When it comes to agriculture in the 21st century, there are generally two types of farms. There’s the small, diversified and often organic operation, and then there’s the large, commercial, commodity agribusiness. While the organic farmer usually uses traditional methods of composting, planting cover crops and plenty of manual labor to keep the farm producing, the agribusiness relies on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, genetically engineered crops and heavy machinery to keep yields high. For the past several decades, most policy makers have subscribed to the philosophy that industrial farming is the only way to feed the world and view small-scale organic farms as more of a boutique trade. In recent years a new movement has challenged that wisdom.
In 2004, filmmaker (and widow of Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead) Deborah Koons Garcia delivered a blistering critique of the industrial food system with her documentary “The Future of Food.” Widely shown in environmental and local-food activist circles, the film documents the control the biotech industry has exerted over the global food system with the patenting of genetically engineered foods (GMOs) and the proliferation of large, industrial, monoculture farms. As a result, small farmers have been pushed out of business, the population has become dependent on food corporations, and the risk of an ecological calamity due to the lack of biological diversity and reliance on petroleum-based, toxic chemicals has increased exponentially. Garcia says if humans are going to survive, we’re going to have to get back to our roots.
“I’m a conservative,” said Garcia during a recent interview. “I want to conserve our seed supply. I want to conserve our culture, our small farms, and our small towns.”
Garcia’s describes her latest film, “Symphony of the Soil,” as the completion of a consciousness-raising project she began over a decade ago with “The Future of Food.” Her new documentary is a compelling study of our relationship to the soil, the “living skin of the earth.” Garcia breaks soil down into its most basic components, from glacial clay and coral fragments to wind-blown and water-dropped sediments. As the film notes, 75 percent of soil is formed by such transport. It is then enriched with millions of tiny organisms, creating the “interface between geology and biology,” a cycle that has allowed humans to find sustenance from the land since the very beginning.
“It’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve in the soil all of the time,” says soil biology researcher Dr. Elaine Ingham in the film.
But not all soil is created equal. Only 7 percent of the world’s soil is the richest, most arable kind, known as molisol soil. Fortunately for the US, 23.3 percent of the nation’s land is molisol, and 17 to 19 percent is the second best soil, known as alfisol. But as Garcia notes, much of that soil is not used for nourishment.
“We’re just wasting millions of acres of amazing soil on soy, biofuels, and corn syrup,” said Garcia. “I thought it would be a challenge to move people from being soil blind to soil conscious…. If we changed our attitudes and practices toward soil we could solve our problems in just a few years, because soil, if it’s treated right, is very resilient.”
“Symphony of the Soil” traces the birth of our current industrial food system back to the so-called “Green Revolution,” which brought about technological breakthroughs in agriculture often credited with “saving a billion lives from starvation.” Through the development of nitrogen fertilizers, chemical pesticides, expansion of irrigation systems and high-yield varieties of grains came the rise of large industrial farms.
“We can never farm without fertilizer again,” North Dakota farmer Fred Kirschenmann recalled his father saying.
But as Garcia points out, the new methods have come at a cost. As land becomes compacted by large mechanized equipment and nutrients are depleted from the soil from the use of chemical additives to the soil, erosion occurs. Along with overgrazing of livestock and deforestation, according to a 2010 report by the National Research Council, unsustainable agriculture has been the number-one contributor to erosion, which has led to a loss of one-third of the world’s arable land.
Excess nitrogen from fertilizers produces greenhouse gases, contributes to soil salinization, and leaches nitrates into the water, causing algae blooms and subsequent oxygen loss. The result of these synthetic fertilizers has reportedly contributed to a 7,000-square-mile dead zone the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico. With increased demands for irrigation, industrial farms have helped draw down the Ogallala Aquifer beneath the Great Plains by the equivalent of two-thirds of the water in Lake Erie, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. About 27 percent of irrigated farmland in the U.S. depends on the Ogallala aquifer.
The film also notes that commercial agriculture has required the use of over $1.1 billion annually in pesticides, which can pose adverse effects to public health and ecosystems. In addition, Garcia maintains that with commercial agriculture’s dependence on petroleum-based chemical inputs, heavy machinery and transport, the whole system is unsustainable. She quotes the country’s second largest oil company, Chevron, which stated that it took 125 years to use the first trillion barrels of oil. We’ll use the next trillion in 30 years.
Reason for Optimism
“I didn’t want to make a downer movie,” said Garcia, who lives in California and spends summers in midcoast Maine.
“Symphony of the Soil” outlines several alternatives to our current food-producing methods. By planting cover crops and using no-till techniques that do not disturb the soil, erosion can be reduced and nutrients can be retained. Taking animals off of large factory farms and grazing them on smaller, diversified farms can also bring nutrients back into the soil. Even carbons blamed for global warming can be more easily sequestered with organic regenerative methods.
According to Garcia, the alarming dead zone trend can also be reversed. The Black Sea’s formerly largest dead zone in the world almost disappeared from 1991 to 2001 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, as nitrogen fertilizers became too expensive to use.
The film also cites a report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), an international effort initiated by the World Bank to evaluate the role of science and technology in reducing hunger and improving sustainability. The IAASTD maintains that industrial agriculture is not a long-term solution. As IAASTD, co-chair Dr. Hans Herren explains in the movie, by building up soils and using organic regenerative methods, farms in Africa have increased their yields by 4 to 10 times.
“The yields go up year after year to reach levels which, if every African farmer produced according to agro-ecological systems, there would be plenty of food for everybody,” said Herren. “But it doesn’t fill the pockets of a few business people. It just helps the farmer and the consumer.”
Garcia believes the era of the so-called ”Green Revolution” will eventually come to an end, but agriculture is in a transition period as the previous generation does not yet want to let go.
“A lot of the old guys are not going to change,” said Garcia. “They don’t know how to change. But the vast majority of young people who are farming now just want to do the small, feed-your-community farms.”
Garcia, whose mother’s side of the family originally settled and farmed in Maine during the 1600s, says Maine is in a good position to be a leader in agricultural reform. This past spring, members of Maine’s Legislature showed “The Future of Food” and held a video conference with Garcia concerning the GMO labeling bill, which eventually passed by large margins.
“I think Maine is a place where people are much closer to the land because the farms are much smaller,” said Garcia. “There’s an awareness that corporations allied with the government are trying to claw away at our liberties and people get it.”
With GMO labeling laws on the horizon and the continuing political battle over passing large agricultural subsidies in the federal Farm Bill, Garcia says that big agribusiness interests are getting nervous. But whether elected officials take a stand on GMOs, agricultural subsidies, and the ecological damage caused by chemical farming, Garcia says nature will eventually weigh in with more global warming, droughts, further erosion, and loss of plant and animal species.
“We are going to have diminished resources,” said Garcia. “If we can go into that more thoughtfully and accept it, power down, conserve resources, have agriculture be more local and have people re-skill, we can get through it. But if we go blindly into the future, that’s going to be a problem.”