The Cost of Industrial Ag


By Gracy Olmstead

When most Americans think about agriculture, they picture a small mom and pop farm with a few hundred acres and a small group of happy cows. Few realize that small agricultural enterprises are far from the norm today: as Leah Douglas wrote for Pacific Standard yesterday, “just four companies control 65 percent of pork slaughter, 84 percent of cattle slaughter, and 53 percent of chicken slaughter. Milk production is largely shaped by one large processor, Dean Foods, and one large cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America.” What are the practical results of this? Douglas writes,

Farmers face less competitive markets in which to sell their goods, leaving them vulnerable to any price offered by a buyer. Distributors and suppliers feel their prices squeezed as large retailers like Walmart leverage their growing power over the supply chain. Eaters are faced with an illusion of choice, wandering through supermarket aisles where dozens of seemingly competitive products might be owned by the same one or two food processors. Workers on farms and in meatpacking plants face pressure to increase production, sometimes at the expense of their safety. Animals living on factory farms are crowded into stifling barns, often receive unnecessary antibiotics, and are susceptible to disease.

Crony capitalism has been a problem in American agriculture for some time; our Farm Bill (which Jim Antle has called “welfare for the rich and politically connected”) doles out subsidies and financial supports to our country’s biggest corporatized farms. This can foster the sort of consolidation described above, while having a deleterious impact on the health of our land and communities, and a detrimental effect on competition and growth in our farming economy.

Throughout this presidential election, “big business” and “big banks” have gotten a lot of attention due to Bernie Sanders’s influence. Yet despite his crusade against large U.S. corporations, very little attention has been paid to agriculture and the role industrialized farms play in helping, or hurting, the U.S. economy. Neither Clinton nor Trump have a positive record when it comes to agriculture. Donald Trump’s only stated positions on farming put him directly in the pocket of Big Ag—he’s also attacked Cruz for his stance against ethanol mandates and subsidies, while declaring his own support for the industry. “His full-throated support for the ethanol mandate puts no room between him and Hillary, who has never met a corporate handout she didn’t like,” writes Tim Carney for the Washington Examiner.

Last month, the Obama administration issued an executive order that aims to support “a fair, efficient, and competitive marketplace.” The order condemns practices such as “unlawful collusion, illegal bid rigging, price fixing, and wage setting,” as well as other practices that “stifle competition and erode the foundation of America’s economic vitality.”

Yet despite the attention this new executive order draws to the problems in the American marketplace, it seems ill suited to address the problems therein.”When you see a headline like ‘Obama to Sign Executive Order to Ignite Corporate Competition’ you have to scratch your head at the premise,” notes Clyde Wayne Crews Jr. over at Forbes. “Igniting” or fostering competition often necessitates at least some deregulation, a freeing of the market and the players in that market—”something that doesn’t involve an executive order asking for action items from agencies in 60 days.”

As our system of agriculture has grown in size, it has also grown less sustainable. And while consolidation isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, the obstruction of competition and sustainability are. We have begun to see this, and are starting to consider necessary adjustments. But in order to see real reform, we need to consider changes that might be made at the congressional level, specifically to the Farm Bill, which could bring greater freedom to small farmers and entrepreneurs.

Original Post


Flower Power: changing the world with flower seeds

seedbombI’ve never thought of myself as much of a rebel. You generally won’t find me smashing car windows or setting garbage cans aflame. (Let’s get real: You probably won’t find me speeding. Such are the depths of my rule-following nature.) But I realize now that all along, I’ve just been waiting for the right weapon with which to battle The Man.

Wildflowers, of course. More precisely: ping-pong ball-size globs of clay and compost laced with wildflower seeds called seed bombs (or green grenades — military nomenclature is a must). The other day, I stood in front of a fenced-off lot on a busy stretch of asphalt, fingering the tiny seed arsenal I’d packed into a Ziploc bag. I looked back and forth, took a deep breath, and let one fly over the chain links; the ball came to rest on a scrubby patch of dirt in the sun. “Take that!” I muttered under my breath.

Finally, I was beginning to understand the rebel thrill. This must be what Marlon Brando felt like.

Lobbing that seed bomb was my first foray into the worldwide movement of “guerrilla gardening,” or reclaiming underused land — empty lots, vacant yards, alleys, and other areas you technically don’t have the right to plant — for lovely and/or productive gardens. In this case, the enemy takes the form of a disinterested, wasteful society that misses out on abundant opportunities to beautify the ugly and cultivate the barren.

Sometimes it’s as simple as taking over an adjacent lot with some extra pepper plants, but often there’s more at stake. Among guerrilla gardeners, you’ll hear plenty of chatter about “land use,” “re-creating space,” and “Who actually owns the earth, man?” Make no mistake: Those petunias are political.

eggsSome guerrilla gardening reportedly plays out like a scene from a spy movie: Black-clad growers sneak out to till and water vegetable patches in the dead of night. While that does sound fun, I had something a little less intense in mind for my first time out. Then my research uncovered seed bombs — perfect for inaccessible yards, tough-to-tend spaces, and ‘fraidy cats. Make a few green grenades, toss them all over town, and wait for the blooms to take over. This I could do.

And I did. Whipping up a batch of proto-wildflower balls is surprisingly simple — mine cost me about $10 (for seeds and clay; I grabbed the compost right from my worm bin) and 10 minutes. I picked up the native wildflower mix at my local grocery store and found the natural clay at an art-supply shop, where the clerk assured me “this is just what the Girl Scouts used to make their seed bombs last year.” (Fight the power, Brownies!) After letting the bombs sit out overnight to dry a bit, I was ready to sow some rebellion. (See below for step-by-step instructions on how to make them.)

ggsb1lExperienced guerrillas recommend seed-bombing right before rain is forecast. This usually wouldn’t be a problem in Seattle, but we were just about to enter an unusually warm and sunny period. Still, I couldn’t wait to dip a toe into the movement, so I loaded my bag with a handful of seed bombs and went out in search of abandoned space begging for wildflowers.

My destination was a busy thoroughfare near my apartment with a slightly, ahem, seedy reputation. Pocked with cheap motels and overgrown, weedy patches that don’t clearly belong to anybody, I figured it presented a prime opportunity for my “floral attack.” Plus, it’s close enough to let me check in on my gardens’ progress as the weeks go by.

I found my first site before I even reached the intended street: a plowed-over slope strewn with trash and construction detritus that’s lingered, untouched, for months. Nobody was around, so I chucked a seed ball into the expanse. (I don’t know who would object to a few blossoms here and there, but these days you never know when tossing an unidentified object — one you’re calling a bomb, no less — might get you tackled by a SWAT team.) “Good luck, little seeds,” I whispered.

Next up: A weedy patch near a lonely bus stop. Then a clear, empty dirt meadow. The fenced-in lot next to a boarded-up house. I strode along that eyesore of a road like a modern-day Janie Appleseed with safety pins in her ears, spreading flowers and righteous garden activism with every step.

I reserved the last ball in the bag for a quiet corner of my shared backyard. The lawn doesn’t need it, as neighbors have planted plenty of flowers, herbs, and veggies around the periphery, but I wanted to keep one seed bomb close so I could check on it every day. Hell, I might even water it. You might point out that cultivating flowers in my own backyard hardly counts as guerrilla gardening, but hey — like a true rebel, I totally did not ask my landlord first.

I’ll report back on my illicit wildflower patches and other excursions into guerrilla gardening as the spring goes on. ‘Til then, happy planting, everyone. Keep it on the downlow, and remember — if you get caught, you didn’t hear this from me. It was the Girl Scouts.

Homemade Seed Bombs

5 parts clay soil/potter’s powder
1 part wildflower seeds
1 part compost/worm castings

1. Combine the seeds and compost in a large bowl; stir well.

2. Add the clay soil. If you’re using a dry clay, slowly add water, stirring as you go, until you have the consistency of thick mud (you don’t want it too watery to mold).

3. Shape the mixture into golf ball-size globs.

4. Set seed bombs in a tray and let them sit in the sun for a day or so to harden.

5. Get bombin’!

And for more instructions see:


Original Post

Old MacDonald had a farm – and then the neighbors sued


by Scott Pitman and Michael Pill

Published in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly: May 16th, 2013

Growing up in Iowa, and now living in the fertile Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, co-author Michael Pill appreciates the American Farmland Trust bumper sticker: “No Farms No Food.”

John Gerber, professor of sustainable food and farming at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, says one reason he has a big garden, raises chickens, collects honey from his backyard bee hive, and harvests greens throughout the winter in an unheated greenhouse is “the reality of our current global situation, which in my mind includes the ‘perfect storm’ of climate change, peak oil and economic downturn.”  Gerber believes there is a need for more community and family-level self-sufficiency in the face of “this global crisis.”

Most of us depend on supermarkets with only a few days’ inventory replenished by petroleum-fueled trucks that deliver food from hundreds or even thousands of miles away. It is a complex, fragile system that we take for granted.

So who’s right in attorney Gerald Nissenbaum’s ongoing legal battle with Ingaldsby Farm, next door to his home in Boxford? The latest chapter in the conflict was summarized in Lawyers Weekly (“Lawyer loses latest round in bout with neighboring farm,” April 1).

To survive in an age of large-scale industrial food production, the family farm at issue advertises “[f]resh produce, frozen fresh foods and baked goods. Kids can feed rabbits, goats, pigs, sheep and chickens, play on a large wooden train, watch a puppet show, or just play in the large sand box.”

The Boxford battle turns on the limits of the protection afforded to farm stands under G.L.c. 40A, §3, which grants a zoning exemption (numbers in brackets added to aid in parsing statutory language) to:

“[F]acilities for the sale of produce, wine and dairy products, provided that either

[1] [a] during the months of June, July, August and September of each year or

[b] during the harvest season of the primary crop raised on land of the owner or lessee,

25 per cent of such products for sale, based on either gross sales dollars or volume have been produced by the owner or lessee of the land on which the facility is located, or

[2] [a] at least 25 per cent of such products for sale, based on either gross annual sales or annual volume, have been produced by the owner or lessee of the land on which the facility is located and

[b] at least an additional 50 per cent of such products for sale, based upon either gross annual sales or annual volume, have been produced in Massachusetts on land other than that on which the facility is located, used for the primary purpose of commercial agriculture, aquaculture, silviculture, horticulture, floriculture or viticulture, whether by the owner or lessee of the land on which the facility is located or by another … .”

Chapter 1128, §1A defines “farming,” “agriculture” and “farmer” as follows (numbers in brackets added to aid in parsing statutory language):

“‘Farming’ or ‘agriculture’ shall include farming in all of its branches and

[1] the cultivation and tillage of the soil,

[2] dairying,

[3] the production, cultivation, growing and harvesting of any agricultural, aquacultural, floricultural or horticultural commodities,

[4] the growing and harvesting of forest products upon forest land,

[5] the raising of livestock including horses,

[6] the keeping of horses as a commercial enterprise,

[7] the keeping and raising of poultry, swine, cattle and other domesticated animals used for food purposes, bees, fur-bearing animals, and

[8] any forestry or lumbering operations, performed by a farmer, who is hereby defined as one engaged in

[a] agriculture or farming as herein defined, or

[b] on a farm as an incident to or in conjunction with such farming operations, including preparations for market, delivery to storage or to market or to carriers for transportation to market.”

Based on that definition, G.L.c. 40A, §3 provides that municipalities cannot through zoning “prohibit, unreasonably regulate, or require a special permit for the use of land … for the primary purpose of commercial agriculture, aquaculture, silviculture, horticulture, floriculture or viticulture … .”

Where agriculture is permitted by local zoning, this statutory exemption applies to parcels of any size. In areas “not zoned for agriculture, aquaculture, silviculture, horticulture, floriculture or viticulture,” the exemption applies “to parcels of 5 acres or more or to parcels 2 acres or more if the sale of products produced from the agriculture, aquaculture, silviculture, horticulture, floriculture or viticulture use on the parcel annually generates at least $1,000 per acre based on gross sales dollars … .”

The Ingaldsby Farm owners chose pumpkins as their path to farm-stand exemption heaven (see [1][b] in G.L.c. 40A, §3 above), while neighbor Nissenbaum contends that apples should be deemed the primary crop, with rather different consequences.

The multi-year fight continues. Given the foregoing and the following, the ground is fertile for battle. Oranges, anyone?

A raft of other legislative and regulatory provisions make challenging farms and farm stands a daunting proposition. For example, G.L.c. 111 includes provisions protecting farming operations from local boards of health, beginning with the following definition in G.L.c. 111, §1:

“‘Farming’ or ‘agriculture,’ farming in all of its branches and cultivation and tillage of the soil, dairying, the production, cultivation, growing and harvesting of any agricultural, aquacultural, floricultural or horticultural commodities, the growing and harvesting of forest products upon forest land, the raising of livestock including horses, the keeping of horses as a commercial enterprise, the keeping and raising of poultry, swine, cattle and other domesticated animals used for food purposes, bees, fur-bearing animals, and any practices, including any forestry or lumbering operations, performed by a farmer, who is hereby defined as one engaged in agricultural of farming as herein defined, or on a farm as an incident to or in conjunction with such farming operations, including preparations for market, delivery to storage or to market or to carriers for transportation to market.”

Chapter 111, §125A includes a provision “that the odor from the normal maintenance of livestock or the spreading of manure upon agricultural and horticultural or farming lands, or noise from livestock or farm equipment used in normal, generally acceptable farming procedures or from plowing or cultivation operations upon agricultural and horticultural or farming lands shall not be deemed to constitute a nuisance.”

Legislation providing for abatement of private nuisances grants immunity to farming operations (as defined by G.L.c. 128, §1A) in these words:

“No action in nuisance may be maintained against any person or entity resulting from the operation of a farm or any ancillary or related activities thereof, if said operation is an ordinary aspect of said farming operation or ancillary or related activity; provided, however, that said farm shall have been in operation for more than one year. This section shall not apply if the nuisance is determined to exist as the result of negligent conduct or actions inconsistent with generally accepted agricultural practices.”

If a local board of health nevertheless determines under G.L.c. 111, §125A that “a farm or the operation thereof constitutes a nuisance,” that statute requires written notice which can be appealed within 10 days to the local District Court. If an appeal is filed, “the operation of said order shall be suspended, pending the order of the court.”

If that weren’t enough, agricultural activities are also exempt from the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act and Regulations (G.L.c. 131, §40 and 310 C.M.R. 10.00). The definition of “Agriculture” in 310 C.M.R. 10.04 authorizes and defines “[n]ormal maintenance of land in agricultural use” that does not require an order of conditions from the local conservation commission.

Under 310 C.M.R. 10.04, “land in agricultural use” within a wetland or buffer zone must be “primarily and presently used in producing or raising one of more of the following agricultural commodities for commercial purposes”:

“1. animals, including but not limited to livestock, poultry, and bees;

  1. 2. fruits, vegetables, berries, nuts, maple sap and other foods for human consumption;
  2. 3. feed, seed, forage, tobacco, flowers, sod, nursery or greenhouse products, and ornamental plants or shrubs; and
  3. 4. forest products on land maintained in forest use … .”

The exemption is lost if agricultural use lapses for more than “five consecutive years,” unless the inactivity is under a U.S. Department of Agriculture contract or the land is used for “forestry purposes.” Id.

That becomes an issue when land allowed to lie fallow for more than five years is brought back into agricultural production. If hay has been cut to keep fields from returning to forest, one can argue to the local conservation commission that the haying constitutes “agricultural use.”

The wetlands exemption for agricultural use is reviewed in detail in “Farming in Wetland Resources Areas: A Guide to Agriculture and the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act (January 1996) ( by the state departments of Environmental Management (now Conservation & Natural Resources), Environmental Protection, and Food and Agriculture (now Agricultural Resources).

The Massachusetts Endangered Species Act grants similar protection, defining “land in agricultural use,” G.L.c. 131A, §1, to include the following activities:

“[R]aising animals … for the purpose of selling such animals or a product derived from such animals in the regular course of business … raising fruits, vegetables, berries, nuts and other foods for human consumption, feed for animals, tobacco, flowers, sod, trees, nursery or greenhouse products and ornamental plants and shrubs for the purpose of selling such products in the regular course of business; or when primarily and directly used in raising forest products … .”

Definitions and exemptions in the Endangered Species Act Regulations, 321 C.M.R. 10.02 and 10.14(1), are similar to those in the Wetlands Protection Act Regulations, 310 C.M.R. 10.04.

The bottom line is that attorney Nissenbaum, and others who may not want a farm next door, have an uphill battle in the face of the extensive legal protection for farming in Massachusetts. Perhaps next time we won’t get to compare apples to pumpkins. We’ll miss that.

Scott Pitman practices at the Law Offices of William V. Hovey in Boston. Michael Pill is a lawyer at Green, Miles, Lipton in Northampton.

Complete URL:

Reprinted with permission of the authors.

Women play a larger role in today’s agriculture

They’re not all farm wives anymore. Women are driving combines, ordering feed and seed and owning and managing farms and ranches. Linda Bannwarth, of rural Mitchell, has seen the evolving role of women in agriculture.


“I just think there’s more respect for women now. I have nieces who have ag degrees,” Bannwarth said.

“The glass ceiling for women is getting broken,” she said. “Women can do as much as men now. Today’s woman is more knowledgeable, more confident.”

Bannwarth, 63, said she is an “ag partner” with her husband Chuck Bannwarth. She said Continue reading

Fixing Our Food Problem

By Mark Bitman – published in the NY Times, January 1, 2013

Nothing affects public health in the United States more than food. Gun violence kills tens of thousands of Americans a year. Heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes kill more than a million people a year — nearly half of all deaths — and diet is a root cause of many of those diseases.

And the root of that dangerous diet is our system of hyper-industrial agriculture, the kind that uses 10 times as much energy as it produces.

We must figure out a way to un-invent this food system. It’s been a major contributor to climate change, spawned the obesity crisis, poisoned countless volumes of land and water, wasted energy, tortured billions of animals… I could go on. The point is that “sustainability” is not only possible but essential: only by saving the earth can we save ourselves, and vice versa.

How do we do that?

This seems like a good day to step back a bit and suggest something that’s sometimes difficult to accept.


We can only dismantle this system little by little, and slowly. Change takes time. Often — usually — that time exceeds the life span of its pioneers. And when it comes to sustainable food for billions, we’re the pioneers of a food movement that’s just beginning to take shape. The abolition movement began at least a century before the Civil War, 200 years before the civil rights movement. The struggle to gain the right to vote for women in the United States was active for 75 years before an amendment was passed. The gay rights struggle has made tremendous strides over the last 40 years, but equal treatment under the law is hardly established.

Well-cared-for animals will necessarily be more expensive, which means we’ll eat fewer of them; that’s a win-win.

Activists who took on these issues had in common a clear series of demands and a sense that the work was ongoing. They had a large and ever-growing public following and a willingness to sacrifice time, energy and even life for the benefit not only of contemporaries but for subsequent generations.

They were also aware that there is no success without a willingness to fail; that failure is a part of progress. A single defeat was seen as a temporary setback. The same vision should be applied to every issue the nascent food movement is tackling.

Yet before we can assess our progress, we must state our goals. There is no consensus behind a program for achieving sustainable production of food that promotes rather than attacks health. We can’t ask for “better food for all”; we must be specific. In the very near term, for example, we must fight to protect and improve programs that make food available to lower-income Americans. We must also support the increasingly assertive battles of workers in food-related industries; nothing reflects our moral core more accurately than the abuses we overlook in the names of convenience and economy.

Beyond that, I believe that the two issues that will have the greatest reverberations in agriculture, health and the environment are reducing the consumption of sugar-laden beverages and improving the living conditions of livestock.

About the first I have written plenty, and can summarize: when we begin treating sugar-sweetened beverages as we do tobacco, we will make a huge stride in improving our diet.

The second is even more powerful, and progress was made in that arena in 2012 as one food company after another resolved to (eventually) reject pork produced with gestation crates. So over the next few years, some animals will be treated somewhat better. This is absolutely, unquestionably thanks to public pressure, which should now set its sights higher and insist that all animals grown for food production be treated not just better but well.

Well-cared-for animals will necessarily be more expensive, which means we’ll eat fewer of them; that’s a win-win. They’ll use fewer antibiotics, they’ll be produced by more farmers in more places, and they’ll eat less commodity grain, which will both reduce environmental damage and allow for more land to be used for high-quality human food like fruits and vegetables.

Allies may argue that I miss the mark with either or both of these, and that’s fine: it’s a discussion. The point is that no major food issue will be resolved in the next 10 years. As pioneers, we must build upon incremental progress and not be disheartened, because often there isn’t quick resolution for complex issues.

An association between tobacco and cancer was discovered more 200 years ago. The surgeon general’s report that identified smoking as a public health issue appeared in 1964. The food movement has not yet reached its 1964; there’s isn’t even a general acknowledgment of a problem in need of fixing.

So, in 2013, let’s call for energy, action — and patience.

Original Post

13 Resolutions to Change the Food System in 2013

Sustainable Agriculture and Food Policy Expert

As we start 2013, many people will be thinking about plans and promises to improve their diets and health. We think a broader collection of farmers, policy-makers, and eaters need new, bigger resolutions for fixing the food system — real changes with long-term impacts in fields, boardrooms, and on plates all over the world. These are resolutions that the world can’t afford to break with nearly one billion still hungry and more than one billion suffering from the effects of being overweight and obese. We have the tools — let’s use them in 2013!

Here are our 13 resolutions to change the food system in 2013:

1. Growing the Cities: Food production doesn’t only happen in fields or factories. Nearly one billion people worldwide produce food in cities. In Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, farmers are growing seeds of indigenous vegetables and selling them to rural farmers. At Bell Book & Candle restaurant in New York, customers are served rosemary, cherry tomatoes, romaine, and other produce grown from the restaurant’s rooftop garden.

2. Creating Better Access: People’s Grocery in Oakland and Fresh Moves in Chicago bring mobile grocery stores to food deserts giving low-income consumers opportunities to make healthy food choices. Instead of chips and soda, they provide customers with affordable organic produce, not typically available in their communities.

3. Eaters Demanding Healthier Food: Food writer Michael Pollan advises not to eat anything that your grandparents wouldn’t recognize. Try eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole foods without preservatives and other additives.

4. Cooking More: Home economics classes have declined in schools in the United Kingdom and the U.S. and young people lack basic cooking skills. Top Chefs Jamie Oliver, Alice Waters, and Bill Telepan are working with schools to teach kids how to cook healthy, nutritious foods.

5. Creating Conviviality: According to the Hartman Group, nearly half of all adults in the U.S. eat meals alone. Sharing a meal with family and friends can foster community and conversation. Recent studies suggest that children who eat meals with their families are typically happier and more stable than those who do not.

6. Focus on Vegetables: Nearly two billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies worldwide, leading to poor development. The World Vegetable Center, however, is helping farmers grow high-value, nutrient rich vegetables in Africa and Asia, improving health and increasing incomes.

7. Preventing Waste: Roughly one-third of all food is wasted–in fields, during transport, in storage, and in homes. But there are easy, inexpensive ways to prevent waste. Initiatives like Love Food, Hate Waste offer consumers tips about portion control and recipes for leftovers, while farmers in Bolivia are using solar-powered driers to preserve foods.

8. Engaging Youth: Making farming both intellectually and economically stimulating will help make the food system an attractive career option for youth. Across sub-Saharan Africa, cell phones and the internet are connecting farmers to information about weather and markets; in the U.S., Food Corps is teaching students how to grow and cook food, preparing them for a lifetime of healthy eating.

9. Protecting Workers: Farm and food workers across the world are fighting for better pay and working conditions. In Zimbabwe, the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe (GAPWUZ), protects laborers from abuse. In the U.S., the Coalition of Immokalee Workers successfully persuaded Trader Joe’s and Chipotle to pay the premium of a penny-per-pound to Florida tomato pickers.

10. Acknowledging the Importance of Farmers: Farmers aren’t just farmers, they’re business-women and men, stewards of the land, and educators, sharing knowledge in their communities. Slow Food International works with farmers all over the world, helping recognize their importance to preserve biodiversity and culture.

11. Recognizing the Role of Governments: Nations must implement policies that give everyone access to safe, affordable, healthy food. In Ghana and Brazil, government action, including national school feeding programs and increased support for sustainable agricultural production, greatly reduced the number of hungry people.

12. Changing the Metrics: Governments, NGOs, and funders have focused on increasing production and improving yields, rather than improving nutrition and protecting the environment. Changing the metrics, and focusing more on quality, will improve public and environmental health, and livelihoods.

13. Fixing the Broken Food System: Agriculture can be the solution to some of the world’s most pressing challenges–including unemployment, obesity, and climate change. These innovations simply need more research, more investment, and ultimately more funding.

We can do it — together!

Hardwick, MA cattle could save the planet (according to Time Magazine)

Cattle on this Hardwick, Mass., farm grow not on feedlots but in pastures, where their grazing helps keep carbon dioxide in the ground

On a farm in coastal Maine, a barn is going up. Right now it’s little more than a concrete slab and some wooden beams, but when it’s finished, the barn will provide winter shelter for up to six cows and a few head of sheep. None of this would be remarkable if it weren’t for the fact that the people building the barn are two of the most highly regarded organic-vegetable farmers in the country: Eliot Coleman wrote the bible of organic farming, The New Organic Grower, and Barbara Damrosch is the Washington Post’s gardening columnist. At a time when a growing number of environmental activists are calling for an end to eating meat, this veggie-centric power couple is beginning to raise it. “Why?” asks Coleman, tromping through the mud on his way toward a greenhouse bursting with December turnips. “Because I care about the fate of the planet.”

Ever since the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization released a 2006 report that attributed 18% of the world’s man-made greenhouse-gas emissions to livestock — more, the report noted, than what’s produced by transportation — livestock has taken an increasingly hard rap. At first, it was just vegetarian groups that used the U.N.’s findings as evidence for the superiority of an all-plant diet. But since then, a broader range of environmentalists has taken up the cause. At a recent European Parliament hearing titled “Global Warming and Food Policy: Less Meat = Less Heat,” Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, argued that reducing meat consumption is a “simple, effective and short-term delivery measure in which everybody could contribute” to emissions reductions.

And of all the animals that humans eat, none are held more responsible for climate change than the ones that moo. Cows not only consume more energy-intensive feed than other livestock; they also produce more methane — a powerful greenhouse gas — than other animals do. “If your primary concern is to curb emissions, you shouldn’t be eating beef,” says Nathan Pelletier, an ecological economist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, N.S., noting that cows produce 13 to 30 lb. of carbon dioxide per pound of meat.

So how can Coleman and Damrosch believe that adding livestock to their farm will help the planet? Cattleman Ridge Shinn has the answer. On a wintry Saturday at his farm in Hardwick, Mass., he is out in his pastures encouraging a herd of plump Devon cows to move to a grassy new paddock. Over the course of a year, his 100 cattle will rotate across 175 acres four or five times. “Conventional cattle raising is like mining,” he says. “It’s unsustainable, because you’re just taking without putting anything back. But when you rotate cattle on grass, you change the equation. You put back more than you take.”

It works like this: grass is a perennial. Rotate cattle and other ruminants across pastures full of it, and the animals’ grazing will cut the blades — which spurs new growth — while their trampling helps work manure and other decaying organic matter into the soil, turning it into rich humus. The plant’s roots also help maintain soil health by retaining water and microbes. And healthy soil keeps carbon dioxide underground and out of the atmosphere.

Compare that with the estimated 99% of U.S. beef cattle that live out their last months on feedlots, where they are stuffed with corn and soybeans. In the past few decades, the growth of these concentrated animal-feeding operations has resulted in millions of acres of grassland being abandoned or converted — along with vast swaths of forest — into profitable cropland for livestock feed. “Much of the carbon footprint of beef comes from growing grain to feed the animals, which requires fossil-fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides, transportation,” says Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. “Grass-fed beef has a much lighter carbon footprint.” Indeed, although grass-fed cattle may produce more methane than conventional ones (high-fiber plants are harder to digest than cereals, as anyone who has felt the gastric effects of eating broccoli or cabbage can attest), their net emissions are lower because they help the soil sequester carbon.