We can feed the world!

by Joel Salatin

Joel Salatin
Joel Salatin is an American farmer, lecturer and author whose books include Folks, This Ain’t Normal, You Can Farm and Salad Bar Beef. Salatin raises livestock using holistic management methods of animal husbandry, free of potentially harmful chemicals, on his Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia. Salatin is also featured in the documentary Food, Inc. www.polyfacefarms.com

“That all sounds great, warm and fuzzy, but can pastured livestock and compost-grown tomatoes really feed the world?” This is the most common question people ask me and fortunately it has a great answer. Let’s look at it from a few angles.

First, America has 35 million acres of lawn and 36 million acres are used for housing and feeding recreational horses. That’s 71 million acres. If all those acres were as productive as *John Jeavons’ bio-intensive models, that would be enough to feed the entire country without a single farm. Let that sink in for a minute because that one statistic speaks to many issues. [*John Jeavons is known as the father of the modern bio-intensive gardening movement.]

We have far more wasted or underutilized land than people realize. From national parks to national forests to wilderness areas to golf courses, if we were really facing a food production problem, all that could be impressed into service. Fortunately, using does not require abusing.

The assumption is we’re supposed to feed the world with less than one percent of the population involved in production. America now has twice as many prisoners in jails than we have farmers. Smaller acreages and more intensively managed plots produce far more per square yard than the most industrial large farming operations you can imagine.

Ultimately, multi-speciated, complex biological relationships, synergies and symbiosis produce far more per square yard than anything else. To do that, however, requires more involvement from more people. You simply can’t have the highest production system with the fewest producers. More of us need to decide to get our hands dirty, enjoying the epiphany that comes with the miracle of life and growth. It’s pretty jazzy and cool.

Second, a highly productive food system requires integration rather than segregation. In our highly developed culture, we have decided food should be produced many miles away from where it is consumed. Indeed, we even think food scraps should be disposed of in special facilities, not in proximate compost heaps or chicken cottages near our kitchens.

This fixation on sterility rather than on biological diversity yields an amazing foodscape: 50 percent of all human edible food on the planet never gets consumed. From spoilage to size or appearance rejection, the level of wasted food has never been higher in the history of civilization. If we integrated our production, processing, packaging and preserving, we could minimize the waste stream and capture much more of the food we produce.

That’s why I’m such a fan of kitchen chickens. Get rid of the canaries and the pet dog. One dog eats more food and creates more manure than 10 chickens. If every house had enough chickens to consume its kitchen wastes, we would not have an egg laying industry at all. Roughly 80 percent of everything going into landfills is decomposable or edible. That’s obscene.

Nobody goes hungry in the world due to food production shortfalls. If I could snap my fingers today and double the world’s food production, not a single additional hungry person would be fed. No, dear friends, people go hungry due to distribution problems, socio-political barriers, ignorance or negligence. Plenty of food exists.

Third, carbon-centric soil fertility out-produces chemical-centric systems every day of the week. The mechanical-industrial food complex would have you believe that, were it not for synthetic fertilizers, half of us would starve. That perception developed several decades ago as the infrastructure to efficiently capitalize on carbon was being developed.

The synthetic fertilizer industry developed in conjunction with two world wars. Nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus are the base ingredients for making bombs and ammunition; the war efforts funded the mining, development, chemistry, distribution and logistics of this industry. Scientific aerobic composting was not introduced to the world until Sir Albert Howard’s Agricultural Testament in 1943, after a career developing the formula in India.

The infrastructure to leverage that compost formula took nearly two decades to develop, including power-take-off (PTO) tractors, front end loaders, PTO manure spreaders, chippers, rural electrification, plastic water pipe and concrete floors. The truth is that if we had had a Manhattan project for compost, we would have fed the world without the result of three-legged frogs, infertile salamanders and a dead zone the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico.

Fourth, bio-mimicry produces far more food than man-made systems. Perhaps the best example of this is in herbivore production. Several centuries ago, the landmass that is now the US produced far more pounds of animals than it does today, even with modern genetics, fertilizers, chemicals and machinery. Bird flocks would blot out the sun for three days.

Bison herds numbered many millions, along with wolves, antelope and deer. The perennially-based, predator-prey system tapped into disturbance-rest cycles to fully leverage photosynthetic activity. Today’s industrial annual-based system without rest cycles is far less productive.

By using high tech electric fencing, water pumps, piping and sophisticated monitoring techniques, we can duplicate this highly productive system while also building soil, increasing landscape hydration and sequestering carbon. On our farm, we call this mob stocking herbivorous solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration fertilization. Continuous or long-grazing systems destroy the landscape, deplete soils, encourage desertification and grind an otherwise gorgeously choreographed system to a halt.

Indeed, some folks ask me how we innovated all these things on our farm. My standard answer is that we aren’t that smart; we just think nature has some basic principles. For example, in nature, animals move. In modern industrial farming, our accredited academics and government agents don’t believe animals should move. That’s such a profound thought that to argue it seems silly, but industrial systems believe animals shouldn’t move. They should be locked up in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), instead.

If animals move, we need portable control mechanisms, portable shelter and portable water. Hence, innovation is the natural outcome of a simple truth: animals move.

Once we fully grasp the ramifications of these and many more principles, we realize quickly that the planet’s default position is one of abundance, not scarcity. If we could only caress our ecological umbilical rather than assaulting it with conquistador pillaging hubris, the earth will sustain and regenerate us for a long time to come. It is all elegantly simple. We humans have made it complicated. Here’s to an abundant, integrated, carbon-centric, localized future.


Joel Salatin’s events in Victoria

March 22 – Salatin delivers a public keynote “Can We Feed the World?” 7-10PM, Alix Goolden Performance Hall, Victoria. March 23 – Salatin delivers a one-day workshop entitled “Local Food to the Rescue!” 9AM-5PM, Pacific Rim College. Tickets and additional information at www.pacificrimcollege.ca

Photo courtesy Rachel Salatin Photography

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