Dirt: the Movie

Dirt: The Movie

Bill Benenson and Gene Rosow (2009)

Film Review

This documentary focuses on the rapid destruction of the planet’s topsoil, with its dire implications for food production and human survival. Through a combination of industrial farming, deforestation, urbanization and extractive mining, humankind has destroyed one-third of the world’s topsoil in a hundred years.

The film begins with a basic introduction to on the abundant microbial life that characterizes healthy topsoil. Plowing, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and heavy pesticide and herbicide use render soil infertile by destroying these microorganisms. Deforestation hastens the process by destroying deep root systems that protect against nutrient runoff. The productive farmland that isn’t wrecked by industrial farming and deforestation is paved over as cities expand or destroyed by fracking, mountaintop removal and strip mining. This voracious greed for new fossil fuels benefits a few hundred people and carries immense costs for the rest of us.

The film depicts quite eloquently the western slash and burn mentality that approaches food production like running a factory. Extracting a quick profit is all that matters. There is no planning whatsoever for food security, much less the needs of future generations. You clear cut a forest, plant acres of a single crop (an open invitation to pests) and pour on industrial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. In three to four years you have depleted the soil, and you cut down another forest.

Dirt: the Movie also poignantly portrays the link between environmental destruction and human degradation. It’s always the poorest and most disempowered who have their land destroyed by multinational corporations. Rapid desertification in Africa and India is forcing thousands of subsistence farmers to migrate to city slums – and Haitian mothers to make dirt cookies to ward of their children’s hunger pains.

Meanwhile increasing desertification (from a combination of deforestation and industrial farming) in Africa and India and the thousands of farmers forced to migrate to city slums when their land becomes useless. The film also emphasizes the link between environmental destruction and human degradation. It’s always the poorest and most disempowered who have their land destroyed by multinational corporations. The most heart breaking scene depicts Haitian mothers making dirt cookies to ward off their children’s hunger pains.

Water mismanagement also plays a major role in desertification. Because they have paved over their rivers, Los Angeles spends billions of dollars from as far away as Wyoming – and millions more managing rainwater runoff. Liberating their rivers would solve both problems at a fraction of the cost.

Significantly the main voices featured in the film are those of women of color: the late Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Mathai, who won a Nobel Prize for founding the Green Belt tree-planting movement, Indian environmentalist and organic farming advocate Vandana Shiva and Greening the South Bronx founder Majora Carter (see Greening the South Bronx). In addition to championing urban agriculture and green roof projects in the South Bronx, Carter has helped establish a prison greenhouse and organic farm at Rikers Island prison and the Green Team. The latter is a project that allows ex-cons to use the skills they have learned in tree planting, urban agriculture plots and New York’s first green roof* business.

*A green roof is a living roof partly or completely covered with vegetation, to optimize energy conservation and minimize water runoff.

The Taboo Against Animal Fat

red meat

(The first of two posts about the damaging effect of the western diet on intestinal bacteria and human health.)

As a traditionally trained physician, I watch with horror and dismay as for-profit corporations intrude ever deeper into so-called evidence based medicine. I have written at length about the role of Big Pharma in corrupting good medical practice to promote the sale of prescription pharmaceuticals – and their bottom line (see Menopause: Made in the USA and Drug Companies: Killing Kids for Profit). The role of Food Inc in the dietary recommendations doctors (and government) make to patients and the public at large are even more insidious and damaging.

The current taboo against saturated animal fats is a case in point. For the past thirty years, doctors and government agencies have been lecturing us that diets high in saturated animal fats (found in red meat, whole milk, eggs, butter and lard) cause high cholesterol levels, heart disease and stroke. They have persisted in this three decade campaign against animal fat – despite the total absence of scientific research supporting a link between fat intake and high cholesterol levels – or heart disease and and stroke. In fact, growing evidence suggests just the opposite: diets low in saturated fats and high in sugar and refined carbohydrate promote obesity, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

In other words, government and the medical fraternity have it backwards. Worse still, it appears that their purely theoretical (based on no evidence) phobia against animal fat may be the single most important factor in the current epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

An Unproven Hypothesis

The current taboo against animal fats is based on a hypothesis first promoted forty years ago when I was in medical school. The theory works like this:  consumption of foods high in cholesterol and saturated fats promotes high levels of blood cholesterol, which lead to calcified plaque formation in arteries, which restrict blood flow to the heart and brain, as well as increasing blood pressure by making blood vessels less elastic.

There’s a credible body of research linking high cholesterol levels to plaque formation and the latter to high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke. However there’s no research whatsoever linking diets high in animal fats and cholesterol to high blood cholesterol levels.

In March, Annals of Internal Medicine published a metanalysis of 72 scientific studies on the effect of different fats on heart disease. The authors conclude there is insufficient research evidence to support guidelines discouraging consumption of saturated animal fats.

The Work of Weston A Price

A growing body of evidence suggests that diets low in saturated fats are, in fact, harmful to human health. Many of these studies were inspired by the work of dentist Weston A. Price in the 1930s. Puzzled that Maori, Australian aboriginals and other indigenous groups experienced no tooth decay prior to adopting a western diet, Price studied their dietary habits. To his surprise, he discovered it wasn’t the direct effect of sugar on tooth enamel that caused cavities. His patients developed tooth decay because diets high in sugar and refined carbohydrates were deficient in basic nutrients essential for human health. When he helped them alter their diets, his patients not only avoided further tooth decay but healed existing cavities.

One of Price’s discoveries was that animal fats* provide essential fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) that play a vital role in the absorption of other nutrients essential for hormonal and neurological function and protection against chronic diseases, such as cancer and heart disease.

The Role of Intestinal Bacteria

More recent studies have elucidated the mechanism by which diets high in sugar and refined carbohydrate predispose to both high cholesterol levels and obesity. Some of this research is summarized in an April 2013 article in Mother Jones Are Happy But Bacteria Key to Weight Loss?

The article explains how high sugar and refined carbohydrate diets, coupled with massive antibiotic overuse in medicine and factory farming**, promote the growth of gram negative, endotoxin-producing intestinal bacteria. When endotoxin is absorbed into the bloodstream, it sets up a wide ranging inflammatory response that can manifest a variety of effects, including arthritis, eczema, psoriasis and neuropsychological syndromes such as autism, Asperger’s disorder, schizophrenia and ADHD. A number of studies suggest that high cholesterol levels are also an inflammatory response to this endotoxin. Others link endotoxin to inflammatory damage in the brain’s appetite center. An impaired appetite center will cause people and animals to eat indefinitely without ever feeling full.

The Mother Jones article also describes several studies in which obese patients lost weight by simply suppressing endotoxin-producing bacteria – by taking probiotics and eating fermented foods containing beneficial bacteria.

*The contamination of animal fats and dairy products, even when produced organically, with fat-soluble pesticides and other industrial toxins makes choosing “safe” saturated fats somewhat problematic. Classified as endocrine disruptors, many of these toxins mimic estrogen, which promotes the development and growth of breast cancer. For this reason, I prefer coconut oil as my saturated fat of choice.

**Factory farmed animals are routinely fed antibiotics to hasten and maximize growth.

To be continued.

photo credit: {Guerrilla Futures | Jason Tester} via photopin cc

Farming Without Machines: A Revolutionary Agricultural Technology

how to grow more vegetables

How to Grow More Vegetables (and fruits, nuts, berries, grains, and other crops) than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine

By John Jeavons

2002 Edition

Ten Speed Press

Book Review

Originally published in 1974, How to Grow More Vegetables remains a vital resource for farmers, agricultural researchers and planners, sustainability activists and home gardeners, as the world confronts the challenge of feeding a global population of 7-9 billion without access to the cheap fossil fuels that have run “industrial” agriculture for the last century. Thanks to skyrocketing oil prices, Peak Oil is no longer just a theory. The failure of oil production to increase at the same rate as heavy demand from developing countries like China and India has driven the price of oil to record levels. Owing to the heavy use of fossil fuels in contemporary agriculture, food prices have tended to increase at a comparable rate. Scientists predict that food shortages related to the loss of mechanized agriculture will likely be compounded by droughts, floods and other extreme weather events related to climate change.

Growing Soil, Not Crops

Jeavon’s book is unique in that it combines theory and research (with a fifty-three page bibliography) with a cookbook-style manual for households preparing for a future in which they grow most or all of their own food. The GROW BIOINTENSIVE approach, developed by Jeavons and Ecology Action of the Midpenninsula (Palo Alto), is centered around preserving the microbial life (bacteria and fungi) that are abundant in healthy soil and which are essential to plant health and growth. Up to 6 billion microbial life-forms live in one 5-gram sample of cured compost (about the size of a quarter). This microbial life, so essential to plant development, is destroyed by specific aspects of industrial farming. This is the main reason for the relatively poor yields of factory farms (in contrast to traditional biointensive methods). It’s also responsible for the extensive destruction of our topsoil. Repeated plowing and chemical fertilizers disrupt the delicate ecology of topsoil organisms, and pesticides and herbicides are as deadly to soil bacteria and fungi as they are to insects and weeds. In his introduction, Jeavons reveals that industrial farming destroys approximately six pounds of topsoil for each pound of food it produces. China’s soils, for example, remained productive for more than 4,000 years, until the adoption of mechanized chemical agricultural techniques led to the destruction of 15-33% of their agricultural soil. Another example is North Africa, which was the granary for Rome until overfarming transformed it into a desert. According to Jeavons, the world only has enough topsoil left to last 42-84 years.

Quadrupling Crop Yields

Based on thirty-plus years of horticultural research, Ecology Action members have ascertained that the GROW BIOINTENSIVE method, in the hands of a skilled practitioner, can produce enough food to feed one person (on a vegan diet) with 4,000 square feet of land. This contrasts with the 7,000 square feet required to feed a vegan using fossil fuels, farm machinery and conventional chemical or organic techniques. Without fossil fuels and machines, the amount of land required (using conventional chemical or organic techniques) would be 21,000-28,000 square feet. At present it takes 31,000-63,000 square feet per person to produce an average US diet (including eggs, milk, cheese, and meat), using fossil fuels and mechanization and conventional chemical or organic techniques. In addition to increasing caloric production by 200-400% per unit of area, the GROW BIOINTENSIVE method also significantly reduces water consumption (by 67-88%) and increases soil fertility (by 100%).

A Manual for Novice, Intermediate and Advanced Gardeners

Most of How to Grow More Vegetables is a detailed instruction manual describing how an average family (1-4 people) can grow the right kind of crops to supply most, if not all, their food requirements. Nearly half the book consists of tables with basic information about the spacing, care and calorie and protein content of specific crops and master charts showing where, when and how much of each variety to plant.

Originally published in Dissident Voice

Rethinking Industrial Agriculture

food forest

Small food forest

(This is the second of two posts about dramatic changes that are occurring in food production and marketing, as well as consumer food choices.  Part II addresses the application of design technology to water and soil management, which is revolutionizing the movement towards local food production.)

Applying Design Technology to Farming

Most food localization initiatives have been accompanied by radical technological advances that apply design principles to the way food is grown. The design technology employed in the rapidly growing fields of permaculture and biointensive farming is based on a radically different approach to water and soil management, modeled on nature’s ecosystem design principles. Anyone who studies natural ecosystems can’t help but notice there are no neat rows or bare soil in natural forests and prairies. Nature crams as many living organisms as possible, all with complex symbiotic relationships, into every square inch.

Ironically this “revolutionary” technology happens to be 4,000 years old. Chinese farmers discovered around 2,000 B.C. that designing their fields to replicate natural ecosystems produced the highest yields. This approach is well-described in F.H. King’s 1911 book Farmers of Forty Centuries. The US Department of Agriculture sent King to China in the early 1900s to investigate why Chinese farms were so amazingly productive. What he discovered was a highly sophisticated system of water and soil management that emphasized species diversity and rational utilization of ecological relationships among plants and between plants and animals.

The Watershed Model of Water Management

Despite King’s innovative work, it has taken English-speaking countries a full century for the lessons to sink in. Applying capitalist slash and burn mentality to farming clearly hasn’t worked. Agricultural yields in Britain and its former colonies, which all employ similar “modern” methods of water management, have destroyed tons of topsoil and essentially reduced agricultural yields by a third. In a desperate attempt to ramp up yields, chemical insecticides and herbicides were introduced after World War II. These, in turn, systematically killed off microscopic soil organisms essential to plant health.

Britain, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other former British colonies all adopted the “drainage” system of water management. In this approach, trees are systematically cleared (usually by burning) and wetlands and springs are drained. Typically land managed in this way is subject to alternating flooding and drought, creating an unending cycle of economic hardship for farmers and farming communities. Besides destroying existing crops, repeated flooding also washes away topsoil and essential plant nutrients.

In contrast traditional farmers in non-English speaking countries are more likely to use the centuries’ old “water catchment model” of water management, sometimes referred to as terraquaculture. Because they deliberately design their farms to catch and hold water, they aren’t subject to flooding, soil erosion and draught. Chinese farmers wouldn’t dream of draining their wetlands, which are always the most productive areas for high energy food crops, such as rice and other grains.

Plowing “Kills” Soil

Soil technology has also greatly advanced in the last five decades, with the discovery of complex micro-ecosystems that support optimal plant growth. These eocosystems include a myriad of soil yeasts, bacteria and other organisms that live in symbiosis with host plants. Not only do they provide nutrients to the root systems of larger plants, but they also produce a myriad of natural insecticides and herbicides to protect them against pests. Mechanically disrupting the soil through plowing kills these organisms. They can potentially recover if the soil is left undisturbed – unless the grower totally wipes them out with pesticides, herbicides or bacteriocidal GMOs.

Studies show that plant diversity is also essential to a healthy plant ecosystem. Planting a single crop in neat rows surrounded by bare soil is also perfect invitation for weeds and insects to come and attack them.

Permaculture, in contrast, discourages noxious weeds and insect pests by creating “food forests” made up of compatible food-producing trees, shrubs and ground cover crops. Unlike veggie gardens limited to annuals that have to be replanted every year, the food forest is self-sustaining with minimal input. For people worried about the economy collapsing and their gardens being invaded by barbarians from the big city, it’s also virtually indestructible.

To get some idea what a food forest looks like, check out this video by Australian permaculture guru Geoff Lawton:

Attention City Dwellers

Lawton is also a big fan of small space urban permaculture because it’s the most productive in terms of yield per square foot. The following is a video by one of his students about designing a permaculture food growing system on your balcony or terrace:

photo credit: London Permaculture via photopin cc

Originally published in Dissident Voice