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.
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.
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.
There is no better example of how we work against natural systems, than our approach to food:
A good way to get your head around this, is to look at the history of food since the early 1900’s.
In the early 1900’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.
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:
This shift to industrial agriculture can be clearly seen in the graphs below:
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.
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.
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).
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.
Our food system makes people sick rather than healthy, causing an epidemic of obesity, heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
From the 1970’s to 2006, obesity in the U.S more than doubled in Adults and tripled in Children and adolescents.
When more than 50% of people in developed countries (and rising) are overweight, you know there is a problem.
Diabetes has become an epidemic, affecting nearly 8% of the U.S. population, up from 1% in the 1960s.
Rates of cancer have spiked dramatically from the 1950s, which is about the same time that we shifted to industrial agriculture and processed food.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Along with band-aid solutions, advances in science in technology mean we are messing with natural systems more than ever.
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:
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.
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.
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'.
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.
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:
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):
The benefits of regenerative agriculture are:
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:
The benefits of local / urban farming are:
A key part of the shift from industrial food systems is a change in the mindset and behaviour of consumers.
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.
Whole food is food with minimal processing and additives. This means:
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:
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.
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.
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 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.
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