Food Manifesto: The power of working with natural systems

When wolves were re-introduced in Yellowstone park (USA) in 1995, there were massive and unexpected flow on affects. A small number of wolves completely transformed (in a positive way) the ecosystem and physical geography. 

Wolves changed the behaviour of the deers which allowed the forest to regenerate

The wolves killed some of the deer but more importantly changed their behaviour. The deer started avoiding areas of the park where they could be caught easily. These areas that the deer avoided started to regenerate. In some areas the height of the trees increased five fold in just six years. Bare valley sides quickly became forests.

The forest bought back more wildlife

The trees bought in birds and beavers. Beavers are ecosystem engineers and the dams they built provided habitats for otters, musk rats, duck, fish, reptiles and amphibians.

The wolves also killed coyotes which caused the number of rabbits and mice to rise. The rabbits and mice increased the number of hawks, weasels and badgers.

The regenerating forest changed the rivers

The regenerating forest stabilised river banks, which meant there was less erosion and they collapsed less often. This caused the channels to narrow and more pools to form, which encouraged more wildlife.

Why do we make things hard for ourselves?

This story made me sit back and think about how we often make things hard for ourselves. Rather than try and understand and work sensitively with the powerful forces of nature, we try to dominate and master them. And forcing our will on a complex and dynamic system often turns out badly because of the unexpected outcomes that occur.

The food system

There is no better example of how we work against natural systems, than our approach to food:

  • The Environment: The way we grow and produce food is destroying the environment and depleting the soil.
  • Our biology: A lot of the food we're eating is toxic to our body because it has been grown unnaturally with chemicals and then highly processed. As a result, food is making us sluggish and sick rather than healthy and energised.

A good way to get your head around this, is to look at the history of food since the early 1900’s.

Family farming

In the early 1990’s, a large percentage of the population in western countries were farmers, who lived in rural areas. There were lots of smaller, family run farms. And those who weren’t farmers, grew food in their backyard.

The shift to large sca​​​​​le industrial farming after world war 2

This all began to change after world war 2. There was a shift to large scale factory farming, which focused on "cheap food” rather than on the quality of food and the way it’s produced. Responsibility for growing food and feeding the family has been 'outsourced' to large scale farms, fast food restaurants and supermarkets. They can make food tastier, quicker, longer lasting and cheaper than you can at home.

It was at this point that we lost our connection with food - where it comes from and how it's produced. Because of this, brands have been able to continue to sell food using the image of 'family owned farms', while behind the scenes they have become larger and more industrialised. And as long as the food looks good on the supermarket shelf, it doesn't matter how it's grown, how nutritious it is or its impact on the environment. The focus has been on breeding and growing fruit and vegetables to last long journey's from the farm, so that they arrive in perfect shape at the supermarket. Even taste has been sacrificed and the tomato is a perfect example. You simply can't compare the taste and smell of a freshly picked tomato from your backyard, to a tomato from the supermarket.

At the core of the industrial farming approach is monoculture, which involves intensive farming of a single crop, on a very large scale. This requires:

  • Synthetic fertilizers (petroleum based) - monoculture depletes soil nutrients which means more and more synthetic fertilizers are needed.
  • Pesticides and herbicides - monoculture provide the perfect conditions for weeds and pests to thrive, which means large amounts of pesticides and herbicides are required.
  • Heavy use of water irrigation -  Industrial agriculture erodes organic matter from the soil, which means less water is absorbed and more water is needed for irrigation. 
  • Energy intensive transport systems -  A 2005 report in the UK estimated that food miles cost 9 billion pounds a year to the UK  (accounting for social and environmental impacts such as wear on the roads, ill health caused by air pollution and accidents caused by food transport). This is greater than the contribution of the agriculture sector to GDP of 6.4 billion pounds. 
  • Genetic modification of crops - This involves introducing specific traits (genes) into plants and animals. An example is Roundup ready Corn that has been genetically modified so that Roundup can be spayed on the corn to kill the weeds and not the corn.
  • Antibiotics and synthetic vitamins - Around 130,000 tonnes of antibiotics are given to farm animals each year, which is more than the antibiotics used for humans.

This shift to industrial agriculture can be clearly seen in the graphs below:

Farm output (billions of dollars)
% of American workforce in agriculture, 1840-2000
The world consumes ten times more fertiliser than it did in the 1960s
The global market for pesticide is worth more than USD 35 billion

Along with industrial farming came processed food

Innovations developed during world war 2 made it easy to get food to the troops. After the war these innovations were introduced into the food industry.

  • Processing and preservatives make food easy to transport and give it a longer shelf life.
  • Additives such as artificial colours, flavours, sugar and salt make bland ingredients like wheat and potatoes taste amazing. Sometimes these additives are a real concern, like the chemical called azodicarbonamide that was added to subway sandwhich bread which is also used to make yoga mats and shoe rubber.
  • Engineered to be addictive, like Doritos which make you feel like you’ve never had enough.

These days, processed food is hard to avoid.

As this chart from the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) shows, the average American now obtains more than 50% of their calories from ultra-processed foods such as soft drinks, cookies and chips.

The rise of fast food

Fast food restaurants and ‘eating out’ has also increased a huge amount since the 1900’s. This graph shows that in 2009 half the food consumed in America was  either fast food or restaurant food. This is compared to 7% in 1889 and about 20% in the 1940s (before the end of world war 2).

Cheap food is an illusion

All these "innovations" have sent our food systems into a downward spiral where we are working harder and harder against nature, rather than with it. And the abundance of "cheap food” is an illusion, because it doesn’t account for the longer term impacts on our health and the environment.

Because these costs are not being factored in, food produced from industrial agriculture appears cheaper in the short term compared to more sustainable approaches. Meanwhile consumers are indirectly paying for these additional costs through taxes for health care, environmental clean up and climate change (carbon tax). And future generations will likely be paying the highest costs for the damage we're doing today to our environment.

If even some of these costs were factored into the price of food, then industrial food would get very expensive and sustainable food would look way more affordable and attractive to consumers.

Health impacts

Our food system makes people sick rather than healthy, causing an epidemic of obesity, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. 

Rates of obesity are skyrocketing:

From the 1970’s to 2006, obesity in the U.S more than doubled in Adults and tripled in Children and adolescents.

The world is getting fatter:

When more than 50% of people in developed countries (and rising) are overweight, you know there is a problem.

Diabetes:

Diabetes has become an epidemic, affecting nearly 8% of the U.S. population, up from 1% in the 1960s.

Cancer:

Rates of cancer have spiked dramatically from the 1950s, which is about the same time that we shifted to industrial agriculture and processed food.

Environmental impacts

Industrial farming pollutes the environment, depletes the soil and tortures animals. A study by Trucost  (commissioned by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations) estimated that industrialised farming has a $3 trillion annual environmental cost. Of this, crop production (wheat, maize, rice and soybean) has a $1.15 trillion environmental cost due to land-use change and water pollution, which is 170% of its production value. In other words, the environmental costs of producing $100 worth of wheat is $170. So if we incorporated these costs, the cost of $100 of industrially farmed wheat would increase to $270.

This report highlights that farming depends on freely available environmental resources such as healthy soil, a stable climate and water. But industrial farming practices are damaging and depleting these resources at a rapid rate. The reality is farms are running out of soil, running out of clean water and are facing erratic climate patterns due to climate change. Soon we won't have a choice, we simply can't continue farming the way we are without severe consequences in the next 50 years.

Here are some of the statistics:

Top Soil:

Industrial agriculture is degrading and eroding soil at a rapid rate. Monoculture (farming of a single crop in one area), intensive plowing, use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides all contribute to soil erosion.

  • Soil is being lost at between 10 and 40 times the rate at which it can be naturally replenished (Generating 3cm of top soil takes 1,000 years).
  • During the past 40 years, a third of the world's agricultural land (1.5 billion hectares) has been abandoned because of soil erosion.
  • Currently 40% of the soil used for farming is degraded or seriously degraded. Seriously degraded soil means that 70% of the topsoil is gone.
  • At the current rate of soil loss, it's estimated that the world has 60 years of topsoil left.
Water use:

Up to 70 percent of freshwater globally is used for agriculture. Agriculture competes with drinking water and environmental ecosystems. These competing pressures are increasing, with water demand from agriculture estimated to increase by 19% and unpredictable changes to water availability expected due to climate change. 

Water pollution:

Agriculture is one of the worlds biggest water polluters, caused by the release / runoff of fertiliser, pesticide, organic matter and drug residues. This pollution damages aquatic ecosystems and human health. This is costing billions of dollars annually in developed countries and is expected to rise in countries such as China and India.

We are trying to dig ourselves out of a hole

When it comes to our food system, we've dug ourselves into a massive hole. And for some reason we think that the solution is to dig harder.

​​​​Band-aid solutions

We continue to invest a huge amount of time and money into solutions that don't solve the root cause of the problem. Rather than change the way we farm or the way we eat, the focus is on dealing with the impacts. Agrochemical companies are busy finding more efficient ways to grow food using more chemicals. Meanwhile the medical industry is busy dealing with the impacts of this, by developing new treatments to deal with the rising cancer epidemic.

When you step back and look at the whole system, it really is crazy! In fact, huge industries have thrived off the back of problems caused by the food industry. 

Dieting boom

We have been sold on the story that society is getting fatter because we are weak and that the answer is to have more willpower and to eat less. But the reality is that we are getting fatter and fatter because of the food industry. In the 1980’s and 1990’s the nutritional advice from the government (remember the food pyramid) was completely wrong and has made things way worse rather than better. Take a look at this graph, where you can clearly see the sharp increase in obesity rates after the low fat guidelines (food pyramid) was released. 

Obesity, by age: United States, 1971–1974 through 2005–2006

​Source

The food industry has skewed (and continues to skew) the Dietary Guidelines issued by the government. The food pyramid was never founded on scientific advice. Instead, it was based on what was good for big business, which has more lobbying power than all the public-interest groups combined. 

I grew up the 80’s and 90’s eating wheat biscuits and corn flakes for breakfast with sugar on top and honey sandwiches for lunch. By the time I got home I was light headed and starving. Nothing a bit of milo or concentrated fruit cordial couldn’t fix. That was a typical breakfast and lunch at the time because that’s what the food pyramid was telling us to eat. 

It is no surprise then that the diet industry has been thriving. Companies like Jenny Craig and weight watchers have been pumping out diet programs that don't provide any real long term solutions. They're based on counting and restricting calories rather than making any real change to the way we eat.

Even though we now know that these food guidelines are wrong, lots of people still haven't changed the way they eat. I recently overheard a work college talking about counting calories. When I told her that I don’t believe in counting calories, she looked at me in disbelief. “What do you mean you don’t believe in counting calories? Thats crazy.” I started to explain but I could see her eyes glazing over. I knew she had made up her mind so I stopped myself from going any further. Surely it’s not to hard to believe that the calories in broccoli are not the same as the calories from a mars bar. But the food pyramid and calorie counting has become so ingrained, that lots of people haven’t changed the way they think about food.

Fitness Industry

Along side the dieting boom has come the fitness industry boom. We have been sold on the notion that exercise is the key to weight loss. And if its not working, the answer is to workout even harder and longer. Because of this gyms, aerobics and active wear is now big business. People spend hours on the treadmill and in high intensity fitness classes. Triathlons and marathons have also become an institution. Meanwhile, simple solutions like walking are under rated, because there's no money in it.

While it's true that we need to get off our arse and be more active, there’s more and more evidence that too much exercise can actually be harmful

Medical and drug industry

With so many people getting sick, the medical and drug industry has responded with mind boggling advances in treatment. Compared to 20 years ago, we now have way more chance of surviving diabetes, cancer or a heart attack.

But who pays for all this? Depending on the country, it puts pressure on the hospitals, tax payers and on the families involved. The United States spends $2.6 trillion, or about 18 percent of GDP on health care. These costs are rising faster than inflation and faster than the economy as a whole.

Messing with natural systems more than ever

Along with band-aid solutions, advances in science in technology mean we are messing with natural systems more than ever.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

One of the obvious ways we are messing with nature is through GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). GMOs involve taking the genes from one species and inserting it into another, to obtain a desired trait.

Crops to deal with weeds and insect

Some of the genetically modified plants already on the market are soybean, corn, cottonseed, and canola. These GMO crops have been developed to deal with the problems caused by monoculture, which provide an environment that allows certain weed and insects to thrive. Specifically, there are two different genetic modifications that have been made to deal with these problems:

  1. Herbicide-tolerant crops (also known as Roundup ready crops) which allow farmers to use herbicides directly on crops to kill the weeds without killing the crops. Roundup was previously thought to be safe, however in 2015 the World Health Organisation declared that it “probably” causes cancer.
  2. Insecticide-producing crops - A gene from the soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is inserted into the plants DNA, so that they are toxic to certain insects.

Nutrient enriched crops

Another GMO crop that has been developed is beta carotene enriched strains of rice (Golden rice) to deal with vitamin A deficiencies in third world countries. However this it has not been successfully implemented because of yield (productivity) issues. The benefits are also still unproven because it's unknown if the beta carotene in rice is converted to Vitamin A in the body or how well the beta carotene in rice will hold up when stored for long periods.

Super salmon

Genetically modified salmon have been developed (and recently approved by the US for consumption) that grow extra fast - 4 to 6 times faster that normal salmon. Atlantic salmon normally only grow during summer when the water is warm. Super salmon has been injected with genes from other fish to allow it to grow all year around. There are concerns that if super salmon spread to the wild, they could alter the environment in unpredictable ways.

Enviro Pigs

Run off of pig manure into the water supply is a major environmental problem, causing an overgrowth of algae which kills fish. In this situation, pig manure is really bad for the environment because it contains high levels of phosphorous (because pigs can't digest phosphorous).

To solve this problem, a gene has been created that allows pigs to digest phosphorus. This gene was created by combining DNA from e-coli bacteria with mouse DNA. This gene is then inserted into fertilised pigs eggs to create 'Enviro Pigs'.

Lab grown meat

Another solution being worked on at the moment is lab-grown meat, which aims to reduce the environmental impact of eating meat, eliminate cruelty and provide meat that's more healthy than factory farmed meat.

The aim here is to replace animal farming altogether with a lab grown alternative. Without going into the pros and cons of lab grown meat, I think this is throwing out the baby with the bath water. It's not animal farming that's the issue. It's the way we are farming animals that causes problems. Cows are being locked up in feedlots and fed a grain based diet. One of the main reasons cows are fed grain is because it's a high energy food that fattens them up quickly. But cows are herbivores which means they're designed to eat grass not grains. They are being raised in unnatural conditions and then blamed for the resulting impacts such as carbon emissions (methane), water pollution and health issues.

Food manifesto

What if... instead of band aid solutions or messing with genetics, we stepped back and looked at the root cause of the problem.

"Our food system is completely out of sync with the natural system it relies on"

What if.... we invested all our time and money to develop solutions that work with natural systems rather than against them.

I think these solutions should focus on 4 key areas:

1. Regenerative agriculture

Agriculture that restores and maintains natural systems like soil, water and biodiversity, to produce healthy and nutritious food. Key practices of regenerative agriculture include (adapted from thecarbonunderground.org):

  • No-till / minimum tillage - Tillage is the practice of turning over and loosening the soil after harvest. This eliminates soil erosion and carbon loss caused by to much soil disruption.
  • Organic Compost - using compost and animal manures.
  • Biodiversity - multiple crops, cover crops, intercrop plantings, planted boarders and animals. Biodiversity provides beneficial insects and restores the microbial community in soil. Biodiversity also allows farms to take advantage of natural systems, which provide free resources and labour. For example, ducks that provide organic pest control and chickens that fertilise soil between crops. 
  • Well managed grazing practices - which improves the soil and produces healthier meat. Grazed cattle trim the grass and reinvigorate grass growth, which helps to build topsoil and store carbon. Joel Salatin does a a great job explaining this in his TED talk.

The benefits of regenerative agriculture are:

  • Carbon storage - more carbon from the atmosphere is absorbed and stored in soil (carbon sequestration).
  • Reduced water use - Healthy soil with more organic matter retains more water and improves water efficiency.
  • Increased resistance to pests and  disease.
  • No nasty chemicals - which are energy intensive, pollute the environment and make people sick.
  • Healthy and nutritious food.
2. Local / Urban Farming

Local and urban farms produce seasonal food that is consumed close to where it's grown. This is an alternative to industrial farming where food typically travels long distances before it reaches the consumer. To be clear, I don't propose that all food should be grown locally. Instead I think it makes sense for a much larger portion of our food to be produced locally, especially fruit and vegetables. Some examples of local and urban farming:

  • Sustainable / regenerative farms - that sell produce in their local area.
  • School and community gardens - where one area of land is gardened collectively by a group of people, with individual or shared plots of land.
  • Backyard gardens - producing fruit, vegetables and eggs in your own backyard.
  • Direct marketing and distribution - marketing and distribution directly from farmers to consumers through farm visits, farmers markets and food boxes.
  • Community Supported Agriculture - A model where consumers subscribe to the harvest of a local farm or a group of farms. Usually consumers subscribe to a harvest in advance and for a set period (e.g. a season or a year) and receive regular deliveries of produce.

The benefits of local / urban farming are:

  • Less food miles.
  • Healthy farms that have pretty landscapes and are interesting places for people to visit. 
  • Less travel means fruit and vegetables are way fresher.
  • Food security, with more self-reliant and resilient food networks.
  • Improved local economies.
3. Education and awareness

A key part of the shift from industrial food systems is a change in the mindset and behaviour of consumers.

  • Caring about where your food comes from and how it was raised.
  • Knowing the right questions to ask your local butcher (e.g. grass fed, grain fed or grain finished beef). 
  • Understanding seasonal produce
  • Understanding what real tomatoes are supposed to taste like.
  • Understanding the benefits of organic food and regenerative agriculture.

When it comes to food education, there is no substitute to getting your hands dirty by growing your own food or raising your own chickens at a community farm or in your backyard. When you start growing your own fruit and vegetables, you're forced to understand that different food is grown at different times of the year. You quickly learn how good tomatoes taste when they are grown in healthy soil and eaten the same day they are picked. And when you keep backyard chickens, you're forced to build compassion for farm animals, when you realise they are smart and emotional beings that do suffer.

4. Whole Food

Whole food is food with minimal processing and additives.  
This means:

  • learning how to cook and taking the time to prepare more meals at home from scratch.
  • Cutting out the junk food, processed snacks and ready made meals.
  • Buying quality, unprocessed food when getting take away or eating out. There are more and more healthy options to choose from when eating out. And the more people that support this, the more the industry will respond.

My focus for 2018

This food manifesto has given me a really clear foundation for setting my 2018 goals and priorities. Here's what I'll be focused on:

Backyard Chickens

My main focus for 2018 will continue to be backyard chickens, with an approach that focuses on working with their natural behaviours and biology. This means less work, less cost and less waste.

Sustainable / regenerative farms in my local area

To support local farming in my area, I recently joined the board of a not for profit organisation called Millen Farm, which is focused on supporting and promoting local and sustainable farming in Samford, Brisbane. In 2018 I'll be sharing more about what we're up to at Millen Farm.

Sharing the journey - Education and awareness

Looking back at 2017, I realise I've been sharing the lessons learned and the systems developed, but not the journey. And often its the journey that's the fun part, where you learn just as much from your mistakes as your successes. A focus for 2018 is to change this, by sending out a weekly update to my subscribers. Broadly this will share:

  • What's working and what's not
  • Books I'm reading and topics I'm interested in
  • What I'm working on / whats coming up
Now, a question:

What does it mean to you - to be able to grow and cook Real Food at home?

Leave a comment - I would love to hear from you.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *