The Price of Progress: How Safe is European Agriculture

The Price of Progress: How safe is European food production?

The Price of Progress: How Safe is European Agriculture

Al Jazeera (2020)

Film Review

The title of the film suggests industrial agriculture represents “progress,” which I dispute. In the process of making a handful of people very rich, corporate farming has destroyed millions of acres of topsoil (see Regenerative Agriculture: Saving the Planet While Restoring Topsoil and Growing Healthier Food), while simultaneously contaminating most of humankind with more than 100 persistent toxic chemicals (see New Environmental Chemical PFAS in Pregnant Women).

The film’s format consists of multiple soundbites from corporate lobbyists, EU regulators and environmental and human rights advocates on the topic of industrial agriculture. The attitude of each group is fairly predictable. The corporate executives attack the Precautionary Principle for being anti-scientific and discouraging investment; the regulators respond defensively that their processes are totally transparent and unbiased; and the environmental and health advocates challenge the corporate capture of both scientific research and EU regulatory agencies. They also point to the link between increased pesticide use and  skyrocketing breast cancer rates, the failure of EU regulators to ban Monsanto’s Roundup (despite its proven link with non-Hodgkins lymphoma); the refusal of regulators to release pesticide safety data; and corporate (and regulator attitudes) that exports, jobs and growth are more important than people’s lives.

Personally I would have preferred a formal debate format that allowed environmentalists and health advocates to directly challenge the lobbyists and regulators about their blatant disinformation.

For example, one lobbyist asserts that pesticides are essential because Europe has no more land to dedicate to food production. This is totally untrue. Thanks to ongoing industrialization, agricultural land continues to be abandoned at a high rate in Europe (see – increasing corporate profits while producing food that is tasteless and nutrient-poor.

Another industry lobbyist claims Europe must continue fossil fuel use in agriculture to double food production (to accommodate population increases) by 2050. This is also blatant propaganda. Decades of research reveal that the monoculture cropping that characterizes (which produces only 20% of the global food supply) has much lower yields (in calories per acre) than more traditional organic polyculture farming. (See Regenerative Agriculture: Saving the Planet While Restoring Topsoil and Growing Healthier Food)

I was also discouraged by the so-called debate over the “independence” of EU scientists who evaluate the scientific merit of industry safety studies. I think it’s a waste of time to ask industry to perform objective research on the pesticides they manufacture. Surely the safety of Roundup and other pesticides can only be meaningfully assessed by independent research.

Why Industrial Agriculture is Unsustainable

Fresh: Sustainable Food Production in America

Directed by Ana Sofia Joanes (2009)

Film Review

This documentary examines why industrial agriculture is inevitably doomed to failure. After detailing numerous financial, environmental, and human health crises linked to factory farm systems, the filmmakers explore the growing family farm movement. The latter seeks, above all, to re-localize US food production. The issue of local food production is especially relevant in 2020 with the current breakdown (thanks to COVID19 lockdowns) in globalized industrial food production.

In addition to profiling various family farmers who have abandoned factory farming, the film features Michael Pollan (author of The Botany of Desire and the The Omnivore’s Dilemma); the 2009 president of the National Family Farm Coalition; the manager of an independent farmer-supported supermarket in Kansas City; and Will Allen, former pro basketball star and founder of Growing Power (a community-supported urban farm and training center in Milwaukee).

The film explodes a number of corporate myths about industrial agriculture. First and foremost is the claim that we can’t feed a global population of seven billion without factory farming. There are now three decades of yield research revealing that traditional multi-species farming methods (still practiced by 80% of the world) are far more productive (in calories per acre) than industrialized monoculture. As several farmers in the film reveal, traditional farming methods are also more financially sustainable. Farmers employing traditional methods spend far less on pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, and vet bills because their soils, plants, and animals are much healthier.*

The second major myth the film debunks is that factory farming lowers the cost of food by replacing human labor with technology. While Food Inc CEOs and shareholders pocket their profits, society as a a whole pays the cost of industrial agriculture with increased unemployment, environmental degradation, and health care costs. The latter stems from an epidemic of food contamination (with toxins and harmful pathogens) and chronic illness (obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer).

*Two distinct effects are described: 1) The avoidance of herbicides and pesticides allows soil organisms essential for plant health to thrive and 2) Ruminant livestock thrive on the natural grasses their digestive systems evolved for, in contrast to the grains they are fed on factory farms.

Anyone with a public library card can view the film free on Kanopy. Type “Kanopy” and the name of your library into your search engine.

Feeding Ourselves: Preparing for the Collapse of Industrial Farming

In Our Hands – Seeding Change

Directed by Jo Bailey and Silvie Planet (2018)

Film Revew

With the COVID19 lockdown already driving shortages in milk, meat, and flour in Britain and impending meat shortages predicted for the US, this documentary offers an inspiring vision for a “normal” in which people produce, process, and consume local traditionally grown food.

The film concerns the Landowners Alliance, an organization of British farmers that is part of Via Compesina, and international organization of more the 200 million small farmers. Contrary to the public image promoted by the corporate agriculture lobby, small landholders still produce 70% of the global food supply.

The film begins by tracing how industrial agriculture has already bankrupted thousands of British farmers. It has done so by monopolizing seed production at the front end and processing, transportation, and marketing at the back end. In this way, they capture so much of the food pound, farmers who persist who persist in industrial farming no longer recoup sufficient revenue to cover their costs.

At the same time, corporate industrial agriculture is also systematically destroying soil fertility and the environment, as well as food security for most residents of the industrial North.

Farmers in the Landowners Alliance support each other by forming coops to save and share heirloom seeds,  farm machinery, and joint processing and marketing schemes that bypass corporate middlemen to sell farm produce directly to consumers.

The organization also promotes organic permaculture (aka polyculture) farming (as opposed to the monoculture cropping practiced by industrial agriculture),** heritage open pollinated grains, and urban farms in Britain’s big cities.

*The filmmakers definite food security (aka food sovereignty) as the right of every human to access healthy food grown on their own land. Under the current global industrial agriculture scheme, 40% of soy and grains produced are fed to livestock. Not only is this unconscionable in the face of growing world hunger (rough one billion out of the seven billion global population), but totally unsustainable in the long run.

**Decades of research reveal that this permaculture farming produces far higher yields (measured in calories per acre) than industrial farming.


Insect Apocalypse: As Urgent as Climate Change

The Great Death of Insects

DW (2020)

Film Review

This documentary examines research into techniques for halting the decline in insect populations. Entomologists (insect specialists) warn that insect species have declined by 80% since 1800. They blame the loss of habitat due to urbanization, industrialized agriculture, excessive pesticide use and light pollution.*

Many scientists consider the insect apocalypse as urgent as climate change – given the key role insect pollinators play in most of our food crops. There is also growing evidence that the fall in insect numbers is the main cause of declining bird populations.

German scientists are collaborating with local farmers to rebuild insect habitat by creating strategically placed meadows and wildlife corridors on their farms.

The film’s only major drawback is its flawed assumption that crop yields must be sacrificed (by converting industrial monoculture deserts into forests and meadows) to restore dwindling insect populations. Three decades of research reveal that intensive permaculture methods (involving simultaneous cultivation of multiple crop species) produce far higher yields (measured in calories per acre) than monoculture agriculture.

Not only is soil fertility maintained this way (plowing kills soil microorganisms that are essential maximum to plant nutrition, but it preserves key insect predators – reducing (and eventually eliminating in many cases) the need for synthetic pesticides

*Half of all insect species are nocturnal and are “vacuumed” out of the ecosystem by their fatal attraction to bright lights.



Robbing From Nature and People to Produce Profit


Eco Social Justice on the Global Frontlines

Vendana Shiva (2017)

The following is a compelling Earth Day presentation by Indian activist Vendana Shiva linking ecocide and genocide to the brutal “free market” drive to rob from nature and people to produce profit.  This wide ranging talk combines a unique perspective on the violent British colonization of both India and North America, the more recent role of major chemical and food companies (eg Dow, Dupont and Monsanto) in imposing free trade treaties such as GATT and the TPP, and the growing anti-corporate resistance movement in India and elsewhere.

Vendana begins by describing an agricultural conference she attended in 1987, at which the major chemical manufacturers laid out plans to increase their profits by introducing GMO seeds and lobbying for laws and treaties that would prohibit seed saving by farmers. She goes on to talk about Navdanya, the nonprofit organization she founded in 1984 to resist the so-called “Green Revolution” that imposed industrial farming on Indian farmers. In promoting seed saving and other traditional organic farming methods, Navdanya was influenced by Gandhi’s use of sustainable self-reliance as a weapon against colonialism.

At the 1987 conference, the chemical companies bragged the entire world would be growing GMO crops by 2000. Thanks to strong global citizens movements, this never happened. Ninety percent of the world’s food is GMO-free, thanks to wholesale rejection of this technology in Europe, Africa and Asia. Likewise only 30% of the world’s food production is industrialized.

Vendana maintains the primary purpose of industrial farming isn’t to produce food but to increase profit. Due to the massive energy input it requires, factory farming is an extremely inefficient method of food production. Traditional farms producing a diversity of crops will always provide more nutritional output than an industrial farm producing a single monoculture crop.

She blames the forced introduction of industrial farming for India’s high level of malnutrition – 1/4 of the general population and 1/2 of Indian children lack adequate nutrients in their diet.

*GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) was the international treaty that created the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 (under President Bill Clinto)n.

The Economic Recolonization of Africa

Land Rush – Why Poverty?

Directed by Hugo Berkeley and Osvalde Lewat (2012)

Film Review

Land Rush is the story of the recolonization of Africa by foreign interests (US, Britain, China, South Korea, Saudi Arabia) and their collaboration with corrupt governments and tribal authorities to drive subsistence farmers and their families off their land. Their goal: to create massive for-profit industrial farms based on monoculture export crops.

Nearly 60% of remaining arable land is in Africa – the industrialized world has either paved theirs over or decimated their soils through factory farming.

The reason Africa is such an easy target is that only 10% of rural Africans own private title to the land they farm. The rest is traditionally viewed as a communally owned commons.

Lifting Africans Out of Poverty By Seizing Their Land

Land Rush specifically focuses on a US sugar baron seeking to create a giant sugar plantation and processing plant in rural Mali. His goal is to kick start industrialization in Mali and help “lift their people out of poverty.”

Prior to the 2008 economic downturn, the Mali government supported the food sovereignty movement and the right of rural farmers to access land to support their families. This has all changed now, with the government (illegally) selling off more than 30 million hectares of farmland to foreign investors in the last five years.

Farmers are told they must give up their land and either go to work for Sosumar (as sugar farmers) and accept a new plot of land elsewhere. The government’s violent mistreatment of farmers who refuse to leave their land makes them highly skeptical of these promises.

The Food Sovereignty Movement

The documentary also profiles a local organizer linked with the global food sovereignty movement. Informed by disastrous experiences elsewhere (Latin America, India and other parts of Asia) with the wholesale expulsion of subsistence farmers for corporate interests, Africa’s food sovereignty movement is growing by leaps and bounds.

The organizer explains that the constitution and laws of Mali recognize the basic right of food sovereignty, ie that countries have the right to produce their own food rather than depending on an unpredictable global market for their food needs. He maintains that Mali has strict guidelines about involuntary displacement – that the government’s contract with Sosumar is illegal, as was the prior handover of 30 million hectares to foreign corporations.

The film ends on a positive note, thanks to a March 2012 military coup that caused Sosumar to withdraw all their workers  from Mali and their CEO Mima Nedelcovych to target Nigeria as the new site for his sugar plantation.

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

One Man, One Cow, One Planet

one man

One Man, One Cow, One Planet

by Thomas Burstyn (2007)

Film Review

Contrary to constant corporate media propaganda, it isn’t food scarcity that causes world hunger. As Thomas Burstyn so ably demonstrates in this documentary, the four main causes of world hunger are trade liberalization, industrial agriculture, military dominance and genetic engineering.

Nowhere is this more painfully evident than in India. Industrial agriculture, cleverly branded as the Green Revolution, first hit India in the 1960s. Thanks to intense pressure from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and western lenders, the Indian government sought to enter the global economic market by pressuring farmers to switch to chemically maintained monoculture crops for export.

Farmers were promised that investing in chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides – as well as flood irrigation – would substantially increase their yields. It never happened. After three decades, the Green Revolution’s primary accomplishments were to render India’s soils infertile by killing off essential soil organisms, deplete their water resources and leave hundreds of thousands of rural farmers virtually destitute.

In the late 1990s, the giant multinational corporation Monsanto rode to the rescue by saturating the Indian countryside with their GMO seeds, which they guaranteed would restore yields and reduce hunger. Sadly, the yields they promised never materialized. Their supposedly pest resistant Bt cotton was supposed to reduce farmers’ need for pesticide. However owing to its failure to control India’s main cotton pest, the pink boll worm, it required even more pesticide than natural cotton.

Yields were never enough to cover the purchase of new seed every year, along with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Farmers merely sank deeper and deeper into debt and hundreds of thousands committed suicide.

Enter Peter Proctor

Over the past five decades, New Zealander Peter Proctor, has been instrumental in reversing this trend, by helping to establish an Indian food sovereignty network based on biodynamic agriculture. The basic principle of food sovereignty is that people, rather than corporations and governments, have a natural right to control what they grow and what they eat.

Proctor is considered the modern father of biodynamic farming. The latter is an approach to organic farming first started a hundred years ago by Rudolph Steiner, and Austrian philosopher, social reformer and architect. It shares many features in common with permaculture (see Roadmap to Redesigning Civilization) and biointensive agriculture (see Farming Without Machines).

Cow dung and compost, which form the humus essential to soil fertility, are cornerstones of biodynamic agriculture. In general, Indian farmers are more receptive than westerners to biodynamic methods, as they share the same reverence for cow dung as Steiner, Proctor and other biodynamic practitioners.

Proctor and his followers rely on Steiner’s original ritualistic practices (based on planetary forces) in preparing the dung, which inoculates the soil with essential soil organisms. They also religiously follow the moon planting cycles advocated by Steiner.

Pest Control in Biodynamic Agriculture

Pest control is far easier with biodynamic methods. Healthy soil is the most important pest deterrent, as pests are far less likely to attack healthy plants. Replacing monoculture crops with diversified and companion planting also greatly reduces pest infestation. Other pest control methods include liquid manure, ground quartz (silica)*, and biological deterrents (eg ladybugs).

Environmental and Economic Sustainability

In addition to strengthening the social fabric of India’s rural communities, the food sovereignty network Proctor helped to start has improved their economic sustainability. By saving and sharing seed, cow dung and compost, they reduce the cost of their inputs to zero and cut their water requirement by 50% (humus increases the water retention capacity of soil).

In addition to substantially higher yields, organic produce sells for a slightly higher price in India due to its health benefits.

With their improved economic standing, many of India’s biodynamic farmers can afford school fees and are sending their children to school for the first time.

My favorite part of the film is where Proctor’s wife blames the horrible decisions politicians make on the crap food they eat.

The film has been removed from YouTube for copyright reasons but can be rented from Amazon for $1.99 at this link: One Man, One Cow, One Planet

The stunning Indian scenery alone is well worth the price.

*Also known as diatomaceous earth, silica destroys pests by cutting them up with its microscopic razor sharp edges.

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