A farm-raised high school senior's view of farming's future

Blake Carlson, a high school senior who intends to study biologically focused agriculture in college, wrote an overview of today's mainstream farming which exposes its potential inability to satisfy a consumer marketplace that's rapidly changing. Most farmers are unaware of new, insistent demands for more highly nutritious, pesticide-free and GMO-free food. Blake is the third generation here at Renewable Farming. He's actively involved in our on-farm research projects with WakeUP and crop nutrients. His worldview of food is an insight into the growing edge of what farmers need to know if they want to capture the enthusiasm of healthy, energetic families. Ironically, Blake's essay as part of his senior English class was completed just before Successful Farming published a dramatic feature on the same subject, titled, "Meet Your New Boss." So.... Blake's story was a scoop.

Agriculture and Its True Purpose    

by Blake Carlson, high school senior 2016  (Words in parentheses refer to footnotes)

Because agriculture is vital in a worldwide society, methods of farming should always be critiqued, challenged, and improved. In the past 80 years, farming in technologically advanced nations has become an industrial, chemical-intensive monoculture. That has led to a surge of crop diseases, pesticide residues and an accelerating climb in chronic human diseases.  A growing number of consumers — and farmers — want more natural farming methods to build a healthy and growing nation.

A creeping health crisis has been rising for the last 20 years and is becoming a significant threat in the United States. Researcher Nancy L. Swanson analyzed data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and found a close correlation between glyphosate application and soaring rates of several chronic diseases in America such as heart disease, obesity, autism and diabetes.

Official government data show an 82% to 99% correlation between increases in these chronic disease rates and rising amounts of glyphosate application. In the U.S., glyphosate is sprayed on most of the corn, soybeans and sugar beets. It’s often used on wheat to “terminate” the wheat crop so it dries down uniformly (Loux). Although correlation does not confirm causation, other data from nations like Argentina and Sri Lanka strongly indict glyphosate as a major factor in these diseases (Swanson).

Blake and his brother Terry raise non-GMO sweetcorn.

Monoculture, or just one or two crops, is the foundation of most conventional U.S. farms today. From 1935 to 2002, the number of American farms fell from more than 6 million to just above 2 million. Average farm size doubled while the total amount of land being farmed remained about the same. The largest 10 percent of farms account for more than 70% of cropland in the United States. The top 2.2 percent takes up more than one-third of farm and ranch land. (Morrison) This concentration of land ownership has intensified monoculture — the cultivation of just one or two crops on each farm.

Although monoculture farming is possible without the use of pesticides, nearly all monoculture farming in the U.S today relies heavily on herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency reported in 2007 that more than 1 billion tons of pesticides were used in the United States in 2007 alone. This is 22 percent of the estimated 5.2 billion pounds used worldwide. Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of pesticide use in the United States. Long-term consequences of human exposure to these pesticides are unknown, because only short-term clinical studies of about 90 days on lab animals are used to show safety of most ag pesticides. Rising pesticide use in farming has led to water pollution, contamination of food, loss of crop biodiversity and soil contamination. It has also led to herbicide-resistant weeds and pesticide-resistant insects, which results in the need for even more usage of increasingly toxic chemicals. (Pesticides).

But mainstream farming has become a practice with the mindset of killing pests and weeds with chemicals, rather than nourishing the crop and building its natural immunity. It’s a mindset of leaving the soil barren between growing seasons, without encouraging the countless trillions of beneficial microorganisms that are there for a reason. These chemicals are toxic to most living soil organisms, not just the targeted rootworm or corn borer or nematode.

There are more microorganisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on earth (Brown). Conventional farming is focused on a “need” to kill: Kill the weeds, the bugs, the fungus and so on. For every one pest species, there are 1,700 beneficial species (Dobberstein).

Farmers should be looking at how to work with nature — to help create a symbiotic relationship where farming will resemble nature as much as possible — directing the focus away from killing one pest and nurturing the 1,700 beneficial microbes and insects.

Over 75,000 plants are considered edible for people. Yet the majority of Western food comes from 12 crops. In the last 100 years, over three-fourths of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops have been lost. Only a select few crops are grown in high abundance because of marketing strategies (Biodiversity). With less genetic diversity in crops, they are more susceptible to disease. There is a reason for such a diverse mix of plants in nature.

In commercial farming, there has been a growing focus on quantity and not nutritional quality. Too many growers are concerned with the highest yield, appearance, ease of transportation and not the nutrition of the food, which is what makes food important. The introduction and use of genetically modified crops has pulled farming to an extremely high industrial level.

Genetic engineering (GE) is the process of introducing specific traits from genes of a plant or bacterial organism into a different plant or animal (Frequently). The USDA reports that as of 2011, 88 percent of US corn, 94 percent of soybeans, and 90 percent of cotton grown in the US contains genetically modified organisms (GMO). Many of the GE traits in crops grown on industrial farms are introduced to protect against problems that arise from monocropping, such as vulnerability to weeds and insects (Pesticides).

This introduction of GMO crops has allowed companies to patent plants that are “man made” since nature itself and its products cannot be patented. This creates monopolies for chemical corporations. In turn, this allows seed companies to promote the idea of monoculture and the industrialization of farming.

Many nations outside the U.S. have banned growing of genetically engineered crops. They  want to put more research into the safety and long-term effects while the countries are struggling from the spiraling effects of industrialized farming (Bello). Argentina is a country that has given in to all biotech techniques and monoculture for the last 20 years. They are experiencing destruction of biodiversity, pollution, land concentration, displacement of farmers, destruction of regional economies and increased corporate power. Andrés Carrasco, an Argentine molecular biologist  who is known for claiming the discovery of the adverse effects of glyphosate used in transgenic crops, an ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup pesticide, explained that Argentina’s nature is being “turned into a factory.” He said, “This so-called ‘technological progress’ is just an encroachment on nature with the application of unproven procedures that simplify the complexity of biological phenomena in an attempt to ‘sell certainty.’” He emphasized: “Honest scientists cannot help but question, even if the transnationals buy up every scientific journal or obstruct the publication of studies and voices opposed to neoliberal-productivist science. Science itself – the essential questions of why, for whom, and to what end that it must always ask– is in crisis” (GRAIN).

A global resistance and opposition against the growing of GM crops, the spraying of toxic chemicals, industrialization, and monopolization in farming has been growing for more than a decade. In Argentina, for instance, the political and social resistance now comes from 12 million residents of Argentina (GRAIN). The fight for a different, safe, and renewable type of agriculture is growing.

Argentine officials, university specialists and physicians worked together to construct one of the few epidemiology maps which shows a direct geographic overlay of disease rates in localities where glyphosate resistant crops (GMO crops) dominate. Here’s what they are saying in a declaration of physicians who are directly observing the effects of glyphosate and other pesticides in an intensive GM region:

"From small towns to larger populations at the provincial level (as in Chaco and Córdoba) or national level, different levels of exposure to glyphosate or agricultural poisons in general are compared, showing that reproductive health is affected by increases in spontaneous abortions and birth defects, also increased endocrine disorders such as hypothyroidism - neurological disorders or cognitive development problems and soaring of cancer rates to a tripling of incidence, prevalence and mortality which are directly related to pesticide exposure."

From a rare epidemiology map put together by Argentine revolutionists, a clear correlation between planted GM crops and their companion pesticide exposure shows an increase in severe health issues (Declaration).

Russia is one of the nations which has completely banned growing or importing GM crops. Russia is working towards cleaner and more sustainable practices.  Russia’s Prime Minister Medvedev said, “Moscow has no reason to encourage the production of genetically modified products or import them into the country. If the Americans like to eat GMO products, let them eat it then. We don’t need to do that; we have enough space and opportunities to produce organic food” (Russia).

Economically, the United States is not benefiting from these countries’ rejection of GM crops. U.S. farmers have lost more than $427 million in export sales to China alone when China rejected imports of GMO corn (Russia). Imagine the negative impact economically and healthwise regarding people on the earth if the United States or any other country continues industrial farming but other countries continue to fight against an aspect of industrial farming such as GM crops. No one will want food grown in this industrial fashion.

There is a better way to farm: healthy, regenerative, and clean. There are many different types of sustainable and renewable farming techniques used all around the world that work, continue to improve the quality of crops grown and focus on polyculture.

A healthy soil needs to be built up and continuously improved. There are five essential keys to building a healthy soil as farmer Gabe Brown of Bismarck, ND puts it. First, there needs to be the least amount of mechanical disturbances possible. Conventional farming lowers the organic matter level in soils to a high extent. Specifically, mycorrhizal fungi is found in healthy soils, and extends the nutrient absorbing network for roots. Glomalin is excreted from this fungi and is the soil’s “Super Glue” (Glomalin). It builds carbon in soils, improves water use efficiency, resists erosion, and increases efficiency of nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorus. The natural occurrences in nature need to be used to the advantage of the grower. Living organisms such as mycorrhizal fungi are killed by common practices such as tilling, chemicals and synthetic fertilizers (Brown).

Second, there should always be residue cover, a kind of “armor” on the soil surface as a shield against rainfall impact. This is where cover crops come in. “A cover crop is a type of plant grown primarily to suppress weeds, manage soil erosion, help build and improve soil fertility and quality, and control diseases and pests” (Arcuri).

Third, diversity is a major factor in building a healthy soil and preventing disease. In nature, monoculture is not found. There is always a diverse and wide range of plant types and varieties in a natural habitat.  If that type of diversity is found on a healthy native range, why isn't that found in our cropland? When there is a diverse mix of plants, they will dramatically increase the diversity of microbial life in the soil. Dr. Kris Nichols, an expert in Soil Microbiology, said, “Not only do the fungi provide for the needs of one plant, but the fungal/hyphae pipeline connects to the multiple plants…. This helps satisfy the nutritional and energy needs of microorganisms and the plants” (Brown). There should be a symbiotic relationship between all the living organisms in a field.

This ties in with the fourth key: a living root should be in the soil as long as possible year-round. This can be achieved through cover crops, which should be a diverse mix that enhances the life and function in the soil (Brown).

Lastly, there should be an animal influence intermixed with agriculture. For untold centuries until settlers dominated the Western Plains of the United States, there were thousands of buffalo and other animals constantly grazing. These herds would continuously rotate new organic matter into the ground. “Studies by US researcher Kristine Nicols have found that glomalin levels were higher in soils under native grasses than soils under introduced species, and that shifting cattle before they over-grazed an area helped to raise soil glomalin levels” (Glomalin). At the present, most hogs, beef cattle and poultry grown for food are crammed in huge buildings or feedyards.

The direction of farming has been toward an industrial design, not a natural one. Starting at the consumer level, there’s a “Food Revolution,” a very logical and ethical demand for healthier food. Organic and non-GMO retail food sales in the U.S. have soared beyond $30 billion annually. This is why alternative and natural farming methods should be encouraged to revive healthier farming, leading to healthier food — and a healthier America.


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