Archive for May, 2010

How Many Ag Scientists Truly Support Industrial Ag.

May 31, 2010

Last year “Grassland’s The future of Sustainable Agriculture” was published by a consortium including, The American Society of Agronomy, The Crop Science Society of America, and The Soil Science Society of America. It was also co-sponsored by The Leopold Center at Iowa State University. In checking I found out that this group represented 11,000 members of whom 4400 were affiliated with Land Grant Universities either as faculty or students. This is a large group of Ag scientists who apparently support dramatic change in the direction of agriculture. I personally know 3 agronomists who actively support industrial agriculture. I wrote a letter to Fred Kirshenmann former head of the Leopold Center asking him if he knew how many current scientist/teachers of future farmers supported Industrial Ag. I was trying to get an indicator of the future of agriculture. While he could not quantify this answer he did characterize Ag scientists in the view of some of his colleagues and provided insight into his own views.

Letter from Fred Kirchenmann- Director of the Leopold Center For Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

Colleagues                                                                                                           Organizations have agendas that are most often at odds with their mission and so anyone that wants to speak independently from the heart has to be willing to give up the comfort and security of the organizations they belong to. What this is telling us is that many organizations cater to interests which they feel may not be consistent with their mission but which are essential to their survival. Consequently one has to be an outlier to have an impact.

The difficulty is the money—hence power— is not in forages. It is in corn and soybeans, so that’s what rules the day, both in terms of faculty emphasis and corporate/government support. Just follow the money. He went on to point out the disincentives in moving in the direction of complex rotations, despite the many benefits including forages and grasslands in a farming system. 1. It requires more management time 2. the government paycheck is smaller. 3. Alfalfa hay is hard to market—you can’t just take it to the local elevator and dump it.

Professor Kirchenmann:

Given all that, most of the effort in Land Grant Universities is devoted to tweaking the current system to make it more sustainable rather than redesigning systems. In my view this will eventually lead us into a catastrophic future in agriculture since the challenge we will be facing will increasingly make industrial agriculture untenable—The end of cheap energy, depletion of fresh water resources will challenge industrial agriculture—which requires obscene amounts of cheap energy and fresh water. In fact one could argue that without the many government subsidies the current ag system would already be unlikely to survive The true tragedy is that we are not paying attention to restoring the health of our two important natural resources, which will enable us to best deal with the impending crisis.

Some of the research conducted by Matt Liebman, weed ecologist here at ISU that simply by going to a 4 year rotation, 2 years of alfalfa followed by corn and beans one can cut herbicide usage by 85%, N inputs by 75% and cut a farms contribution to global warming by 60% and increase corn yield in the process.

Dick Thompson here in Iowa has demonstrated that farmers can do better financially on prime Iowa farmland with a 5-year rotation; 3 years of grazing on perennial grass followed by corn and soybeans.

The reason more farmers don’t do such farming methods is embedded in my above comments—the whole market infrastructure discourages such farming.

Research like Liebman’s and working models like Thompson’s are critically important because as the Industrial system collapses we need to have ideas floating around so that farmers have practical examples to transition to. This is one reason we decided to produce the Grasslands book. It will not cause a revolution but it will be part of the ideas floating around that can help us create the new agriculture once industrial agriculture recedes into the dustbin of history.

Fred Kirchenmann


Taking a bad Concept and Making it Worse

May 31, 2010

When soils scientists Magdoff/Van Es who wrote the book Sustainable Soils Management recently republished by USDA/SARE state that half the farmland in the US is being destroyed by erosion their criteria is an erosion rate exceeding 5-tons per acre per year. Is that rate acceptable from our Creeks perspective? Our Creek is 2.5 miles long and the watershed has 2600 acres of tilled farmland. This acceptable rate of field loss produces 650 large dump trucks of topsoil per year dumped into LaTrappe Creek. Denuding vast areas of the earths surface in the US to plant row crops is a bad idea being compounded by allowing a two crop or less management system which has live roots 32% or less of the time. Magdoff/Van Es state that erosion is a function of live roots in the ground. Simply increasing to a 3 crop rotation would more than double the live roots to 76% of the time. Industrial agriculture always driven by cheap has taken a flawed concept and further compounded it by taking shortcuts, which exacerbate its damage. Its time for regulators to do their job and regulate but also regulate from a water quality perspective.

Famous Chef Advocates Meatless Monday

May 28, 2010

When Mario Batali starts to push people to eat their vegetables, you know something is happening.

The famously rotund and infamously gluttonous chef-restaurateur is to pig what the Beatles are to rock-and-roll. Batali, a rock-star chef if there ever was one, has changed the way Americans eat pork, introducing us to cured lonza, guanciale and lardo, which he once described to the New Yorker magazine as “the best song sung in the key of pig.”

And yet this month, Batali announced that he would join the Meatless Monday campaign, a movement backed by a broad array of public-health advocates, animal welfare activists and environmentalists that asks carnivores to give up meat one day a week. Each of Batali’s 14 restaurants, which include the meatily named Bar Jamon in New York and Carnevino in Las Vegas, offers two vegetarian entrees on Mondays, highlighted with an “MM” logo.

See the full Washington Post article at:

Open letter To My Sister Jean

May 23, 2010

I recently spent some time with my sister and I probably talked about the damage that our current corn based meat and dairy production system is doing to our health and the environment. She called me and said do you know that grass fed ground beef is more than $5 per pound? I said yes but it is a real value at that price. I could tell by the silence on the line that as a widow watching her expenses she was a complete skeptic. So I thought I would share with her and our followers the value she would receive for an average 20%  premium for grass fed beef.

Health advantages:

Grass fed beef is 7 times lower in saturated fat than corn fed

Grass fed beef has substantially higher omega 3 than Corn fed

Grass fed beef is the only natural source of cancer fighting CLA

Grass fed beef has no antibiotics and does not destroy our ability to fight infection

Grass fed beef has no growth hormones with its yet undocumented health effect

Corn fed cattle are inherently high in e-coli, which can be deadly to humans

Also see our reference #16 from the National Cancer Institute

Scientists are just learning the adverse affects of atrazine, a chemical widely used in weed management by industrial agriculture. Is atrazine the major cause of high cancer rates in Iowa and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland?

Environmental and other advantages:

Corn production for animal feed is 50% responsible for advanced eutrofication of rivers East of the Rockies and the  destruction of Gulf water species. The other 50% is processed food and ethanol.

Unmanaged CAFO manure and corn production used for animal feed is more than 90% responsible for Chesapeake Bay pollution and major species loss.

Shortcuts in corn cropping diversity resulting in 2-crop or less rotations is the direct cause of top soil erosion affecting future soil productivity and the resulting sedimentation of all rivers and estuaries East of the Rockies.

Corn fed cattle are abused in CAFO’s

Jean. I know that many of these issues do not affect you living in Nevada and you have never seen the horrible conditions in a CAFO or seen the documentary FOOD INC. or see daily the destruction of our Creek but don’t you think that every citizen who buys these industrial products with knowledge of the damage to our water and soil assets and to the animals themselves bears some responsibility for this destruction which can only be described as a National disgrace being ignored by responsible regulators.

View of a USDA Scientist

May 18, 2010

I personally support a 25% reduction in fertilizer usage and a general reduction in chemical usage. I support the end of corn subsidies and the pyrolysolis of farm animal manure.

USDA Abdicates Regulatory Responsibility

May 17, 2010

Farming and food regulators are ignoring short cuts in corn and animal production that are destroying our soil our water and our health.

The USDA/SARE recently republished its classic book on sustainable soil management by Magdoff/Van Es. In the chapters on crop rotation and erosion it clearly states that soil erosion occurs when the fields are left without live roots in the ground when extreme rainfall occurs. The dominant two-crop corn/soybean rotation has live roots only 32% of the time. Adding a 3rd crop increases the time to 76%. Clearly anything less than a 3 crop plus a winter cover crop is a short cut that cannot be ignored by USDA regulators.

Presidents Clinton’s Gulf Hypoxia study published in 2000 by a blue ribbon commission of US scientists found that fertilizer application to corn in the Midwest was primarily responsible for Hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico and recommended a 20% reduction in fertilizer application rates. Hypoxia and the oxygen dead zone increase every year in the Gulf and in Chesapeake Bay as reported in the> PBS documentary. USDA must take its regulatory responsibility seriously and immediately mandate a 25% reduction in fertilizer application rates Nationwide.

CAFO animal producers are simply making a huge mess as pointed out by the Pew Commission report on CAFO farm animal production. The USDA has the regulatory responsibility to correct this by requiring treatment of CAFO manure as called for by the Commission.

End Corn Subsidies in the 2012 farm bill

The excuse for not taking these 4 actions is the reduction of corn-based products that will result. Walter Willett heads the worlds largest nutrition department at Harvard University. His assessment is: “Don – you will find common ground among nutritionists on the harmful effects of very cheap and large amounts of starch from subsidized corn in the US diet, which is the substrate for high fructose corn syrup, and very cheap sugary beverages and feedlot pork and red meat. While not the only contributors these are fueling our epidemics of obesity and diabetes.”

Organic Label Value Increased For Food Animals

May 16, 2010

There are some very important changes being made to organic labeled meat and dairy products. With respect to ruminant animals such as cattle USDA has adopted a pasture rule which requires that a minimal amount of their food ration comes from grass. This means that these products will be lower in saturated fat and higher in Omega 3 and CLA and that they will also spend increasing time in pasture and will eat less corn which is the leading cause of water quality and soil quality decline in the US. At this point in time the USDA has not quantified the amount of pasture time or grass ration that other organic labeled meat products such as chicken or hogs must consume but it has said that no organic labeled animal can spend it’s entire life in confinement. These developments add real value to the organic label for animal products.

Why Does USDA Talk Sustainability While directing Our Tax $ to Unsustainable Systems?

May 12, 2010

Answer from a USDA scientist

That’s a very good question. It seems to me that there is a diligent undercurrent of sustainable agriculture, and that SARE and other USDA initiatives are doing their share to help to assist and lead sustainable agricultural development in the United States. But I think that sustainable agriculture is too often seen by the larger agricultural community, be if researchers or farmers or feds, as a niche market (which is also what they say about organics). I think that the USDA-ARS does better than most in trying to orient all research toward sustainability of food and fiber production. But they don’t seem to moralize beyond that, and we would need a congress interested in changing the food system to truly create a mandate, similar to what was done in forming the soil conservation service, and is currently being forwarded through the USDA-NRCS in terms of cleaning up agricultural effects. But that is not a fundamental change in the systems of production away from petroleum-based management any more than there is a true change toward reducing petroleum consumption. The world population keeps growing, and that creates the excuse for letting agri-industry supply it with food – sometimes good food, all too often careless manufactured food. And of course that has to do with capitalism and global agri-food systems and crop subsidies and the fact that chemical agriculture produces massive yields. Change needs to come from the citizens, and science needs to provide the tools for changing.


May 12, 2010

The USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education(SARE) program has published a new book titled What is Sustainable Agriculture? You might question why does USDA publish all this information clearly advocating sustainable agriculture while using our tax dollars to promote the continuance of grain farming the essence of unsustainable agricultural?

Focus On The Gulf

May 11, 2010

We are coming up to the 10th anniversary of the NOAA/EPA/USGS/UMCON report on the cause of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico at the very time when the Gulf oil spill is receiving a lot of media and even Presidential attention. First lets put the two events into an environmental impact perspective.

The oil spill is very detrimental to any surface oriented species such as ducks or as it approaches the Coast the wetland shallow water species such as shrimp and oysters.

Hypoxia caused by nutrient stimulation of algae is a deep-water phenomenon. The dead algae die and sink to the bottom where they are decomposed by bacteria, which use up the oxygen and cause total oxygen depletion on the bottom. The bottom oxygen depletion progresses up the water column and results in low oxygen and surface toxic tides.

Gulf Hypoxia currently affects all species in the water column in an area the size of the State of New Jersey. The oil spill affects some species but not the major finfish population, which are able to swim away and avoid the problem. Overall the annual Gulf dead zone is many times more destructive than the oil spill.

Why then all the attention to the rare oil spill and virtually no attention to annual Gulf hypoxia?

The unfortunate answer probably is that the general public at this time knows there is a connection between cheap corn fed meat and cheap processed food and prefers cheap unhealthy food to their long-term health and the health of the environment. There is some evidence that this attitude is changing. If so it may be too late to save the Gulf and other Estuaries including the Chesapeake Bay.