Another Book on the Perils of Corporate Science

hidden half of nature

The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Death

David R Montgomery and Anne Bikle

Book Review

The Hidden Half of Nature explores parallels between the microbiome* (see The Care and Feeding of Gut Bacteria) that inhabits the human intestine and the microbiome surrounding the roots of healthy plants. As in humans, the plant microbiom (aka the rhizosphere) co-evolved with higher plants to perform functions they couldn’t perform for themselves. In other words, the rhizosphere is just essential to plant health and growth as our microbiome is to our own health. Sadly industrial agriculture (particularly synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides) have been just as harmful to the rhizosphere and plant health as the corporatization of food production and medicine has been to the human microbiome and human health.

Montgomery and Bikle describe in elegant detail the research into the rich exudates plants secrete into the soil to attract helpful bacteria and fungi. In turn, the latter produce a broad range of chemicals that promote plant growth, as well as forming a defensive wall of antimicrobial compounds (most antibiotics used in western medicine are derived from these compounds) that protect the plant against pathogens.

This book also traces the history of our scientific understanding of microbes in the development of early vaccines, antibiotics and synthetic fertilizers. Like many important scientific discoveries, the process for manufacturing synthetic nitrogen fertilizer grew out of the war industry. The production of dynamite (ie nitroglycerine) employs the same chemical pathways as the production of synthetic fertilizer. Thus in the lead up to World War II, both the British and the US government required farmers to switch from organic to synthetic fertilizers due to the easy conversion of fertilizer factories to munitions factories and vice versa.

After the war, the heavy use of synthetic fertilizers would lead to the systematic destruction of healthy soil on western farms. As they gradually lost the friendly bacteria that protected them, they because increasingly susceptible to pests and required heavier and heavier use of synthetic pesticides that totally wiped out the rhizosphere.

I was very surprised to learn the basic principles of organic farming were identified in the late 19th century and abandoned due to government and corporate pressure.

The role of probiotics in human health was identified even earlier – when Turkish visitors to the court of France’s Francis I cured him of life threatening diarrhea by offering him some yogurt.

Envoys from the Ottoman Empire were also the first to introduce inoculation to Europe in 1716. Inoculation against infectious diseases was first introduced in the US by African slaves.

The Movement to Dismantle Industrial Agriculture

Growing Change

Directed by Simon Cunich (2011)

Film Review

Growing Change is an Australian documentary about Latin America’s food sovereignty movement and the deliberate campaign by Venezuela and other left leaning governments to extract themselves from the US-run system of industrial agriculture.

The film begins by quoting from a 2008 study by the UN Environment Programme called Agriculture at a Crossroads: International assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology.

This study concludes that industrial agriculture can’t produce enough food to feed 9 billion people.* Although it cites a number of reasons for this conclusion, the documentary highlights two of the most important: oil depletion (industrial agriculture requires 66 barrels of oil per year to feed one person) and the destruction of topsoil through repeated use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides that kill living organisms responsible for soil fertility. In part due to urbanization, the world has lost 25% of their productive farmland over the last 25 years.

Food Sovereignty in Venezuela

Using Venezuela as an example, Growing Change demonstrates how industrial agriculture increases world hunger, with foreign corporations driving peasant farmers off their lands and destroying local farmers’ livelihoods through cheap food imports.

As Venezuela expanded oil production to become the world’s largest oil exporter (in 1950), ruling elites allowed the country’s agricultural system to collapse. Forced to leave their land (either by direct expropriation or inability to compete with cheap food imports), farmers flooded into the slums of Caracas and other Venezuelan cities. Meanwhile with all the oil profits going to ruling elites and their US backers, mass unemployment and poverty left the majority of the population with no money to buy food.

Things came to a head in 1989 with the massive Caracasa uprising, in which the Venezuela army shot 3,000 protesters.

Venezuelan Reforms Led by Grassroots

For me, the chief value of this film was learning that most of the reforms Hugo Chavez implemented were driven – not by Chavez himself – but by well-organized peasant and workers groups. Moreover it was clearly the power of their organizing that brought him to power in 1998.

Between 1998 and 2008, Chavez used oil revenues to reduce the prevalence of malnutrition from 21% to 6%. His land reform program redistributed 6 million acres of vacant land to 250,000 families. Working through community councils and self-governing cooperatives, the new occupants put most of this land into organic production. Chavez also heavily subsidized organic urban farms on vacant city land, free meals at work sites and community centers and a 40% reduction in the cost of imported food for the poorest families..


*World population is predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050.
**Unless they had illegally expropriated the land, landowners were compensated at fair market value for undeveloped land the Chavez government confiscated.

Improving Food Production by Subtracting Oil

The following video is the keynote address by Indian activist Vendana Shiva at the 2015 Soil Not Oil conference in Richmond California. Her primary theme is the destructive effect of industrial agriculture on soil, human health, water balance, climate, ecological diversity, economic inequality and world peace (as the driver of continual resource wars).

She maintains industrial agriculture is an extremely inefficient method of food production – requiring ten calories of oil for every calorie of food produced. Factory farming is only economically viable because of heavy government subsidies of oil production and the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer manufactured from natural gas. If Food Inc were required to pay the full cost of industrial farming (including the toxic effects of the chemicals they use), it would be many times more expensive than organic farming.

She maintains real purpose of industrial farming is to increase GDP by producing more commodities, when it should be to maintain soil and human health.

Prior to the industrial age, farming was as much about soil regeneration as food production. The talk particularly emphasizes the importance of “carbonizing” soil with organic matter. It cites studies showing that a two ton per hectare increase in organic matter removes ten gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere. This also makes the soil drought resistant by improving its capacity to store water.

How Plants Control Us

The Botany of Desire

Directed by Michael Schwarz and Edward Gray (2009)

Film Review

The Botany of Desire is a 2009 PBS documentary based on Michael Pollan’s 2001 book The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the Word. Both concern the co-evolution of plants and human beings and the vital symbiotic relationships they form.  Pollan focuses specifically on the apple, the tulip, the cannabis plant and the potato, detailing how each has evolved to deliberately appeal to human desire. In addition to tracing each plant to its region of origin, he highlights specific biological adaptations it has made to make it appealing to human beings.

The film is full of fascinating factual tidbits, eg that apple trees still grow wild in Kazakhstan and poke up through sidewalk cracks and that potatoes were essential in fueling the development of northern Europe (which is prone to erratic grain harvests) and the industrial revolution.

In addition to providing lavish detail about the art and science of indoor cannabis cultivation, Pollan also examines research into specific cannabis receptors in the human brain. The latter play an important role in helping us forget painful and/or irrelevant memories.

The video concludes by focusing on some of the drawbacks of industrial agriculture, especially our over-reliance on monoculture crops. The loss of diversity in our corporatized foods system makes our food crops far more susceptible to pests. This, in turn, makes us over reliant on toxic pesticides, herbicides and GMOs.

As Pollan stresses at the end of the film, the solution to problems caused by monoculture isn’t more technology. The solution is to end monoculture by diversifying food production.

My only point of disagreement was Pollan’s statement (in 2009) that plants lack consciousness. More recent research suggests that they’re more aware of their environment than we are. See Are Plants Smarter than We Are?

YouTube has taken the film down for copyrights reasons but it can be viewed free at PBS videos

Mushrooms, Bees and Cancer

Paul Stamets – How Mushrooms Can Save Bees & Our Food Supply

Bioneers (2014)

Paul Stamets is a mycologist who studies the complex role played by the vast network of fungal mycelium that underlies all natural forests and grassland. As many organic gardeners are learning, deforestation and plowing, herbicides and pesticides associated with industrial agriculture are killing this mycelium. It’s in this way that important antibacterial (most antibiotics are derived from fungi) and antiviral properties are lost that are vital to both the plant and animal kingdom

Stamets first became interested in the role of fungi in bee health when he saw honeybees sucking the mycelium out of wood chips on his farm. Through subsequent research, he would learn that specific fungi contain compounds that suppress the virus carried by veroa mites – implicated in colony collapse syndrome. The same antiviral fungi are also play a role in protecting animals against zoonotic* viruses, such as bird flu and H1N1.

Stamets believes that wide scale deforestation has destroyed the fungi that bees have traditionally relied on and this is partly responsible for the 40% reduction in bee populations. He also blames deforestation for growing pandemics of zoonotic illnesses like bird flu, H1N1, MERS and possibly ebola.

In the second video, Stamets discusses his research into turkey tail mushrooms as an adjunct treatment in terminal breast cancer.

More about the successful $2.25 million National Institute of Health Study at the link below. Owing to their positive effect on the microbiome (intestinal bacteria), turkey tail mushrooms are also helpful in

  • Infections and inflammations of the upper respiratory tract
  • Infections of the urinary tract
  • Infections and irritations of the digestive tract
  • Pulmonary diseases
  • Chronic congestion
  • General lack of energy and malaise

*A zoonotic disease is one that can be passed between animals and people

Grave Danger of Falling Food

Grave Danger of Falling Food

Tony Gailey (1989)

Film Review

This documentary is about Australian Bill Mollison, the father of the international permaculture movement. The title, which is ironic, refers to air drops of food aid (by the industrial north) to compensate the third world for destroying their food production systems. Mollison defines permaculture as a design system for housing, energy, water management, waste recycling and food production that follows nature’s engineering principles. Permaculture purposely mimics natural systems to create a permanent, sustainable culture for human beings.

In addition to exploring Mollison’s personal history and philosophy, Grave Danger of Falling Food offers a good introduction to permaculture design and the concept of permaculture zones.

Lifestyles that Restore the Planet

Despite Mollison’s lifelong concerns about the environmental devastation wreaked by industrial agriculture and multinational extractive industries, he has reservations about the war mentality of the environmental movement. Instead of “fighting” to save rain forests and endangered species, he thinks it makes more sense to get people as many people as possible to adopt lifestyles that naturally restore the planet.

The purpose of industrial agriculture, in his view, is to create profit rather than food. In their single minded search for profits, corporations essentially declared war on soil in 1940. In sixty years they have destroyed 70% of the planet’s topsoil by deluging it with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and killed off the wealth of microorganisms that make it fertile.

Applying Forest Principles to Food Production

Beginning his adult life as a lumberjack, he got fed up with destroying pristine forests to build homes for rich people and went to university to study and teach forest management. In 1972, it suddenly came to him that applying forest principles to food production would substantially increase yields, while simultaneously repairing the environmental destruction caused by 150 years of industrial capitalism.

He coined the term permaculture in 1978. From 1981 on, he has devoted his life to helping people to design farms and gardens based on permaculture principles.

Mollison has a special interest in urban permaculture, as it has the highest productive potential. By becoming self-sufficient in food production and water management (ie eliminating stormwater runoff and recycling gray water from showers, laundry etc and where possible, sewage water), cities offer the greatest potential energy and resource savings. By eliminating transport and packaging costs, locally grown food is automatically 95% cheaper.

Lawn Liberation

A strong believer in lawn liberation, Mollison has a special distaste for suburban lawns, which he considers a tremendous waste of water and energy. A food forest in the front yard uses 50% less water, is far less work and provides a continuous supply of healthy, chemical-free food. In the video below, a Denver woman has transformed her front lawn into a mini-food forest using permaculture design. According to Juliet Schor in The Overspent American, by 1995 were spending $7.6 billion annually on residential lawn care.

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.

Confessions of a Carnivore

red meat

As a strong sustainability activist, I feel quite embarrassed admitting that I derive nearly all my dietary protein from animal sources (eggs and fish). Explaining why I do so is even more embarrassing, a 20-year chronic intestinal infection that makes it virtually impossible to digest plant protein, in the form of nuts and legumes (peas, dried beans, lentils, etc.).

Will Global Population Drop Without Fossil Fuels?

In The End of Growth, post-carbon activist Richard Heinberg predicts that without fossil fuels, the Earth could feed at most two billion people. Organic farmers in the biointensive movement (an amalgamation of the eighty-year-old Biodynamic and the French intensive movements) dispute this figure, pointing to studies showing that Biointensive methods actually increase crop yields by 150-200%. Given current data (see Population and Sustainability: the Elephant in the Room) that our current system of industrial agriculture feeds only 84% of the world, we could guesstimate that a switch from industrial to biointensive agriculture could potentially feed a global population of 7.8 billion.

Now here’s the rub: nearly all biointensive research focuses concerns yields of grains and vegetable crops. Preliminary research applying biointensive methods to livestock production suggests we could only provide a meat-based diet for 2-3 billion people without fossil fuels.

The average fossil fuel input required to produce meat protein is eleven times greater than for equivalent grain protein production. A meat-based diet also requires ten times more land and 100 times more water. In the US alone, the amount of energy, land and water we invest in livestock is sufficient to feed an additional 840 million vegetarians.

The Privilege of Eating Meat

At the moment approximately 1/3 of the planet (those in the privileged industrialized world) consume meat. The high cost of land, fresh water and energy compels the other 2/3 (4.7 billion) to survive on a plant-based diet. With rapid industrial development, in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, these ratios are changing rapidly. In all five countries, a growing middle class seems to be developing an insatiable demand for meat, dairy and other animal-based products. In New Zealand this is a daily news item, as China purchases the bulk of Australian and Kiwi meat and dairy exports.

Hard Choices for Activists

It seems to me that sustainability and social justice activists face some hard choices. It we are genuine in our commitment to replace capitalism with a more egalitarian society, we need to acknowledge that no society is truly egalitarian if only rich people eat meat. In other words, a truly equal distribution of land and water resources will either require a commitment to reduce global population to 2-3 billion – or a commitment by 1/3 of the planet to give up their meat-based diet.

If we fail to make this choice – and do nothing – we will be left with a scenario in which Malthusian forces (war, famine and disease) drastically reduce global population for us.

photo credit: kevindean via photopin cc

***

read an ebook week

In celebration of read an ebook week, there are special offers on all my ebooks (in all formats) this week: they are free.

This includes my new novel A Rebel Comes of Age and my memoir The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee

Offer ends Sat. Mar 8.

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