Pitchfork Politics, New-Age Style

David Wann Posted by David Wann.

David Wann is the author of ten books and a speaker on sustainable lifestyles and designs. He is president of the Sustainable Futures Society and a designer of the cohousing neighborhood he has lived in for seventeen years.

Pitchfork Politics, New-Age Style

In these recent decades of flash floods, cracked earth and county-size forest fires, we small-scale farmers and gardeners are charring like cherry pies in an oven of political and cultural indecision. We’re burning up out here! Unlike throngs of Americans who spend much of their time in the climate-controlled indoors, we hands-on growers can directly feel climate change happening, in our parched skins and dehydrated sinuses. We watch crops that used to thrive wilt to chicken feed and compost. We may not have large, air-conditioned tractors, but many of us do have small greenhouses and cold frames, and we know full well how the “greenhouse effect” works: light comes through the glass but heat can’t get back out, and needs to be vented. It’s elementary that the gases humans generate in energy and food production trap heat the same way. The difference is that there’s no way to vent heat build-up caused by carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide emissions.

Among the growing number of people who acknowledge the reality of physics, many assume that coal-fired power plants, monstermobiles, and poorly-insulated buildings are the main culprits. Yet, recent data indicate that the food system as a sector is the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Livestock production alone contributes 18%, and other agricultural practices such as fertilizer production and use, irrigation, and the operation of farm machinery contribute at least another eight percent. Land use is huge, too: when forests are cut or burned down they immediately release greenhouse gases, and are no longer there to absorb carbon dioxide. The impacts of industrialized agriculture don’t stop on our farms and ranches, though. In fact, the growing of food accounts for only a fifth of the energy used to bring food to our tables. The other four-fifths are used to move, process, package, sell, store, preserve and prepare food. As environmentalist Lester Brown phrases it, the refrigerator emits far more carbon dioxide than the tractor.

Local, small-scale agriculture can significantly reduce each of these sources. Says veteran gardener and researcher John Jeavons, “We’re rediscovering the scientific principles of millennia-old farming systems, and over the years we’ve demonstrated how to grow food with 67% to 88% less water; 50% to 100% less fertilizer; and 99% less energy than commercial agriculture – producing two to six times more food per unit of land.” An increase in small-scale growing can play a key role in preventing climate change. Agriculture is quintessentially solar-powered and can lead the way to a future powered largely by renewable energy.  Why use up resources we have less and less of when we can instead use what we have more of – knowledgeable people, anxious to be in contact with nature. Here’s how local, “new age” farming can help prevent the world from becoming a steamy, unvented greenhouse:

• Organic, low-tech farming and gardening puts more carbon-rich compost into the soil, storing carbon dioxide rather than releasing it.
• Small-scale methods are more mindful of the benefits of carbon-storing crops such as off-season cover crops like clover and winter rye, as well as erosion-reducing forests and grasslands.
• New age farmers produce meat with more climate-friendly methods than the rest of the greenhouse-gassy meat industry, including a higher percentage of range-fed animals. (Methane and nitrous oxide are many times more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide, a primary reason why the global increase in meat consumption is a global warming nightmare.)

Benefits of Local, Small-scale Growing

• Reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to transportation and processing. (A typical food item travels up to 2,500 miles from farm to plate—25 percent farther than most food traveled in 1980.)

• Reduces the need for packaging and processing, because it’s fresh.

• Provides healthy produce that can be picked at its peak, providing much better flavor.

• Reconnects people with their communities and the land their food comes from.

• Eating locally recirculates 90 to 100 percent of the money spent in the local economy.

• Provides accountability – the closer we are to where our food comes from, the more control we have over how it is grown. 

The good news is that a new kind of food pyramid is emerging, centered on regional food webs. In the last decade, the total number of farms in the U.S. has grown by four per cent, and at least 75,000 of them are small farms meeting a demand for fresh, organic, and locally-grown food. More than four thousand farmers markets (including some in mobile buses!) have sprung up in recent years, along with Community Supported Agriculture networks (that arrange “subscriptions” to a local farm’s output), community gardens, farm-to-school lunch programs, cooperative harvesting exchanges, gardening curricula in all levels of school, citizen Food Policy Councils, backyard chicken coops, and municipal composting systems.

Citizen-consumers support climate friendly farming when they help reverse two key dietary trends of the past half-century – fossil-fueled food and relentless increases in meat consumption. As our personal and national dietary habits change, we might discourage an upward trend in developing countries like India and China, since meat eating is largely about keeping up with Joneses like us. We also send a clear signal to the world’s farmers that we value the preservation of a stable climate, one of our most precious, commonly shared assets. Our numbers are swelling even faster than the Arctic is melting. It’s time for a non-violent, civilly-disobedient pitchfork revolution!