrial solution to global food supply are on the defensive, with all the big industrial agricultural players banding together for radio, TV and Internet ads promoting more industrial methods to feed the world in the future.  (See reference note #3 below)

It would be hard to find a more stark comparison of agroecological and agroindustrial approaches than that between New York City community gardens and Iowa’s corn fields.

As reported in The New York Times, the group Farming Concrete used 100 volunteer gardeners and careful mapping, weighing and data collection to estimate the yield from 67 community gardens covering a total of 1.7 acres in New York City.  They found that in 2010, community gardeners produced $200,000 worth of produce, 87,700 pounds, from just those 1.7 acres of gardens.

hartford community gardenBased on what I know about community gardeners, those in New York used human labor, diverse cultural knowledge and genetic resources as well as compost and recycled materials to produce food, primarily with solar energy, to be eaten very near where it is grown.  The fruits and vegetables that gardeners produce are what most people need to eat more of.

Studies have shown that community gardens improve the value of homes near them.

For Iowa, every year the USDA keeps careful records of crop acres planted, harvested, and the production per acre in bushels and dollars.

indiana cornAccording to the USDA, in 2010, Iowa’s grain corn farmers harvested $900 worth of corn (153 bushels or 8,560 pounds) per acre.

According to Iowa State, this year it will cost a farmer between $678 and $806 to grow an acre of grain corn.  That includes seeds (in 2010, 90 percent were genetically modified), 180 pounds of nitrogen, 54 pounds of phosphate plus herbicide and insecticide, as well as machinery and land costs and less than three hours of the farmer’s (or tractor driver’s) labor at $11.60 per hour.

The Iowa corn is not near where anyone will eat it, and indeed, it can’t be eaten directly.  Although Iowa corn is increasingly going to ethanol plants, corn is also the basic feed for most confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and the raw material for high fructose corn syrup and hundreds of other “food” ingredients.  

Bulkeley High School gardensJust the pre-plant application of the high-nitrogen fertilizer damages soil life and structure (making the soil more prone to erosion), releases several powerful greenhouse gases and provides the ingredients for the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Small farms and gardens have no place in agroindustrial food production. They are, however, a key ingredient of a sustainable, local, agroecological food system.

Thank you for your role in it.


Reference notes:

1. For examples of the nuances, consider frozen organic vegetables from China or fresh organic fruit from Chile.  They wouldn’t be called agroecological solutions.

2. The study, carried out by 200 experts from 21 countries and 89 organizations, estimates that the annual cost of damage caused by nitrogen across Europe is £60 - £280 billion (€70 -320 billion), more than double the extra income gained from using nitrogen fertilizers in European agriculture.

3. Many proponents of hi-tech farming methods like to claim theirs is the "scientific approach," a notion that makes De Schutter bristle. "Agroecology is science -- it's the combination of agronomics and ecological science, and it's the kind of science that is best suited to the needs of the 21st century, where resource efficiency should be the prime objective. The priority should be to save water, preserve the soils, and de-link agriculture from fossil energies.  
"Agroecology is knowledge-intensive and thus requires that we invest in training of farmers, in farmer field-schools, and in horizontal exchanges of best agricultural practices that are most suitable to specific agro-ecological environments. Agroecology is not a return to some traditional past, it is the cutting edge of farming. It mimics nature in the field, and uses resource-saving techniques that can be of greatest benefit to cash-strapped farmers and to women, for whom access to credit is most difficult, and who cannot afford to run high levels of debt.
“Given an infinite amount of oil, water and aid money, it's probably true that industrial agriculture could feed our growing population. But it's difficult to imagine how that might look good. Dr. De Schutter's report gives scientific support to the idea that farming in a way that strengthens communities and local economies, spares resources, and models diverse ecosystems can also feed the world. Unless you own stock in oil, chemical or agribusiness companies, it's hard to see how agroecology methods don't make a lot more sense.” Alternet article link>


Why Being a Foodie Isn't "Elitist"

"America's current system of food production - overly centralized and industrialized, overly controlled by a handful of companies, overly reliant on monocultures, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, chemical additives, genetically modified organisms, factory farms, government subsidies and fossil fuels - is profoundly undemocratic. It is one more sign of how the few now rule the many. And it's inflicting tremendous harm on American farmers, workers and consumers."

- Eric Schlosser, "Why Being a Foodie Isn't 'Elitist'," May 1, 2011, The Washington Post

Read Article>

photo credits: Bill Duesing
From top to bottom:
Holcomb Farm - transition from winter growing to seedling production for 700 member CSA
Hartford, CT community garden
Indiana corn field
Bulkeley High School gardens, Hartford, CT


If you have any stories, articles, notices or suggestions for this newsletter, please send them along.

Many thanks,

CT NOFA-The Connecticut Chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association | PO Box 164 | Stevenson | CT | 06491