So, what is Sustainable Agriculture?

sustagThe term ‘sustainable agriculture’ is used often, but what does it mean? The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently issued these five principles to define sustainable agriculture.

1. Improving efficiency in the use of resources is crucial to sustainable agriculture.

Modifying current practices can do much to improve the productivity of many food and agricultural production systems. This principle focuses on the engine of transformation. Further gains in productivity will still be needed in the future to ensure sufficient supply of food and other agricultural products while limiting the expansion of agricultural land and containing encroachment on natural ecosystems.

However, while in the past efficiency has been mostly expressed in terms of yield, future productivity increase will now need to consider other dimensions. Water- and energy-smart production systems will become increasingly important as water scarcity increases and as agriculture will need to seek ways to reduce emission of greenhouse gas. This will impact on the use of fertilizers and other agricultural inputs.

2. Sustainability requires direct action to conserve, protect and enhance natural resources.

Food and agricultural production depends on natural resources and therefore the sustainability of production depends on the sustainability of the resources themselves. Much can be done to reduce negative impacts and enhance the status of natural resources.

While intensification has positive effects on the environment through reduced agricultural expansion and subsequent limitation in encroachment on natural ecosystems, it also has potentially negative impact on the environment.

The most widespread model of agriculture intensification involves intensive use of farm inputs, including water, fertilizers and pesticides. The same applies to animal production and aquaculture, with subsequent pollution of water, destruction of freshwater habitats, and destruction of soil properties. Intensification has also led to the drastic reduction of crop and animal biodiversity. Such trends in agricultural intensification are not compatible with sustainable agriculture and are a threat to future production.

3. Agriculture that fails to protect and improve rural livelihoods, equity and social well-being is unsustainable.

Ensuring that producers have adequate access to and control of productive resources, and addressing the gender gap, can contribute significantly to reducing poverty and food insecurity in rural areas.

Agriculture is the most labour intensive of all economic activities. It provides, directly and indirectly, a source of livelihoods for rural households totalling 2.5 billion people. Yet, poverty is excessively associated with agriculture, and agriculture is among the riskiest types of businesses. Agriculture can only become sustainable if it provides decent employment conditions to those who practise it, in an economically and physically safe, and healthy environment.

4. Enhanced resilience of people, communities and ecosystems is key to sustainable agriculture.

Extreme weather, market volatility and civil strife impair the stability of agriculture. Policies, technologies and practices that build producers’ resilience to threats would also contribute to sustainability.

Several signals in the recent past have illustrated the risks that shocks can represent for agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Increased climate variability, whether associated or not to climate change, impacts farmers and their production. On the other side, increased food price volatility impacts both producers and consumers who don’t necessarily have the means to cope with them.

Rather than reducing these shocks, increased globalization has probably favoured their rapid transmission across the globe, with increasingly unpredictable impact on the production systems. Resilience therefore becomes central to the transition towards a sustainable agriculture, and must address both the natural and the human dimensions.

5. Sustainable food and agriculture requires responsible and effective governance mechanisms.

The transition to sustainable production can only take place when there is the right balance between private and public sector initiatives, as well as accountability, equity, transparency and the rule of law.

Mainstreaming sustainability into food and agriculture systems implies adding a public good dimension to an economic enterprise. Agriculture is and will remain an economic activity driven by the need for those practising it to make profit and ensure a decent living out of its activities.

Farmers, fisher folks and foresters need to be provided with the right incentives that support the adoption of appropriate practices on the ground. Sustainability will only be possible through effective and fair governance, including the right and enabling policy, legal and institutional environments that strike the right balance between private and public sector initiatives, and ensure accountability, equity, transparency and the rule of law.

Original Post

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UMass Amherst’s Stockbridge School of Agriculture offers the largest, most diverse, progressive and flexible university degrees in Sustainable Agriculture in the world.  See: study Sustainable Food and Farming.

Living according to ecological “rules”

Original Post by Jonathan Foley – July 19, 2016

For most of my adult life, I have been a teacher of sorts, first as a university professor, and now as the director of a science museum. While the students and settings have changed, the job has remained the same — to share the wonders of the natural world, and teach the science we need to understand and sustain our planet.

Over time, I have come to believe that our environmental problems stem from too many people not understanding, or intentionally overlooking, the physical and biological systems governing this planet. We have gotten very good at ignoring nature’s laws, pretending that we are exempt from them.

But we’re not, and that’s where our problems arise. Whether we’re causing dangerous climate change, degrading the world’s ecosystems, or collapsing our natural resources, environmental problems begin when we ignore the physical limits of our planet, and act as if they don’t apply to us. This is a dangerous combination of ignorance and arrogance.

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As a science educator, I feel we can and should do a far better job of helping people see and understand the systems that govern our world, and internalize the lessons they can teach us. In other words, we need to truly learn the lessons our living planet can teach us, and start living by them. Only then can we truly sustain our environment, and our civilization, into the future.

And we must share these “planet lessons” with as many people as possible — presidents and preschoolers, CEOs and cab drivers, parents and policy-makers. We all need to learn the lessons of our living world, and act accordingly.

I’ve decided to do my part by sharing some of the planet lessons I’ve learned so far.

Lesson One. Physics Trumps Politics and Economics. Every Time.

The first lesson I learned from the planet is about the absurdity of our “real world” politics and economics.

Despite what many people claim, politics and economics are arbitrary systems of belief that people in power have invented over the years. And regardless of what we have been brought up to believe, the planet does not actually obey the rules of politics and economics. It never has.

Although our beliefs about these systems are often useful, ultimately they are entirely negotiable. After all, people in power just made them up. Believing otherwise isn’t just lazy thinking, it’s an excuse people use to justify poor decision-making and maintain the status quo. When you hear someone dismiss something sensible and necessary — like protecting our oceans, shifting to 100% renewable energy sources, or making agriculture sustainable — because it “isn’t economical” or “isn’t political feasible”, what they’re really saying, whether they realize or not, is “that’s kind of inconvenient for people in power right now, so please don’t talk about it.”

Instead of allowing ourselves to be trapped by arbitrary economic and political systems, we should instead focus more attention on what really governs the planet: the physical systems that have been operating here for eons.

keep-calm-and-study-chemistry-physics-biologyUnlike politics and economics, Earth’s physics, chemistry, and biology are natural systems based on empirical, reproducible facts. And these facts are fixed and entirely non-negotiable. Nature doesn’t care what we choose to believe, and you can’t cheat the laws of physics. Ever. Ignoring them is at best shortsighted. At worst, it guarantees the demise of our civilization.

That’s why it is so alarming that some political leaders ignore the laws of physics and profess that climate change is not “real”. Of course it is. The greenhouse effect has been understood since the early 19th century, and we have overwhelming evidence that increasing CO2 levels are warming the planet. Denying those facts is either dishonest or delusional. While the basic physical realities of climate change are no longer debatable, the political and economic concerns are. For example, what should we do about climate change? What will it cost us, and who will pay? But let’s not confuse negotiable political and economic frameworks with the non-negotiable, inviolable laws of physics.

We can — and should — have debates about how our political and economic systems solve the problems we face. After all, economics and politics are meantto be debated. But for these debates to be rational and productive, we need to understand and acknowledge the physical realities of the planet. What we cannot do is pretend that the laws of physics are somehow ours to control or ignore, as we see fit. On that path lies delusion and ruin.

Lesson Two. Thermodynamics and Systems Thinking are Powerful Tools.

The next lesson I’ve learned over the years is that thermodynamics and systems thinking are very powerful tools for understanding and describing the workings of our planet.

Thermodynamics is the study of energy — how it flows through the universe, and how it changes from one form to another. It is also a good way to learn about life, as living systems are ultimately all about energy — energy gathered from the sun, converted to biochemical form, and consumed by countless creatures until it is ultimately released back into the universe. Energy is what fuels everything on this planet, and maintains its order, organization, and evolution. To understand Earth’s biology, climate, water cycle, chemical cycles, and so on, you must first understand the basics of thermodynamics.

systemsthinking2Systems thinking is another powerful tool for our mental toolbox, as it helps us organize our view of the world, seeing connections among all of Earth’s living and non-living things. Systems thinking provides a framework through which to view the planet — through the lenses of complexity, feedback loops, and the countless connections of stocks and flows coursing through the environment. Systems thinking also helps us build powerful models — whether conceptual models in our heads or numerical models running on a computer — that enable us to test our understanding of the world. Of all of the things I’ve learned in my education so far, systems thinking has been the most useful.

Thermodynamics and systems thinking, combined with some keen observations of the natural world, can give us many important insights, including:

  1. Earth is powered by renewable energy. The sun provides nearly all of the energy used to power life on Earth, as well as fueling all of our weather, ocean currents, and water cycling. Earth receives 1,370 Watts of heat and light per square meter of sunlit space — something we call the “solar constant” — and that’s been enough energy for the planet to do everything for billions of years. In fact, for all of Earth’s history, natural systems have lived on this “solar income”. And we can, too, if we put our minds to it. Sunlight — and associated energy from wind, waves, and biomass — can provide all the energy we need. Ultimately, it has to.
  2. Nature has almost zero waste. Earth is essentially a “materially closed” system. Short of the occasional meteorite, nothing much enters the planet, and nothing much leaves the planet either. That means there are only so many carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus atoms, water molecules, and so on, on the planet to work with. So natural systems have gotten very good at recycling everything. In fact, living things rarely create “waste.” What’s waste to one organism is quite often food for another. For example, a single phosphorous atom — a necessary ingredient for life — can be recycled hundreds of times within a forest, before it’s gently redeposited into Earth’s sediments, where geology will ultimately recycle it once again. Unfortunately, we humans use many goods only once before they become waste or toxic pollution. We need to mimic nature’s frugality with material, and get much, much better at emulating Earth’s “circular economy.”
  3. Earth’s ecosystems build strength and resilience from diversity.Evolution has created a remarkable diversity of life, which is extremely resilient in the face of change. Nearly every flow of energy and matter, and practically every ecological niche, functional trait, and space is being used by something. And if one ecological link fails, others typically pick up the slack. Sadly, humans seem to ignore this lesson. We tend to build monocultures, especially in agriculture, with only one link; if that one fails, the whole system fails. We need to realize that diversity is essential to building strong, enduring, and sustainable systems.
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Click on the image to see a presentation on the three “rules” of ecology

 

Lesson Three: We Need a Big Dose of Humility.

The natural world has also taught me that we should be far less arrogant about the power of our science and technology. We still have so much to learn.

It’s humbling, but we have to admit that nature does things that we cannot yet do ourselves. Even the simplest pond scum is able to run entirely on renewable energy, with nearly infinite recycling, with extraordinary diversity and resilience. In short, nature is one hell of an engineer.

Sadly, we are still far from matching the capabilities of the natural world. We still use dirty fossil fuels, not renewable energy — leading to air pollution, climate change, ocean acidification, and other critical problems. We still recklessly extract raw materials from nature, far faster than they can be regenerated, so they inevitably run out. Our throw-away culture then uses something once, creating a dangerous waste product that is tossed into the environment. Unfortunately, we continue to ignore the lessons even simple pond scum can teach us.

What we need is a big dose of humility, and to admit that we have much to learn from the rest of life on Earth. The rest of life has learned the lessons of the planet, and we have not.

Lesson Four. Go Outdoors and Observe Nature.

Nature is the best teacher I’ve ever had. I learned about photosynthesis, carbon stocks, and nutrient cycling from my garden. And I learned about meteorology and oceanography by watching clouds and waves. While classroom learning is certainly important, it is crucial that we spend time observing and interacting with the natural world to truly internalize the lessons of the planet.

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Thankfully, many people are beginning to look to nature as a source of inspiration and solutions. And we can follow their lead.

For example, keen observations of the natural world have led to the basic concept and innovations of biomimicry, which seeks to design products that emulate solutions already found in nature. Observations of nature have also spurred the development of agroecology and permaculture, which seek to design agricultural systems that emulate processes found in nature. We have also begun to more keenly recognize the flow of ecosystem goods and services and how they support human wellbeing.

We should look to nature for even more practical solutions for living sustainably on planet Earth. After all, if we just stop to look, and learn, nature can teach us how to build extraordinary things, with zero waste, amazing resilience, all powered by the sun.

Final Lesson. Get to Work!

Finally, the natural world has inspired me to roll up my sleeves, focus on the problems we can solve, and get to work.

Whether we realize it or not, the fate of the planet is now in our hands. We are a driving force on an enormously complex planetary machine, and most of the people in charge have no idea how it operates, or are still under the mistaken belief that political and economic systems outweigh the laws of physics. They simply don’t know the rules. Worse yet, they are obeying the wrong rules. This is a very dangerous situation.

Our leaders — hell, all of us — urgently need a crash course in how the planet really works, including the principles we need to follow in order to thrive into the future. We must learn the lessons of the planet so we can build a civilization that endures.

So far, there is no major, and no degree that teach these lessons of the planet. It’s not that simple. In the meantime, a mix of humility, a little training in physics and systems thinking, a keen eye for observation, and a lot of time in the natural world would be a good start.

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Dr. Jonathan Foley (@GlobalEcoGuy) is the executive director of the California Academy of Sciences. These views are his own, and do not reflect those of the Academy or any other organization.

NOTE:  if you want to study farming systems based on ecological principles, see: UMass Sustainable Food and Farming Bachelor of Science degree.

‘Cheap’ food is costing the Earth, and our health

Emily Lewis-Brown – 7th April 2016 – Published in The Ecologist

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Food has never been more affordable for middle class families in rich countries. But it comes at a high cost: the impact of industrial food production on health, environment and society has never been greater as Patrick Holden explained to Emily Lewis-Brown.

The post war drive for food security through industrial farming and ever-cheaper food has, ironically, put both our health and the future of farming at risk.

Food prices have been kept artificially low, while the true costs of food production have been obscured – and are increasingly unaffordable. A conference took place in April in San Francisco designed to put this right: The True Cost of American Food.

Patrick Holden – dairy farmer, sustainable food campaigner and organiser of the conference – believes that sustainable farming is being held back by the way that food prices are kept artificially low through mechanisms which hide the real cost of foods and place those costs elsewhere – on communities, our health, and the environment.

“When we unravel the hidden costs of food and farming, we find that our food systems are generating diets which we pay for many times over in hidden ways”, he says. “They are making us sick and degrading the environment, which is vital to the future of our food security and health.

“Everyone has a right to good food that is affordable and nutritious, but the belief that making food cheap was the most important goal, facilitated damage to our natural environment and public health. This was made possible by cheap oil and technological innovation. It was hard for consumers to see the changes to the food we eat, as companies increasingly obscured the story of how our food is produced.

“If you told the real story of farming, what goes on behind closed doors would be upsetting. It’s covered up by brands with images of outdoor mixed farms, with cows in meadows and hedgerow-lined hay fields blooming with wild flowers.”

Milk cheaper than bottled water

Patrick had an urban childhood, like millions of other people who live in cities now, but his family moved back to the land in the 1970s to live on a farm. His deep understanding of agricultural practice developed from farming his mixed dairy farm in Wales, where he still farms as sustainably as possible.

That means he knows from personal experience the plight faced by many farmers: “Dairy farmers are now slaves to the commodity market. To survive economically, they need more and more cows, kept more and more intensively. Milk is sold for much less than the cost of its production – it costs less than a bottle of water now. How on earth can this be? Milk is a vital source of nutrition and farmers should be paid for the true cost of its production.”

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Of course for many families it’s great that we spend less now than ever before on food: most of us spend less than 10% of our disposable income on food – and this is seen as a good thing. But that cheap food comes at a high price:

“The apparent cheapness of food is an illusion, because behind the price tag lie a series of hidden costs, none of which are reflected in the price of food. These hidden costs are paid in damage to the environment, depletion of the Earth’s resources, and public health.”

Adding up the impacts

Patrick is involved in research with the UN’s The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) initiative that traces the true costs of food. But to make all those statistics real, he says, take a carton of milk, and consider the costs of its that we have to pay for without realizing it – on top of the suffering that’s routinely inflicted on animals under industrial farming systems.

“You’ve got damage to the environment from the pollution of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, degradation of the soil and declining biodiversity, along with the contribution that agriculture makes to climate change.

“Then there’s a high cost in human health, especially, at the moment, in the rise of untreatable infectious diseases from the over-use of antibiotics in humans and farm animals. But this also includes the costs of the obesity epidemic caused by industrialised diets.

“And there are significant social costs – agricultural workers suffer unduly from labour abuses across the world which sometimes extend to the condition of slavery. These costs are not currently paid in the price of our food and this is not being recognized by politicians nor properly addressed by the people who should be addressing them.”

The True Cost of American Food

What is needed, he says, is a ‘True Cost’ account of our food system. That’s one of the core missions of the Sustainable Food Trust, which Patrick launched in 2013 at a major conference on the topic in London, bringing together the world’s leading experts on True Cost Accounting.

“For obvious reasons all farmers have to follow the best business case”, says Patrick. “But right now if you farm intensively and cause damage to the environment and public health, you will make more money than if you switch to sustainable methods. The aim of the San Francisco conference is to do something about that – we want to create the conditions where producing food in a sustainable way is the most profitable option for producers and the most affordable for consumers.

“We believe there are many opportunities to intervene and shift the dial in this direction. For instance, we can redirect Farm Bill subsidies to favour sustainable practices, we can tax farming which causes damage to the environment or public health, we can harness the power of the financial community to preferentially invest in sustainable agriculture and food companies.

“It’s all about carrots and sticks, we want to encourage the right kind of farming which benefits the environment and public health and discourages food systems which lead to climate change, pollution and disease.”

 

Governor Baker Declares June 20 – 26, 2016 “Massachusetts Pollinator Week”

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BOSTON – Governor Charlie Baker, in support of National Pollinator Week, has declared June 20 – 26, 2016 as “Massachusetts Pollinator Week” – an opportunity to celebrate and protect our pollinator populations. Additionally, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) will also celebrate the opening of the first state apiary, a collection of beehives to be used for education and research.

“Massachusetts Pollinator Week is an opportunity to raise awareness of the importance of pollination to our environment and agricultural industry, and the vital need to protect Massachusetts’ pollinators,” said Governor Charlie Baker. “I encourage all residents to learn more about our native pollinators and consider planting flowers, trees and other plants to provide pollinators with nectar, pollen and habitat.”

“This week, we appreciate the importance of pollinators to Massachusetts’ ecosystems, food sources and economy,” said Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito. “Our administration is committed to preserving our native pollinator species and their habitats, and working with local beekeepers across the Commonwealth to ensure their hives are healthy and thriving.”

Pollinators include bees, birds, bats, butterflies and other species. Over 45 percent of agricultural commodities in Massachusetts rely on pollinator species for crop pollination and food production. There are approximately 4,500 honey beekeepers managing approximately 45,000 hives across the Commonwealth. Pollinator species provide significant environmental benefits that are necessary for maintaining healthy, diverse ecosystems, and produce valuable products including honey, propolis, royal jelly and wax.

club.jpgThe new state apiary at the University of Massachusetts Amherst will serve as a vessel for education, outreach demonstrations and research related to agricultural sustainability, pollination, honey bee health and hive management. The apiary consists of twelve honey bee hives located within an 80 foot by 30 foot plot situated adjacent to the UMass Pollinator Conservation Project.

The apiary will also be used by the UMass Beekeeping Club and for hives maintained for UMass beekeeping courses. The apiary was funded by appropriated FY16 funds for the DAR Apiary Program designated for projects that provide research, education and general support to benefit Massachusetts honey bees.

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“Given the ability to do live, in-hive demonstrations onsite, this apiary will also be an important tool for providing outreach education to farmers, land managers, beekeepers and to the public in the Commonwealth on topics related to honey bees and agriculture,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) Secretary Matthew Beaton. “Through the new state apiary and the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources’ Apiary Program, we are working hard to educate the public about honey bees and support the Commonwealth’s honey beekeepers.”

In Amherst on June 20, 2016, Assistant Secretary for Environment Daniel Sieger will be joined by MDAR Commissioner John Lebeaux and representatives from UMass Amherst College of Natural Sciences for a tour of the new state apiary on the grounds of the UMass Agricultural Learning Center.

“The apiary has received considerable interest from students engaged in farming and sustainability,” said Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) Commissioner John Lebeaux. “Currently several are doing an internship with DAR to assist in hive management throughout the summer as well as conducting their own individual research projects related to hive vitality and pest management.”

“Making sure bees stay healthy and productive is necessary for vibrant agriculture,” said State Senator Anne Gobi (D-Spencer). “I appreciate the focus of the administration and look forward to continuing to work collaboratively with our many bee organizations to achieve that goal.”

“I applaud the initiative set forth by the Baker Administration and MDAR to recognize our vital pollinator populations here in Massachusetts,” said State Representative Paul Schmid (D-Westport). “We are incredibly fortunate to have so many active beekeepers that maintain thousands of hives throughout the Commonwealth in order to provide the well-known agricultural products that make our state so great and promote environmental stewardship.”

“This is an exciting collaboration for the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass Amherst,” said Frank Mangan, Director of the Agriculture Learning Center. “Maintaining a state apiary with DAR provides our students, growers and bee keepers with preventative learning tools.”

For more on the State Apiary, see:

http://www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/agr/farm-products/apiary/


The Stockbridge School of Agriculture offers a Practical Beekeeping class each spring for students in the Sustainable Food and Farming major.

“Industrial” meat is lower priced but costs more than locally raised

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Free range chickens are priced higher than factory raised chickens for a reason

Have you ever asked yourself why an everyday “value” chicken can now be cheaper, pound for pound, than bread? Cheap chicken has become the “healthy” meat of choice for most shoppers and sales are booming, up 20% since 2000 in the UK. But is it really either cheap or healthy?

Producers who use intensive methods are not financially accountable for the harm they cause. The apparently cheap price tag of industrial chicken does not include any of the costs related to pollution of the environment, destruction of natural capital, greenhouse gas emissions or the damage to public health resulting from such systems. It turns out that low-cost chicken isn’t cheap at all.

By contrast, a pasture-fed organic chicken is now seen as a niche market option, because it costs more than three times as much. These chickens spend much of their lives outside. Their feed is grown without the use of chemical fertilisers and synthetic pesticides. And because they are healthy and happy, with stocking densities low enough to ensure that the birds derive a significant percentage of their nutritional requirements from grazed grass, worms and insects, they need no insurance drugs or antibiotics to stop them getting sick.

Despite the fact that sustainable poultry production systems deliver huge benefits to the environment and public health, the producers using these methods have no option but to compete on an unlevel playing field. Worse, we are paying for the damage caused by industrial food production in hidden ways, through taxes, in the form of misdirected subsidies from the common agricultural policy, through water pollution clean-up costs and through national health service treatment costs.

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If consumers knew how factory chickens were raised, they might never eat it again

If the true cost of the factory bird was added to the price tag, it might even be greater than the pasture-raised organic bird.

So who’s to blame for this crazy state of affairs? It’s tempting to blame the farmers and food companies, but we farmers are stuck in an economic system that mainly rewards those who produce food at the cheapest price, as a result of which only those who are selling into high-end niche markets can afford to do the right thing.

The truth is this is a rigged, cheap food system that has two prices: the one you pay now and the one we all pay later. It’s a story that repeats with carrots, apples and peas, meat, milk and cheese. Even breakfast cereal. At some point we need to ask ourselves, why do we support such a destructive food system?

The good news is we do have the power to change it. We should insist that, in future, common agricultural policy payments should be available only to farmers whose practices benefit the environment and improve public health; we could tax chemical fertilisers and pesticides (just like sugar) and use the money to incentivise farmers to adopt more carbon-friendly soil management. We should insist that all food for schools, hospitals and care homes is locally and sustainably sourced. We could offer tax breaks for investors who finance sustainable food businesses. Finally, we should ensure that food workers are paid a living wage and have safer working conditions.

By making these choices, we would help create a fairer, sustainable and health-promoting food system that we all want to see for ourselves, our families and our community.

Patrick Holden is executive director of the Sustainable Food Trust. He produces an organic cheddar cheese from his 80-cow milking herd in west Wales.

Learning Through Gardening in School

Few things are more inspiring than seeing a young person create a meaningful place in society from scratch. That’s the case with Ava Bynum, who grew up near our home in Philipstown, N.Y., and — setting aside the idea of college — created a program for local schools, Hudson Valley Seed, built around incorporating basic learning with gardening and nutrition. The program now serves about 1,500 students a week in schools in several Hudson Valley counties.

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These two videos tell the story far better than I could, so I hope you’ll spend a few minutes this Earth Day weekend watching and sharing them. (Here’s the program’s Facebook page.)

Are there gardening-education programs where you live? If not, I’m sure Bynum would be happy to spread the joy of learning.

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About 25% of the students studying Sustainable Food an Farming at UMass Amherst are focused on community-based and farm-based education.  To learn more, see:

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CRESCENT CITY, Calif. — A decade ago, a couple running a dairy business in Northern California visited a Mennonite farm where the owner had used a flock of laying hens to teach his children business principles and instill values like responsibility and care for nature.

They returned home and bought 150 hens for their boys, Christian and Joseph. “My parents told us, you and Joseph are in charge of keeping these 150 birds alive,” recalled Christian Alexandre, who now heads the family’s egg business.

What started as a parental effort to instill solid values has become the mainstay of Alexandre Family EcoDairy Farms. Within five years, Christian and Joseph were tending 1,500 hens and had a deal in place to supply eggs to Whole Foods stores in Northern California. Christian remembers Walter Robb, co-chief executive of the grocery retailer, showing up at one of his football games.

The rusty red chickens foraging in the fields outnumber the cows 10 to 1 — and the roughly five million eggs they will produce this year command prices that make organic milk look cheap. “The egg business has kept the dairy going for several years,” Blake Alexandre, Christian’s father, said.

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Members of the Alexandre family at their farm in Crescent City, Calif., earlier this month. (Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

Alexandre Kids Eggs produces pastured eggs, which on their farm means that the hens live in housing that allows them to spend much of the day in open pasture. While still a minuscule portion of the roughly 75 billion eggs produced in the United States each year, pastured eggs like theirs are one of the fastest-growing category of eggs in America today.

Consumers have grown more aware of the conditions under which many of the nation’s laying hens live, thanks to undercover videos from animal welfare advocates and, more recently, photos of hundreds of thousands of dead birds being tossed out of hangar-size barns after outbreaks of avian flu.

Pastured eggs from hens allowed to roam about help to address some of those concerns about how foods are produced and the impact such systems have on the environment, animal welfare and health and nutrition.

“The egg market for probably the last 30 years has been a very sleepy category,” said Betsy Babcock, a proprietor of Handsome Brook Farm, a pastured egg business with operations in 41 states. “What we’ve seen over the last year or so, though, is a revolution, with pastured eggs going from being a niche-y segment in the natural food market and Whole Foods to being a thriving business in places like Kroger.”

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Julio Alfaro, left, checks eggs for defects during the packaging process. After collection, the eggs are washed, inspected and packed.

Not all eggs labeled “pastured” are the same — there are no federal regulations governing use of the terms “pastured,” “free range” or “cage-free” on egg cartons.

Thus, the Babcocks’ production regimen for eggs labeled “pastured” is somewhat different from the Alexandres’, which in turn is different from the operations of Vital Farms, another large pastured-egg supplier.

Hens producing pastured eggs may indeed live in lush pastures — or they may merely have access to a patch of dirt outside their barn. Eggs labeled “cage-free” typically means the hens that laid them were free to move about inside a barn kitted out with an aviary system of roosts, nests and feeding stations — but with no outdoor access at all.

“There’s quite a range of operations among businesses that label their eggs pastured,” said Mark Kastel, co-founder and senior farm policy analyst at the Cornucopia Institute, which publishes the Organic Egg Scorecard, a ratings system.

Cornucopia is updating its egg report, thus Mr. Kastel and his team have recently visited egg farms around the country, hoping to clarify the terminology used on egg cartons. Its highest rating will go to egg businesses like the Alexandres’, where most of the hens are outside in mobile housing during the day with access to fresh pasture.

“To get the very best eggs, consumers need to do their homework,” Mr. Kastel said. “Despite federal organic law that requires access to the outdoors, many of the leading organic brands come from giant henhouses with as many as 180,000 birds, offering nothing more than a tiny screened porch.”

In 2008, California voters passed a ballot measure requiring egg producers to provide more spacious living conditions for laying hens. Eggs imported to California from other states also must come from hens housed to the same standard.

In the meantime, major food businesses like Taco Bell and Panera Bread have made commitments to require the eggs they use to come from cage-free environments, which are a step beyond the colony cages that are the minimum needed to meet the California regulations.

Finally, after the avian flu epidemic that killed tens of millions of laying hens this year, some major egg producers decided to replace at least some of their conventional housing with cage-free systems.

Costco began reducing its sales of conventional eggs in 2007, according to Craig Wilson, its vice president for food safety and quality assurance. “It just seemed to us at the time that battery cages were going to go away, and anyway, they’re not a good thing,” Mr. Wilson said.

In August and September of this year, which are not particularly big months for egg sales at Costco, the grocery chain sold 516 million eggs, he said.

Just 39 percent of those eggs came from birds housed in conventional systems. About 30 percent came from hens housed in colony cages, and the rest were from birds in cage-free systems or raised organically, free range or pastured.

Only 1.5 million eggs sold in August and September were from pastured operations like the Alexandres’, who have been Costco suppliers since 2014. “Could we rely on that kind of production for the nation’s egg supply?” Mr. Wilson said. “No. But our members just love them and so we do our best to support their desires.”

Costco, in fact, has inspired the Alexandres to double the number of laying hens they have over the next year

Their egg production system lives side-by-side with the milk business that Blake and Stephanie Alexandre started with when they bought the first 572 acres here, just eight miles south of the Oregon border and about a mile from the Pacific Ocean on land where giant redwood trees once grew.

The mild climate — the temperature fluctuates by only 11 degrees throughout the year — is ideal for outdoor hens, and rotating chickens and cows in pastures has a number of benefits for livestock and soil. Chickens, which are natural foragers, peck at cow patties to extract fly larvae and in the process help distribute manure around a field (as well as keep the fly population to a minimum). “They’re our best manure spreaders,” Christian Alexandre said.

That helps fertilize grass for the family’s 3,500 dairy cows, which are managed organically, to graze on. Vanessa Alexandre, who graduated last summer from California Polytechnic University, is immersing herself in the dairy business and recently struck a deal to provide milk from the family’s herd of 100 percent grass-fed cows to a large grocery business for its private label yogurt, which is made from milk from grass-fed cows. She plans to increase the number of cows raised solely on grass, rather than on grass and feed, as well.

The farm has nine chicken flocks, each typically numbering about 3,500 birds. The flocks are somewhat smaller now after a bout of cholera wiped out about a third of the hens last spring.

The flocks are rotated to new pastures every Tuesday and Friday, leaving behind a section of field shaved as close as a chin in the morning. The pasture then is left alone for a month or so to allow grass to regrow before cows are returned to it.

The hen barns, made from tin reclaimed from the farm in Southern California where Mrs. Alexandre grew up, and heated by solar panels on the roofs, move around on wheels. Christian Alexandre designed the barns, basing the design on the picturesque caravanlike coops he first saw as a boy on the Mennonite farm.

The barns are split in the middle and separated, to give the birds ample room to walk in and out. Nesting boxes hover over a wide canvas belt that catches the eggs as they are laid. Some of the farm’s 85 employees turn hand cranks each morning to move the belt, collecting the eggs at one end and delivering them to a facility where they are washed, inspected and packed.

Roosts for the birds slope up to the rafters of a barn. Very few birds were inside the barns on a recent visit, but they all return at night. “The best thing about chickens is you don’t have to herd them,” Blake Alexandre said.

The eggs sell for as much as 53 cents each — Christian Alexandre declined to reveal the profit margin. Costco sells 18 of them for $9.49 and is working with the family to reduce the price.

Handsome Brook, which grew out of a bed-and-breakfast farm that the Babcocks opened after they retired from the health care business, contracts for eggs with about 50 farms in 41 states that have some 250,000 hens in total. Its production, about 82 million eggs this year, dwarfs the Alexandres’ — and it plans to have 120 farms under contract next year, more than doubling its production.

Each farm houses an average of 5,000 birds in a barn on a 12.5-acre pasture, Ms. Babcock said. The chickens are fenced off in a section of that pasture until they have pecked the grass down to dirt; then they are moved to another section.

“We’re seeing 100 percent year-over-year growth in sales in the stores where our eggs are sold,” Ms. Babcock said. “We think we’re just at the beginning of what’s going to be a very big business.”

Original Article