Wednesday, 12 October 2011

We Want Real Food

Graham Harvey's We Want Real Food, whilst perhaps not as technical nor as comprehensive as Colin Tudge's So Shall We Reap, will quickly bring you up to speed on 'broken agriculture'.  (Ultimately Tudge proposes we move to what he calls 'enlightened agriculture' whilst Harvey wishes us to pursue something more traditional as prescribed in G Henderson's 'The Farming Ladder'.) 

WWRF ticks the usual boxes, flying the flag for locavorism, empowering the growers and moving away from commoditisation of food production.  In fact Harvey's pithiest line is his observation that rather than growing food, farmers now produce 'a raw material for an industrial manufacturing operation'.  Take a bow Mr Harvey!

Harvey develops an interesting theme around the quality of soil and how that relates to human health, and in particular the mineral content of soil - with a little bit of help from the work of Weston A Price:
  • "...[Price] writes of a glacier which, during the last ice age, covered one half of the state of Ohio.  It occupied an area west of a line starting east of the city of Cleveland and extending across the state of Cincinnatti.

      At the time of writing,, human degenerative conditions were higher in areas south and east of this line than in areas that had been covered by the glacier thousands of years before.  For example, infant mortality was 50 per cent higher in the non-glacial areas than in the glaciated parts of the state.  According to Price, this was the result of the poorer mineralisation of soils in non-glaciated areas."
Should de-mineralised soils really be that significant to human health then we could be in trouble.  Drawing upon research by the Medical Research Council, geologist turned nutritionist David Thomas found a sharp decline in the mineral content of modern foods:
  • ...between 1940 and 1991 vegetables had on average lost 24% of their magnesium, 46% of their calcium, 27% of their iron and no less than 76% of their copper.

    ...[carrots] lost 75% of their magnesium, 48% of their calcium, 46% of their iron and 75% of their copper.  The traditional 'spud' lost 30% of its magnesium, 35% of its calcium, 45% of its iron and 47% of its copper."
I've touched on this subject before and Harvey documents some of the work of Moira and Cameron Thomson about whom I blogged a couple of years ago.  (This is one reason why I supplement with magnesium and potassium.)

The other side of the coin to demineralisation is the consequence of heavy chemical use in farming:
  • "Modern wheat growing is chiefly a matter of selecting the appropriate chemical and spraying it on at the right time.  So profligate are wheat growers with their pesticides that they are producing new super-races of weeds and diseases that are resistant to them."
Of course monoculture is not 'natural' in that we homogenise an otherwise complex system.  The chemical overhead which supports this artificial system now carries a dependence that may well have diminished the economic advantages it once purported to bring.  There is however, an alternative.

Harvey uses the example of a Japanese farmer by the name of Takao Furuno who has sought to emulate natural ecosystems in a farming context to prove this point, and which he subsequently recorded in 'The Power of Duck'.

It is on this ecosystem concept that Harvey gradually builds his case for the importance of soil health.  He draws upon the technique employed by Robert Elliot to build soil fertility which, as with Furuno's approach to farming, was rather hands-off and sought to invoke a food chain that synthesised a chemical free nutrient cycle,
  • "[Elliot] believed in using seed mixtures containing a variety of deep-rooting herbs.  Burnet, chicory, alsike, clover and yarrow were the key constituents...[he] became convinced that no only were herb-rich pastures beneficial to cattle and sheep, but they greatly improved the health of the soil.  Plants such as yarrow and vetch, burnet and chicory thrust their roots deep into the ground, breaking up any areas of compaction.  As well as drawing minerals and moisture to the surface layers, they opened up the allowing life-giving oxygen to penetrate the deeper levels."
One advantage of raising animals on fertile soil is the improved nutritional profile of the animal itself,
  • "Grass-fed beef is an important provider of essential fats, the polyunsaturated fatty acids.  They include conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), together with the longer chain fatty acids EPA, eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaeonic acid (DHA)."
CLA is protective against cancer, and is also anabolic, and the role of EPA and DHA with regard to immune and nervous systems is well know - all of which are found in lower levels with cattle fed on an industrial diet when compared to their organic counterparts.

Here Harvey actually draws an interesting observation with regard to the diet of bison on the American plains.  Prior to the arrival of the Europeans it is thought that grassland biodiversity was incredibly high, with an obvious consequent impact on the essential fats in the ruminants who grazed upon it, creating robust animals able to weather life outdoors, on self sustaining systems,
  • "With up to four hundred different plant species in a single meter of turf, these semi-natural grasslands were hugely productive.  For thousands of years they supported vast number of bison, up to sixty million of them when the great, wandering herds were at their height.  Through drought and storm the grasslands fed them; through blistering hot summers and freezing winters - and all without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation or any other of the technical aids without which modern farmers say production is impossible."
So how did we let agriculture get in such a state?  In the UK it started with a post-war attempt at food-security which involved an attempt to create stable and efficient agriculture.  This meant 'guaranteed prices and assured markets'.  This signalled the end of mixed farming - why not simply pursue the most economically profitable crop?  Behold the emergence of monoculture.  The EU added fuel to this fire by way of the Common Agricultural Policy,
  • "The rules of the European subsidy system virtually obliged farmers to become large-scale specialist producers.  Small farmers were offered bribes to get out, and large farmers were offered inducements to get even bigger.

    There were generous capital grants for livestock farmers prepared to double the size of their herds.  In the process many of them doubled the size of their debts and were forced to pile on more chemical fertilizers, and stuff more chemical grain in their long-suffering cattle.

    On croplands, there were handsome rewards for those who sprayed their wheat a dozen times through the season, then drilled the next crop almost as soon as the first had been harvested....farming was made an industrial process, a factory operation carried out in the open countryside."
If you've ever stumbled cross industrial wasteland, you'll have noticed how nature finds a way to colonise the most improbably polluted and damaged land.  Minute cracks in, for example concrete, can thrive with life - a small weakness and time is all that is required.  The land can repair itself.  It can thrive once again on pre-industrial principles and practices.

But to support this repair we need to let go of the crutch that is modern industrial farming - and to do that, we need to tear down the twisted edifice of bastardised politico-capitalism in the West; a capitalism that handsomely rewards a few big-agribusiness producers with our taxes, who in turn sell us degraded nutrition on an unsustainable basis.


allison said...

I have an alternative hypothesis. Radon gas emitted by uranium deposits in glacial till. The radon in Ohio tends to concentrate in areas that were not underlain by glaciers.

A quote:

"Some areas yielding elevated radon levels are underlain by the Ohio Shale of Late Devonian age. This unit is known to contain uranium. Glaciers of the Ice Age ground up the shale and redeposited it in areas not underlain directly by this unit, leading to elevated radon levels."

This link contains radon concentrations by county in Ohio.

I seriously doubt that residents of Ohio, like most people in the Midwest, eat local produce. But rather they probably purchase most of their food from Costco and Sam's. What they do have plenty of, if they reside outside of the glacial boundary, is radon gas.

Asclepius said...

Hmmm - there is plenty of radon gas down in Cornwall in the UK (, so we should see a similar thing over here.