AL: Unfortunately, a lot of farmers are locked into a certain way of farming that relies heavily on fossil fuels because of policies that have been put in place over the years that have created a certain kind of infrastructure that caters to and benefits large-scale commodity and livestock factory farms, and really shuts out more diverse crop farming, smaller-scale farming and a more regionalized system. So I think that its not fair to say, farmers, you should just wake up all of a sudden and change your practices. In the same way that we think about the infrastructure changes that need to happen in the transportation and the energy sectors, we need to think about the same revolution in the food sector. I don’t think anyone would expect somebody living in a town without a bus system, subway system or high speed rail to take public transportation to work, and we certainly wouldn’t expect them to be digging the subway tunnel themselves, or putting in a high-speed rail line themselves. With bold changes to the food sector, you create opportunities for farmers who want to be farming in ways that are better for the environment, because you’ve actually built the infrastructure that they can tap into.
CE: You spend a large part of your book discussing the ‘spin’ in the debate around environmental issues in agriculture. Why was it important to you to deconstruct these ideas?
AL: I felt that it was so important to talk about greenwashing, because we’re seeing an incredible number of examples of companies rebranding themselves as a caretaker of the environment, without really actually substantively changing their practices. I think there’s two things that we can learn from that: First, if a company like BP is going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to rebrand itself as green, they’re only doing that because they actually think people care, and that to me in an odd way is kind of reassuring and positive. And second, we have to be more savvy about really assessing when companies are substantively changing their practices, and when they are just coming up with a logo and a new campaign slogan. And part of that savviness is understanding that there are some companies and there are some practices that by their very nature are not good for the environment.
CE: One of the questions you tackle head on in this book is whether sustainable agriculture has what it takes to feed the world. Why do you think the arguments about yield are not telling the whole story?
AL: Yield is this really crude figure that doesn’t tell us that much at all. For instance with chemical agriculture, it doesn’t express the cost of agricultural chemicals in terms of the price the farmers had to pay, or the costs of synthetic fertilizer in terms of the deterioration of the soil, or the impact of the chemical runoff from the fields as far as local water quality and public health. And yield is only just a snapshot of the moment. It doesn’t help us understand what the yield might be next year, the year after, or the year after that. There’s been some really good studies in some of the areas in India, farmers that were suppose to be the sort of proving ground of the high yield of chemical farming and the so-called green revolution, and what you find is that, if you look over time, and when I went to the Punjab I saw this first hand, is yes you had a spike in yield in the beginning of the introduction of these agricultural chemicals and these water-intensive industrial agricultural practices, but over the years you saw yield fall not just back to the levels before chemicals were introduced, but actually fall far below these levels. At the same time, you saw a total devastation of the local economy as farmers became indebted to the banks because they had to buy these chemicals. The second thing about yield is that I think there is some pretty compelling evidence, which I write about in the book, that if you look at organic agriculture that is done in a very knowledge-intensive way — by organic agriculture I don’t mean just take away the chemicals, I mean developing, honing, advancing practices working with nature for soil fertility, pest resistance, weed management — what you see is that yields can actually be comparable. Not to mention all the other benefits of the added soil health and the added human health of not being exposed to toxic chemicals, and of course the added benefit of farmers not having to pay for inputs.
CE: Some say that we should embrace the risks of biotechnology because we don’t have a choice. Why do you disagree?
AL: I think this idea that we have to embrace risk is total scaremongering on the part of the biotech industry. I mentioned studies in the book that are showing that we have these agro-ecological, natural ways to create farms and soils that are healthier, able to withstand drought [and] flooding that we know [are] going to become more extreme. I think we can look back historically at all the promises the biotech industry has made about what their crops are going to do and see that each one of those promises has fallen flat, and at the same time there’s been a lot of unintended consequences because of the release of these crops into the environment. I tend to take a precautionary principle approach, [which] tells us that if there is a potential of risk, that we should move forward cautiously.
CE: I was curious what your definition of climate-friendly farming is.
AL: There is so much contrast in what farming looks like. And I think similarly, climate friendly farming can apply to a lot of different practices, a lot of different scales. I think primarily I try to emphasize is the importance of farming practices that reduce the amount of fossil fuels used, reduce if not eliminate the reliance on synthetic fertilizers, reduce if not eliminate the use of petroleum based agricultural chemicals, and that is thinking about farming as part of a natural cycle — how to create a healthy water cycle, a healthy carbon cycle, a healthy nitrogen cycle. How do we do that with a farm? I think there are many, many examples around the world of farms that are providing abundant sources of food and doing it in a way that is creating a more healthy ecosystem without depleting it, creating healthier soil as opposed to depleting the soil. I was just reading Vandana Shiva’s book Soil Not Oil, and she gave this example of when a twig on a tree breaks, the tree can grow back that limb, but when a part in a car breaks, you’ve got to bring that car to the mechanic. Climate-friendly farming is about creating a kind of farm that can heal itself, can provide its own fertility and its own sources of pest resistance and weed management.
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