Organic Animal Health

pig-and-cow-nose-to-noseAt a time when pastured poultry raisers are being urged by officials to keep their flocks indoors — to supposedly prevent their being contaminated by wild birds — it is encouraging to see the National Organic Standards Board trying to toughen the regulations regarding organic poultry by requiring them to have meaningful access to the out-of-doors. The NOSB recognizes that natural decontamination from sunlight, fresh air and bio-diverse soil are the best ways to promote animal vitality.

Organic standards for livestock health are primarily based on keeping the animals healthy in the first place, which is as it should be. No medications or interventions can be as effective as prevention, humane care and a proper diet. The articles in this issue are based on that organic principle. We analyze both disease and good health from the perspective of organic regulations and management.

Understanding basic epidemiology, and then looking at our current livestock system that relies on confinement and a miserly delivery of the crucial vital services — space, fresh air, clean water, appropriate feed, rapid breakdown of waste products – one wonders how American industrial agriculture could have gotten it so wrong. Is it any wonder that we experience massive culls of millions of birds infected by disease in such facilities? This issue looks at that question.

We also discuss various infectious diseases and how they are introduced, spread, and what kind of damage they can do. But beyond examining disease, we consult experts on the best ways to raise livestock: the benefit of pasture, managing for the seasons, the approaches of holistic, complementary, alternative, homeopathic and herbal medicine, controlling internal and external parasites, when to vaccinate, avoiding and dealing with rabies, pneumonia, mastitis and pasture blight.

Only a minority of our readers raise livestock. But this issue contains information that we believe all thinking citizens should read and ponder. Organic animals in this country are generally raised without the use of antibiotics, pharmaceuticals, artificial hormones, or GMO feed. In that regard they are, sadly, in far better health than the general human population of this country. Can we learn, from understanding how livestock are treated, about improv-ing the health of ourselves and our families? We believe the same forces govern good health in all animals, human or livestock. We invite you to read this issue and see if you don’t agree.

Epidemiology 101

epidemic_graphThe cheap food policy in this country is probably most evident in livestock raising systems. The vast majority of animals raised for milk, meat or eggs in the United States these days are housed in CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) on factory farms. As a result, they are crowded inside buildings or into feedlots where conditions are conducive to the spread of disease.

Once an infectious agent (germ) is introduced into a host animal in such an environment, the potential for that infection to spread to other nearby animals is significant. The animals are close together (indoor space is expensive and factory farms try to minimize expenses), manure and urine are omnipresent, and ventilation is costly (especially on cold days when it requires extra heat for the buildings). The sterilizing effects of bio-diverse soil, fresh air, and sunshine, which still exist on small family farms (especially among NOFA members), are too expensive for CAFOs to make available.

Accompanying the growth of this confinement system, naturally enough, has been the growth of outbreaks of disease at American CAFOs. Most notable have been cases of avian flu at large poultry operations — which are located, naturally enough, primarily in the grain-growing breadbasket states. Despite the administration of antibiotics in most of the feed at these facilities, health conditions are so deplorable that when an outbreak occurs it rapidly overwhelms the facility and the response is usually to kill all the birds immediately, dispose of the bodies, sanitize the place as best they can, and start over.

In the six months from mid December to mid June, 2015, an astonishing total of almost 50 million birds died this way, primarily in Iowa (31.7 million), Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and South Dakota. Despite repeated warnings from government circles about the dangers to backyard home flocks from wild birds, only 6 small flocks reported deaths. The remaining 217 outbreaks were in large flocks, averaging over 220,000 birds each.

Such a level of outbreaks and death is called a disease epidemic. Many people are familiar with the term when used relating to human health, but the same exact science prevails whether the victims are people or livestock. I thought readers might be interested in learning a little more about the science of epidemics, or epidemiology.

An epidemic is defined as the spread of an infectious disease to a large number of host organisms in a given population within a short period of time. An example of a famous human epidemic is the bubonic plague, caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis and carried by fleas. It caused the “black death” in fourteenth century Europe as well as in parts of Africa and Asia, killing an estimated 50 million people. Another human ex-ample is the 1918 influenza pandemic or “Spanish flu” which killed 20 to 40 million people worldwide.

Why are epidemics rare?

What is particularly useful to understand about epidemics, whether among people or among animals, is the answer to the question: Why don’t they happen all the time? Infectious agents (germs) exist everywhere, and so do large populations of potential hosts. Why are epidemics so rare?

The answer is that there are two natural ‘firewalls’ which prevent epidemics from occurring very often.

The first firewall is that of resistance or host immunity. As living creatures we all evolved in the presence of countless parasites and pathogens whose livelihoods depend on infesting or infecting us. As healthy hosts we have developed defenses such as immune systems which normally at-tack such agents and soon prevent them from disabling us. We may feel sick for a few days during the struggle, but if healthy we usually emerge victorious with stronger defenses than before.

The second firewall is that of self-defeating virulence. Parasites and pathogens are most successful if they do not kill — they need a living host’s resources to multiply. A roundworm egg needs to be excreted by the host before it can develop into an adult roundworm. An infestation virulent enough to kill the host pig or sheep will also end the worm’s cycle of life. Similarly, viruses and bacteria need to multiply using the host’s energy and then trigger episodes of sneezing, coughing, diarrhea, etc. to be expelled and infect again. Dead hosts don’t cough. Thus pathogens unwisely virulent enough to kill their host will themselves die off, leaving their less virulent brethren to carry on their infective mission.

What causes an epidemic?

Hosts and diseases usually coexist in a kind of equillibrium. Epidemics, then, are caused by a sudden change in the host, the agent, or the environ-ment. A genetic mutation in the pathogen reservoir can introduce a new, virulent strain of an existing pathogen. If a susceptible host is present, one which has not yet developed resistance to the new strain, an epidemic can result. Similarly, if a host population suddenly becomes weakened – by poor nutrition, overcrowding, stress – its resistance can drop and it can fall prey to infection. Finally, if something changes in the environment – flea-infested rats show up in the Mediterranean aboard ships from the orient, or millions of men are transported from all over the globe to fight a European war in the rain and cold of filthy, overcrowded trenches – infectious agents can suddenly find plentiful hosts with weakened defenses.

The ‘etiology’ of a disease is its cause. In epidemiology, several lines of evidence together are required to infer causation since events may occur together simply due to chance, bias or confounding, instead of one event being caused by the other. Sometimes several symptoms regularly appear together more often than what could be expected, though it is known that one cannot cause the other. These situations are called ‘syndromes’ and normally it is assumed that an underlying condition must exist that explains all the symptoms.


Transmission usually refers to the transfer of infectious microorganisms directly from one individual to another by one or more of the fol-lowing means:

• droplet contact – coughing or sneezing on another individual
• direct physical contact – touching an infected individual, including sexual contact
• indirect physical contact – usually by touching a contaminated surface or soil
• airborne transmission – if the microorganism can remain in the air for long periods
• fecal-oral transmission – usually from unwashed hands or contaminated food or water sources due to lack of sanitation and hygiene, an important transmission route in pediatrics, veterinary medicine and developing countries.

Transmission can also be indirect, via another organism, either a vector (e.g. a mosquito or fly) or an intermediate host (e.g. tapeworm in pigs can be transmitted to humans who ingest improperly cooked pork).

Nothing new here!

The risk to animals of harm from sickness is not new. Long before science possessed knowledge of microbiology, ancient thinkers were aware of the role of disease and infectious organisms in threatening the success of a livestock farm. The Roman Marcus Terentius Var-ro (116 BC – 27 BC) wrote three books on agriculture. In Book I, speaking about the ‘steading’ (farmstead), he says:

Especial care should be taken, in locating the steading, to place it at the foot of a wooded hill, where there are broad pastures, and so as to be exposed to the most healthful winds that blow in the region. A steading facing the east has the best situation, as it has the shade in summer and the sun in winter. If you are forced to build on the bank of a river, be careful not to let the steading face the river, as it will be extremely cold in winter, and unwholesome in summer.

Precautions must also be taken in the neighborhood of swamps…because there are bred certain minute creatures which cannot be seen by the eyes, which float in the air and enter the body through the mouth and nose and there cause serious diseases. “What can I do,” asked Fundanius, “to prevent disease if I should inherit a farm of that kind?” “Even I can answer that question,” re-plied Agrius; “sell it for the highest cash price; or if you can’t sell it, abandon it.”

Scrofa, however, replied: “See that the steading does not face in the direction from which the infected wind usually comes, and do not build in a hollow, but rather on elevated ground, as a well-ventilated place is more easily cleared if anything obnoxious is brought in. Furthermore, being exposed to the sun during the whole day, it is more wholesome, as any animalculae (tiny animals, meaning the germs which bring sickness) which are bred near by and brought in are either blown away or quickly die from the lack of humidity.

Perhaps we should learn from the wisdom of the ancients when it comes to how we house and care for our animals?

A Forest(er) Farmer’s Journey with Silvopasturing

Over the years, I’ve had many enjoyable opportunities to talk about silvopasturing – mostly in an “official” capacity as an Extension educator. But I’ve never had the chance to share much on how I came to be enamored with this “grazing in Nature’s image” agroforestry system that has become the core of our family’s farms.

The story begins with a young forester (me) who shipped off to Argentina with the Peace Corps in 1992. There I was tasked with sharing my knowledge of forestry and timber harvesting with local ranchers and gauchos who had spent the previous twenty years creating large forests from scratch via planting. The Argentines liked to quip that “God gave them great soils, climate and rainfall, but forgot to add the trees”, so they saw it as their mission to complete the work. They were very successful in their endeavors, and the next step was turning trees into cash.

Interestingly, at the time of my arrival the Province of Cordoba (central Argentina) was importing ~ 90% of the lumber it used from outside the region – most from neighboring countries like Chile and Brazil. Thirty years later, the same region is now self-sufficient and exports 90% of the timber products they grow. That in itself seems like a real success story, but what I gradually came to appreciate from these tree-covered ranching operations was how well the forestry and grazing complimented each other. It was an eye-opening evolution for an idealistic young forester who was taught since forestry school infancy that: “Thou shall not graze livestock in forests!”


“Woods silvopasture”. A commercial harvest in 2015 removed the overcrowded and poor-quality trees to reallocate sunlight to the ground level. Now, Angus Glen Farm grow forages instead of firewood in this silvopasture, plus a full stocking of vigorous, high-quality trees. Photo provided by Brett Chedzoy.

Near the end of my Peace Corps service, I married the love of my life – Maria – and we bought our own little piece of Paradise to ranch near her family’s farm. In hindsight, I wonder if this purchase wasn’t to console her parents that I wouldn’t take their daughter too far from home. But years later, I guess the truth was that I just love grazing and forests (and Maria) – and when I could mix them together, even better!

I don’t even remember the first time that I heard the word “silvopasturing”, but I gradually came to recognize this as something cool and special that made sense on every level. For the Argentines, it was more of a “why not?” vs. “why?” attitude to expand this natural fit of grazing and beneficial trees to have healthier landscapes, livestock and ranching operations. When we moved back to the family farm in New York in the early 2000s with a young family in tow, I found that on our end of the world the foresters, farmers and all the experts in between were still very much stuck on the “why?”. Fortunately, around the same time, there was a novel project at Cornell University’s Arnot Teaching and Research Forest called “Goats in the Woods” that sought to look at the effectiveness and economics of using goats to control problematic plants in woodland settings. Although it wasn’t thought of as “silvopasturing”, the project served to show that grazing could be done in a positive way to promote healthier woodlands.

Soon after that project ended, there were two big new changes in my life: I had started working for Cornell Cooperative Extension in the same county where Goats in the Woods had taken place; and, we had started to resurrect the old family dairy farm with the goals of doing something profitable and enjoyable for our family. Since the very start of the new job, I found myself continually being asked about the Goats project and if I thought the same approach could work in other situations. I also started to take a hard look at our farm and realized that we had far more woods and brush than pasture. This was the moment where past experiences collided with the present, and I realized that it was time to start openly talking about silvopasturing.

At first, I wasn’t sure how my forester and farmer friends would react to the heresy of putting woods into pastures, or pasture into woods. To my pleasant surprise, I didn’t find much resistance – but looking back I attribute that mostly to no one having much idea what I was talking about. One talk led to another, however, and before long we were hosting the Northeast Silvopasture Conference over a decade ago that drew 130 folks from a dozen states and provinces. Since then, there have been many more educational efforts around silvopasturing and numerous new faces sharing their experiences and expertise.

So back to the farm…
Initially, we simply wanted to raise some animals for fun with the kids and to put some home-raised meat in the freezer. After all, my family was at least half Argentine, and Argentines like their meat! Sheep, goats and beef cattle were in the early mix, along with some pigs, horses and even Simon the llama. As the number of sheep and goats grew, it was starting to look like a full-time job, so we shifted more to beef cattle to keep things simple(r).

Grazing in BrushThe small livestock liked to munch on the brush, but we just had too much of it for them to keep the jungle in check. The cattle liked to focus on grassy stuff, but would opportunistically browse on the woodies when available. Gradually, we learned how to increase herd density at key times in the grazing season to put a beat down on the brush. The winter bale grazing months proved golden to drop “bale bombs” (an expression that I’ve adopted from friend and silvopasture expert Joe Orefice) into patches of soft brush to smash, trample, fertilize and reseed – all with a labor force that will work for food. When needed, some judicious “mulching” with heavy-duty forest mowing machines would jump-start the process by knocking the woody plants down to size for the livestock to then take over.

This gradual clearing of invasive shrubs and beech brush thickets in the understory was just part of the process that helped create productive silvopasture in our farm woodlots and plantations. The other key step was to remove the many dozens of poorer trees per acre that were taking up space and sunlight with little potential for future returns. Much like weeding a garden, we reduced the competition around our best trees by harvesting the lower-quality and less vigorous ones around them – a forest management practice known as “thinning”.

“Bale bombs” before and after. These situations allow a
sustained grazing density of over one million pounds per acre.
Repeated periodically over time, the forages will gradually
replace the brush in these locations.

The last major thinning in our silvopasture took place in 2015 which netted us about $300 per acre in timber revenue – only about ten percent of the total timber value per acre, but closer to 40% of the total stocking of trees. By harvesting the firewood-quality trees, we were able to reallocate the sunlight to ground level where we could instead grow forages. More importantly, it allowed us to use the whole farm instead of just the half that wasn’t already covered by trees.

After nearly twenty years of efforts to establish, expand and improve silvopasture on our farm, we’re seeing gradual increases to our grazing capacity, healthier and more productive conditions in the wooded areas, and happy and comfortable animals – especially on hot, sunny days. What’s not to like about silvopasture?

I hope to share more in the future about the nitty-gritty of silvopasture, but there is already plenty of good information available. The www.silvopasture.ning.com forum has many archived webinars, articles and conversations. The “Guide to Silvopasturing in the Northeast” and other resources are available on Cornell’s www.forestconnect.info forestry extension site.

Brett Chedzoy is an extension educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schuyler County and Forest Manager of Cornell’s Arnot Forest.  Brett and his family own and operate Angus Glen Farms, LLC in Watkins Glen, NY – a 500-acre regenerative grazing operation, and Estancia Rincon Grande in the Sierra Mountains of central Argentina.

Distrust of Science and Experts Measured Around World

money in bottleOn September 30, the Pew Research Center released survey results that represent a picture of how the publics of 20 different countries view science and the technologies it enables. The results are mixed and interesting to examine in some detail to understand how much and on what issues “science” – or what passes for it in the early twenty-first century – is trusted by the general public.

For background, the Pew Center is a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which in turn are the foundations set up by the generally conservative Pew family, scions of the Sun Oil Company, who date back to the late nineteenth century struggle for control of the Pennsylvania oil fields.

Normally, study reports spend some time discussing the details of how survey data was gathered. But with 20 countries, each with its own independent surveys, we›ll just note that at least 1,000 people were surveyed in the following countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Note that the surveys were done before the shutdowns associated with Covid-19.

The top-line question respondents were asked was how much trust people have in scientists doing “the right thing”. Respondents were given the following options: “a lot,” “some,” “not too much,” and “none at all.” India was the country where people had the most trust in scientists, with about 60 percent saying they had a lot. That was followed by a large collection of European countries, with the United States falling in the middle of the pack. Asian countries—specifically, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—had the lowest scores. “A lot” scored less than 25 percent. Only three countries saw the combined “not much”/”none” categories come in above 30 percent: Brazil, Malaysia, and Taiwan.

So, while positive views are a bit erratic, strong negative views of scientists are pretty rare. The only caveat is that many respondents feel it’s more important to rely on people with practical experience rather than expertise, with support for experts ranging from a low of 20 percent to a high of only 40 percent. What›s not clear, however, is whether people would consider scientists strictly experts or experts with real-world experience.

When it comes to climate change, the public generally stands with the conclusions of the scientific community. The view that the climate was a serious problem was most prevalent in Taiwan, where 80 percent felt so; seven countries saw over two-thirds of their populace say so. And, of the nine countries where Pew has a decade of data, every single one saw this sentiment rise.

People were less accepting of the Distrust conclusion that humans are driving climate change, however. Six countries saw less than half of the public agreeing with that conclusion (including the United States, at 49 percent). Spain and Taiwan saw the highest levels of acceptance, at just over three-quarters of the public.

The Pew also asked about whether people saw signs of climate change at their location and whether they felt their government was doing enough about the climate. But those answers involve a complicated mix of personal beliefs, local weather trends, and national policy decisions. Drawing any conclusions from them will be difficult.

Just about all the respondents felt that protecting the environment should be a major priority, with a median of 70 percent feeling it should be prioritized over creating jobs. This ranged from a high in the UK and the Czech Republic (77 percent) down to a low of 56 percent in Russia. The support for renewable energy was even higher, clearing 90 percent in six European countries; all but two countries (India and Malaysia) saw the support clear 70 percent. Wind and hydro saw similar levels of public enthusiasm.

Only three countries saw over half the public support more coal use: India, Malaysia, and Russia. Those were also the only nations where support for oil development cleared 50 percent, although overall there was more enthusiasm for oil than coal. By contrast, only two countries (Sweden and the Netherlands) didn’t support the use of more natural gas.

Support for nuclear energy was similar to that for coal, with a median of 37 percent of the public favoring its expanded use. Sweden and the Czech Republic were the only countries where support cleared 50 percent.

GMOs and additives and food safetyOne of the inevitable outcomes of scientific activity is new technology, and the Pew asked about a number of those, including the expanded use of AI and automation. Most of the Asian countries saw high levels (> 60 percent) of support for this, with the exception of Malaysia and Australia. India was mixed, on the other hand, supporting AI but not automation. Support in Europe and North America was mixed, with most countries seeing it reach somewhere between 35 and 55 percent, with the notable exception of very high support for automation in Sweden.

On the public health front, trust in the health benefits of vaccines was at over 60 percent in only a dozen countries. The lower trust largely occurred outside of Europe, with the exception of France (52 percent) and Russia. Russia was the only country where under half of the public trusted in the health benefits of vaccines, and that was before the somewhat bizarre messaging about the COVID-19 vaccine occurred.

But the biggest gap came when food technology was considered. Almost nobody considered genetically modified foods safe, with a median percentage of only 13 and the absolute peak of support coming in Australia at 31 percent. By contrast, there were eight countries in which more than half the public said GMOs were unsafe. But it›s not just GMOs; the numbers were remarkably similar when the use of pesticides or artificial preservatives were asked about, although there was some country-to-country variation (Germans, for example, are far more trusting of preservatives than GMOs).

The Pew uncovered a gender difference in feelings toward developing AI, automation, and other technology, with men typically supporting those technologies more than women. But the gap was fairly small, generally in the area of 10 to 15 points for AI. Only a slightly larger gap exists for automation and food technology. Education also made a difference that was similar in magnitude, with more education correlating with increased support for these technologies, as well as vaccination. There weren’t any obvious geographical patterns regarding the size of the gap.

To see more substantial gaps, we can turn to the Pew’s analysis of the political polarization of mistrust in scientists. Here, people on the liberal side of the spectrum were generally more trusting. A number of countries—Brazil, France, Poland, South Korea, and the Czech Republic—saw little political difference in whether they’d trust scientists to do the right thing. But the Netherlands saw a 10 point difference between liberals and conservatives, with liberals being more trusting.

Other European countries saw somewhat larger differences, and the gap was more pronounced when support for far-right populist parties was analyzed. But the English-speaking world is what really stood out. In the UK, the difference between liberals and conservatives was 27 points; Australia was 29 points; Canada was 39; and the US saw the largest difference, with a gap of 42 points between liberals and conservatives. In the States, only 20 percent of conservatives felt that scientists would do the right thing, and only 30 percent felt that scientists made judgements based on facts.

In something that will surprise nobody, these results largely match up with what’s going on with climate change. The largest gaps between conservatives and liberals on the seriousness of climate change were mostly in English-speaking countries, with the addition of Sweden, which sneaked in ahead of the UK. The United States again saw far and away the largest difference; in this case, 64 points separated liberals and conservatives.

One of the biggest things missing from the data is a sense of what’s going on in Africa. We know that Africa has embraced some technologies (notably cell phones), and the rest of the world has to hope it will also embrace renewable energy. But a clearer picture of how they feel about current and future technologies would seem to be valuable knowledge.

Starving for Information: The Importance of a Nutrient-rich Diet

Kathleen DiChiara

For months, health professionals have been scrambling to understand the new coronavirus (SARS-Cov2), which emerged in Wuhan, China, sparking a pandemic of acute respiratory syndrome in humans (COVID-19). During a time when a potential infection feels heightened, the idea of “boosting immunity” sounds enticing. But what is the magic formula for producing an ideal immune response to a novel virus? And should that even be the focus?

The immune system is a complex network including cells, tissues, bone marrow, antibodies, the spleen, the thymus and the lymphatic system. It is a “system” requiring balance and harmony to function well. Humans are constantly infected with multiple endogenous and exogenous viral agents, with an estimated generation of up to 1012 new virus particles per day. A healthy immune system functions around the clock to protect us from illness and even death.

Pre-existing chronic illnesses can lead to a higher risk of death and health complications from the novel coronavirus. However, those illnesses can be prevented and even reversed with nutritious food and a healthy lifestyle.

A Chronic, Ongoing Issue

One in two Americans struggle with chronic disease. A wide range of reasons and factors are involved, including food insecurity, smoking, excess alcohol intake, physical inactivity and the consumption of ultra-processed food. All of these issues can be compounded by racial disparities from decades of systematic inequality in American economic, housing, and health care systems.

It’s important to keep in mind that a significant portion of the population is diagnosed with autoimmune disease. So, while the concept of “immune boosting” sounds good, a more active immune system does not always correlate to better health outcomes. For example, a hyperactive immune response is responsible for allergic reactions to ordinary nontoxic substances.

More than 20 million Americans take various drugs that intentionally suppress the immune system, altering the way the body responds to viral and bacterial infections. When chronic diseases are treated with medications that are targeted to alleviate the symptoms without tending to the underlying causes, patients may be left in an even more vulnerable position.

Good health and immunity depend on a peaceful coexistence among the symbiotic bacteria in the gastrointestinal and respiratory tract. Those include the cells, tissues and other microorganisms that live there and have the ability to recognize dangerous intruders. Quality food nourishes the diversity of the body’s inner ecosystem by feeding gut microbes. These microbes are in constant communication with the immune system, working in partnership to protect us and reducing the susceptibility to a wide range of viral infections. This prompts an important question: What is disturbing this communication and making Americans so vulnerable?

Year after year, client health history questionnaires, as well as data gathered from group discussion forums, reflect the same obstacle —consumers are trying to make healthier choices, but they remain unaware of what’s hidden in the food they’re eating every day. The problem? There simply is no label for glyphosate.

The Enemy Hidden in Plain Sight

Glyphosate is the primary ingredient in Roundup herbicides and other generic equivalents, which are the most widely used weed killers in the United States and the world. More than 250 million pounds of glyphosate is sprayed annually on crops in the United States. It’s in the water supply, food, yards, the local parks and on conventional farms with treated fields. That quantity means the chemical ends up nearly everywhere.

A 2009 study, published in Toxicology, used human liver cells in vitro and showed that even in low doses, glyphosate is toxic to human cells and can cause genetic mutations and disrupts endocrine function. In 2003, Monsanto filed for a patent on glyphosate as an antibiotic. This patent was granted in 2010.

Glyphosate based herbicides may act as an antibiotic, preferentially killing many of the body’s good gut bacteria, including lactobacillus, which manufactures nutrients and neurotransmitters that keep the digestive and nervous systems healthy. When the commensal (“good”) microbes become compromised, harmful pathogens have the chance to overgrow, causing inflammation in the gut. Inflammation in the gut has been linked to many health issues, including autoimmune disease, allergies, irritable bowel diseases and even antibiotic resistance.

Studies and clinical data also show that nutrient deficiencies, which affect an estimated 3 billion people, may be linked to inflammation in the gut.

A new round of food testing commissioned by GMO Free USA (“Eating Out: A Date with Glyphosate”) found that glyphosate and its breakdown product or metabolite, aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA), are pervasive in foods served by major restaurants and fast food chains in the United States. Notably, the highest levels of glyphosate were detected in “whole grain” or “multigrain” items that consumers often perceive as a healthier choice. Studies have linked harmful health effects to the levels of glyphosate detected in a single serving of tested restaurant foods.

According to dining trend surveys, restaurants are aware that consumers are seeking healthy choices free from synthetic chemicals. Many restaurant chains are using terms like “natural,” and “clean food” to exploit the general public.

Glyphosate Linked to Health Issues

EFFECTIVE GLYPHOSATE levelGlyphosate has been linked to cancer by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Recently, a California jury ordered Bayer-Monsanto to pay $289 million to DeWayne “Lee” Johnson, who is terminally ill with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. While the judge subsequently reduced the award to $78 million, the verdict stands. Currently, over 11,200 people diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma after environmental exposure to glyphosate-based herbicides are also suing Bayer-Monsanto.

It would be remiss to focus solely on the cancer risks associated with glyphosate. A nine-year study, published in Nature, involving 300 French volunteers revealed that a low genetic diversity of intestinal bacteria in participants translated into a tendency to gain weight. It also caused higher inflammation and greater insulin resistance.

Recently obesity was identified as a major risk factor for COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU admissions. The chart (below) reflects the records from 5,700 people with COVID-19 who were admitted to hospitals in New York City. Ninety four percent of them had at least one co-morbidity, most commonly hypertension, obesity or diabetes.

Chronic conditions do not on their own increase a person’s chance of catching coronavirus. Underlying health conditions do, however, appear to increase the risk of serious illness and complications across all age groups. It should be alarming that more than half of U.S. adults have at least one condition that increases their risk of becoming seriously ill if infected.

Metabolic dysregulation can compromise the immune system to increase the risk of infections and chronic respiratory diseases. Studies show that excess adipose tissue promotes chronic inflammation, insulin resistance and many downstream chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, liver and kidney disease and cancer.

Chronic disease prevention is not glamorous. People are not highly motivated to give their attention to solutions that prevent a disease they didn’t think they were susceptible to getting in the first place. We are currently experiencing an epidemic of a population that is undernourished — characterized by excessive intake of processed food, hidden pesticides in the food supply, and inadequate access to nutrient-dense foods.

While it seems simple to preach “food as medicine” as the solution, many people are not aware that glyphosate, hidden in so much of the food supply, is an acute threat that should not be ignored. Glyphosate makes other chemicals even more toxic by blocking the enzyme pathways in the liver that help the body detoxify. These enzymes are also used to make bile acids and when bile acids don’t flow, a cascade of health issues arise downstream, including mineral imbalance. Glyphosate was first patented in 1964 as a metal chelator that was used to clean or descale commercial boilers and pipes. Glyphosate binds to and removes minerals such as manganese, zinc, and cobalt that are vital to human health.

As more glyphosate is used on crops, there has been a 500% average increase over 23 years in the level of glyphosate found in human urine. A 2018 study published in Environmental Health found that higher urinary glyphosate levels in pregnant women were associated with a shortened gestational length, potentially reducing a child’s lifetime cognitive achievement. Another study, published in 2014, in the Journal of Environmental & Analytical Toxicology, observed that chronically-ill humans had significantly higher glyphosate residues in their urine than their healthy counterparts.

The graph below shows my glyphosate levels after switching to an organic diet. My test was taken one year after removing genetically modified foods and glyphosate from my diet.

Glyphosate goes hand-in-hand with “Roundup Ready” genetically modified crops such as corn, soy, canola, sugar beets and cotton (for cottonseed oil). The GMO crops are sprayed multiple times during the growing season to control weeds.

It is also used as a desiccant, a ripening or drying agent, on non-GMO grains and other crops including wheat, barley, oats and other grains, sugar cane, lentils, beans, edible peas and chickpeas, sunflowers, mint, potatoes and cantaloupe. One way to combat or forgo high exposure to this chemical is by choosing to support organic and regenerative farmers who do not spray glyphosate-based herbicides.

When it comes to infectious diseases, many people don’t realize that the overall health of a community matters greatly. Public health measures and policies that target lifestyle habits and aim to build resilience and longevity also fortify a collective immunity against any infectious disease.

A Vital Network vs. a Pandemic

Lasting change will require a deliberate and sustained effort to address social determinants of health, such as poverty, racial discrimination, and environmental degradation. Regenerating health will start when the burden of toxic chemicals begins to lift. Without addressing this underlying burden on the body, the effort to consume nutrient-rich food is simply a way to plug the holes of vitamin and mineral deficiencies caused by glyphosate.

When we look at the human body as an interconnected network of vital communication pathways, we understand that everything is connected. A breakdown in one system—immune, cardiovascular, endocrine, digestive, and so forth—will adversely affect the strength of the others.

A virus works by gaining access to the cells of its host and then hijacking a receptor on the cell. In the case of SARS-CoV-2, access is obtained via the ACE-2 receptor, which is why the virus gains access readily through the lungs and small intestine, where the tissues have ample amounts of ACE-2 receptors. The vascular system also abounds in these receptors, and they are upregulated (increased) in conditions such as hypertension. The lungs, digestive, vascular system, and heart can be vulnerable to the attack. The human body is like an interconnected network of vital communication pathways, where everything is connected.

Modifiable factors (like nutrition, movement, sleep and a connection to nature) can be used as powerful levers that influence the body’s resilience. The principles targeted to prevent and reverse chronic disease can also serve people well during an infectious disease pandemic.

Without minimizing the health and financial hardship that most are currently facing, quarantine has given many people time to re-examine their lives, both physically and mentally. For many, it has become clear where the blind spots are in the food system and the importance of local food and food quality.

In the near future, as the economy comes back online, people will need to choose what to bring back into their lives, what they are willing to accept and what they want to improve for themselves and for others. Some will get the luxury of deciding how to carry out most daily activities — how to source and cook food, spend time, educate children and prioritize work. Others will not experience this privilege. Now is the time to take a deep breath, honor this global pause and take inventory of what is and is not working for communities. This is a rare and sacred opportunity to recreate a new version and better version of “normal,” perhaps one that honors innate harmony and alignment with Nature.

Food Quality

The body depends on six groups of essential nutrients – vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats, carbohydrates and water – to maintain vitality and health. A truly healthy immune system depends on a balanced mix of these essential nutrients, plus normal sleep patterns and frequent bouts of movement throughout the day.

It’s been understood for some time that many foods have been getting less nutritious. Measurements of fruits and vegetables show that their minerals, vitamin and protein content has dropped measurably over the past 50 to 70 years. Researchers have generally assumed the reason is fairly straightforward: We’ve been breeding and choosing crops for higher yields, rather than nutrition, and higher-yielding crops—whether broccoli, tomatoes, or wheat—tend to be less nutrient-packed.

In 2004, a landmark study of 43 different vegetables and fruits found “reliable declines” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C across most garden crops since 1950. This team of researchers concluded that this decline could mostly be explained by the agricultural practices designed to change traits and varieties that grow. Although not studied, declines in other nutrients like magnesium, zinc and vitamins B-6 and E were also likely.

A 2002 experiment with zooplankton revealed other details about why nutrients levels may be declining. Irakli Loladze, while studying for his Ph.D., observed that rising CO2 levels rev up photosynthesis, the process that helps plants transform sunlight to food. It also, however, leads the plants to pack in more carbohydrates, like glucose, at the expense of other nutrients like protein, iron and zinc. Greater volume and better quality might be inversely linked.

Zinc is needed for normal growth in humans, development and sexual maturation, and helps regulate appetite, stress level and sense of taste and smell. It also has antioxidant properties and plays an essential role in the immune system. A 2017 review on zinc in Nutrients, summarized that: “Nearly 30% of the elderly population is considered to be zinc deficient. It went on to say that “since zinc homeostasis is known to be important in immunological reactions such as the inflammatory response, and the oxidative stress response, multiple chronic diseases observed in the elderly are probably related to zinc deficiency.” Dietary sources of zinc can be found in a variety of beans, nuts, seeds, oysters (including canned), crab, lobster, beef, pork chop, dark meat poultry and yogurt.

Iron, although needed in very small amounts, is crucial for normal body functions. Without enough iron, the body cannot make hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying component of red blood cells, potentially leading to anemia.

Diets that are deficient in minerals (in particular zinc and iron) and other nutrients can cause malnutrition and lead to reduced growth in childhood, to a reduced ability to fight off infections, and to higher rates of maternal and child deaths. This type of malnutrition is common around the world because many people eat only a limited number of staple crops, without enough foods rich in minerals, such as fruits, vegetables, dairy and meats.

Researchers are finding that these changes might contribute to the rise in obesity as people eat increasingly starchy plant-based foods and eat more to compensate for the lower mineral levels found in crops.

Every part of the body functions better when reinforced by proper levels of protein and other key nutrients. There is a synergistic effect to consuming nutrients through a diverse diet of whole foods like fruits, vegetables, fish, poultry, beef, nuts, legumes and dairy. Those foods contain a wide range and balance of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that supplementation doesn’t provide.

Eating foods rich in vitamin C – like citrus fruits, leafy green vegetables, and bell peppers helps the body absorb iron. These foods also serve as “food” for the microbes in the gut which need to eat to thrive. Kiwifruit, for example, contains high amounts of pectic polysaccharides and fiber, which has been found to improve the immune system through its prebiotic effects on intestinal microbiota. Beneficial quantitative microbial changes were observed at the group level for bifidobacteria, bacteroides and lactic acid bacteria.

These friendly gut bacteria consume the fiber and produce butyric acid as a byproduct. Butyric acid is a short-chain fatty acid (SCFAs) that repairs the gut lining encouraging the production of feel-good neurotransmitters. SCFAs also influence another important immune cell — regulatory T cells. T cells tell the body how to respond to invading pathogens and germs.

Research on vitamin C has a long history, showing some protection against pneumonia and reducing the risk and severity of infections. A deficiency in vitamin C can lead to impaired immunity and higher susceptibility to infections because our bodies don’t produce it naturally.

However, healthy individuals need just adequate intake of vitamin C of 100 to 200 mg/day to support optimal cell and tissue levels. In contrast, treatment of established infections requires significantly higher doses of the vitamin to compensate for the increased inflammatory response and metabolic demand.

Maintaining adequate vitamin D levels is also important for immune health but most people are not getting sufficient amounts of the cofactors, like magnesium, in their diet. Supplementing with vitamin D became popular after some trials showed it helped lower the risk of contracting the cold and flu. But the effect is mainly seen in people who have very low or deficient levels and most people are not tracking their Vitamin D levels. Vitamin K2, as well as vitamin A and D, and most minerals, are best consumed through food. Vitamin K is fat soluble, so it should be eaten with fat for best absorption. Vitamins A and D are both activated by vitamin K2, allowing them to bind to calcium to do their jobs.

Vitamins A plays an important role in promoting proper immune function in response to viral exposures. Broad population studies suggest that people who eat foods rich in vitamin A and beta carotene (which converts to vitamin A in the body) are less likely to develop many types of cancer, especially lung cancer. However, when researchers tested beta carotene supplements in smokers, they found that people who took the supplements were more likely to develop lung cancer, while non-smokers presented neither benefit nor risk. Supplementation with vitamin A can be dangerous if not monitored, as this nutrient gets stored in the liver and can cause damage.

There is solid evidence that certain micronutrient deficiencies — for example, deficiencies of zinc, selenium, A, C, D, K2, and E — can alter immune responses but it’s important to focus on a diet that includes these key nutrients as much as possible, before attempting to take large doses of single vitamins and minerals which may carry risks for you.

Let Quality Food be thy Medicine

The importance of eating nutrient-rich food has been reinforced by the current pandemic, which is devastating to individuals with underlying health conditions that can be traced to nutrition and lifestyle habits. By consuming foods that are locally sourced, nutrient-rich, and devoid of pesticides and herbicides, people can shift healthcare in their communities from a disease-centered approach to one that reinforces health regeneration and disease prevention. Implementing immune resiliency at home is a critical step toward building resilient communities.

Kathleen DiChiara is a practitioner of Functional Nutrition, founder of Rhode to Health, Inc., and author of End Chronic Disease: The Healing Power of Beliefs, Behaviors, and Bacteria (2020). Her personal journey back to health was the main feature in the award-winning documentary film Secret Ingredients.


The Farm Bill’s Hemp Legalization

The 2018 Farm Bill was not your typical farm bill. While it provided important agricultural and nutritional policy extensions for five years, the most interesting changes involve the cannabis plant. Typically, cannabis is not part of the conversation around farm subsidies, nutritional assistance, and crop insurance. Yet in 2018 Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s strong support of and leadership on the issue of hemp has thrust the cannabis plant into the limelight.

For a little bit of background, hemp is defined in the legislation as the cannabis plant (yes, the same one that produces marijuana) with one key difference: hemp cannot contain more than 0.3 percent of THC (the compound in the plant most commonly associated with getting a person high). In short, hemp can’t get you high. For decades, federal law did not differentiate hemp from other cannabis plants, all of which were effectively made illegal in 1937 under the Marijuana Tax Act and formally made illegal in 1970 under the Controlled Substances Act—the latter banned cannabis of any kind.

It’s true that hemp policy in the United States has been drastically transformed by this new legislation. However, there remain some misconceptions about what, exactly, this policy change does.

Hemp is legal in the United States—with serious restrictions

Previously US law (2014 Farm Bill) allowed pilot programs to study hemp (often labeled “industrial hemp”) that were approved by both the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and state departments of agriculture. This allowed small-scale expansion of hemp cultivation for limited purposes. The 2018 Farm Bill is more expansive. It allows hemp cultivation broadly, not simply pilot programs for studying market interest in hemp-derived products. It explicitly allows the transfer of hemp-derived products across state lines for commercial or other purposes. It also puts no restrictions on the sale, transport, or possession of hemp-derived products, so long as those items are produced in a manner consistent with the law.

However, the new Farm Bill does not create a completely free system in which individuals or businesses can grow hemp whenever and wherever they want. There are numerous restrictions.

First, as noted above, hemp cannot contain more than 0.3 percent THC, per section 10113 of the Farm Bill. Any cannabis plant that contains more than 0.3 percent THC would be considered non-hemp cannabis—or marijuana—under federal law and would thus face no legal protection under this new legislation.

Second, there will be significant, shared state-federal regulatory power over hemp cultivation and production. Under section 10113 of the Farm Bill, state departments of agriculture must consult with the state’s governor and chief law enforcement officer to devise a plan that must be submitted to the Secretary of USDA. A state’s plan to license and regulate hemp can only commence once the Secretary of USDA approves that state’s plan. In states opting not to devise a hemp regulatory program, USDA will construct a regulatory program under which hemp cultivators in those states must apply for licenses and comply with a federally-run program.  This system of shared regulatory programming is similar to options states had in other policy areas such as health insurance marketplaces under ACA, or workplace safety plans under OSHA—both of which had federally-run systems for states opting not to set up their own systems.

Third, the law outlines actions that are considered violations of federal hemp law (including such activities as cultivating without a license or producing cannabis with more than 0.3 percent THC). The law details possible punishments for such violations, pathways for violators to become compliant, and even which activities qualify as felonies under the law, such as repeated offenses.

Ultimately, the Farm Bill legalizes hemp, but it doesn’t create a system in which people can grow it as freely as they can grow tomatoes or basil. This will be a highly regulated crop in the United States for both personal and industrial production.

Hemp research remains important

One of the goals of the 2014 Farm Bill was to generate and protect research into hemp. The 2018 Farm Bill continues this effort. Section 7605 re-extends the protections for hemp research and the conditions under which such research can and should be conducted. Further, section 7501 of the Farm Bill extends hemp research by including hemp under the Critical Agricultural Materials Act. This provision recognizes the importance, diversity, and opportunity of the plant and the products that can be derived from it, but also recognizes an important point: there is a still a lot to learn about hemp and its products from commercial and market perspectives. Yes, farmers—legal and illegal—already know a lot about this plant, but more can and should be done to make sure that hemp as an agricultural commodity remains stable.

Hemp farmers are treated like other farmers

Under the 2018 Farm Bill hemp is treated like other agricultural commodities in many ways. This is an important point. While there are provisions that heavily regulate hemp, and concerns exist among law enforcement—rightly or wrongly—that cannabis plants used to derive marijuana will be comingled with hemp plants, this legislation makes hemp a mainstream crop. Several provisions of the Farm Bill include changes to existing provisions of agricultural law to include hemp. One of the most important provisions from the perspective of hemp farmers lies in section 11101. This section includes hemp farmers’ protections under the Federal Crop Insurance Act. This will assist farmers who, in the normal course of agricultural production, face crop termination (crop losses). As the climate changes and as farmers get used to growing this “new” product, these protections will be important.

Cannabidiol or CBD is made legal—under specific circumstances

One big myth that exists about the Farm Bill is that cannabidiol (CBD)—a non-intoxicating compound found in cannabis—is legalized. It is true that section 12619 of the Farm Bill removes hemp-derived products from its Schedule I status under the Controlled Substances Act, but the legislation does not legalize CBD generally. CBD generally remains a Schedule I substance under federal law. The Farm Bill—and an unrelated, recent action by the Department of Justice—creates exceptions to this Schedule I status in certain situations. The Farm Bill ensures that any cannabinoid—a set of chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant—that is derived from hemp will be legal, if and only if that hemp is produced in a manner consistent with the Farm Bill, associated federal regulations, association state regulations, and by a licensed grower. All other cannabinoids, produced in any other setting, remain a Schedule I substance under federal law and are thus illegal. (The one exception is pharmaceutical-grade CBD products that have been approved by FDA, which currently includes one drug: GW Pharmaceutical’s Epidiolex.)

There is one additional gray area of research moving forward. Under current law, any cannabis-based research conducted in the United States must use research-grade cannabis from the nation’s sole provider of the product: the Marijuana Program at the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy’s National Center for Natural Products Research. That setup exists because of cannabis’s Schedule I status. However, if hemp-derived CBD is no longer listed on the federal schedules, it will raise questions among medical and scientific researchers studying CBD products and their effects, as to whether they are required to get their products from Mississippi. This will likely require additional guidance from FDA (the Food and Drug Administration which oversees drug trials), DEA (the Drug Enforcement Administration which mandates that research-grade cannabis be sourced from Mississippi), and NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse which administers the contract to cultivate research-grade cannabis) to help ensure researchers do not inadvertently operate out of compliance.

State-legal cannabis programs are still illegal under federal law

The Farm Bill has no effect on state-legal cannabis programs. Over the past 22 years, 33 states have legalized cannabis for medical purposes, and over the past six years, 10 states have legalized cannabis for adult use. Every one of those programs is illegal under federal law, with no exceptions, and the Farm Bill does nothing to change that. That said, many in the advocacy community hope that the reforms to hemp policy under the Farm Bill serve as a first step toward broader cannabis reform. (Although I would argue that a Democratic House majority alongside a president with a record of pro-cannabis reform rhetoric is the more likely foundation for broader cannabis reform.)

Even CBD products produced by state-legal, medical, or adult-use cannabis programs are illegal products under federal law, both within states and across state lines. This legal reality is an important distinction for consumer protection. There are numerous myths about the legality of CBD products and their availability. Under the 2018 Farm Bill, there will be more broadly available, legal, CBD products; however, this does not mean that all CBD products are legal moving forward. Knowing your producer and whether they are legal and legitimate will be an important part of consumer research in a post-2018 Farm Bill world.

Mitch McConnell, cannabis champion?

Many advocates applaud Senate Leader McConnell for his stewardship of these hemp provisions into the Farm Bill and his leadership on the legislation overall. That assessment is accurate. Without Mr. McConnell’s efforts, the hemp provisions would never have found their way into the legislation initially. And although his position as Senate Leader gave him tremendous institutional influence over the legislation, he went a step further by appointing himself to the conference committee that would bring the House and Senate together to agree on a final version.

McConnell understood much about this issue. First, he knows hemp doesn’t get you high and that the drug war debate that swept up hemp was politically motivated, rather than policy-oriented. Second, Kentucky—the leader’s home state—is one of the best places to cultivate hemp in the world, and pre-prohibition the state had a robust hemp sector. Third, the grassroots interest in this issue was growing in Kentucky, and McConnell knows that his role as Senate Majority Leader hangs in the balance in 2020, as does his Senate seat as he faces re-election that same year. McConnell emerges from the Farm Bill as a hemp hero, but advocates should be hesitant to label him a cannabis champion; Leader McConnell remains a staunch opponent of marijuana reform and his role in the Senate could be the roadblock to Democratic-passed legislation in the 116th Congress.

The Alluring Genesis of Seed

The Mystery of Seed

This was the goal of the leaf and the root.

For this did the blossom burn its hour.

This little grain is the ultimate fruit.

This is the awesome vessel of power.


For this is the source of the root and the bud….

World unto world unto world remolded.

This is the seed, compact of God,

Wherein all mystery is enfolded.

-George Starbuck Galbraith,

 The New York Times, May 6, 1960

glassgem mandala

photo by Hannah Traggis
Glass gem corn mandala displays the enormous genetic diversity of this variety. Never forget: every seed you hold possesses the genetic potential for diversity, whether you can see it or not.





There is a beauty and wonder in seeds, an enigmatic captivation, a fascination full of hope and promise for the future. As I sit here, futilely trying to resist the urge to place “just one more” order for seeds online, having already just come home from Agway with a few packets tucked into my bag of seed potatoes, I am inspired to consider for the umpteenth time, what is the irresistible allure of seeds. What makes me scour page upon page of seed catalog after seed catalog, 30 or more in a season – what fuels my desire to collect, grow and possess seeds. Continually searching for new seedspeople, I travel across the country just to gather with fellow seed enthusiasts. My Instagram feed is riddled with seed savers, seed breeders, seed historians and seed librarians, my bookshelves safeguard a collection spanning 1000s of years of human connection to seed and the many uses of plants to nourish, clothe, protect, and enrich our lives.

Take a moment and ponder with me, what is a seed? Why would you read this article about seeds? Where does your imagination take you when you gaze down at that handfull of seeds just before sowing them gently in the warm spring soil? Where did they come from? How many lives intersected with the past of that seed and the decisions made that collectively and ultimately created that seed? That very seed there in your hand! What will happen to it once it leaves your hand?

Through botanical and ethnobotanical texts, college and post-graduate degrees, conferences, symposia, and endless discussions with fellow seed addicts, I have shared this fascination and sought answers to these questions for decades. Since I was 11 and opened my very first Seeds Blüm catalog, excitedly shared with me by my mother, not only seed, but its stunning diversity enchanted me. I was immediately taken in by the concept that each seed carries a history with it and that the potential within a seed can be handed down through generations like any other precious family heirloom.

I was most taken by seed diversity and the ties of that diversity to our individual cultural identities. My mother was a horticulturist in central Maine during the 1970’s and ‘80’s and was taken by the ‘back to the land’ movement so much so that she had us experimenting with and practicing organic agriculture and growing variety trials in our back yard for local seed companies and the old Farmstead Magazine out of Freedom Maine. We grew tomatillos, three different kinds, and daikon radishes in 1982. Not just the one spinach variety you bought seed for at the hardware store, but 6 others grew in tidy rows in dad’s proud raised beds, nourished by compost and protected by shredded leaf mulch! None of my friends at school knew what I was talking about when I explained what we had for dinner the night before! We bought seeds from Seeds Blüm, Johnny’s, Vessey’s and I’m sure a myriad of others, and grew them alongside the varieties Farmstead asked us to grow, just to experiment on our own – to grow the history and diversity within our growing seed collection.

Seed diversity… some seeds wear their diversity on their coats brilliantly patterned with a myriad of colors while others hide their light inside, waiting for just the right conditions to sprout and reveal the potential held within — potential to respond, acclimate and survive to the fickle environment in which they may sprout.

Fascinated, captivated, and enchanted by seeds, my lifelong journey with seeds and plants has lead me to the deep belief that seeds are our agricultural history and the fundamental unit of our food system. They carry and define our cultural identities as our ancestors evolved alongside the foods they domesticated and cultivated. Every seed holds the potential to continue that journey of co-evolution with humans. With a deeper understanding of how seed is created, we can all continue to engage in that co-evolutionary dance that has been man’s greatest privilege since the onset of civilization — a dance that has driven the very rise of civilization!

What is a seed?

Plants reproduce themselves in many ways including asexually via cloning themselves. In flowering plants, however, biodiversity is increased much faster through sexual reproduction and the complex mixing of genetic material that is contained in the resultant seed. To begin to understand how this process may play out on our farms, let’s start with a simple question: what is a seed? It is symbol of hope, poetic muse, primary component of human food worldwide, extreme survivalist, and protector and progenitor of its species. Botanically, a seed is a complex structure containing a dormant embryo that is capable of enduring extended periods of inhospitable conditions that its parents possibly could not. When conditions improve, the embryo awakes from its state of suspended animation, germinates and grows into a new plant, sometimes years after its parents are dead and gone. Seeds are also a mode of travel for otherwise stationary plants. They can stick to the fur coats of animals, float on tiny parachutes, catapult several feet from ejecting seed pods, voyage the world’s ocean currents, or take a roller-coaster ride through an animal’s digestive tract.

There are three important structures that allow a seed to carry out these critical functions of dormancy, travel, reawakening, and germination. The three essential components of a seed are: the embryo; food storage; and a protective coat called the ‘testa’. 

The embryo is the tiny dormant plant, complete with a nascent root, the ‘radicle’, and shoot, called the ‘plumule’. Connecting these is the ‘hypocotyl’, an embryonic stem that will elongate as the seed germinates and pushes the first leaves out of the ground after the radicle takes hold in the soil.

cucumber seedlings

photo by Hannah Traggis
Germinating cucumber seed displaying a well developed radicle, with hypocotyl and plumule just beginning to elongate.

Food is necessary for the embryonic plant as it awakens and resumes physiological function within the seed. To germinate, the seed coat splits and the radicle is the first structure to grow out of the seed, into the dark soil. Once the radicle takes hold and anchors the seed, the hypocotyl elongates and the plumule emerges from the soil. All of this happens before the tiny plant is able to photosynthesize. The seed’s stored food is all the energy the seed has to get its very first leaves into the sun. Food is stored either as endosperm surrounding the embryo, or within the cotyledons or ‘seed leaves’. The type of food energy stored varies between seed type. Corn, and many other small grains, for instance, primarily store starch, while oilseeds such as flax, sunflower, or canola predominantly store oil and fat. Legumes are high in protein.

The seed coat protects the embryo and food source from environmental elements. It is often leathery and capable of expanding when the seed is ready to germinate. Many seeds can persist for years in the soil without dying because of the testa’s ability to protect its precious contents so completely. It would be wrong to say one of these structures is more important than another. If one of them fails, the seed will likely die or suffer severely reduced vigor. Collectively, they are a biomechanical masterpiece.

How is a seed formed?

The genesis of these miraculous structures is a much more complex topic. Yet taken piecemeal, it is an elegant and logical process that unravels like any other of life’s great mysteries. It begins with a seemingly simple flower and requires an understanding of flower form, function, and biology – i.e. botany!

Botany of seed formation: Flower development

The single purpose of a flower is to produce seed. It is the setting for the development of male and female sex organs and where fertilization of an egg by sperm occurs. Evolution has favored an enormous degree of variation in the strategies plants use to form flowers, fruits and seeds. Let’s explore the common features shared amongst flowers before we dive into the deeper waters of diverse mating systems.

photo by Hannah Traggis
A complete daffodil flower showing all four modified leaf whorls that comprise a flower. The sepals and petals, male stamen showing the filament and anther; and the female pistil showing the stigma, style, ovary, and ovules.

Fundamentally, a flower is a modified shoot, i.e. stem, of a plant. It starts out as any other bud with the potential to become either another branch or a flower. The genes that control the development of a branch and flower are the same. To become a flower, a plant turns these genes on and off at different times and rates than if it were directing the development of a new branch. The structure that develops and holds flowers, is called an ‘inflorescence’ instead of branch. There are many types of inflorescences. Flowers can be arranged in many ways on the inflorescence stem that is called a ‘peduncle’. This includes a simple solitary flower at the end of a single peduncle and multiple flowers arranged on panicles including racemes, spikes, umbels, and capitula. The arrangement of flowers on an inflorescence affects, in part, how those flowers can or can not cross pollinate and mate.

The peduncle terminates in a swollen tip called a receptacle and the flower sits atop that. The flower itself begins formation hidden inside a bud and is comprised of four separate whorls of modified leaves: sepals, petals, stamen, and pistil, each with an important function. The sepals are the most leaf-like in both form and color. They are the green layer you see on the outside of a flower bud and their function is to protect the bud as the young flower parts form within. The petals form just inside the sepals and their main function is to attract pollinators. Petals are often highly pigmented with both the rainbow of colors the human eye can see and ultraviolet colors that only pollinators can see. Petals also often contain nectaries, small glands that produce nectar that serves as a reward for visiting pollinators. Nectaries can be produced on other parts of the flower and plant, but are most often associated with the petals.

The last two whorls in a complete flower are the separate male and female organs. The stamen, produced just inside the petals, is comprised of a filament and an anther and is the male sex organ of a plant. The filament contains vascular tissues and carries nutrients to the anther, inside which thousands of pollen grains are formed. Pollen is a tiny, autonomous structure capable of living outside of the parent plant and is composed of three cells, two are sperm and one, the ‘tube cell, is a cell that will ultimately form a pollen tube.

Nestled and protected within all of these layers is the fourth and final whorl that is the female portion of the plant, the pistil. The pistil consists of a stigma, style, and an ovary (also often called a carpel). A pistil can contain one or several carpels fused together. The stigma is the outer most portion of the pistil and is the site upon which a pollen grain lands. When the flower is mature, the surface of the stigma is said to be receptive and is sticky which makes picking up pollen easier. The stigma reacts biochemically to pollen grains to determine if the pollen grain is compatible to mate with the flower or not. A potential barrier to fertilization is that under extreme heat and dry conditions the stigma of a mature flower may dry up making pollen recognition impossible. The style is specialized tissue that connects the stigma and ovary through which pollen tubes will grow. It is also thought to help the stigma determine pollen grain compatibility.

fruit formation from flower

illustraton curtesy Hannah Traggis
Both the fruit and seeds developed from various parts of the flower
after the egg and polar nuclei are fertilized by the sperm.

Located at the base of the pistil is the ovary, or gynoecium (the “female house”), containing several layers of maternal tissue. Deeply held and protected within the ovary are the ovules, complex structures that contain more layers of mother tissue and, ultimately, an embryo sac. The embryo sac contains the female sex cells, namely an egg and the “polar nuclei”. An ovary can contain one to several hundred ovules. It is noteworthy to mention that the multiple layers of protective tissue surrounding the ovules are an evolutionary trend in the development of complex flowering land plants. This development ensures not only the long-term survival of the species, but its ability to disperse itself across diverse habitats and ecosystems.

Flowers can have all of these whorls (the sepals, petals, stamen, and pistil), or just a few of them. Flowers possessing all of these parts are said to be “complete”. Flowers missing one or more major parts are “incomplete”. Flowers can also be classified according to their sex. Some flowers are bisexual and contain both stamen and pistils. Other flowers are male and do not contain a pistil. While still other flowers are female, and do not contain a stamen. Finally, some flowers are asexual and lack reproductive organs altogether. Hybridization of ornamental flowers to have more petals, often involves breeding to change the gene expression that directs the development of each whorl so that where a wildflower would have created stamens and pistils, it’s hybridized sister will produce more whorls of petals. Look closely the next time you see a daffodil or Echinacea with multiple layers of petals and see if you can find any stamen or pistils! Flowers that are bisexual are called “perfect flowers”, while flowers lacking one of the sex organs are “imperfect”. We will discuss the implications of flower sexuality later on when we examine plant mating systems.

As the inflorescence grows, the flower bud develops protected within the sepals. In most species, when the flower is almost mature, the sepals will open and the petals will unfurl and grow. Inside the stamens and pistils, if present, the pollen and ovules will mature. When everything is fully developed the stigma will become receptive to compatible pollen grains The egg and polar nuclei inside the ovule will be ready for fertilization by the sperm carried within the pollen. It is time for the pollen to take its dangerous and sometimes long journey to reach the stigma of the waiting flower.

Botany of Seed Formation: Pollination

photo by Hannah Traggis
Plants have evolved many strategies for pollination and often conscript various animals as vectors for the transport of pollen from one flower to another. Here a syrphid fly happily collects nectar and pollen as a reward for pollinating these Goosefoot flowers.

Plants have adapted diverse strategies to facilitate that union. Many involve the exploitation of animal accomplices by providing tasty and nutritious rewards such as nectar, or intoxicating scents to lure animals to the flower. Pollen that relies on being carried by animal counterparts is often large, sticky, and has appendages that help the pollen stick to the animal. Other plants rely only on the wind to carry pollen. This pollen is often smooth, tiny, and extremely light. The pollen of many wind-pollinated plants can travel up to 5 miles on a strong breeze. The delivery of pollen to the stigma is called pollination and is susceptible to many environmental factors that can thwart its completion.

Pollen is released from the anthers when the anthers dry and crack open, a process called dehiscence. In extreme heat and dry conditions, the anthers can dry up themselves or dehisce too early, exposing unformed pollen to unfavorable weather. Healthy “viable” pollen can still be damaged by extreme heat and dry conditions and die once it leaves the anther. Other barriers to successful pollination include cold and wet conditions that some pollinators, such as honeybees, refuse to work in. Rain can wash pollen from the anthers onto the ground. Wind pollinated species are affected by those breathless, windless, hot summer days when there isn’t even a light gust to pick up and carry pollen. Pollen is often considered the weakest link in the fertilization and “fruit set” of a crop.

Botany of Seed Formation: Fertilization

Now that the pollen grain has reached the female, the stigma must recognize it as compatible. This is a biochemical process and once successful, the pollen grain begins to hydrate and germinate taking up moisture from the stigma. During hot, dry weather, the stigma can dry up, stopping the process altogether. Germination of the pollen grain entails one of the three cells growing into a pollen tube that grows down through the style all the way to one ovule within the ovary. As the tube grows, the remaining two cells of the pollen grain, the sperm, begin to travel down the tube, ultimately being delivered directly to one ovule.  The growth of the pollen tube is another potential barrier to successful fertilization. It is a temperature dependent process with the optimal temperatures for its growth being the same as the optimal growing temperatures for that particular plant. For instance, many squashes thrive in 80º-90ºF heat, and so do their pollen tubes. Pollen tube growth will slow or cease altogether if temperatures get too cold. This is common on early or late summer evenings when temperatures can drop 20ºF or more as the sun is setting.

Pollen tubes also have a very definite life span of just a few hours, ranging from 18-36 hours. If their growth slows or stops before it reaches an ovule, there is very little chance it will resume when temperatures increase the following day. Therefore, pollination that occurs late in the afternoon or evening has much less potential for resulting in fertilization than pollination that occurs earlier in the day.

Botany of Seed Production: Seed and Fruit Formation

Once the pollen tube reaches an ovule, the sperm enter the embryo sac. One sperm fertilizes the egg creating a zygote that further develops into an embryonic plant. The other sperm fertilizes the two polar nuclei creating the endosperm tissue that will become the stored food within the seed. This is called “double fertilization” and once complete, the rest of the ovule outside of the embryo sac will develop into the seed coat. Thus, a fully fertilized ovule will become one seed. Every ovule inside the ovary needs to be fertilized by a separate pollen grain in order to develop into a seed.

During the later stages of seed development, chemical and physical mechanisms take hold to put the embryo and seed into a state of dormancy. Only a very certain set of environmental circumstances can break that dormancy, allowing the seed to finally germinate. Dormancy is a strategy used by a plant to survive extreme environmental conditions that might otherwise kill the parent plant — such as winter in temperate regions, years of drought and high heat in deserts, or flooding monsoon seasons in the tropics.

As each of the ovules is fertilized, they send signals to the surrounding ovarian tissue to begin to change and develop into a fruit. While we often call these ‘vegetables’, botanically, any structure ripening from the fertilized ovary of a flower and bearing seeds is named a “fruit”.

Ovules are connected to the ovary wall through a placenta-like structure called the “funiculus” and they ripen together after fertilization of the ovules. The health of the mother plant is crucial to ensuring the healthiest, most robust seeds. Providing ample growing time and optimal growing conditions suitable to specific plant groups is critical. Heat-loving plants need heat. Plants that prefer cool temperatures, such as spinach, may grow and flower in the summer, but will produce the biggest and best quality seed in consistent temperatures under 80ºF. Proper spacing is important as seed producing plants need more room than those grown for vegetables. Staking heavy seed stalks or additional trellising may be required. Diseases and pest damage affect the amount of energy a plant puts into ripening the ovules and fruit. Good soil health will boost your plants’ immune systems. Certain diseases can also be transmitted to the seed through various parts of the flower. Seeds infected this way can carry diseases with them and potentially infect the new fields where they are planted. If you plan to share your seeds, you should be careful to keep this in consideration.

Fruit maturation serves many purposes for the seed. During development, fruit tissue photosynthesizes and produces both food and protective anti-oxidants to nourish and protect the seeds. The concept of maturity in fruits can be confusing. As a consumer of fruit, we often consider market ripeness as when it tastes the best and has the most pleasing texture in our mouths. But physiologically, fruits are considered mature when the seeds inside are ripe and ready for dispersal. Often, market and physiological maturity are very different things! For example, when we eat “green beans”, the pods (which are the fruit) and seeds are green and soft and are nowhere near mature. When physiologically mature, bean pods are brown, dry and very brittle and the seeds within, leathery and tough.

Fruit types and seed dispersal:

milkweed seed pappus

photo by Hannah Traggis
Milkweed utilize a unique mode of wind powered dispersal. The ‘seeds’ are actually indehiscent fruits with a feathery accessory structure called a “pappus” that allows the seed to be carried many meters from the parent plant.

Mature fruit types vary greatly and the final version is entirely tied to the species’ strategy for seed dispersal. Each fruit type executes a different mode of seed dispersal. There are two major categories of fruit, and of course numerous sub-categories within each that you could spend years memorizing. The major types are “fleshy” and “dry”.

Many fleshy fruits generally mature to have sweet and often colorfully attractive fruits. They have evolved to be eaten as a mode for dispersing seed. Their seeds have chemically resistant coats that protect the seed while going through the digestive tract of an animal. After an animal eats the fruit, they may travel miles before depositing it somewhere, thus spreading the seeds far and wide. Other fleshy fruits aid their seeds in germinating by rotting. Many tomatoes are a good example and we often see the seeds happily sprouting from the edges of compost piles after the fleshy fruit has rotted away. The gel outside a fresh tomato seed contains chemicals that keep the seed dormant, rotting digests this gel away and allows the seed to awaken when the soil warms.


Other fruits are dry at maturity and can be divided into “dehiscent” and “indehiscent” sub-types. Dehiscent fruits, such as beans and brassicas, are designed to split open when mature so that seeds can fall out, similar to pollen release through anther dehiscence described above. Sometimes they split suddenly so that seeds are actually ejected several feet away from the pods, lupines are a good example of projectile dehiscent seed dispersal! Indehiscent fruits are fruits we often mistake as seeds such as dill, fennel, beet, spinach, lettuce, and carrot seeds because the fruit wall itself is reduced to a hard dry coating that tightly surrounds the seed itself. As they mature, the entire inflorescence dries and they remain attached for quite a while. In the northeast, you might even see some hanging on through the winter! These fruits can be dispersed by the wind where parts of the fruit wall form tiny parachutes or wings. Other indehiscent fruits simply fall from dried inflorescence when shaken by the wind or a passing animal. Other indehiscent fruits have hooks and barbs on their seed coats and easily latch on to the fur of a passing animal and are thusly carried far away from the parent plant.

pea flower

photo by Hannah Traggis
A pea is one of the most reliable “selfers”.
The petals remain closed around the anther and stigma until self-fertilization occurs inside.

In the northeast, dry fruits can be particularly susceptible to diseases because they ripen in the late summer when we have more rain and humidity and cooler nights. To harvest healthy seeds takes foresight and planning. If you are growing a large crop, consider growing it under a hoop house. If growing a field crop, watch the weather carefully. If extended rain and gloom are predicted and the seeds are almost ripe, harvest the longest stalks possible of the entire plant (including roots if you can keep the soil away from contaminating the seed heads), and bring into a dry protected place such as a greenhouse or barn. Keep rodents away and the seed will continue to ripen as the plants die down.

Mating Systems:

If planning to grow and harvest seed on your farm, homestead, or back yard, it is important not only to understand the botanical concepts already explained, but to understand the various mating systems plants have evolved. Mating systems are strategies plants use to exchange and recombine genes as they reproduce themselves. Differing greatly from animals that are mobile and can move around freely to find a suitable mate, plants have evolved a number of methods to carry out sexual reproduction.

First, it is important to know who can mate with whom. Knowing the scientific name of your plants, including the cultivar, is a very important part of that. The scientific name is the genus and species and should always be written in italics on your seed packets. For example, the common bean’s scientific name is Phaseolus vulgaris. Knowing there are thousands of cultivars of beans, we need to further designate the species name to include the cultivar name. The scientific name, then, for the bean called ‘Black Knight’ is: ‘Phaseolus vulgaris ‘Black Knight’.

monoecious pattypan

photo by Hannah Traggis
Cucurbits are a great example of a monoecious plant that bears separate male and female flowers. Here, the female flower on the left displays an ovary ready for fertilization. The male flower, on the right, obviously lacks the ovary.

We have all been taught that the definition of a species is a group of organisms that can intermate with each other, and that includes cultivars within that species. While that simple definition of species holds true in plants, plants also throw a curve ball into that arena. Many plants can intermate with plants of another, very closely related, species. Let’s look at peppers. The most common species is Capsicum annuum. There are two other capsicum species that can freely intermate with C. annuum, those are C. frutescens and C. chinense. When two species mate, it is called an “interspecific cross”. A noteworthy comment about interspecific crosses, since it is a very common question, is that the three common species of the Cucurbit genus do not readily cross with each other. That is, Cucurbita maxima, Cucurbita moschata, and Cucurbita pepo, can be grown side by side with very little chance of an accidental, interspecific cross happening. If it does, the resulting fruit is almost always sterile.

The simplest mating system found in plants is self-pollination.

Known as “selfing”, “selfers”  need nothing more than their own eggs and sperm to carry out sexual reproduction. The main characteristic that facilitates selfing is a botanically perfect, i.e. bisexual, closed flower where the anthers and stigma are in very close proximity to each other. In some cases, the anthers encircle the stigma and in others, the anthers are fused together in a cone surrounding and enclosing the stigma. We mentioned earlier that most flowers open just before the male and female portions mature. In selfers, male and female organs mature before the sepals and petals open. Pollination and fertilization happen inside the flower before it opens, and sometimes the flower never opens at all. Selfing is quite common and is seen in most small grains including barley, oats, sorghum, rice and wheat, and other crops such as lettuce, peas, and beans and to a slightly lesser extent in eggplant and tomatoes. These plants are highly inbred but suffer no ill consequences from that.


photos courtesy Hannah Traggis
Dioecious plants, such as these spinach plants, have separate male and female plants. The male is the photo at the top, the female is below.

The vast majority of plants, however, reproduce via “cross-pollination” and are called “crossers” or “out crossers”. Cross-pollinated plants suffer greatly when inbred, a condition known as “inbreeding depression”, exhibiting loss of vigor and often times early death. These plants must intermate and share pollen with a large population of its species and cultivar. Cross-pollinated plants rely on some external mode of pollinaton, whether insect or animal mediated or wind, and can have either perfect bisexual flowers or separate, imperfect male and female flowers. If flowers are perfect, the plant employs a few methods to prevent self-pollination. One method blocks pollen recognition by the stigma. Another, blocks pollen tubes from delivering sperm to the ovule. A third method involves the anthers and stigmas of the same flowers maturing at different times so that when the stigma is receptive, the pollen from that flower is not viable and vice versa.

If the cross-pollinating plant has evolved to produce separate male and female flowers, there are also variations on that theme! In some plants, such as most cucurbits and corn, the male and female flowers are found on

the same plant but in separate locations making a proximal barrier to self-pollination. Often, the male flowers form several days before the female flowers which further blocks the plant’s ability to pollinate itself which adds an additional, temporal barrier to self-pollination. These plants are called “monoecious” meaning “one house” that includes both male and female flowers.  

Another condition is that of the male and female flowers born on separate plants entirely. Spinach is a common example and the male and female plants even look different. Pollen often needs to be carried quite a distance from the male plant to the female. These types of plants are called “dioecious”, meaning two houses, one for male flowers, and one for female. Dioecious plants require the greatest degree of cross-pollination to maintain healthy seed production.

Isolation to prevent unintended cross-pollination:

Tomato inserted stigma

photo by Hannah Traggis
Tomatoes are often misrepresented as selfers but they out-cross almost as often as they reliably self. The tomato flower on the left demonstrates an “exerted stigma” where the stigma protrudes outside of the anther cone. In this configuration, it is open to visiting bumblebees and pollen they carry from other tomato plants. The picture on the right shows a completely closed tomato self-pollinating flower. The stigma is “inserted” and held under the anther cone.

The line between selfers and crossers is a scale along a continuum rather than two distinct buckets. Plants’ abilities to self or cross vary. Let’s take peppers again as an example. The flowers are self-fertile, however, peppers are known to out-cross with other pepper cultivars up to 60% of the time! Tomatoes also are thought to be self-pollinating, but outcross with other tomato cultivars up to 40% of the time. As we discussed the closed morphology of self-pollinating flowers previously, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant possess flowers where the stigma is enclosed by an anther cone and are often self-pollinated before the flower petals fully open. However, if you look closely, and you really should if you want to save seeds from these plants, you might notice that the stigma of some of the tomato flowers actually protrudes out from the rim of that anther cone and is exposed to the air and any activity by pollinating insects.

To maintain the genetic and varietal integrity of the plants you wish to save seed from, a grower needs to prevent out-crossing with other cultivars of the same species. At the same time, the grower must also ensure they are not promoting inbreeding depression and needs to allow a large enough population of plants to intermate with each other. Respectively, that means the grower must isolate groups of plants from each other and plant enough plants, the more prone to inbreeding depression a plant is, the most plants need to be in the mating population.

Isolation can be accomplished in several ways. One way is to physically separate the groups of plants from each other by a specified distance. Physical barriers, such as tree lines and wooded areas, also aid in distance isolations. Isolation of insect pollinated crops can also be accomplished simply by building a cage around the group of plants that you want to intermate and covering it thoroughly with fine insect netting. Yet another method of isolation is temporal, i.e. time the planting of your crops so that cultivars of the same species are not blooming and setting fruit at the same time.

Seed production is one of the most fascinating life processes you can witness and steward on your farm. Learning, observing, and becoming fully in tune to the whole life cycle, from seed to seed, of the crops you grow is one of the most meaningful and satisfying journeys you will ever take. Once you master saving high quality seed with strong cultivar integrity, you can begin the journey to adapt certain cultivars to your farming systems and even breed your own new varieties… but that is another subject altogether!

Hannah Traggis is Senior Horticulturist at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and is available for questions about this article at htraggis@gmail.com

Indigenous Perspectives on Food Sovereignty

Excerpted by Jack Kittredge from research by Jane Mt. Pleasant on Native American agriculture, Enacting Food Sovereignty in Aotearoa New Zealand and Peru by Mariaelena Huambachano, The Real Seed Producers, Food Sovereignty: Turning the Global Food System Upside Down by Grain, and Transformative Agroecology Learning in Europe by Colin R. Anderson, Chris Maughan & Michel P. Pimbert

The Real Seed Producers image African women sowingThe concept of Food Sovereignty was first launched by the international peasant organization Via Campesina at the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome. Since then it has been discussed and developed further at many subsequent gatherings. In 2001 the ‘World Forum on Food Sovereignty’ was held in Cuba and a year later, at the NGO/CSO Forum on Food Sovereignty held alongside the second World Food Summit in Rome, the concept was further discussed and elaborated.

Food Sovereignty, according to the definition adopted at that 2002 Rome Forum

“is the right of peoples, communities, and countries to define their own agricultural, pastoral, labor, fishing, food and land policies which are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances. It includes the true right to food and to produce food, which means that all people have the right to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food and to food-producing resources and the ability to sustain themselves and their societies.”

That is quite a mouthful. The reader who has not been paying attention to this growing movement might be surprised at the breadth of rights it asserts.

It helps to understand that the concept was developed as a reaction to the increasing (mis)use of the term ‘food security’. The mainstream definition of food security, endorsed at Food Summits and other high level conferences, is a global policy objective that has evolved and diversified over time. Its primary goal, however, is to provide sufficient food of a suitable kind at the right time and place to feed the world population. As the UN World Food Programme (2007) put it, “Food security implies that food is available, accessible and affordable; thereby food security exists when adequate food is available to all people on a regular basis.”

So food security talks about everybody having enough good food to eat each day. But it doesn’t talk about where the food comes from, who produces it, how and under what conditions it has been grown. This allows food exporters, from both the global North and South, to argue that the best way for poor countries to achieve food security is to import cheap food from them, rather then trying to produce it themselves. This, as has become painfully evident, makes those countries more dependent on the international market, forces peasant farmers who can’t compete with subsidized imports off their lands, and leaves them looking to the cities for jobs that don’t exist. Food security, understood this way, just contributes to more poverty, marginalization and hunger.

This is the very vision of agriculture — one in which the billions of today’s peasant farmers have no place, and in which the global corporations control the food chain all the way from agricultural inputs and the growing of the crops, to the distribution, processing and selling of food across the world — that the concept of food sovereignty challenges.

Food Sovereignty local seeds in ZimbabweAlthough this approach has succeeded in producing large volumes of food, problems of hunger, degradation of land, unhealthy ecosystems, and lack of accessibility to food persist. The latest report of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, led by Olivier De Schutter, a former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, summed up the state of the current global food system:
“ Today’ s food and farming systems have succeeded in supplying large volumes of foods to global markets, but they are generating negative outcomes on multiple fronts: widespread degradation of land, water and ecosystems; high GHG emissions; biodiversity losses; persistent hunger and micro-nutrient deficiencies alongside the rapid rise of obesity and diet-related diseases; and livelihood stresses for farmers around the world. (IPES-Food 2016)

Further complexity arises when food security is proclaimed as a global policy objective in the absence of an in-depth understanding of how Indigenous communities produce food and of the knowledge-based practices related to it. Presently, most efforts to improve food security remain focused on industrial and scientific agricultural approaches to feeding the world. But despite these approaches most of the world is still fed by small farmers using traditional methods. Perhaps we should better understand how and why they do it before we make judgments about how best it can be done.

The following are statements by indigenous people and those who have worked with them about their approaches to the earth, to raising food, and to belonging to communities, as well as dealing with industrial, scientific approaches to these issues.

Quechuan Allin Kawsay

In the highlands of Peru, for instance, the Quechua people have a principle called ‘Allin Kawsay’ which

“is a philosophy for the sustainable use of the natural resources available on Pachamama (Mother Earth), and managed accordingly to Andean principles of reciprocity, duality, and solidarity for the overall state of equilibrium with Pachamama, human and all living beings.”

Quechua communities also have a long tradition of autonomy and self-determination as shown in their communal governance of food production, referred to as ayllu, The tradition includes a sector of land that is operated communally alongside the chacras (farms) or small plots allotted to individual families. There is an ayllu leader chosen by all ayllu members.

Quechua farmers use the ayllu to decide collectively what they want to produce and consume. They prioritize local agricultural production by producing food first for their own family and community consumption. Then any surplus is exchanged through a bartering system with other ayllus using a communal approach. All of the Quechuans interviewed declared that they have never experienced food shortages, and they have food security guarantee mechanisms such as bartering systems and food crops such as chuño (dried potatoes) that have been domesticated to last for long periods of time, especially during the months of January and February (the rainy season).

One farmer stated

“ Allin Kawsay is an ancestral principle and this principle has been practiced since many centuries ago. It is an ideology of sustainable living because if it were not for Allin Kawsay then there would have been no systems of governance and law in our community. We all share the same interests and objectives linked through shared norms and principles with respect to humans, animals, spirits, mountains, lakes, rivers, pastures, food crops, and wild life – we are all interconnected. We live in our ayllus, and so we have full governance and control of our land, and this is how it has been done for centuries. We are the guardians of our land, and we never starved, and we are happy people.”

The failure of a harvest for Quechua farmers is more than an economic loss. It can be a source of personal distress and concern:
“How we work and nurture our land influences greatly on our food, and food security. I love my seeds and I cry when my potatoes do not grow and I know it is because my mother, Pachamama, is unwell.”

Māori people and Mauri Ora

In contrast to the Allin Kawsay philosophy in Peru, there is no consensus in New Zealand’s Māori culture about an established good living philosophy. However, when Māori participants were asked about a concept symbolizing a good life approach, they all referred to Mauri Ora:
“If you ask me for a Māori word that embodies well-being and health of our people then the closest to it would be mauri ora (life force). I am not sure if all we Māori would interpret it as a good life approach though. But for me personally mauri ora is about your well-being.”

“Ora” means energy in Māori and in complementation with Mauri (the “binding force between the physical and spiritual”) forms the Māori philosophical system of Mauri Ora.

Mauri connects life with life and is found in land, forests, waters, and the life they sustain, and complements human thoughts, intentions, and language. In regard to the concept of Mauri in the realm of ecosystems, traditionally Māori realized that shifts in Mauri of any part of the environment, for example through use, would cause changes in the Mauri of immediately related components. As a result, the whole system is eventually affected. The process used by Māori to guide resource use reflects this belief in the interrelationship of all parts of the environment.

The Māori principle of kaitakitanga (guardianship) enacts an ancestral environmental policy for the preservation of food resources specifically, the ethical principle of rāhui (restriction).

“ Rāhui is a restriction imposed on Māori land to prevent you from exhausting the food in that particular area. This is a principle I learnt when growing up with my grandparents. For example, pigeons were a common edible commodity back in those days. So if they wanted to look after that population of pigeons, for example, they could put a rahui in particular areas.” So you weren’t allowed to harvest any pigeons from that area, it was done with that purpose, rahui had that purpose.”

Food Sovereignty Farmers Adapting to climate change“Koha (reciprocity) is more than giving a gift, it encapsulates respect and respect regulates how we treat Papatūānuku (the land) sisters, brothers and all that comes from the land. I will give you an example, when mount Tarawera erupted, the people in Hauraki, Te Aroha, gifted some land for our ancestors to resettle on after the mountain erupted. A whole eight acres of it, down in Te Aroha, they just gifted that land to resettle the people who were affected by the eruption. But no one ever took it up. But the offer remained there, and I think it was only, I think our families from Te Arawa only gave it back, I think, sometime in the 1990s, late 1990s, when that land was handed back to the original owners who gifted it.

“See that’s where our understanding of reciprocity is about. See in this example they gave it out of the goodness of their heart. To help out people, so now that you don’t need it, you don’t keep it and do other things with it, you give it back. You give it back to the original owners.”

In Māori views, life is kept in balance by the principle of koha because from a Māori standpoint, reciprocal relationships and responsibilities between humans and ecosystems are imperative for the harmonious relationship between human beings and resource management ecosystems inherited and handed down through generations.

“When I go to harvest things, I talk to the plants before I cut them and I announce to them that I am going to sacrifice them. So even if people are growing food to sell, there still needs to be a process of respect in place. And you only take enough for you, and leave the rest – you are not greedy, and this is what I grew up with — hard tikanga (ethical principles) rules.”

The phrase ‘food is sacred’ for Indigenous peoples underscores the profound and respectful culture, land and resource relationships they have. For example, in the case of Māori people, the value of food is entrenched in traditional, healthy, and nutritious Māori kai (food) that symbolizes their history, culture, community, and knowledge base. Similarly, the value of food for Quechua people has an intangible value, because the notion of food holds cultural meaning — it represents the continuing presence of spiritual and cultural ancestors both human and nonhuman.

Agroecology and Indigenous farming principles

Agroecology is the study of agricultural systems from the point of view of ecological processes. It is very largely beholden to Indigenous peoples as those are the farmers who for millennia have sustained the health and vitality of their communities on the same land without exhaustion. That cannot be done without paying close attention to ecological processes.

But those insights need to be passed along to others, and successful practices need to become respected as traditions. In Indigenous societies many ways of “horizontal learning” and “diálogo de sabers” or wisdom dialogues have evolved in which participants jointly produce collective knowledge. Proponents of Food Sovereignty distinguish this approach to knowledge from that promoted in centers of industrial agriculture with their formal hierarchical learning institutions and systems of elite knowledge dispersal.

Our learning processes are horizontal and peer-to peer, based on popular education. They take place in our own training centers and territories (farmers teach farmers, fishers teach fishers, etc.), and are also intergenerational, with exchange of knowledge between youth and elders. Agroecology is developed through our own innovation, research, and crop and livestock selection and breeding. — International Forum on Agroecology (Nyéléni 2015)

Seed: the basis of Food Sovereignty

Farming started when local communities started collecting, planting and selecting seeds — modifying them to meet their needs in the process. Today’s seed also embodies centuries of knowledge about how to conserve, change, plant and guide it to fruitful expression. Seed is about culture, tradition, spirituality, cooperation and diversity. And finally, seed is about survival, about getting diverse and healthy food to eat every day.

But seed is also about control. Seeds have been turned into a global commodity in the service of industrial farming with little concern for local adaptation to the specific methods, ecosystems, and needs of family farms. We often hear that we need corporate seeds to feed the world: they are alleged to be more efficient, productive and predictable. Locally developed farmer varieties are painted as backwards, less productive and disease ridden. But in vast areas such as Africa as much as 80% of the food produced comes from homegrown farmers’ seeds.
Research in six African countries looks at farmer preference for their own traditional seed compared to modern “improved” varieties available from industrial corporations. Farmers across the six countries listed the many crops they produce and demonstrated their depth of knowledge of each: how seeds should be selected, saved and preserved, when they should be planted, and which varieties are best suited to different environmental conditions.

The reports confirmed that farmers still produce and save most of the seeds and other planting materials they need across the whole spectrum of their crops: grains such as maize, sorghum, rice, millet and teff; roots and tubers such as cassava and sweet potato; legumes such as beans, cow peas and groundnuts; and vegetables such as onions, tomatoes, okra, and lettuce. In some countries, diverse populations of root crops, plantains, bananas and enset (Ensete ventricosum, also known as false banana) are also maintained.

Saving and sharing seeds in Senegal

The exchange of local seeds is very prevalent here and accounts for 83% of the all the ways farmers obtain new seeds. But the family’s own local seed stock still provides 43% of staple rice producers and 40% of staple millet producers with their own seed for planting. A farmer trainer from Senegal speaks of their pride in local seeds and the history of these seeds within the country’s agricultural systems:
“Some farmers still keep local seeds that have been renewed for over 100 years! These farmers inherited the seeds from their grandparents. The seeds were produced in harmony with nature and they withstand the test of time.”

Good, tasty, healthy food

B&W Food Sovereignty a traditional granaryIndigenous and local seeds, managed by farmers, are preferred because they have high nutritional value compared to hybrid and other industrial seeds. Respondents from Senegal stated that the local seeds obtain the “best yields to meet family consumption needs.” In Zambia, farmers often plant hybrid seed for sale and plant indigenous seed for household consumption. A Zimbabwean farmer says: “African traditional seeds are nutritious and good for our bodies; they improve our health.” Respondents also argued that their own varieties taste better and store longer.

Communities in Tigray, Amhara and Oromia, Tebi regions in Ethiopia stated that they prefer local seeds because of their taste and how they cook. They observed that although so-called “improved” teff seed looks good, injera (fermented bread) made from this turns black after baking and is hard to digest. In contrast, the Bene local white teff is soft and the injera remains soft even after baking. All respondents concurred that: “injera made from local seeds like Aba-are (white sorghum) is sweet and soft compared to injera made from improved seeds. Local varieties such as Gedalit and Jamyo also yield good animal feed as compared with Kodem (the ‘improved’ sorghum variety).”

Nutrition and taste tie in closely with the health of communities in all countries. According to the respondents, farmers are becoming increasingly aware of how their health directly correlates with the foods they eat and the seeds they use. Different communities highlighted the importance of their locally managed seeds in addressing various health challenges. For example, locally grown seeds in Uganda and Mali yield food that can also be used for medicinal purposes. Communities in the Amuria and Hoima districts of Uganda say that millet and sesame play a critical role in replenishing the health and strength of new and lactating mothers.

Food is culture, and it is within the context of their culture and beliefs that communities recognize and define what food is to them. In some communities, local seeds are a motivator for sustaining social gatherings as well as social, cultural and community ceremonies and practices. In Ethiopia, farmers stated that certain practices within farmer-managed systems help farmers to maintain their production according “to ecological principles, which entail their sociocultural, spiritual/religious and economic life ways for many centuries. For smallholder farmers, seeds are shared elements. They have personality. Farmers respect them as sacred gifts from nature, so that their seeds cannot be held in custody/privatised or patented by individuals; rather, seeds belong to the entire community.”

Senegalese sowing rites

Farmers describe local seed in terms that show how it serves as a mobilizing force for all age and gender categories in the community. It is through the propitiatory rites that the social group expresses its communion for the advent of a favorable rainy season. An octogenarian in the village of Bounkiking explained how agricultural traditions are followed after the clearing of the fields: “There is, in the compound, a specific place reserved for women to pound the millet seeds for sowing. A girl carries the calabash containing the crushed seeds out to the field, remaining silent all the way. The head of the household deposits the calabash on the ground, and he alone is entitled to throw the first seed.”

It should be noted that the seeds are spiritually charged with incantations, holy water and plant powder that bring forth a lot of fruit. The first seed in the field is preferably sown at night: “Nocturnal sowing helps to realize the agricultural predictions,” says a farmer at Ngueye Ngueye.

In the Hal Pulaar ethnic group, the sowing of millet is undertaken on Saturdays, when the water level drops, linked to the nineteenth and twentieth days of the lunar cycle. The seeds are given to the wife, who purifies them with bovine urine before spreading them on a white loincloth. Pumpkin seeds are wrapped in cow dung before being sundried for sowing in water during a flood. They will germinate when the level of water drops.

Selection in Zimbabwe

“Seed diversity and its preservation lies largely in the hands of us women – from seed selection, to storage, to deciding which varieties to plant and how much, depending on the different weather forecasts. As women, we have expertly selected crops with a wide range of characteristics to meet various needs, from yield to disease resistance, from taste to post-harvest use, from ease of cooking to storage.” Ms. E Kaunda, Shashe, Zimbabwe

Seed selection can take place at different times and places, for example in the fields at harvest time, after the harvest before storage, and/or at sowing time. A large majority of respondents — in Zimbabwe, 95% — agreed that the best time to select basic grain crop seeds is during the harvest, when it is easy to spot the best plants from which to derive quality seed.

Seed selection skills are typically passed down from generation to generation, often from women seed savers to their daughters and granddaughters. A typical example is rapoko (finger millet) varieties that have been selected and reused for centuries in Zimbabwe.


Seeds of some crops will keep for years if carefully conserved in household stores or community seed banks. Other seeds are only kept until the next planting season. Seed storage and location is determined by the type of crop and the space available in the farmer’s home. Seeds can be stored in the kitchen or on the roof, while some farmers use their living rooms as the main storage space. Seeds collected for the benefit of the farmers’ group may be stored in a community facility.

Preserving seeds after harvest is a challenge for all farmers. Saved seeds are no exception and require special attention.

The respondents confirmed that they store their seeds more securely than other grains, protecting them against moisture, pests (insects and rodents) and diseases, so that they will germinate well and grow into healthy crops.

The Malian respondents listed several traditional local preservation methods centering around the use of local plant-based materials, including tomichina, wangaraboubel (Cassia nigricans), powder made from the leaves of Boscia senegalensis, ash or sand, leaves of kaniba, denbagnouma (a peanut variety), wouloudiologo, niokorodialani, pepper, neem leaves, djanadjarou, grape oil, prune tree ash, wild grape, and Balanites spp.

Farmers in Zimbabwe explained that they know which crop varieties and plants are not attacked by pests, and use those plants as additives to stored seeds that are susceptible to pest attack. Such “preservatives” include finger millet residues, eucalyptus leaves, mint leaves, and ash, especially from burnt maize cobs, “because the ash from the maize cob is bitter.”

Crops harvested in shells, such as ground nuts, round nuts and cowpeas, are often stored in the shell for better protection. “We just leave the Bambara nut unshelled to prevent pest attack, and shell when it’s time to plant.” In Uganda’s Amuria district, the dried bean pods are beaten in the bag containing them, then stored together with the husks.

Storage problems are also a contributory factor to the decision on whether to save or buy seeds. In Uganda, some farmers are now purchasing seeds from the market because they are unable to prevent pest and disease infestation until planting time. Farmers in Gulu district, for example, find that their beans and maize are easily ruined by weevils, while their groundnuts and sorghum have to be carefully protected against rats. Farmers may fear that their saved seeds will be destroyed before they can be planted, and ultimately decide to eat them instead. As well, when seeds are kept in the house, smallholders may be more tempted to eat them as food during times of scarcity.

Sharing Seed

“Traditional and farmer-saved seeds are not bought but exchanged among the farmers and thus are important in building stronger food sovereignty. Farmers without money can have seeds to grow and feed their families.” Zimbabwean farmer

Some Ugandan smallholders said that they borrow seeds from their neighbors or get free seeds from friends and relatives though seed exchange. The Uganda report revealed that some communities have designated seed custodians, people in the community whose job is to save seed; for instance, those who keep maize are called mawalampa. These seed keepers, often prominent farmers, will sell, exchange or share the seed with smallholders when the planting season arrives. Seeds are exchanged mostly within the local community, but they may also be exchanged with farmers from other districts, increasing the number of local varieties available. Some seeds are maintained by elderly people who specialize in growing a particular variety, but in such cases quantities are small and they may not be able to supply the whole village. The Uganda report also indicated that farmers feel very free to access seeds in their communities, with no laws hindering them from doing so.

Before the widespread introduction of hybrid seeds, it was always the practice that farmers exchanged seeds. This was more particularly the role of the women, who passed on the knowledge to their daughters or the young girls within their communities. Women selected seeds based on desired traits such as drought resistance, ease of preparation, nutritional value, and pest and disease resistance. Some seeds are specifically saved by men (e.g., for use in cultural rituals performed by men). One role played specifically by the children is to help with seed preparation; for example, they do much of the work of shelling groundnuts for keeping or planting; another is dropping the seeds of groundnuts, beans, maize, cassava, and other plants into the holes at planting time. They also help their parents with garden preparation, obtaining seed from relatives and neighbors, weeding the garden, carrying seeds, drying and packaging seeds, and chasing away birds while the plants are still in the garden and once they have been laid out to dry.

Laws and regulations that undermine farmers’ seed systems

At the international level, the World Trade Organization’s Trade-Related Agreement on Intellectual Property Rights (WTO/TRIPS), which most African countries are party to, states that members must implement some kind of intellectual property protection on plant varieties. This has been interpreted by industry as the requirement of states to join the Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), which protects the rights of industrial plant breeders and restricts farmers’ rights to freely use and exchange seeds. The USA and Europe have insisted on adherence to UPOV provisions in their bilateral trade and economic partnership agreements (FTAs/EPAs) with African states. Some FTAs even require industrial patenting of seeds. These tools help to gain market advantages for the donor states’ transnational corporations, ensuring they get a good return on their investment by obliging farmers to pay for seeds – including some farm-saved seeds.

A governance conflict: plant breeders’ or farmers’ rights?

All the governments of the countries included in this study are signing up to restrictive intellectual property rights and trade agreements which promote industrial seeds and commodities. Yet at the same time, they are also parties to international agreements designed to protect agricultural biodiversity and sustain the diversity of farmers’ seeds. Such agreements include the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which also recognizes Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ rights to resources and knowledge and has a target of zero losses of biodiversity by 2020, and the International Seed Treaty (ITPGRFA), which covers all agricultural plants and recognizes farmers’ rights – to their seeds and associated knowledge and to their right to participate in policy and decision making. These latter measures are overwhelmingly supported by African governments at treaty meetings, and the signatory governments are obligated to incorporate these agreements and any subsequent decisions of their governing bodies into domestic law. Many do so, but implementation does not necessarily follow, because resources and power are invested in other laws promoting the industrial seed system.

Fighting loss of land in Argentina

MOCASE stands for ‘Movimento Campesino de Santiago del Estero’ and is a farmers movement from the province of Santiago del Estero in Argentina. It was formed in 1990 to defend local farmers against the increasing aggression from large soybean farmers destroying their livelihoods. Asked about food sovereignty, they say:

“For MOCASE, food sovereignty is the right to produce and eat what we want. Our strategy is to strengthen our own production and consumption models based on self sufficiency, production of our own food that we produce in our gardens, and the cultivation of cotton and maize. We protect our own culture passed on from our ancestors, the animals, the chickens, the different types of goats, and the geese. Santiago del Estero is a region with low requirements, and the mountains are our only source for food.”

When farmers of MOCASE put themselves in between the bulldozers and their fields to stop large landowners from taking their land in order to plant soybean monocultures, they know that they are not only defending their livelihoods, but also that they are resisting a development model in which peasant farmers have no place whatsoever.

Fighting food imports and an industrial food system

In the words of Jose Bové, a peasant farmer leader from France:

“For the people in the South, food sovereignty means the right to protect themselves against imports. For us, it means fighting against export aid and against intensive farming. There is no contradiction there at all”.

Food sovereignty allows different movements that traditionally have been played out against each other to come together in their struggles. The peasants, the landless, the fisherfolk, the pastoralist, indigenous peoples…. are increasingly coming together and are developing a common understanding of common aims and actions. Food sovereignty has also come to the millions of city dwellers that are fighting for survival in the big cities. Production of food in family or community gardens not only brings wholesome food, that industrial agriculture is often unable to deliver, but also a level of dignity, cooperation and independence.

A simple food security approach does not support the interests of people who live from the land and who still farm their land with traditional and subsistence methods inherited from their ancestors such as Indigenous farmers, peasant, and rural communities. Clear examples of how the food security framework undermines the economic, cultural, and ecological systems of Indigenous peoples include the capitalist model of food production, widespread use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and state deregulations in favor of inexpensive food imports introduced throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.

The intensification and expansion across borders of the industrial model of agriculture favoring large-scale production and often oriented toward export markets is useful in understanding the stark inequalities and power differentials within the food security model.

The decline of Māori traditional agriculture practices in the North Island of the New Zealand was largely triggered by the spread of the capitalist ideology, whereby land was acquired for commercial products such as tobacco and kauri gum. The resulting dispossession of Māori from their land and the disintegration of cultural values tightly linked to the land have threatened traditional food production and wellbeing for the Māori.

North American Indigenous vs. European farm productivity in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

Iroquois maize farmers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries produced three to five times more grain per acre than wheat farmers in Europe. The higher productivity of Iroquois agriculture can be attributed to two factors. First, the absence of plows in the western hemisphere allowed Iroquois farmers to maintain high levels of soil organic matter, critical for grain yields. Second, maize has a higher yield potential than wheat because of its C4 photosynthetic pathway and lower protein content. Tillage alone, however, accounted for a significant portion of the yield advantage of the Iroquois farmers. When the Iroquois were removed from their territories at the end of the eighteenth century, US farmers occupied and plowed these lands. Within fifty years, maize yields in five counties of western New York dropped to less than thirty bushels per acre.

Food yields and nutrient analyses of the Three Sisters: a Haudenosaunee cropping system

Scholars have studied The Three Sisters, a traditional cropping system of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), from multiple perspectives. There has been no research examining food yields, however, defined as the quantities of energy and protein produced per unit land area, from the cropping system within Iroquoia. Now we have good estimates of food yields and other nutrient contributions from the Three Sisters, comprised of interplanted maize, bean and pumpkin. Results from field experiments in New York establish that the Three Sisters yields more energy (12.25 x 106 kcal/ha) and more protein (349 kg/ha) than any crop monoculture or mixture of monocultures that were planted to the same area. The Three Sisters supply 13.42 people/ha/yr. with energy and 15.86 people/ha/yr. with protein. Nutrient contents of the crops are further enhanced by nixtamalization, an Indigenous processing technique where maize is cooked in a high alkaline solution. This process increases calcium, protein quality, and niacin in maize.

A traditional open-pollinated white flour corn yielded from 22 to 76 bu/acre (1155 to 4127 kg/ha); the higher yields obtained in New York’s Lake Plain region with its fertile soils and long growing season. These yield estimates are further supported by eyewitness accounts that describe a highly productive agriculture practiced by Iroquoian farmers in the 16th through 18th centuries.

Introduction to Fungi

A forest full of fungi

Fungi structureAutumn is the best time for fungus lovers to walk through a native pinewood — you are surrounded with them. Not because there are more fungi, but because many of the fungi that are there all year round become more conspicuous, sending forth their familiar reproductive mushrooms and toadstools. Since they depend on moist conditions to feed and grow, autumn is an ideal time for reproduction. The familiar smell associated with autumn woodlands is all due to fungi working their way through the soil.

Perhaps because they are so hard to see, fungi have been largely overlooked in spite of their importance — without these strange and fascinating life forms, neither we, nor the inhabitants of our native forests, would survive for long.. About 69,000 species of fungi have been discovered worldwide, but it is thought that as many as 1.6 million actually exist. So in spite of the fact that fungi surround us, there could be many more to discover, even on your own doorstep.

Common questions about fungi

Q. Can I eat it?
A. Probably not. Of the 69,000 species of fungi about 250 species are considered good delicious edibles. Another 250 species can kill you– or at least make you wish you were dead. Everything else is something in between– from some that are “sort of ok tasting if there’s nothing else to eat and you’re starving in the woods” to some that are “just too bitter or taste too bad to eat,” or some that are too small or too tough to eat or that have something else wrong with them.

Q. I have lots of mushrooms on my property. What can I do with them?

A. Some people do not like mushrooms, and even want to get rid of them, but you will not hear that from anyone who knows about them. Most mushrooms are good for our soil, degrading waste products and returning them to the ground. Even more important are the mushrooms that are associated with trees as mycorrhizae. Without this mutualistic association most trees would not survive. Killing these fungi would kill the trees.

Q. How about the fungi growing in my bark mulch or wood chips? Are those important as well?
A. Most of these fungi are near impossible to get rid of without completely replacing the mulch and paving over the yard. Find a way to enjoy the fungi in your yard. Show them off to your friends or cultivate a fungus garden. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to show off something unusual in your yard?

Fungal Hyphae

Fungal HyphaeQ. Everywhere I go now I see mushrooms and other fungi. And I’ve been hearing a lot about fungi on the news. How can fungi be so prevalent in the environment?
A. Fungi are very successful organisms because of their genetic plasticity and physiological versatility. Many produce large numbers of spores that can be spread everywhere through the air. Fungi can degrade just about anything we humans can make, with the exception of some plastics and some pesticides. Fungi can penetrate even the toughest substrates with the exoenzymes produced by their hyphae. Exoenzymes are found in fungi and some bacteria. They are digestive enzymes that are secreted into the environment, where they digest the food into small molecules that can be absorbed and used by the fungus.

Q. I’ve heard about a large fungus growing underground in Michigan and a couple other large fungi in western states. Can you tell me more about this?
A. The fungi are all members of the genus Armillaria, which has become famous for its large clonal size. The original “humongus fungus” was a 37 acre underground mycelium of Armillaria gallica found in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and was reported on the front page of the New York Times and most other papers in this country in April 1992. The furor was intensified when a few weeks later some other researchers claimed they had a 1500 acre mycelium of Armillaria ostoyae in Washington State. In summer of 2000 another set of researchers claimed they had a larger fungus (2500 acres) in the Malheur National Forest in eastern Oregon.

Q. While splitting some wood in the evening, a friend of mine found some bioluminescent fungi (of course, at the time he did not know what it was). We live on Long Island, NY, and would like to know more about this fungi, also known as ’foxfire’.
A. Most foxfire is caused by Armillaria species. Sometimes called ’fairy fire’, foxfire is the bioluminescence created by some species of Armillaria fungi present in decaying wood. The bluish-green glow is attributed to luciferase, an oxidative enzyme, which emits light as it reacts with the compound luciferin until it is fully oxidized. It is widely believed that the light attracts insects to spread spores, or acts as a warning to hungry animals, like the bright colors exhibited by some poisonous or unpalatable animal species. Although generally very dim, in some cases foxfire is bright enough to read by.

Fungal physiology

As recently as the 1960s, fungi were considered plants. In fact, at that time all organisms were classified into only two groups or kingdoms: plants and animals. In fact, however, fungi are more closely related to animals. But they have since been awarded a well-deserved kingdom of their own.

Unlike plants, fungi do not contain the green pigment chlorophyll and therefore are incapable of photosynthesis. That is, they cannot generate their own food — carbohydrates — by using energy from light. This makes them more like animals in terms of their food habits. Fungi need to absorb nutrition from organic substances: compounds that contain carbon, like carbohydrates, fats, or proteins.

In 1969 a new five-kingdom system of biological classification was proposed. The proposed kingdom of fungi included a vast array of species, among them mushrooms, yeast, molds, slime molds, water molds, puffballs and mildews. Since then, the system of classification and the fungal kingdom have been further refined, with slime molds and water molds shuttled off to a different kingdom. Today, the members of the kingdom Fungi are also known as the “true fungi.”

Characteristics of ‘true fungi’

Generalizations can be difficult. Nevertheless, there are a few key aspects common to all members of the fungal kingdom.

Body StructureCells: Fungi are eukaryotes, just like plants and animals. This means they have a well-organized cell, characteristic of all eukaryotes. Their DNA is encapsulated in a central structure called the nucleus (some cells can have multiple nuclei). They also have specialized cellular machinery called organelles that execute various dedicated functions such as energy production and protein transport.

Fungal cells are encased in two layers: an inner cell membrane and an outer cell wall. These two layers have more in common with animals than plants. Like animal cell membranes, those of fungi are made of proteins and fatty molecules called lipids.

Fungi can be made up of a single cell as in the case of yeasts, or multiple cells, as in the case of mushrooms. The cell walls of fungi are made out of a tough substance called chitin (pronounced ‘kytin’). While chitin is similar to cellulose, which helps form the cell walls of plants, it is a different substance and is actually the same material that makes up the hard external skeletons of insects.

Structure: With the exception of yeasts, the smallest units of fungi are tiny threads known as hyphae (singular ‘hypha’). Many of these can only be seen with a microscope. Most often, the individual cells in hyphae sit right next to each other in a continuous line but they can sometimes be separated into compartments by a cross wall (septate hyphae). Several hyphae mesh together to form the mycelium, which constitutes the fungal body.

A mycelium can be miniscule: spreading though the body of a dead fly; or it can rank among the largest, heaviest and oldest living things on the planet. Such is the one in Oregon’s Blue Mountains, between 2,400 and 8,650 years old!

It is said that “the fungi are the kings of surface area,” meaning that hyphae expand their surface area in order to take in food, facilitate digestion and also to reproduce. Astonishingly, while hyphae can be tiny, there can be 100 metres of them in a gram of soil, and in a hectare (2.5 acres) of British woodland, there may be well over three and a half tonnes of fungi! If you pick up a handful of leaf litter in the forest, you are likely to expose the slightly furry looking network of fungal mycelia. While the individual threads are microscopic, there are so many of them, often clustered together, they can become visible to the naked eye.

Feeding habits: Whereas plants get their energy directly from the sun and atmosphere using photosynthesis, fungi get theirs by digesting living or dead organic matter, as animals do. Fungi obviously have no mouths or stomachs and instead they work their way through or over their food, absorbing nutrients directly through their cell walls. Nutrients with simple molecules, such as sugars, can be absorbed fairly readily. Larger, more complex molecules, such as proteins, are harder to tackle, and the fungi must then make use of various enzymes so that they are easier to absorb.

fungal life cycle with reproductionThey find their food, dump their enzymes out onto the food, and digestion takes place outside their body. These specialized digestive enzymes are known as exoenzymes, and are secreted from the tips of growing hyphae onto their surroundings. These enzymes are the primary reason why fungi are able to thrive in diverse environments from woody surfaces to insides of our body.

As a result of exoenzyme activity, large food molecules are broken down into smaller ones, which are brought into the hyphae. Cellular respiration then takes place inside fungal cells. That is to say, organic molecules such as carbohydrates and fatty acids are broken down to generate energy in the form of ATP.

Fungi have multiple sources of food. Fungi that feed on dead organisms — and help in decomposition — are called saprophytes. If a fungus derives sustenance from a live host without harming it, then it is called a symbiont or a mutualist. Lichens — fungi and algae together — are an example of a mutualistic relationship. If a fungus feeds on a live host while harming it, then it is a parasite.

Reproduction: Reproduction is a complex business for fungi. The various fungi are capable of reproducing asexually or sexually. Both processes can generate spores which, when released into a suitable environment, can give rise to a new fungal body.

Asexual reproduction occurs through mitosis, when a fungal cell divides and produces identical genetic copies of itself. In simpler, single-celled fungi like yeast, this process is known as budding. In this case, a small offshoot or bud emerges from the parent cell, slowly growing in size. The nucleus divides into two and the bud splits off once it is the same size as the parent cell. Multicellular fungi such as molds also reproduce through the formation of asexual spores. Many fungi can reproduce sexually and asexually. Under certain conditions they can send up a fruiting body without interacting with another fungus. This is asexual reproduction and has the advantage that it can happen quickly, to make the best of a small window of good conditions. The fruiting body will release millions of its microscopic spores, a tiny proportion of which will germinate.

Sexual reproduction enables the next generation to benefit from the genetic material of both parents, allowing it to develop new adaptations. The duration and timing of certain steps of sexual reproduction vary quite a bit between fungal species. In general, sexual reproduction in fungi produces spores through meio-sis. Hyphae from two different fungi of the same species intertwine and then send up a fruiting body or mushroom, again releasing spores, but containing genes from both parents. As a result, these spores contain half the number of parental chromosomes. Once released, the spores germinate into tree-like mycelia and are ready to “mate.” In the case of mushrooms, puffballs and toadstools, the branched mycelium (also called primary mycelium) is divided into segments containing a single nucleus. Mating takes place when two primary mycelia come into contact with one another and form a secondary mycelium. Each segment of the secondary mycelium has two nuclei: one from each original segment. The individual nuclei still have half the number of chromosomes as the parent cell. In the course of several steps nuclei fuse, giving rise to cells with the original number of chromosomes.

The fruiting body is actually made up of a collection of the same hyphae that form the mycelium, just more densely-packed. Mushrooms have a seemingly miraculous ability to appear over night as they use hydraulics to ‘inflate’ the hyphae with fluid so that they grow rapidly, and can push their way up through some surprisingly hard surfaces. Inkcaps, for example can even push their way up through tarmac! Mushrooms and toadstools, as well as bracket fungi, can protect their spores from the elements with their waterproof caps.

Whether sexual or asexual, the result of fungal reproduction is that innumerable spores are released into the air. Some species can release tens of millions of spores in a single hour. Spores from the mushroom are then carried on the breeze, often many miles from their source.

Other kinds of dispersal are also found: puffballs eject a puff of spores when a drop of rain hits the surface of their fruiting bodies, while the stinkhorn smells of rotting flesh, attracting flies which unwittingly disperse the spores on their feet.


mycorrhizae on rootEspecially intriguing are the mycorrhizal fungi. Mycorrhizal relationships are fascinating partnerships that take place when the hyphae of certain fungi wrap around, or penetrate the roots of a plant, whereupon a mutually beneficial exchange takes place. The fungus, which cannot obtain energy directly from the sun itself (as it lacks the chlorophyll found in plants), is able to obtain sugars that the plant produces using photosynthesis. In return the fungus provides the plant with vital nutrients that it extracts and transports from the soil, and that would otherwise be unavailable to the plant. Surprisingly, most of plants in virtually all of the world’s terrestrial ecosystems rely on these relationships for their healthy growth. It gives some perspective on the importance of fungi when we consider that without them the world’s forest ecosystems would collapse. Among the mycorrhizal fungi in native pinewoods are species such as the chanterelle and various Boletus species, as well as the familiar red-with-white-spots fly agaric, that grows in mycorrhizal association with birch trees.

Ants are known to live symbiotically with fungi, particularly in the tropics, with leafcutter ants farming fungi for their own consumption. Recent observations in Glen Affric suggest that wood ants possibly have similar interactions with fungi, and further investigations are required to reveal the nature of this relationship.


Fungi that feed on living things are parasites. Some parasitic fungi simply weaken their hosts, while others kill them. Examples include the aspen bracket fungus, and honey fungus, with its thick, black, bootlace-like rhizomorphs, which are effectively giant hyphae. Many of these kinds of fungi dwell within their hosts for some time before attacking and killing them.

This in itself creates superb deadwood habitat for a host of other species, from beetles and flies (the larvae of many species feed on dead wood) to crested tits and ospreys, which nest in dead trees. When a tree is killed, it also provides an opening for young trees and other plants to grow, thus enriching the structural diversity of the forest.


fungus catches nematodeWithout fungi, the forest would pile up with layer upon layer of needles, leaves and other dead matter. The fungi that feed on dead organic matter are called saprophytes. The key role of these forest recyclers is to break down dead matter and return the nutrients to the soil to become available to plants once again. Leaf litter, dead animals, dead wood – in fact, anything that dies in the forest will be colonized by fungi (along with other decomposers) and eventually reduced to soil.

The role of fungi in breaking down dead wood is especially crucial. Lignin is the substance that makes wood stiff, and it is so tough that animals cannot digest it. However, certain fungi are able to biodegrade this substance using particular enzymes, thus allowing the vast amounts of dead wood in a natural forest to be broken down.

A forest feast

The fruiting bodies of fungi provide an abundance of food for the wildlife of the forest. Squirrels store fungi in the tops of trees to eat through the winter. Voles and other rodents also gnaw on this welcome feast: their teeth marks, and the marks of the rasping mouthparts of slugs, can often be seen on the caps of mushrooms.

Fungi can be filled with life. As any fungal forager will tell you, if you pick a fungus that’s past its best, the chances are it will soon be riddled with maggots. These are the larvae of various fungal gnats and other insects. Bracket fungi such as the hoof fungus are a haven for insects and can support a mini-ecosystem in their own right. A study of the hoof fungus in Swedish forests revealed 27 insect species that live within the brackets, including various fungivorous beetles and moths.

A Partial History of Early NOFA and Our Alliances

photo courtesy Samuel Kaymen The founding meeting of NOFA, held on June 7, 1971 in Westminster, VT, was organized by Samuel Kaymen. He proposed that the organization would teach 9 principles.

by Jack Kittredge based on work and contributions by Grace Gershuny, Liz Henderson, oral histories of various early NOFA leaders compiled by Robert S. Cox at the University of Massachusetts, and personal Emails and records.


NOFA has left a dappled history, as have many small and modest organizations. Some individuals, often the ones who speak or write, leave something of a trace. Some activities, again tending to be the ones written about in minutes or newsletters or personal diaries, leave a record. Most people’s memories, however — the excitement, the discoveries, the relationships, the songs and laughter – are too ephemeral and subjective to live on their own.

So this will be an attempt to acquaint our newer members with the beginnings of NOFA, and the alliances that helped it get started and grow. You will learn of a few individuals, put together a rough timeline, and hear of some of those early, wishful efforts to live untarnished. But it will be inherently flawed and leave out many important people and events. We still need our Herodotus.

NOFA, along with a dozen other organic farming groups, grew out of the unrest among 1960s American youth. Idealistic movements for racial equality, peace and economic justice had encountered strong opposition, with some faltering and turning upon themselves. An unpopular war was proving unwinnable, but our national leaders kept sending new recruits into its maw. Young people, striving to retain their ideals in a society they saw as reeking with cynicism and greed, sought ways to support themselves without compromising.

For some, the idea of a rural life, raising food in harmony with the earth, was very attractive. The beginnings of an environmental movement, writings on ‘The Good Life’ by the Nearings, Rachel Carson’s dire warning in ‘Silent Spring’, even the hip advice to ‘drop out’ all encouraged that direction for these decidedly urban and suburban young people — who had no experience of the realities of farming.

Some early NOFA leaders are still active, and others have left strong memories. I mention a few here just to give new readers a sampling of the kind of people who formed the association.


Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Samuel Kaymen was exposed to all the movements and motivations of the 1960s. Feeling that his life was spiritually undernourished, in 1964 he and his wife Louisa dropped out of the dominant mainstream society. After six years searching they found themselves in rural Unity, New Hampshire, and started their first self-sufficient garden.

With no previous experience in agriculture, Kaymen learned all he could from outdated library books, eventually stumbling across Edward Hyams’ Soil and Civilization. Hyams argued that when a civilization loses is its topsoil it begins its decline, The fall of all the great civilizations of the past could be linked to agricultural collapse. Kaymen was shocked. “I didn’t know that agriculture was important,” he wrote, “I thought that food was assembled in the backs of grocery stores!”

But with his surprise came inspiration. For the next dozen years Kaymen worked to build a self-help organization of like-minded growers who would farm in an organic, natural, and sustainable way. He organized the founding meeting of NOFA in 1971 in Westminster, VT, got a truck and sold local organic produce to day care centers in Harlem, secured a railroad car load of rock phosphate for distribution among members, put together the first NOFA Summer Conference 1975 in Wilton, NH and brought in Wendell Berry to address the 350 attendees, started a farm there at High Mowing School, developed a yogurt business in the garage to support the dairy, and founded Stonyfield Farm Yogurt.

One of the growers attracted to Kaymen’s vision and energy was Robert Houriet. Previously a journalist and political activist, he had written a book called Getting Back Together about the country commune movement and with his wife Mary had founded such a commune in Vermont called Frog Run Farm. Becoming a major actor in NOFA, Houriet gradually came to feel that the trucking operation was consuming too much energy and centralizing the group too much for his anarchist leanings. Instead he proposed that NOFA work on a grassroots level — using farmer’s markets as a means of organizing cooperatives — to make the association into a federation of local cooperatives.

Both the Vermont Northern Growers Cooperative in East Hardwick and Deep Root Cooperative in Northwestern Massachusetts and Southern Vermont were successful NOFA spin-offs resulting from this effort, growing root crops, largely carrots, with common processing, storage, and marketing. But one developing problem that bothered Robert was that the most successful farmers tended more and more to abandon the coops in order to sell directly to wholesalers — who had become interested in local farm produce — and began competing with each other. Houriet’s efforts, however, resulted in NOFA growth in Vermont (it had previously been strongest in New Hampshire because of Kaymen’s influence).

Born in New York City in 1950, the early life of Grace Gershuny took place away from the agricultural epicenter of northern Vermont, where she lives today. Attending Queens College of the City University of New York, she earned a BA in Mass Communications. But by 1973 she, too, was a market gardener in Vermont. In the mid 70s she was recruited by Houriet to set up a farmer’s market in Newport. That led to volunteer work organizing an early organic certification program and becoming Vermont NOFA State Coordinator in 1979.
Once the Organic Food Production Act was passed in 1990 the USDA offered Grace a job helping with the drafting of regulations for the National Organic Program. She accepted and became immersed in the world of federal regulatory law for several years. Gershuny went through the trauma of rolling out the initial NOP regulations in 1998 — which were very poorly received — and once the USDA decided to withdraw them helped draft the new regs that went into effect in 2002.

Al Johnson came to his interest in farming after getting ill in second grade and changing to a healthier diet. He graduated in environmental education at Boston University and after a stint in the Peace Corps (Solomon Islands) found NOFA in Vermont, taking a job under Gershuny setting up educational on-farm workshops and the first winter conference in 1980. He also was an early certification inspector when NOFA was running the program, before the NOP. Al eventually settled in New Jersey, helping start the NOFA chapter there and serving on the board for many years.

A pioneer in organic agriculture in New England, Bill Duesing graduated from Yale University in 1964 and worked as a Cooperative Extension agent before turning to organic principles in the early 1970s. In 1971 he found land near Oxford, CT and started attending early organic farming meetings in Vermont, including the first NOFA Summer Conference at High Mowing (1975) in Wilton, NH. He has said that in the 70s the conventional establishment was not helping those who wished to grow organically and they had to start NOFA as a self-help group.

Duesing was also interested in the antinuclear movement and in promoting solar energy. In fact, Connecticut NOFA started as an outgrowth of his work as an extension agent promoting solar energy and energy saving. In 1990 an organic landscape workshop at the summer conference got a number of landscapers interested in learning organic approaches as alternatives to the use of pesticides. Eventually this resulted in the Organic Land Care Program, which developed standards for accreditation and then a five-day training course in 2001. This program was hosted at the CT NOFA chapter, of which Bill was executive director.

Another early member who came to NOFA through the back-to-the-land movement in 1970 was New York’s Steve Gilman. A market gardener seeking to make his living from the land without chemicals because of their impact on food and the environment, he avidly sought information from whatever sources were available: Rodale, the Nearings, Cooperative Extension, and focused on building farmers markets. By 1976 he had what he would call a farm and had linked up with NOFA figures such as Kaymen and Houriet, and would later be helpful in building the NY NOFA chapter.

A farmer, activist, and writer, Elizabeth Henderson has played a strong role in NOFA since the 1970s. Although a city kid, she discovered rural America as a teenager at summer work camps and loved the experience. After completing a doctorate at Yale on the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky in 1974, she took a job at Boston University as a professor of Russian literature and culture. The sudden death of her husband in an auto accident, however, plus her distaste for academic hierarchy, changed her career plans. In 1979 she and a group of friends purchased 65 acres in Gill, Massachusetts, built a house, barn and greenhouse there, and began cultivating the land.

She formed an organic certification committee for local farmers and helped organize a Massachusetts chapter of NOFA in 1982, of which she was the first president. In 1988, however, she moved to New York and began farming first on Rose Valley Farm and later on Peacework Organic Farm. In both cases she established CSAs, a marketing innovation which had been successfully tried earlier in Germany and Japan. Henderson has served actively in NOFA-NY on the board, on the Interstate Council, and as a founder and NOFA emissary to fraternal groups such as the Agricultural Justice Project.

Activities and Allies

The earliest activities of NOFA were those necessary to help the members survive as farmers.
Perhaps their most fundamental need was learning about how to practice this new and strange trade. Coming largely from an academic background, members were used to seeking information from established authorities such as governments and universities. But these were the very institutions that were peddling chemical agriculture – what NOFA members wanted to avoid!

Practical Self-Education
What to do? They had to educate themselves. Thus the search into older writers such as Hyams and the Nearings, the formation of, first, informal study groups, then on-farm workshops and, later, major activities like an annual summer conference and schools like High Mowing, and the establishment of publications such as The Natural Farmer.

Older traditions of thought were helpful in this process. Biodynamic (BD) farming offered many similarities to the organic approach, and NOFA members sought out allies among BD farmers from whom to learn. Early NOFA meetings were often on such farms, such as at Wilton, and the early summer conferences were co-sponsored by the BD Association. Permaculture was also highly regarded, with Tasmanian ecologist and Permaculture originator Bill Mollison occasionally showing up at Wilton to give workshops, along with McGill University soil ecologist Stuart Hill.

But NOFA also sought out information from practitioners of cutting edge thinking experimenting with new materials, varieties, and technologies. The work on greenhouse growing, aquaculture and alternative energy that had recently taken place at the nearby New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod, particularly, was read and studied by many early NOFA farmers. Co-founders John and Nancy Jack Todd were among the Wilton guests who gave occasional workshops.

Anarchist theories shaped some early organizational efforts in NOFA. Just as in the recent “occupy” movement, officials and hierarchical structures were suspect as standing in the way of true democracy. Decentralization was a goal. Anarchist Murray Bookchin was a popular early speaker at NOFA events and both Robert Houriet and Grace Gershuny mention being influenced by his talks and writings.

In flyers and posters announcing the 1971 foundational meeting of NOFA, Samuel Kaymen had listed 9 skills that the organization would teach. They included such topics as proper composting, seeding, weeding and other aspects of farm production. Conspicuously missing from the list, however, was marketing.

“This shows how naive I really was,” Kaymen later said (1998).

Without marketing, of course, even the best farming techniques would not bring early NOFA growers the farm viability that eluded so many of them. So the organization set up trucking operations to get produce to markets like New York, organized farmers markets to sell product locally, made close connections with the newly burgeoning food coops, helped larger growers ally with others to establish farmer coops which could collect, clean and package crops to meet the requirements of wholesalers, and tried to educate members about minimal crop quality standards.

As Grace Gershuny remembers it in her book Organic Revolutionary:

“Early NOFA organizers aimed to distribute produce from organic farmers in Vermont and New Hampshire to activists and food coops in northeastern cities. This entailed costly and time-consuming truck routes to pick up a case of broccoli here and some carrots there, and barely paid the cost of delivery for products of very questionable quality—when payment was even involved. Jake Guest, one of the earliest growers, then based at Wooden Shoe Farm in New Hampshire, tells a story about a load of Chinese cabbage bound for Chinatown in New York City that ends [with the proposed buyer shouting]:, “that not cabbage, that garbage!” It didn’t take too long or too many truck breakdowns to convince the guys (and it was primarily guys at that time) that this was not exactly sustainable.

“Despite the prevailing distrust of the profit motive, the more serious growers quickly learned that you can’t make a living growing vegetables— you have to sell them. A change of strategy was clearly called for, and the group quickly adopted a new mission of “local food for local markets.” The focus would now be on revitalizing agriculture and helping the predominantly dairy farmers in our region diversify by initiating farmers markets and wholesale grower cooperatives. Quite a bit of research and analysis went into discussions about the feasibility of eating more locally and seasonally, along with despair over the lack of infrastructure for accomplishing that goal.

“The resurgence of farmers markets in the 70s and 80s is one of the success stories of the early alternative agriculture movement. Farmers markets were at first viewed with suspicion by conservative local merchants, who feared that they would take business away from established grocery stores. “We don’t want that kind of people hanging around in public areas,” was the response I got in 1975 when I set out to organize a farmers market in Newport, Vermont, about twelve miles from our home. We contented ourselves with a less central location in the neighboring hamlet of Derby, with support from a sympathetic merchant. For two or three years we had only a handful of vendors, including crafts and baked goods. I was the largest produce grower, generating almost $400 from my half-acre garden in my best season—enough to pay the taxes, anyway.”


NOFA-VT board 1985

photo courtesy Grace Gershuny in “Organic Revolutionary”
NOFA-VT Board-staff meeting, Hardwick, VT, 1985: (l-r) Miranda Smith, Jack Cook, Meredith Leonard, Robert Houriet, Joey Klein, Amy Darly, Stewart Hoyt, Grace Gershuny

Although education and marketing assistance were early needs of member farmers, perhaps the most iconic effort of NOFA was to propose and agree upon standards to enshrine organic practices and differentiate them from those of conventional farming, and then to create a mechanism for local groups to verify which farms were in compliance with those standards and grant those farms a certificate that their owners could use to demonstrate to customers that the farm’s claim to be organic was in fact based on more than self promotion. By 1977 organic certification was a focus of NOFA in Vermont and New Hampshire both. As new chapters came into being in New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut in the early 1980s, certification was one of the first programs they undertook.

The same general phenomenon was happening with young people ‘returning to the land’ and setting up organic standards and certification elsewhere around the country, of course. A 1980 National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) survey found 17 organic certification programs in as many states, including a couple by distributors and manufacturers for their farmer vendors. Three states, California, Oregon and Maine, actually had organic labeling laws on the books. All these programs had a consistent set of basic organic principles since they all took the IFOAM Basic Standards as their starting point, but they exhibited a range of acceptable practices and divergent verification procedures.

The usual certification mechanism was a list of standards that had been agreed upon by a farmer-led committee and approved by the overall organization, an application procedure for farms (including basic information such as a map, field histories, and soil test results), an inspector (usually an experienced farmer) who would make a farm visit, walking the fields and talking with the farmer while poking his or her nose into barns, sheds, greenhouses and equipment, an application fee to cover the expenses of the inspection, an administrator to keep the whole process on schedule, and a committee (sometimes the standards committee, sometime a different one) to evaluate the application information and inspector’s report and make a final decision on whether an annual certificate for a specific farm would be issued.

The committees were voluntary, as were the administrators at first (increasingly they required compensation). The inspectors usually had to be paid for their time and travel. There was a constant comparison of standards between the different certification programs — which were inherent allies in needing to keep standards, paperwork and fees reasonable to farmers while assuring consumers that the label meant something.

At first only a trickle of growers sought certification. They were selling their products locally, to people who either were not concerned about their growing methods or were happy to buy direct from a producer they trusted. Occasional stories of fraudulent organic claims were not enough of a motivation to most farmers to go to the expense and hassle of certification. As the organic market grew, however, and particularly as stores and distributors became important players, third-party verification increasingly was required to make a sale.

Organic Goes Federal
Certainly the most intense period of activity involving NOFA in alliances was the period of 1989 and 1990 during which the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) was drafted and presented to Congress.

In early 1989 the CBS news program ’60 Minutes’ ran a segment produced by the National Resources Defense Council on Alar, a ripening agent applied to apples that had been found to be carcinogenic. The public response was immediate anger, with apple sales nose-diving and parents dumping jars of juice down the drain. This storm of public concern fit perfectly with the growing consumer demand for organic food and encouraged Senator Patrick Leahy in his effort to give “organic” a legal federal definition and create a USDA label for such food.

Organic farming groups, needing to confer on this pending development, organized an unusual national meeting in Leavenworth, Kansas in December of 1989. The Organic Food Production Association of North America (OFPANA), organized in 1985, helped get representatives from across the country to come and many, who had been reading about each other for years in newsletters, met for the first time. Kathleen Merrigan, the Leahy staffer charged with drafting the law, had sent out early versions of the legislation. She came, answered questions, and listened to farmer concerns, changing some aspects of the law on the spot.

The groups meeting formed a fledgling Organic Farmers Associations Council (OFAC) with Tom Forster, who had worked on the Oregon Tilth organic program and with Gene Kahn at his Cascadian Farm in Washington State, as sole staffer.

Grace Gershuny describes what happened next:

1989 NOSF Network

photo courtesy Grace Gershuny in “Organic Revolutionary”
Northeast Organic & Sustainable Farmers Newtork Team — a seven-state project funded by LISA (precursor to SARE), 1989-1990.
Front (l-r) Ed McGlew, Margaret Christie, Enid Wonnacott, Miranda Smith Rear (l-r) Grace Gershuny, Vern Grubinnger, Judy Green, Karen Idoine

“An unprecedented scenario unfolded in Congress in the spring of 1990. The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) was introduced as one of many titles included in the omnibus legislation known as the Farm Bill, which was moving through Congress that year with little fanfare. Introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy, Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, it won easy passage there, but the House version, introduced by Representative Peter DeFazio of Oregon, faced undisguised hostility in that chamber…

A lobbying campaign brought organic farmers and a host of allies to Washington to meet with their Representatives, who were also bombarded with letters and phone calls from members of the Organic Foods Act Working Group (OFAWG), an informal coalition consisting of OFAC’s thirty-five member organic producer groups plus 25 environmental and consumer public interest groups. The higher-rolling organic business community, organized as the Organic Foods Alliance, also played a role in the lobbying effort. As a result, the OFPA was introduced on the floor of the House where it narrowly passed, and President Bush (the first) signed it into law—an event that has been called “a legislative miracle.” For the first time since the Reagan administration banished it ten years earlier, the “O” word was now grudgingly accorded official credibility.”

As Gershuny so vividly relates, the ability of the farming and the consumer halves of the good food movement to form an alliance was crucial in getting the OFPA passed. (When those two parts of that movement were on opposite sides, as occurred in 2010 during consideration of the Food Safety and Modernization Act, what passed Congress satisfied neither side.)

Of course, the movement was at that point more a vision than a reality, comprising a tiny portion of national food industry dollars. It was simply not on the screens of the major food companies, enabling us to work below their radar and pass mechanisms that seemed to guarantee strong and independent organic standards. It has taken them almost 30 years to roll back those guarantees.

New Alliances?

During those 30 years, however, organic farmers have also been at work — building a supply of quality food, informing consumers about what to look for, and educating themselves about better and better practices. NOFA has been in the forefront of farmer groups doing this work, widening the circle of support for a good food movement.

2010 NOFA IC Retreat

2010 Interstate NOFA Council Retreat
Seated (l-r) Ben Grosscup, David Pontius,Julie Rawson, Steve Gilman, Jack Kittredge
Standing (l-r) Bill Duesing, Kate Mendenhall, Enid Wonnacott, Bettylou Sandy,
Marion Griswold, Leslie Cox, David Glenn, Jack Mastrianni

Many potential allies now present themselves to help us build toward our original vision of living meaningful lives in harmony with the earth. There are of course the consumers, still worried about toxins, carcinogens and other poison and contaminants we put into our food. And there are the environmentalists, concerned about soil, water, air and biodiversity – all things that the industrial food system seems to believe are expendable. We have long counted these folks as our friends, most of the time, for a long time.

But the continuing failures of modern corporate agriculture have awakened new allies to whom we need to reach out. Alternative energy proponents have become far more conscious of the role of factory farming in increasing demand for fossil fuels, from use synthesizing fertilizers or petrochemicals to fueling food production, processing and distribution. Smaller farms using fewer chemicals and selling locally can make a big dent in the fossil fuel picture. Decentralized, local food production and marketing also are attractive to those concerned for the values of animal welfare and social justice.

Interest in alternative health has skyrocketed over the last generation. Cancer and degenerative diseases of all kinds are growing at epidemic rates. More people now understand that “Let food be thy medicine” is not only good advice but is crucial to our survival. And they know the food being discussed is not processed, fumigated, irradiated, and adulterated. It is food grown simply in healthy soil by traditional methods. And guess who is growing that?

Perhaps most encouraging of all these new forces is the expanding scientific understanding about soil carbon’s ability to act as a sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide. It can mitigate climate stresses for a period, giving us a respite to gain control of emissions and bring them to sustainable levels. Farmers are better prepared to sequester carbon than anyone else on the planet.

We have the keys to solving many modern problems in our hands, which might surprise (and would certainly please) our early NOFA predecessors. Maybe they weren’t so naïve after all!

Introduction to Urban Agriculture

compiled by Jack Kittredge from writings by Tom Philpott in Grist, Dr. Caroline Goodson, Jane Jacobs, the Guardian, Brette Jackson, Tammy LaGorce and Winnie Hu in the New York Times, and others

A reconstruction of ninth-century gardens in the Forum of Caesar, Rome. On the right are rows of vegetables, on the left and center are grapevines, vegetables and fruit trees.

Urban agriculture, according to most definitions, is the practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing food in or around a village, town, or city. That locational aspect is crucial to distinguishing urban agriculture from generic agriculture, which most people associate with taking place in rural areas. Urban agriculture projects include: community gardens established on vacant land that’s cultivated and maintained within an urban neighborhood; school gardens cultivated and maintained on school grounds, and factor into the curriculum; entrepreneurial gardens that grow produce and flowers for profit; backyard gardens, windowsill gardens, and rooftop gardens that provide vegetables, herbs, and flowers to individuals and/or small families.

Prehistoric Origins

But the rural association with farming has not always been the case argues Jane Jacobs in her classic 1970 book “The Economy of Cities”. In work more recently confirmed by scholars such as Danish economist Ester Boserup, Jacobs says that the prehistoric importance to human survival of trade meant densely populated sites focused on exchange formed even earlier than agriculture was adopted. Materials like obsidian for making tools for hunting were involved in a robust economy that only later included items like edible seeds and young animals – the keys to domestication and agriculture.

When organized agriculture began to flourish, these ‘exchange sites’ grew dramatically, both in population and complexity. Eventually some agricultural work migrated to land surrounding these emerging cities but much agricultural work remained within cities over the millennia.

In what is now modern Mexico and Central America, for instance, the precursors to the Aztec Empire were supported by urban garden plots as early as the 14th century BC.

In medieval Italy the real marker of political power was control of food resources. According to Dr. Caroline Goodson at the University of Cambridge, more than military force, legislative authority, or religious ceremony, the ability to secure food supplies meant wealth, social status, and legitimacy. Much productive land was actually urban and these lands were highly valuable and carefully controlled. Households farmed lands within city-walls and there is little evidence for commercial food markets of rural produce. Charters documenting property transfers of urban cultivated land — including domestic vegetable patches, independent fields within the city-walls, and orchards and vineyards between houses — appear in documents of the late sixth century, rising in frequency up to the late eleventh or twelfth centuries, when population pressures meant that most farming moved outside the city.

Kitchen gardens and fruit tree groves were sited within walled cities in Europe during the Middle Ages. Such areas were often established by monasteries to help feed the monks living within. Produce was also sold in local markets to supplement the monasteries’ incomes.  The plants and herbs they cultivated served both as food and medicine to their cities’ populations.

Cities Spawned CAFOs and Hothouses

Swill Milk

Coming into modern times, in 19th-century New York City dairy farming proliferated. According to the University of California at Santa Cruz sociologist and food-studies scholar E. Melanie Dupuis:

“By the mid-19th century, “swill” milk stables attached to the numerous in-city breweries and distilleries provided [New York City] with most of its milk. There, cows ate the brewers’ grain mush that remained after distillation and fermentation … As many as two thousand cows were located in one stable. According to one contemporary account, the visitor to one of these barns “will nose the dairy a mile off … Inside, he will see numerous low, flat pens, in which more than 500 milch cows owned by different persons are closely huddled together amid confined air and the stench of their own excrements.”

Here we find evidence that today’s concentrated-animal feedlot operation originated in cities.

Of course cities didn’t just innovate techniques that would later become associated with large-scale, chemical-dependent agriculture, they also incubated sustainable ones. The so-called “French-intensive” method of growing vegetables — in which large amounts of compost are added annually to densely planted raised beds — is one of the most productive and sustainable forms of organic agriculture used today. And guess what? It developed not in the countryside, but rather within the crowded arrondissements of 19th century Paris.


The French-intensive method hinges on a principle identified by Jane Jacobs, one that modern-day city residents (and planners) should take to heart: that cities are fantastic reservoirs of waste resources waiting to be “mined.” Like all cities of its time, 19th-century Paris bristled with horses, the main transportation vehicle of the age. And where there are lots of horses, there are vast piles of horse manure. The city’s market gardeners turned that fetid problem into a precious resource by composting it for food production and using it in beds and under large glass “clotches” to heat and fertilize vegetables. This recycling of the “transportation wastes” of the day was so successful and so extensive that the soil increased in fertility from year to year despite the high level of production. Paris’s market gardeners supplied the entire metropolis with vegetables for most of the year — and even had excess to export to England.

At the same time, in this country, farmers from all over the midwest would haul their hogs and cows to Chicago’s vast slaughterhouses, where they would be fed in pens while awaiting their fate. Operating for over a century, starting in the mid-1800s and not closing for good until 1971, this vast meatpacking enterprise at its height dominated the city. More meat was packed each day here than anywhere else in the world. According to the Chicago Historical Society, by 1900 the stockyards “employed more than 25,000 people and produced 82 percent of the meat consumed in the United States.” Started and owned by a group of railroad companies, the yards were where well-known meat-packing giants like Armour and Swift got their start.

Vacant Lot Gardens

1896 the Detroit Plan among the potatotes

The first community gardens in the United States were vacant lot gardens started during the economic recession of the 1890s. Detroit was the first city in the United States to create an extensive municipally sponsored urban gardening program using vacant lots in the city. Mayor Hazen Pingree started the program in response to the economic recession that began in 1893, which left many of the city’s industrial laborers, particularly recent Polish and German immigrants, unemployed and hungry.

Pingree developed a program to substitute labor for charity. He arranged for landowners to lend their properties to the local government, which were utilized by 945 families as gardens for produce—primarily, potatoes. The City invested $3,000 in “Pingree’s Potato Patches,” and showed a $12,000 profit a year later. Gardening became compulsory for those receiving government assistance. Soon cities such as Boston, Chicago, and New York subsidized similar gardening programs.

In 1891, Boston inaugurated the nation’s first school gardening program. Children were taught agrarian skills for work deemed less draconian than earning wages in factories. Incorporating gardening in the curriculum was believed to instill a strong work ethic, and teach “appropriate social behavior to immigrants, delinquents, and the infirm”.

Women work in a World War I garden, 1918

At the start of World War I, Europe was in the midst of catastrophic food shortages and the need for food became the primary motivation for cultivating community gardens. Once the U.S. entered the war large tracts of land were prioritized for food to be exported overseas. To supplement food domestically Herbert Hoover, Director of the U.S. Food Administration, established a national gardening campaign. Americans enthusiastically plowed backyards, vacant lots, and municipal land. Slogans such as “Sow the Seeds of Victory,” rallied 5 million gardeners to produce an unprecedented $520 million worth of food. Gardening became a patriotic act.

The nature of community gardening changed with the onslaught of the Great Depression. Like vacant lot cultivation during the 1890s, the subsistence gardens in American cities during the 1930s were created in response to an economic crisis and intended to help meet residents’ immediate need for food.  They were often supported through partnerships between municipal government and community organizations. By 1934, 2.3 million subsistence farmers produced more than $36 million worth of food. In 1939 Roosevelt’s New Deal Program essentially exchanged federally supported gardens for USDA food stamps, regarded as a more “efficient” system to feed the hungry.

Victory Gardens

 First food stamp

First food stamp

When the United Sates entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, many Americans participated in a grassroots effort begun to rekindle the patriotic liberty gardens of WWI.  At first the federal government was skeptical of supporting these efforts like they had before. Officials thought large-scale agriculture was more efficient. Citing the health, recreational, and morale-boosting effects of gardening, however, the government again supported a national gardening campaign during World War II.

After World War II — during which town and city gardens provided some 40 percent of vegetables consumed in the United States — city residents no longer needed to garden for their sustenance. The easy fertility provided by synthetic nitrogen fertilizer made the kind of nutrient recycling performed by Paris’s urban farmers seem obsolete and backwards at the same time that the rise of fossil fuel-powered transportation banished the horse from cities, taking away a key source of nutrients.

Food production became a “low value,” marginal urban enterprise, and planners banished it from their schemes. Supermarkets, stocked year-round with produce from around the world and a wealth of processed food, more than filled the void.

In urban communities throughout the nation, segregation laws placed a chasm between African American and white neighborhoods. The economic boom of the 1950s was the catalyst for “white flight,” as white urbanites retreated to the comfort and prestige of new suburbs. White urban communities shrank exponentially while African American communities swelled, eventually extending into abandoned white neighborhoods that were once off limits. Services in these areas, such as supermarkets, followed the White dollar, leaving only small grocery stores, offering a poor selection of produce, liquor stores, and fast food chains.

Across the country, the postwar urban manufacturing base began to melt away in the 1970s, as factories fled to the union-hostile South, and later to Mexico and Asia. Meanwhile, the highway system and new development drew millions of white families to the leafy lawns of the exurban periphery. As the jobs and whites left the cities, so did the economic base sustaining the private food system.

The importance of gardens and food production in inner cities was highlighted as grocery stores slowly abandoned those areas. The exodus of grocery stores from African American urban neighborhoods dates from the 1960s and ‘70s, when increasing violence and decreasing population prompted many businesses to flee. In the District of Columbia, for example, the number of chain grocery stores dropped from 91 in 1968 to less than three dozen in the 1990s. University of Connecticut agricultural economist Ronald W. Cotterill, who headed a 1995 study of the phenomenon, described the result of this process:

Youngstown depression garden

Youngstown depression garden

“…poor Americans often must shop in small corner stores that charge as much as 40 percent more and offer a meager selection of fresh food. The “grocery gap” examined in the District and 20 other cities also has policy implications: Food stamps and other federal nutrition programs buy much less than they would in more affluent neighborhoods where supermarkets offer less expensive, fresher products. In many of these cities we have two food distribution systems: one for people who have access to suburban outlets and one for those that don’t.”

Urban African Americans and Latins of low socioeconomic status thus live in areas that lack sufficient sources of healthful foods. These communities, known as food deserts, are defined as areas where residents have limited access to healthy fresh nutriments, particularly if they are poor and have limited mobility.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “low fruit and vegetable intake is among the top ten risk factors related to [disease] and mortality”. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has reported that African Americans have a fifty-one percent higher instance of obesity than Caucasians, with Latinx following at twenty-one percent; both communities are also predisposed to type 2 Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers.

Since the 1960s and 1970s, however, people and grassroots organizations have also come together to build community gardens that promote environmental stewardship and revitalize urban neighborhoods affected by disinvestment.

Gardens of Soul Food

Urban food production had been slowly taken up by a population of new residents who had come to the city during and after the World Wars, seeking economic and personal opportunity. Six million African Americans, part of one of the largest internal migrations in history, left the rural South and moved into Midwest and Northern cities between 1916 and 1970, with the largest flows occurring during and after World War Two.

These residents changed the character of northern cities, bringing in a new immigrant population with rural backgrounds and tastes in food. It did not take long for urban land to again sprout gardens, this time filled with “soul” food.

Adrian E. Miller, author of “Soul Food: The Suprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time”, explains:

“As people left the South, they did what any other immigrant group does: They tried to re-create home. If you think about immigrant food in this country, it’s usually the celebration of food of the old country. It’s not the day-in-and-day-out stuff, it’s usually the stuff they ate on special occasions that, now that they’re more prosperous here, they eat more regularly. That’s the story of soul food.”

In the Eight Mile-Wyoming area of Detroit, for instance, residents often raised chickens among their vegetable gardens. Corn was a common sight in the neighborhood, along with an informal system of community gardening. As one resident told a visitor, they had no trouble with people stealing from their garden because, “we just plant a little more than we need each year to take care of that.”  Alternately, “if we run low, we just get a few [ears of corn] off of somebody else’s. We all know that. We don’t care. We’re friends out here!”

Turning Spoiled Food into Compost

Will Allen atop a Growing Power compost pile

Will Allen atop a Growing Power compost pile

But titanic amounts of the food that enters cities each year leaves as garbage headed to the landfill — a massive waste of a resource that could be composted into rich soil amendments, as Paris’ 19th-century farmers did with horse manure. According to the EPA, fully one-quarter of the food bought in America ends up in the waste stream — 32 million tons per year. Of that, less than 3 percent gets composted. The rest, landfilled, slowly rots and emits methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The EPA reports that wasted food in landfills accounts for a fifth of U.S. methane emissions: the second largest human-related source of methane in the United States.

In 1993, a former professional basketball player and corporate marketer named Will Allen purchased a tract of land on the economically troubled North Side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Allen hoped to use the space to open a market that would sell vegetables he grew on his farm outside Milwaukee. But then, working with unemployed youth from the city’s largest housing project, nearby Westlawn Homes, Allen soon began growing food right in Milwaukee.

Eventually, that effort would morph into Growing Power, now the nation’s most celebrated urban-farming project. Milwaukee’s Growing Power has turned the urban waste stream into a powerful engine for growing food. Most urban agriculture operations today are net importers of soil fertility — they bring in topsoil and compost from outside to amend poor urban soils. Growing Power has become a net exporter. In 2008, as the New York Times Magazine reported in a profile of founder Will Allen, Growing Power converted 6 million pounds of spoiled food into 300,000 pounds of compost. The organization used a quarter of it to grow enough food to feed 10,000 Milwaukee residents — and sold the rest to city gardeners.

Growth of Community Gardens

In many urban neighborhoods around the country, community gardens have fiercely loyal protectors who have mobilized in recent years as their city has targeted gardens as sites for affordable housing, and private developers have also eyed them for high end development.

In 2017 the New York City Parks Department’s Green Thumb program — the nation’s largest community garden program — grew to 553 gardens, up from 501 in 2009. Most of the gardens sit on city-owned or other public property, and are maintained by community groups and a dedicated corps of 20,000 volunteer gardeners.

Global Urban Agriculture

Urban gardening in Havana

About 3.2 million New Yorkers, or 38 percent of the city’s population of 8.5 million, were born in other countries, according to an analysis of census data by Queens College. About half of those immigrants came from the Caribbean, Central America and South America.

A large percentage of the people involved in urban agriculture are the urban poor. Contrary to general belief they are often not recent immigrants from rural areas (since the urban farmer needs time to get access to urban land, water and other productive resources). Women constitute an important part of urban farmers, since agriculture and related processing and selling activities, among others, can often be more easily combined with their other tasks in the household. It is however more difficult to combine it with urban jobs that require travelling to the town centre, industrial areas or to the houses of the rich.

In much of the world urban populations who work in agriculture are significantly better nourished than their counterparts in non-farming households. In Kampala, where urban producers obtain 40 to 60 percent or more of their household food needs from their own urban gardens, children aged five years or less in low-income farming households were found to be significantly less stunted than children in non-farming families.

It is estimated by the UN that worldwide 200 million urban residents provide food for the market and 800 million urban dwellers are actively engaged in urban agriculture in one way or another. These urban farmers produce substantial amounts of food for urban consumers. A global estimate is that 15-20% of the world’s food is produced in urban areas.

Research on specific cities and products yield data like the following: in Hanoi, 80% of fresh vegetables, 50% of pork, poultry and fresh water fish, as well as 40% of eggs, originate from urban and peri-urban areas; in the urban and peri-urban area of Shanghai, 60% of the city’s vegetables, 100% of the milk, 90% of the eggs, and 50% of the pork and poultry meat is produced; in Java, home gardens provide for 18% of caloric consumption and 14% of proteins of the urban population; Dakar produces 60% of the national vegetable consumption whilst urban poultry production amounts to 65% of the national demand. Sixty percent of the milk consumed in Dakar is produced in/around the city; and in Accra, 90% of the city’s fresh vegetable consumption is from production within the city.

Over 26,000 popular gardens cover 2438.7 hectares in Havana and produce 25,000 tons of food each year; a total of 299 square kilometres of urban agriculture produces 113,525 tons/year. Urban agriculture to a large extent complements rural agriculture and increases the efficiency of the national food system in that it provides products that rural agriculture cannot supply easily (e.g. perishable products, products that require rapid delivery upon harvest), that can substitute for food imports and can release rural lands for export production of commodities.

From its beginnings in prehistoric time, agriculture has been a part of city living. It has its own set of problems and opportunities, distinct from those of rural agriculture. And in the United States often its practitioners are women, the poor, marginalized populations and immigrants. Yet the quest to provide for yourself, to experience the mystery of life that farming requires, and to create healthy, tasty, nutritious food for your community and your family are the same no matter what kind of growing you do.



CSAs, Aggregators, and Hubs, Oh My!

csa veggiesLast summer in the New York Times Julia Moskin wrote a thoughtful article entitled: “When Community-Supported Agriculture Is Not What It Seems.” It is worth reading and can be found here for those who want to do exactly that.

Moskin’s basic point was that ‘farm share’ programs have evolved in complex ways from the original simple CSA model. This evolution has blurred the lines of exactly where the food is coming from, whether it is local, and whether local farmers are benefitting from the programs.

Traditional CSAs encapsulate a specific relationship between a farm and its customers. The model originated in the 1980s in the US — earlier in Japan and Europe — and the term adopted in Japan for the system could be translated as ‘food with the farmer’s face on it’. Whether started by a farm or by a group of consumers, a CSA was basically an agreement by the farmer to provide shares of the farm’s products each week during the season, and by each consumer to pay, upfront, the cost of their share.

This transaction was two-way, with nothing siphoned off for middlemen, distributors, or brick-and-mortar stores. The early full payment was a critical factor, enabling cash to the farmer when needed to buy seeds, hire staff, invest in improvements and equipment, and pay all the regular bills of any business.

The customers of a CSA get produce straight from the farm, coming from a farmer they know and trust. It is a mutual relationship based on that knowledge and trust.

Recently, however, a lot of new farm share marketing services have popped up claiming to be supportive of local agriculture. Some even claim to be CSAs. But many of these are based on the presence of a middleman who takes part of the price, leaving less for the farmer — precisely what traditional CSAs are designed to avoid. Many also promote their ‘convenience’ by having more items than any single farm is likely to raise (dairy, meat, fruit, bread, fish, eggs, mushrooms, honey) and also have items which are clearly not local (citrus, coffee, avocados, olives) and which provide no income to local farmers.

There is no question that many customers are attracted by convenience and a broader array of products than are likely to be sold in a one-farm CSA. But those are exactly the reasons most people buy at stores and most of the resultant money goes to non-farmers. Only one kind of arrangement – the CSA — pays the farmer 100% in advance, year after year.

In addition, CSAs give the farmer control of the market. When selling to a middleman, however, the farmer is in competition with all other farmers. The dynamics of the market mean that the middleman is going to look for the lowest possible price. Even if that means a farmer has to sometimes sell for less than cost, given the perishable nature of produce, that may be what she is forced to do.

Among the programs cited by Moskin exemplifying this lack of control by farmers are a farm-to-table subscription service called Local Roots NYC which has almost two dozen pick-up sites around New York City on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and buys from a Pennsylvania vegetable farm, a New Jersey fruit farm and a Pennsylvania mushroom farm, as well as two dairies and a cheese operation, three bakeries, two granola companies, a pasta maker, a fish wholesaler, and a honey producer. Only the vegetables are organic.

A second operation cited was Rustic Roots, a home delivery service requiring customers to preorder by Saturday night for delivery on Tuesday through Thursday of the following week. Several share sizes range from $43 to $105 (with $50 of meat) and don’t include the flat $10 delivery fee or the cooler or insulated bag fee if you want those to keep your order cool for several hours. Suppliers include a couple of organic fruit and vegetable farms, an Amish co-op, five meat and poultry operations, an Alaskan fish company and a maple syrup supplier.

As another example, Peapod is an online shopping service owned by the international grocery giant Ahold. The minimum order is $60 and the delivery fee starts at $2.95. Peapod delivers not only food (not local) but also health and beauty products, pet care, household products and paper goods. FreshDirect offers meal kits (priced at $10 to $12 per serving) as well as fruit, vegetables, meat and poultry, dairy, bakery products, frozen goods, beer, wine and spirits in New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

According to Moskin these new programs are not really CSAs. That term is not regulated in most states and can be used pretty much by anyone for anything. But these new ‘aggregators’ or ‘food hubs’ are burdened, by their very nature, with different risks and concerns than CSAs. They do not represent important markets for a host farm, for example, and can come and go quickly if not meeting the needs of the founders. One, Good Eggs, ended deliveries in three cities – Los Angeles, New Orleans and Brooklyn – suddenly in 2015 after one year of operation. Farmstr, founded in Seattle in 2013, also shut down in 2015.

The growth of demand for local and organic produce in the last few years has fueled a rash of new ideas for connecting farmers to customers. Online hubs that used sophisticated software to manage distribution was one approach, and many appropriated the acronym ‘CSA’ to describe their service.

But some of these were transitory. In midsummer 2016 15,000 households that subscribed to a company called Farmigo received their last food boxes in New Jersey, New York, Seattle and Northern California. The three year old company had run through $25 million of venture capital raised on the strength of a food distribution software platform – an online farmers market of 700 items — that founder Benzi Ronen claimed would replace supermarkets.

“I never saw a conflict with the CSAs,” Moskin reports Ronen as saying. That model was already failing. “We saw a lot of customers leaving CSAs because they wanted a more traditional market.”

But the realities of managing all those items — washing, packing, refrigerating, distributing and delivering them to 400 locations — proved too difficult. So Farmigo members lost their shares and the farmers Farmigo had contracted with were left with fields full of produce they had planted for a buyer no longer interested in them.

The siphoning of customers from real CSAs to these middleman-oriented aggregators or food hubs is of great concern to many small farmers. While the new businesses may still buy their produce, the farmers no longer have effective power in the relationship and may well have to forego some of their income, handing it to the middlemen. Many CSAs also report that after years of growth, their memberships have declined since the arrival of services like Local Roots or Farmigo.

Judith Redmond, owner of California’s Full Belly Farm, which was once one of the oldest and biggest CSAs in the Golden State (the only state which has actually codified the term ‘Community-Supported Agriculture’), reports that her membership, after holding at 1200 members (and a long waiting list) since 1992, dropped significantly in 2016.

“At first it seemed like these services were going to be great for us,” Moskin quotes Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht, an owner of Garden of Eve farm on the North Fork of Long Island, as saying. Some of these services supplied handy software programs and marketing tools; others picked up the produce at the farm rather than requiring delivery to a warehouse, yet others offered premium prices close to farmers’ market rates. But Ms. Kaplan-Walbrecht reported that her CSA membership had dropped from a high of 900 in 2012 to 600 now. “Do consumers even know that when they sign up for one of these fake CSAs, sometimes it doesn’t benefit local farmers any more than if they shop at the supermarket?” she asked.

The real problem with these new markets, say farmers, is that they should not be called CSAs. Partly by offering a more convenient product the hubs have siphoned off the traditional farm CSA members. To make matters worse, the hubs blur the definition of terms like ‘CSA’ and ‘farm share’ so that customers be-lieve they are directly supporting local farms with their purchases when they might not be.

Maryellen Driscoll of Free Bird Farm in the Hudson Valley, for example, estimates that her farm’s income will be down $32,000 compared to last year from the loss of C.S.A. members. “CSAs are not for everyone, we know that,” she says. “What’s frustrating is that the copycats have such a lack of transparency, and it’s very easy for the real issues to be glossed over.”

“They are absolutely in competition with us,” says Ben Shute, an owner of Hearty Roots farm in the Hudson Valley, referring to the new services. “There are only a certain number of people who will buy food this way.”

Paula Lukats, program director of Just Food, an advocacy and education group for local agriculture in New York State, agrees: “The CSA system was developed for consumers and for small farmers. The win-win was low prices and guaranteed income. Anything you put in the middle of that raises the prices for the consumer or takes away money from the farmer.”

After a peak in 2010, she confirms, memberships in CSAs have been going down across the board. She wishes that middlemen setting up buying and distribution hubs would stop using the term ‘CSA’ altogether.

But the proponents of new, more flexible hubs and aggregation systems, whatever they are called, are convinced they are helping the local farms.

“If the goal is to make local food accessible,” says Wen-Jay Ying, founder of Local Roots NYC, “we need to make shopping for it as much like a one-stop shop as possible.”

Ms. Ying argues that the more food options her customers have, the more likely they are to remain in the hub, which in turn buys from and sustains 15 local farms. Traditional CSAs have a high turnover rate, she feels, and many people simply find the system too inflexible for their needs.

“If we want the local food system to grow, we all have to grow and evolve with it,” she says. “If you’re stubborn against the change, it’s only going to hurt the local food movement.”

Besides, some feel, consumers have only so much time to spend vetting their food system. Taking the time to tease out whether buying granola made in Brooklyn qualifies as supporting local agriculture can test the patience of consumers.

“I just assume that if it’s organic, it’s good,” said Raquel Hoffman, a CSA member in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. “I can’t also worry about whether it’s local, or whether the chickens were happy, and all that.”

Eric Stone, who oversees CSAs at FreshDirect, believes that widening distribution and raising visibility for local produce — as the company’s boxes do — benefit local agriculture in the long term. Hepworth Farms, in the Hudson Valley, packs boxes for FreshDirect customers that are stamped with the farm’s own name and logo. “I really think it gives them a chance to get their stuff out there,” he said. “It expands the whole market.”

Now that local food has become big business, there is no limit to the possible competition. Target and Walmart, for instance, are trying to get a piece of it, and even Amazon is building infrastructure for home delivery of food.

This new demand has been a boon for many farmers across the country, but the beneficiaries are especially large-scale farmers equipped to sell in bulk. Small, local farms are at a disadvantage in this market.

In interviews with farmers, policy makers and entrepreneurs, all parties agree that for fragile local food systems to strengthen, consumers will somehow have to be offered more choice and control over what they eat than is possible with a traditional CSA.

NOP Struggles with Question of Organic Hydroponics

Certified organic hydroponic facility in Montreal

Certified organic hydroponic facility in Montreal

For years the National Organic Program (NOP) has debated the proper role of hydroponics in organic certification. The current status, which satisfies no one, is that a hydroponic operation is allowed to be certified if a local certification program determines that it is meeting all the provisions of the foundational Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA).

With major companies like Mexico’s Wholesum Harvest (tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, squash, peppers) and Driscoll’s (berries) entering the market, however, economic pressures have intensified. Soil based organic growers are challenging the soilless growing basis of hydroponics. It may be a fine way to produce food, they say, but it is not organic. Organic growing requires soil.

Is this true?

As individuals, many of us have our own point of view on this topic based on learning and experience. But answering this question where it counts, at the level of the USDA and the NOP, calls upon skills that must have been handy in settling some of the early church debates about the nature of God. It ends up requiring a very careful reading of original texts, a thoughtful analysis of past canonical decisions, and mustering a significant majority of votes at key gatherings.

In the last couple of years many small organic growers, whose markets are being taken over by hydroponic competition, have pressed the NOP to disqualify soilless organic operations. They have called rallies and demonstrations, sponsored petitions and press releases, and lobbied groups for support. To back up their positions both sides of the debate have been busy.

The wording of the OFPA has been scrutinized, various historical decisions of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) have been compared, a special Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force has been appointed and has reported, a recent meeting of the NOSB was tasked with deciding the question but couldn’t, the topic has become an example, in Congressional testimony at the Senate Agriculture Committee, of the need for “reforming” (weakening) organic program restrictions, and now a decision is on the docket for the fall 2017 Jacksonville meeting of the NOSB.

This issue of The Natural Farmer is designed to help you, dear reader, fully understand the question. To do so we cite the wording of key documents, relevant early decisions, and contemporary opinions. We also explain the long history of water based growing, explain the various hydroponic systems currently in use, and interview individuals active in running and certifying “organic” soilless production. We have made an effort to present both sides as transparently as we can, and given them roughly equal time. We hope this is helpful to you and urge you to make your feelings known about this topic.

Like genetic engineering, sludge, and irradiation, hydroponics is a controversial method in the organic movement. All stakeholders should weigh and consider the various points of view and participate in a decision that it is either not allowed, or if allowed, in exactly what ways. It should not be left up to individual certification programs. That just invites “certifier shopping” and a continual strain on program integrity.

Carbon, Climate, and Soil Biology

NRCS Soil Scientist Ray Archuleta admires the soil aggregates present in a vegetable crop field during a workshop at Many Hands Organic Farm on July 25, 2016

photo by Jack Kittredge
NRCS Soil Scientist Ray Archuleta admires the soil aggregates present in a vegetable crop field during a workshop at Many Hands Organic Farm on July 25, 2016

“For most of history, few things have mattered more to human communities than their relations with soil…For the past century or two, nothing has mattered more for soils than their relations with human communities, because human action inadvertently ratcheted up rates of soil erosion and, both intentionally and unintentionally, rerouted nutrient flows.” — Breaking the Sod: Humankind, History and Soil, J. R. McNeill and Verena Winiwarter

Importance of Carbon to Soil

The primary human activity impacting soils is agriculture, and the soil nutrient most severely depleted in quantity by agriculture has been carbon. Conversion from natural to agricultural ecosystems has depleted the soil organic carbon (SOC) pool by as much as 60% in temperate regions, and 75% or more in tropical ones. Such conversion has resulted in losses of 8 to 32 tons of carbon per acre from some soils, mostly oxidized and emitted into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

But depleting sinks of soil carbon is harmful in two ways.
Adding carbon dioxide — the primary greenhouse gas — to the atmosphere increases retained solar heat in the planetary system and results in disruptive weather extremes such as we have been experiencing. Since 1975 the global level of greenhouse gases has been rising and average temperature has been increasing at a rate of 0.3˚F to 0.4˚F per decade.

Organic carbon is a primary component of soil fertility, contributing to tilth, resilience, and crop production. Losing soil carbon decreases crop yields in at least three important ways: 1) it diminishes available water capacity, 2) it slows the supply of nutrients available to crops, and 3) it degrades soil structure and physical soil properties.

Soil moisture content increases by 1 to 10 grams for every 1 gram increase in soil organic matter, which is 58% carbon. This increase can contribute to sustaining crop growth for 5 to 10 days between periods of rainfall – often a crucial period in areas of moderate precipitation.

Preservation and enhancement of SOC also enhances cation exchange capacity and improves biotic activity of micro-organisms, facilitating the supply of nutrients available to crops. SOC is the primary source of energy and nutrients for the soil biota, who are system engineers and whose importance to ecosystem restoration cannot be overemphasized.

Increases in SOC have also been found to enhance soil structure, making it less prone to crusting and compaction and aggregation — formation of the small raisin-sized clumps of soil in which many crucial biochemical functions can take place because they enable protection from excess oxygen or contain needed moisture.

Productivity gains with increasing SOC are large, especially when combined with inputs of other nutrients and irrigation, in soils with a clay content lower than 20% or in soils of sandy-loam or loamy-sand textures.

Much Current Organic Annual Vegetable Cropping is Destructive of Soil Carbon

Bare Soil

Carbon, which is fundamental to climate stability as well as to soil quality and productivity, continues to be lost by many current methods of raising annual vegetable crops. This is particularly distressing in the northeastern United States, where soils are thin and 70% of cropland is rated as highly erodible, twice as much as in the rest of the country.
Bare soil is perhaps the most obvious sign of these soil depleting practices. Such soil is exposed to wind and water erosion, provides no barrier to direct atmospheric oxidation of soil carbon, accumulates no biomass, and contributes to the breakdown of soil aggregates.


Bare soil is common on organic farms because tillage is our primary method for controlling weeds and preparing beds for planting. But tillage has many negative side effects. From the farmer’s point of view it dries the soil, brings up and encourages the germination of dormant weed seeds, creates compaction at the bottom of the tilled layer, and sets back the growth of fungi and the soil aggregation they facilitate. From the climate perspective even occasional tillage is also directly associated with significant greenhouse gas emissions and soil carbon loss from soils with high organic matter content.

Many northeastern organic farmers have already adopted no till methods for better soil resiliency and reduced weed germination. They use diverse methods to avoid bare soil including extending cropping duration, cover crops, and various mulches and composts. In support of these methods, various appropriate bed formation and planting approaches have been developed including specialized dibbles and planters, broadcast systems, and transplant devices.

Cover Crops

For farmers, use of cover crops is a fundamental tool for building a healthy soil while raising crops. Cover crops can be temporary crops planted between the cash crops, crops to fix, catch or “lift” extra nutrients to the crop root zone, or permanent mulches. They increase soil aggregation, reduce nitrogen leaching, discourage wind and water erosion, decrease weed pressure, sustain microbial life, and elevate the microbial community’s fungal/bacterial ratio which aids plant vigor.

From the point of view of a sustainable climate, cover crops not only pump carbon into the soil like all plants but provide green and, after death, brown soil cover to minimize oxidation from atmospheric exposure. When they contain a mixture of varieties including legumes they reduce losses not only from carbon dioxide but also nitrous oxide, a particularly potent greenhouse gas.

The National Resource Conservation Service has done excellent work focusing on the benefits brought to soil by cover crops. Their booklets, lectures, videos, etc, have been important resources educating farmers about these contributions and how to manage cover crops in various cropping systems.


The importance of a diverse soil biology can hardly be overstated for good farming. Plants thrive when part of a symbiotic underground community or ecosystem to which they supply carbon compounds that sustain microbial metabolic functions and from which they receive minerals, water, and an array of compounds synthesized by bacteria specifically to help them resist disease, repel predation, encourage pollination, and accomplish dozens of other biological functions.

Earthworms, termites, ants, insect larvae, nematodes, bacteria, fungi and others all also play a role in creating good soil structure, providing nutrient cycling, and creating the porosity, aeration and soil drainage which enable good water infiltration and storage.

Crop rotation is also important for biodiversity. Studies have shown that crops in rotation show increased soil enzyme activity and, if containing legumes, increased microbial biomass. Plant biodiversity also enhances soil carbon dynamics and increases the level of soil organic matter, while attracting a corresponding diversity of insects, pollinators, and other largely beneficial organisms.

Toxins and Fertilizers

For organic farmers, the absence of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers is basic. In much of US agriculture, however, chemicals are omnipresent. When perusing articles and studies about farming methods, one must be cautious. Reports of “no-till” practices often fail to mention concurrent herbicide use to control weeds. Yet toxins and synthetic fertilizers decimate the gains of biodiversity by either directly destroying microbial life or starving it by undercutting the symbiosis driving soil ecology. So students of soil science need to be clear whether or not synthetic chemicals were involved in the activities studied. When that data is available, the results for soil health can be surprising.

In reporting results from the Morrow Plots, the University of Illinois experimental fields continuously studied since 1953, for instance, Christine Jones reports: “They discovered that the fields that had received the highest applications of nitrogen fertilizer had ended up with less soil carbon – and ironically less nitrogen – than the other fields. The researchers concluded that adding nitrogen fertilizer stimulated the kind of bacteria that break down the carbon in the soil.”

Yet natural ecosystems such as pastures and forests that do not involve synthetic chemical inputs build, rather than reduce, soil carbon. Even ecosystems managed for human food production can sustain regular annual increases in soil carbon if following the above simple principles.

The History of Animal Protection in the United States

Beginning in the 1870s, animal protectionists saw the safeguarding of children and animals as equally important, as both were vulnerable creatures in need of protection.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

American animal protectionists from earlier centuries might seem unrecognizable today. Most ate meat. They believed in euthanasia as a humane end to creaturely suffering. They justified humanity’s kinship with animals through biblical ideas of gentle stewardship. They accepted animal la-bor as a compulsory burden of human need. Their sites of activism included urban streets, Sunday schools, church pulpits, classrooms, temperance meetings, and the transnational missionary field. Committed to animal welfare, they strove to prevent pain and suffering. Contemporary animal rights activists, by contrast, believe that animals possess the right to exist free from human use and consumption. Consequently, current activists and their scholarly associates often miss the historical significance of earlier eras of activism. A growing historiography, however, demonstrates the centrality of animal protection to major American transformations such as Protestant revivalism and reform, the growth of science and tech-nology, the rise of modern liberalism, child protectionism, and the development of American ideologies of benevolence.

Animal protection entered the American colonial record in December 1641, when the Massachusetts General Court enacted its comprehensive le-gal code, the “Body of Liberties.” Sections 92–93 prohibited “any Tirranny or Crueltie towards any bruite Creature which are usuallie kept for man’s use” and mandated periodic rest and refreshment for any “Cattel” being driven or led. Puritan animal advocates believed that cruel domin-ion was a consequence of Adam and Eve’s fall from the Garden of Eden; kindly stewardship, however, reflected their reformist ideals, thus illu-minating a long historical relationship between religion, reform, and animal protection.

Transnational Protestant revivalism and social reform in the early nineteenth century fueled the expansion of animal protectionism. In Great Brit-ain, evangelicals and abolitionists spearheaded the earliest animal protection laws (1822) and organized societies (1824), which became a blue-print for dozens of new anticruelty laws in America. Social reformers and ministers became attentive to the status of animals during the Second Great Awakening (1790–1840). Embracing a new theology of free moral agency and human perfectibility, American ministers such as Charles Grandison Finney included animal mercy in their exegeses on upright Christian conduct. New transportation networks and communications tech-nologies broadcast animal protection to far-flung audiences through classroom readers, Sunday school pamphlets, and fiction.

Antebellum abolitionists and temperance activists treated animal welfare as a barometer for human morality. Antislavery newspapers and novels, most famously Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), stressed the incidence of animal abuse among slaveholders and animal kindness among abolitionists. Many future animal welfare leaders possessed abolitionist ties, such as George Thorndike Angell, founder and president of the Massachusetts So-ciety for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). Temperance advocates likewise believed that inebriates were cruel to their families and their horses. The Bands of Hope, a children’s group, stressed animal kindness as a moral complement to sobriety.

Antebellum activism and cultural thought created a foundation for a new social movement after the Civil War. The abolition of slavery and the horror of battle—documented in thousands of wartime photographs of dead soldiers and horses—brought suffering and human rights to a national audience, therefore catalyzing a national movement. Animal protectionists believed that creaturely kindness was a marker of advanced civilization, which could rectify a fractured nation and world. The penultimate moment for a new movement arrived on April 10, 1866, when the New York Leg-islature incorporated a groundbreaking state animal protection society vested with policing powers to prosecute abuse. Henry Bergh, a shipping heir, drafted the articles of incorporation of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) with the help of his influential allies, including his-torian George Bancroft and state senator Ezra Cornell. Days later, they spearheaded a powerful new state anticruelty law, which they amended in 1867 to prohibit additional forms of cruelty, including blood sports and abandonment. Bergh and his officers policed the streets wearing uniforms and badges to enforce the law.

By the 1870s SPCAs and anti-cruelty laws modeled after Bergh’s work in New York existed in most states. In the Gilded Age, activists directed their attention to the plight of domestic laboring animals in an urban, muscle-powered world—especially horses. Historians Clay McShane, Joel Tarr, and Ann Greene demonstrate the centrality of urban horses in building modern industrial America. Further, they treat horses as historical agents rather than passive conduits for a history of human ideas about animals. As the nation’s primary urban movers of machines, food, and people, horses suffered abusive drivers and overloaded haulage conditions with visible regularity. Animal protectionists also addressed the bleak system of livestock railroad transport from western rangelands to urban stockyards and slaugh-terhouses, culminating with the nation’s first federal animal welfare legislation in 1873, which mandated food, water, and rest stops every twenty-eight hours. They raided animal fights; they tried to end vivisection in laboratories and classrooms; and they routinely shot decrepit workhorses as a merciful end to suffering.

Animals were legally defined as property, but Bergh’s watershed legislation recognized cruelty as an offense to the animal itself—irrespective of ownership. Histo-rian Susan Pearson argues that these laws helped transform American liberalism—from a classical conception of rights in the negative—to augur the rise of the modern “interventionist” liberal state. Pearson contends that this positive conception of rights drew animal protectionists into child protection in the 1870s. Bergh’s chief counsel, Elbridge Gerry, founded the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1874 after he secured the arrest and conviction of an abusive foster mother for felonious assault. Animal protectionists across the nation subsequently instituted amalgamated “humane societies,” which safeguarded animals and children under a singular protective fold, positing that helpless “beasts and babes” had a right to protection because they could suffer. Viewed within an existing system of subordinate relations, the right to protection did not confer an automatic right to equality. Nonetheless, humane activists established a histor-ical precedent for future generations of animal rights activists because they placed animals on a legal continuum with vulnerable human beings.

The majority of animal protectionists were affluent, nativeborn Euro-American Protestants. Men typically led SPCAs and patrolled the streets as officers, while women generally worked behind the scenes using moral suasion—raising funds, writing appeals, and coordinating educational activities. Keeping with prevailing ideologies of respectable white womanhood, Caroline Earle White secured a state charter for the founding of the Pennsylvania SPCA in 1867 but refused to seek election as the organization’s first president. She also founded the American Anti-vivisection Association in 1883 but delayed passage of its incorporation until she and her female colleagues could find a man willing to serve as president.
Some women, however, readily assumed leadership positions when they founded their own organizations. In 1869 White co-created the Women’s Branch of the Pennsylvania SPCA and served as its first president. In 1890 Women’s Branch leader Mary Frances Lovell became national superintendent of the Department of Mercy, an animal welfare wing in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. The Women’s Branch pioneered municipal stray canine reform. In an era before vac-cines and sterilization, local dogcatchers staged massive summertime roundups in which strays were shot or violently thrown into crowded wagons and killed at the pound. The Women’s Branch instituted new humane capture methods, and they transformed Philadelphia’s municipal pound into a humane “shelter”, where dogs received regular care. Euthanasia, when necessary, occurred in a separate room using gas, out of view from other dogs. Historian Bernard Unti observes that women sheltering leaders typically sought no powers of arrest in their state charters because their work with strays did not confront animal abusers directly. Owing to pressure from members, mainstream SPCAs eventually incorporated stray management, sheltering, and adoption into their already stretched budgets.

With its affluent, urban, native-born Protestant base, the animal protection movement faced charges of exclusion and elitism—especially because teamsters and other targets of prosecution were often immigrants and people of color whose economic survival depended on animal muscle. In a pluralistic society, many humane activists viewed their own classed and culturally contingent ideals of kindness as universal when denouncing animal practices different than their own, such as ko-sher slaughter. They believed that animal kindness was a manifestation of higher civilization at home and in the overseas empire after the Spanish-American War. Interactions with animals, consequently, were often a flashpoint for conflict. Filipinos, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans flatly rejected U.S. anti-cockfighting laws as an oppressive colonial intrusion into indigenous leisure practices.

Some scholars, most notably Steven Wise, argue that certain animals (such as this lowland gorilla pictured here) possess legal personhood, owing to their superior cognitive abilities. photo by Ryan Vaarsi

Nonetheless, the animal protection movement was not a wholesale project of policing. Animal advocates preferred prevention over prosecution. Children’s peda-gogy became an institutionalized arm of the movement in 1889 when George Angell founded the American Humane Education Society (AHES) as the centerpiece of his holistic “gospel of kindness”. In the South, several African American ministers, educators, and temperance activists served as AHES field secretaries. They staged meetings in black schools and churches to preach a conservative message of animal mercy, self-help, and racial uplift. They traveled widely by car, which represented a potentially dangerous show of black upward mobility in the rural Jim Crow South, especially when their lectures discussed exploitative practices such as debt peonage and sharecropping. The Massachusetts SPCA openly denounced human rights abuses, as well as American militarism overseas. Yet the organiza-tion embraced moral expansionism when sponsoring American missionaries, who integrated humane education curricula into their evangelical activities across the world.

With the growth of motor power during the 1910s, fewer laboring animals populated American cities. SPCAs staged nostalgic workhorse parades as a tribute to equine service and to raise funds for new comfortable retirement farms. In 1916 the American Humane Association founded the American Red Star Animal Relief to aid American warhorses, mules, and donkeys during World War I. The organization’s fundraising pleas reminded donors that equines performed invaluable labor in impenetrable terrain despite the ascendancy of motorization. After the armistice, global horse markets collapsed and American warhorses were auctioned off in Europe because trans-Atlantic transport was cost prohibitive in an age of impending obsolescence. While equines remained an important source of agricultural la-bor, the expanding dominance of motorization changed the scope and direction of American animal protectionism.

Animal advocates increasingly viewed animal performances, long a staple of popular entertainment, as unethical. In 1918 the Massachusetts SPCA founded the Jack London Club in memory of the late author, who condemned animal entertainments. People joined by walking out of an animal show and sending a postcard to the Massachusetts SPCA with the details. While the organization had no immediate legislative impact, it represented a harbinger of activism to come in a motorized world.

During the twentieth century, slaughterhouse reform and antivivisectionism remained important activist sites. Yet pets, especially dogs and cats, escalated as sub-jects of protection. Historian Katherine Grier contends that the growth of a consumer culture of pet keeping, alongside the development of sulfonamides, parasite control, and antibiotics in the 1930s and 1940s, enabled people and their pets to live longer, healthier lives together in closer proximity. Attitudes towards cats, perhaps, changed the most. In the nineteenth century, some animal protectionists maligned the cat as a semi-wild killer of cherished songbirds. Medical advances and new consumer products, such as cat litter in 1947, brought cats indoors. By the mid-twentieth century, dogs, cats, and sheltering dominated animal protection-ism.

The coalition of movements dedicated to moral uplift that had given animal protection its interconnected human and animal agenda eventually fractured, portend-ing an almost singular focus on animals. The professionalization of social work during the Progressive Era cleaved the earlier union of child and animal protec-tionists into separate fields. The repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1933 dissolved the temperance movement—a longstanding stalwart ally. Gradual seculari-zation also transformed animal protection. Earlier generations of activists forged alliances with religious leaders, but mid-century humane periodicals focused on celebrity animal lovers in media and politics. While the movement’s mainline Protestant founders believed in biblical stewardship, their descendants embraced Darwinism.

Energized by the social justice movements of the 1960s and 1970s, animal protection evolved into two distinct but overlapping movements. Animal welfare groups, such as the ASPCA, remained focused on sheltering, adoption, and the prevention of suffering. In 1975 utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer published Animal Lib-eration, which was immediately hailed as a “bible” for an emergent animal rights movement. Singer argued that sentient creatures have a right to “equal consid-eration” because they can suffer and considered “speciesism” to be a form of discrimination akin to racism and sexism. This claim, however, was rejected by many civil rights groups, who argued that it trivialized their social justice struggles. Singer, like most animal rights writers, supported veganism in an age when facto-ry-like Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations have replaced pasture farming. Yet some activists, such as philosopher Tom Regan, concluded that Animal Liber-ation’s utilitarian call to minimize suffering was ultimately too conservative or “welfarist.” In 1983 Regan applied deontology—a branch of philosophy that ex-plores moral duty—to animals. His book, The Case for Animal Rights, contended that animals possess intrinsic moral rights as individual “subjects of a life” with complex feelings and experiences that extend beyond their ability to suffer.

Paradoxically, vivisection has unwittingly validated the newest frontier in animal protection in the twenty-first century: legal personhood. In 2000 legal scholar Steven Wise used recent research in neuroscience and genetics in his book, Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals, to argue that great apes, ceta-ceans, elephants, and African gray parrots possess the legal right to “bodily liberty,” owing to their superior cognitive abilities. Wise founded the Nonhuman Rights Project in 2007 to take the principles of legal personhood to court. Armed with the writ of habeas corpus in state courts, Wise and his associates contend that captivity constitutes unlawful imprisonment. Suing on behalf of captive chimpanzees since 2013, Wise’s team have served as proxies for their plaintiffs to achieve legal standing in court, a strategy based on centuries of human precedent involving children, slaves, prisoners, and mentally incapacitated plaintiffs. While Wise and his colleagues have yet to prevail in court, they have received a hearing, a critical first step in a long appeals process.

The claims of the Nonhuman Rights Project for legal standing rest upon the inseparable histories of human rights and animal protection. Embedded in the history of religion, social reform, and war, early generations of American humane advocates argued that animal kindness was a form of human sanctification. They be-lieved that the status of animals was a conduit for human moral uplift. Yet with the rise of biological explanations for animal-human kinship, animal rights advo-cates have used the status of vulnerable people to argue that animals, as moral “subjects of a life,” possess the right to legal personhood. Ultimately, this shared history is simultaneously liberatory, conflictual, and entangled.

JANET M. DAVIS is an associate professor of American studies and history at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top (2002) and editor of Circus Queen and Tinker Bell: The Life of Tiny Kline (2008). Her 2016 book, The Gospel of Kindness: Animal Welfare and the Making of Modern America, is reviewed on page A-12 of this issue.

Introduction to Biochar in Agriculture

David Yarrow spreads biochar from white cart onto a garden bed he is preparing in Colrain, Massachusetts. The biochar was produced the day before in a homemade burner.

David Yarrow spreads biochar from white cart onto a garden bed he is preparing in
Colrain, Massachusetts. The biochar was produced the day before in a homemade burner.

Most readers of this journal have heard of biochar. It is hard not to, if you are an informed citizen concerned about contemporary issues. Biochar use has been heralded as a breakthrough development in soil health, crop production, carbon sequestration, environmental cleanup and pollution control, among other positive social purposes. Sales of the product have been tripling every year since 2008 and powerful players on the world stage, including China, have been studying its potential for solving varied growing problems.

We thought it might be time to take a closer look at biochar, especially its applicability to agricultural soils and enabling them to provide more and healthier food.

History of Char

Charring is produced by pyrolysis, which is heating biological material – agricultural residues, wood chips, virtually any organic matter – in a low-oxygen environment. The lack of adequate oxygen prevents normal burning, but enables volatile or semi-volatile materials to off-gas. Depending on the material and the temperature, other materials may be driven off and chemical changes will occur, potentially leaving just a porous carbon structure.

Black carbon is the generic term given to all solid chemical-thermal conversion products of carbonaceous materials, including charred residues. Biochar has been recently added as one material in the black carbon spectrum.

Char has an ancient history. The use of charcoal in cave paintings has been dated to 30,000 BC. Its use as a fuel began over 7000 years ago in the smelting of copper and more recently in smelting iron and producing glass. The Egyptians were pyrolyzing biomass 5000 years ago to form pyroligneous acid (composed of wood vinegar, tars and smoke condensates) for embalming.

Wood pyrolysis has been used for extracting valuable gases and oils for commercial purposes for hundreds of years. At its peak a standard distillation apparatus or retort could process 10 cords of wood within a 24 hour period. For these “industrial” purposes the gases and oils were the product, and char a secondary byproduct. In the 1800s, however, coal burning began replacing charcoal as an energy source and by the 1920s petroleum refining replaced biomass pyrolysis as the leading source of chemicals, distillates and volatiles.

One of the earliest examples of the agricultural uses of char is terra preta, the rich, fertile dark soils of the Amazon Basin which the indigenous people created by adding the remains of fire pits and middens full of bones and trash to the normally light tropical soils. Other similar char uses in agriculture date back to the early 1600s in Japan and potentially earlier in China. These, along with the natural deposition of char from forest fires, prairie fires, volcanoes, etc. have resulted in the widespread presence of it in soil organic matter.

Historically, char has been a waste product because the primary purpose of making it had been on optimizing the liquid and gas products of biomass for energy conversion and other uses, not on biochar for carbon sequestration. Thus despite the long research history of pyrolysis, more study is needed to optimize yields of biochar itself, and standardize its properties.

Biochar in agriculture

A number of studies have taken place concerning the effectiveness of biochar in promoting yields. According to those studies the positive impacts of biochar seem to outweigh the negative ones. A 2011 meta-analysis found an overall average yield increase of 10%, rising to 14% in acidic soils, from use of biochar. Approximately 50% of the compiled studies observed short-term positive yield or growth impacts from use of the material, 30% reported no significant differences, and 20% noted negative yield or growth impacts.

Results of some studies have found that biochar’s greatest potential might be in places where soils are weathered or degraded and fertilizer scarce, in part because it helps the soil to better retain any nutrients that it does have. One study of such degraded soils in western Kenya suggests that farms using biochar averaged 32% higher yields than controls.

According to a 2014 World Bank report biochar probably holds the most potential for small farmers in developing countries, not just because they are working with infertile soils most likely to benefit, but because biochar may be a key element of ‘climate-smart’ agriculture — practices that both help to mitigate climate change and reduce vulnerability to its effects.

Biochar additions to infertile soils have also been found to improve soil cation exchange capacity (CEC), the ability of soils to hold onto crucial nutrients. Applying biochar has been demonstrated to improve availability of potassium, for instance. But studies have found that not all biochar–soil combinations cause an increase in CEC. Experts suggest ways to “charge” biochar with fertility before applying it so it doesn’t absorb nutrients and water already in the soil, slowing plant growth. Many farmers soak it for a day or two in compost tea, fish emulsion, aged manure or other nutrients before application. They also recommend inoculating it with microbes before use.
The mechanisms by which biochar reduces vulnerability to climate change effects are somewhat speculative so far. Some researchers suggest the most important feature of the substance is its porosity and the presence of many connected spaces. Clays tend to be composed of flat grains and sand tends to be of circular grains. Even though clays can hold large amounts of water, that moisture has a hard time moving through the grains and reaching plant roots. But biochar is very amorphous so it creates many convoluted pathways that help to slow down drainage in sand and speed it up in clays. These same spaces provide protection for microbes from predation by larger creatures.

Section through a charcoal pile showing wood and soil cover.

Section through a charcoal pile
showing wood and soil cover.

Other scientists are exploring how biochars can mitigate climate change by cutting emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas. According to a Chinese study, after biochar had been applied to corn and wheat fields once, nitrous oxide emissions declined over the following five crop seasons, a period of three years. Recent studies have also indicated a complex biochar and fertilizer interaction with respect to yield response. Others have observed that some biochars raise pH, particularly useful in regions like the northeastern US.

Many analysts report, however, that biochar’s effect on agronomic crop yield is variable, with crop production improvements ranging from negative to more than twofold, compared to controls. Some suggest that this inconsistency is because feedstocks, production methods and temperatures have not been standardized. Grass and nonwoody biomass biochar is more easily mineralized than wood-derived biochar, for instance, resulting in longer predicted soil residency times for wood biochar. From a soil fertility perspective, this increased mineralization from non-woody feedstocks could provide nutrient resources to plants. On the other hand, food waste biochar and that with high volatile matter contents have also suppressed plant growth.

Others feel that the material itself changes as it ages. Soil nutrient improvements may take some time to be observed. Delays may occur if the particular element is enclosed in a chemical ring structure that only slowly decays. Most of the existing studies have been limited to less than 3 years, which may not be enough time for the soil nutrient cycle to be fully affected.

Lastly, it is not clear whether biochar use will be economical in agriculture. Recommended application rates vary from 0.1 pound to 1 pound per square foot, or 2 to 22 tons per acre. At $1000 to $3000 per ton, that is a lot of expense for many growers. In the Third World particularly, poor soils and poverty often go hand-in-hand. Studies in Africa have found that few local farmers are willing to buy biochar at the price necessary to create it.

Environmental and Industrial Uses

Biochar’s capacity to bind to heavy metals in soil can keep them from reaching plants or entering water supplies. This interests governmental and other groups concerned about reclaiming land that has been destroyed by mining. The product’s large and numerous pores also give it a large surface area which enables it to tie up contaminants in polluted water and could remove chemical wastes and provide low-cost water treatment where little funding is available.

Scientists are just beginning to explore biochar’s potential for treating fluids in industrial settings. Oil and gas drilling fluids, print toners and paint products all have been suggested as markets for its ability to clean and process materials that flow.

Biochar Production

Plant responses to biochar soil additions are the net result of production conditions (feedstock types and pyrolysis methods) and postproduction storage or activation activities. These processes can confer unique properties on each batch of biochar, even from the same pyrolysis unit and biomass feedstock.

Reactor pyrolyzes biomass yielding charcoal, from which heat has driven off volatile gases. Some gases are condensed for oil, some used to predry the biomass or burned elsewhere.

Reactor pyrolyzes biomass yielding charcoal, from which heat has driven off volatile gases. Some gases are condensed for oil, some used to predry the biomass or burned elsewhere.

The raw feedstock biomass characteristics impart specific properties to the resulting biochar, such as ash content and elemental constituents like density and hardness. Currently char is being made from such diverse materials as chicken manure and nut hulls, wood scraps and plant residue. Such various sources of organic matter will provide quite different kinds of char.

Specific biochar nutrient concentrations may be greater or lesser than what was in the original feedstock nutrient concentration. Occasional volatilization and loss of nutrients during pyrolysis may be linked to higher production temperatures. The large range of operational maximum temperatures common to slow pyrolysis processes determines the extent of volatilization taking place and therefore the final composition of the resulting biochar.

There are also important differences in biochar quality not only as a function of the production process but also linked to postproduction storage or activation. Surface oxidation of black carbon in storage, even at ambient conditions, alters surface chemical groups, which correspondingly influences potential interactions with soil nutrient cycles. Activation can occur by simply cooling the biochar with water or exposing hot biochar to atmospheric oxygen during cooling.

However you make your char, you should cool it afterward – either with water or air. This cooling process, sometimes called “priming”, significantly alters the chemical and physical properties of the char. Unfortunately, researchers are still unclear how to best prime different chars to maximize their benefits.

Whether you own a large farm or tend a kitchen garden, you can produce your own biochar. The key is to heat waste biomass in a low or zero oxygen environment at temperatures ranging 200 to 800˚ C. Many small farms or homesteaders can only afford low-tech systems that generally produce less than a yard of char per burn.

The International Biochar Institute provides free open-source instructions for constructing many low-tech, small-scale biochar production systems. Materials range widely in cost. You could build a simple burner out of scavenged materials, spend $300 on a cone kiln, or pay upwards of $5,000 plus labor for an Adam Retort. Instructions and designs are available at www.biochar-international.org as well as www.backyardbiochar.net

Biochar in the Future

The possibility of engineering “designer biochars” for improving a specific soil deficiency is one direction in which biochar could develop. There have been efforts, for example, to impregnate biochar with various inorganic fertilizers to serve as diverse slow-release nutrient sources. Biochar could also be blended with specific composts, which could increase its value for both fertility and microbial inoculation.

Biochar is expensive as a carbon sequestration agent or as a soil supplement for crop yield improvements. The high production cost for biochar, however, could be offset if these specialty or boutique markets are more fully developed. Also, if biochar applications to other sectors besides agriculture are expanded, it could result in reduced costs of production.

Critics of biochar are quick to point out, and rightly, that the ultimate future of biochar depends on the sustainability of the feedstocks. In a completely ecological world there is no waste and every product or process must be evaluated for completing cycles efficiently. We need to carefully analyze use of biochar by this standard and see if there are more efficient uses for organic matter than charring and burying them.

Why Organic Dairying?

2cowsOrganic dairy products, at 15% of the U. S. organic market, are second only to fresh fruit and vegetables in sales. The northeast, with our cool seasons, plentiful rainfall, abundant pastures, and hilly (even rocky) terrain, is ideal for dairy farming. The presence of so many nearby population centers makes small, specialized, value-added and raw milk dairies financially possible – in some cases even attractive.

Most of us know someone who is a dairy farmer. Many of us even buy our milk at a local farm. But how much do we know about the biology of milk production itself, the biochemistry of fermentation and culturing which makes so many milk products, or the advantages of natural, unpasteurized milk? For that matter, how many of us know much about the economics of dairying or the realities of raising and milking goats, sheep, or cows?

For that purpose, to inform readers interested in all aspects of organic dairy production, we devote this issue of The Natural Farmer. During the short few years that your humble editors kept a family cow for their thirsty offspring we learned a lot about the dedication and labor required in dairying. We also learned about the amazing wealth that nature has enabled ruminant digestion to create from humble grass. The cheeses soft and hard, cream, yogurt, butter, ice cream and abundant fresh milk we enjoyed made us feel very rich. Looking back, we were!

As we learn more about the incredible evolutionary partnership among herding ruminants, photosynthesizing plants, and carbon-hungry soil organisms – each taking from the others and giving back more in return – the more dairying looks less like another way to make a living and more like a calling. I hope we have touched on that sense among the dairy farmers we feature in this issue.

The True (Unknowable?) Cost of Industrial Food

save-a-lotEggs for 79¢ a dozen?
Ground beef for $1.99 a pound?

Many of us know in our gut that these prices cannot reflect the true cost of food. We know that the seemingly cheap food delivered by the industrialized global food system results in environmental degradation, exploited labor and chronic health problems. Yet, coming up with numbers to estimate the “true” cost of food is difficult, since polluted waterways and poorly treated farmworkers do not come with price tags.

Supporters of industrial food point to its benefits and argue that our living standards would be lower without it. They contend that cheap food is delivered thanks to two important economic principles. For one, economies of scale mean that bigger is better as larger farms can more efficiently utilize land, energy and other resources to grow food at a lower per bushel or per pound cost than small farms. Second, as international trade has increased, facilitated by inexpensive transportation and trade agreements, areas of the world that are relatively better at growing apples, grow apples. Places that are relatively better at growing wheat, grow wheat. Places that are better for grazing animals, raise cattle or sheep. Everyone benefits when regions take advantage of their relative endowments – the climate, type of soil, skills of workers and other attributes. As the agriculture sector has become industrialized, along with food processing industries, food is more plentiful and inexpensive, advocates claim. Moving away from industrialized food will lead to increased food insecurity, higher prices, and environmental degradation as more land and fossil fuels will be required to grow less food.

Industrial food would be a miracle if not for one detail: external costs. The prices shoppers see at the supermarket reflect private costs such as wages and the cost of land, tractors, tools, seeds and other inputs. They may also reflect government subsidies. But they do not usually reflect what economists refer to as “externalities.” Externalities, or external costs, are unintended consequences of an economic activity that are borne by the natural environment, communities, or other third parties. Advocates for industrial food argue that the benefits outweigh these costs but a closer look at the extent of these costs and the difficulties in measuring them may make cheap food not taste so good.

External Costs Abound

Pesticide usage, including herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides, leads to one category of externalities, which includes:

  •  Contamination of surface and groundwater;
  • Human health impacts such as neurological damage, cancer and acute and chronic pesticide poisoning;
  • Loss of beneficial insects;
  • Loss of biodiversity;
  • Colony collapse disorder in bees;
  • Current and future crop losses due to pesticide drift and the cumulative impact on soil health
  • Emergence and spread of an increased number of herbicide-resistant weeds (superweeds) and superpests.

Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) also push costs onto the environment. CAFOs force such a large number of animals to live within a small space, resulting in hundreds of millions of tons of manure. Since living in close quarters facilitates the spread of diseases, CAFO farmers administer non-therapeutic antibiotics to the animals. Some farmers also dose animals with growth hormones. Antibiotics and growth hormones contaminate the manure, making what was traditionally an agricultural resource – as fertilizer – into a significant external cost. These “manure lagoons” leak into waterways and contaminate the water supply. Antibiotic-resistance is also a consequence.

CAFOs impact the communities in which they are situated. Noxious fumes from the manure lagoons cause air pollution. Ammonia, methane, volatile organic compounds among other pollutants impact the livability of rural communities as well as the health of the residents. Journalist David Kirby in his book Animal Factory follows rural communities where farms have transitioned from traditional livestock and dairy operations into CAFOs. While these stories are anecdotal, it is hard to deny the external costs borne by these communities as noxious fumes infiltrate homes in Yakima Valley, Washington, industrial dairies contaminate waterways in Illinois, and recreational activities such as fishing and swimming are destroyed by intensive hog farming on the Neuse River in North Carolina.

Inexpensive food may be undervalued by consumers, leading to waste. Each year, 14 million tons of food are thrown out each year, which is 106 pounds per person, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Little of it is composted; almost all of it is incinerated or landfilled. While wasting food may feel immoral in a world where millions go hungry, it also has external costs. Landfills and incinerators produce greenhouse gases, particularly methane, which is twenty times as harmful to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

Greenhouse gas emissions released throughout the stages of industrial food production from petrochemical fertilizers through manure lagoons to waste, cause climate change. An oft-cited study published in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources found that food systems may account for as much as 29% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, with the vast majority arising from agriculture production or land-use changes such as deforestation for crop production.

The industrialized food system has also facilitated dietary changes that have substantial costs to our well-being and the health care system. These dietary shifts have led to increases in various illnesses such as Type II Diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. Food allergies and a number of chronic conditions are possibly linked to changes in our food consumption such as the presence of genetically-modified ingredients in food.

Louisiana lagoon

Lagoon in East Louisana stores liquified manure from a CAFO feedlot

The true cost of food is also reflected in the people who grow crops and slaughter animals. In the U.S., about half of farmworkers are undocumented, according to an analysis of Department of Labor data done by the organization Farmworkers Justice. Given the reluctance of undocumented workers to participate in surveys, or to respond accurately, this is probably a significant underestimate. Undocumented workers, fearing deportation or worse, will tend to be unwilling to report abuse, workplace injuries, underpayment of wages, or other contract violations. A year-long investigation of female farmworkers by PBS’s documentary series, Frontline, documents not only the abuse they suffer from repeated rapes, but their fear in reporting the abuse. Even farmworkers with an H2-A visa are tied to their employer and are much more vulnerable than the average employee.

Small farmers might be said to exploit themselves. Power in the food system has led to lower farmgate prices making it more difficult to make a living at farming. The average small farm, according to the USDA, has negative farm earnings and is reliant on outside income. Many small farms commonly use outside income to invest in the farm to keep it going. Even small farms with moderate-sales earn nearly half their income off-farm.

Measuring External Costs

The low price of food at the supermarket is only the illusion of efficiency, given these externalities. But is it possible to assign dollar values to the array of costs? Several studies have tried to do just this. For example, a Dutch study estimated the “true” cost of pork. It found that conventional pork would need to be priced nearly one-third higher than it is currently sold in supermarkets in order to reflect all private and external costs. Cornell scientist, Dr. David Pimentel, concluded that pesticides cause $10 billion annually in environmental and societal damages in the U.S., including $2 billion alone in groundwater contamination.

Other studies have attempted to be even more comprehensive. In 2000, Jules Pretty and a number of other scholars attempted to measure the externalities arising from agriculture in the UK. They grouped external costs into seven categories, the first four of which concern damage to natural capital: (1) water (e.g. pesticides in drinking water); (2) air (e.g. nitrous oxide emissions); (3) soil (e.g. organic matter losses); (4) biodiversity and landscape (e.g. hedgerow and bee colony losses). The other three categories concern damage to human health arising from: (5) pesticides (acute and chronic effects), (6) nitrates and (7) microorganisms and other disease agents (e.g. antibiotic resistance). For 1996, the authors estimate that there were around $3.7 billion (approximately $5.6 billion in today’s dollars) in external costs, or $325 per hectare (nearly $500 in today’s dollars) of arable land or permanent pasture.

Guided by the framework of the UK study, Erin Tegtmeier and Michael Duffy, economists at Iowa State University, published a similar study on U.S. agriculture. Their findings had a lower per hectare amount due to the exclusion of costs such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and agency monitoring costs that were present in the UK study. They concluded that in 2002, somewhere between $5 and $15 billion ($6.6 to $19.7 billion in today’s dollars) were the external costs of agricultural production. U.S. agriculture accounts for about $192 billion of the annual GDP, so external costs could be as little as 3.5% of total output at the low end, or as much as 10% at the high end.

ecosystem servicesGiven the long list of external costs, these numbers may seem surprisingly low. Though these studies may be thorough and systematic, difficulties arise in estimating costs as the authors of such studies are the first to acknowledge. For one, some of the estimates are known to be substantial underestimates, such as treating eutrophication of reservoirs and restoration of hedgerows in the British study. Moreover, external costs that are deemed impossible to calculate such as treatment of marine eutrophication and flood defenses are excluded. The data available only enable partial estimates in some cases. For example, records used to determine the impact of feedlot spills on fish kills were only available for ten states in the U.S. study. The British study did not have data on treatment of drinking water costs for the entire country so the estimate to rid drinking water of pesticides and other contaminants was incomplete.

Uncertainty also plays a role in limiting the accuracy of external cost estimates. The human and ecological costs associated with climate change provide a ready example. While scientists agree that the costs of climate change will be large, identifying exactly what form they will take and when is still deeply uncertain. Even if we knew precisely how any weather patterns would shift and the problems associated with them, putting dollar values on more frequent flooding from hurricanes or inability to grow food is complex. All this makes deciding how to put a price on carbon emissions very difficult. Is the social cost of a ton of carbon $37, as the White House says, or $900, as economist Frank Ackerman poses as a high-end estimate? Or is it $0, the implicit price, given the lack of regulation, and the price that might be posited by climate deniers? In the study on the external costs of U.S. agriculture, the authors assume a price of $0.98 per ton of carbon for a total of $451 million. If they had used the White House price for carbon, the climate change cost alone would be $17 billion doubling their entire estimate for the external costs of agriculture. A price of $900 per ton would result in $414 billion. In other words, the costs of industrial agriculture would clearly outweigh the benefits, assuming the benefits are mostly reflected in market prices.

The impact of other events is even less known than climate change. For example, the impact of pesticides as endocrine disruptors is unknown. The impact of the spread of genetically-modified seeds is unknown both in terms of human health and genetic pollution. What could be the impact of colony collapse disorder of bees? In the British study, bee colony losses are estimated at a few million dollars and in the U.S. study at $410 million. A study out of the UC-Berkeley found that pollinators impacted 35 percent of the world’s crop production. Like climate change, bee colony collapse could be catastrophic.

Putting a price tag on nature itself is fraught with challenges. Scholars in Ecological Economics estimated that ecosystems globally provide on average $33 trillion annually worth of services (or nearly $50 trillion in today’s dollars). In other words, ecosystem services are worth at least two-thirds of all the human-made goods and services produced annually in the global economy. Even if this type of estimate were solid, how a loss or partial loss of an ecosystem or biome will reverberate through the economy is difficult to project.

Many studies of costs simply have yet to be done or are rough approximations rather than detailed estimates. A European Union report asserts that a definitive study on the economic burden of nutrition-related health disorders is still needed and that available data on health care indicates that the cost is billions and billions of dollars.

Another source of underestimation occurs because many of the victims of external costs have no power. Undocumented farmworkers’ stories of working in U.S. fields and slaughterhouses are not fully known because of their vulnerability. Farmers in developing countries have little power in the marketplace when faced by the behemoths of the food industry that control many of the inputs to production as well as the markets for produce and meat. Contracted chicken growers in the U.S. are unwittingly replicating the sharecropping relationship between former slaves and plantation owners during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Colony collapse disorder

Colony collapse disorder. What is the value of the world’s bees?

Likewise, animals have no power in the economy. How should we value animal welfare?

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt to identify these costs and even try to put a dollar value on them. Given the politicized nature of civic decision-making, and the low-power positions of those suffering from the current food system, making the costs known and even offering numbers might be seen as a sort of affirmative action plan for a better food system. Yet we should acknowledge that political difference may be based on values and no numbers will ever convince a supporter of the industrialized food system that we need change.

Moving toward more sustainable food

Given the numbers we do know and given the level of risk involved in continuing our current food system, the case can be made for moving toward greater sustainability. A more sustainable food system would need to produce abundant, healthy food, grown and processed by those who earn a living wage, and which would minimize the environmental impact such that the level of future generations’ well-being would be at least that of our own.

What is less clear is how we get from today’s food system to a more sustainable one. We often hear that consumers can make a difference by voting with their dollars. Many economists, though, would argue that relying too heavily on consumer choice will take too long. Climate change, increased competition over scarce resources, continued worker exploitation, animals unable to stand up on their own legs, contaminated water supplies, increased chronic health conditions, biodiversity loss, superweeds, and destroyed recreational areas will be the result.

Economists’ most typical solution to external costs of any economic activity is called a “Pigouvian” or corrective tax. If we can measure the externalities – for example, how much it would cost to clean up a polluted water supply – we can assess a tax on the activity causing the pollution that will provide the funding for the clean up. The tax will also serve to make a polluting method of production relatively more expensive, and cleaner methods of production relatively less expensive, changing incentives toward better behavior. This incentive-based mechanism underlines the importance of continued research on external costs of the food system.

“Pigouvian” subsidies can also play a role in subsidizing research and production methods that lead to positive spillover effects such as increased soil health or new information on organic pest management.

Governments, universities, and independent foundations can support research and development of alternative agriculture and identify pathways for scaling up successful experiments in no-till agriculture, permaculture, managed grazing or other promising avenues. These institutions may be implicated in the development of our current food system, but this only indicates the power that can be harnessed for positive change.

Regulations can also play a role by eliminating pesticides that are linked to chronic illnesses or disorders like colony collapse.
Though recent defeats of labeling laws in California and elsewhere sound a pessimistic note, food labeling laws combined with accurate information can help consumers make better choices.

Our global food system didn’t simply evolve. There is nothing predetermined about the system we have. Research went into developing, for example, new active ingredient pesticides and genetically modified organisms. Many of the choices made reflect power in the food system and the role of the profit motive. A more sustainable food system can only be brought about by countering the power in the current food system. Organizations like NOFA are already an active part of the alternative food movement, educating consumers and connecting them to producers while lobbying for more productive government policy. These activities must continue and grow.

For those interested in reading more, the author recommends The Real Cost of Cheap Food by Michael Carolan, published by Earthscan.
Anita Dancs is a NOFA/Massachusetts member and a professor of economics at Western New England University.

Why Soil Remediation?

Backyard farms, community gardens, parklands, rail trails and dozens of other creative repurposings of land are transforming our landscape. Many of these changes involve introducing agricultural activities where they had not existed for many years. In the past decade the number of community gardens in the US incereased from 6,000 to 18,000, and the trend is accelerating. But as more of us come to live in cities, or try to bring into production land that has had previous contaminating uses, we need to be more thoughtful about avoiding toxic chemicals, heavy metals, or other man-made problems in our soil.

This issue is an attempt to survey the topic of Soil Remediation and report on groups that are in the trenches (literally, in some cases) dealing with contaminated ground and the current methods – in some cases physical barriers, in other cases planting in containers, some using plants to accumulate or microbes to detoxify contaminants, others applying humic substances to immobilize them – for making soil usable again.

Those of us blessed with rural farm locations and healthy soils may not think twice about how fortunate we are to have such gifts. But even pristine environments now sometimes suffer spills and dumpings, so it behooves us to be aware of how easily healthy soil can turn toxic. Also, reading about how much time and effort is necessary to repair tainted land should make us all more grateful for the miracle of living, active soil that we can so easily take for granted.

Some wise person once observed that the only thing standing between humanity and starvation is a few inches of biologically active topsoil. It is humbling to think that most of what we do as farmers and gardeners is tend forces that we don’t really understand, letting the knowledge bound up in seeds and soil sustain us. We hope that you enjoy this issue and it energizes your appreciation of these mundane miracles.

The History of Invasiveness

Marseilles fig – Thomas Jefferson’s passion for figs helped propagate this variety in Virginia. In 1809, Jefferson wrote to Dr. William Thornton, a close friend and architect: “I will take some occasion of sending you some cuttings of the Marseilles fig, which I brought from France with me, & is unquestionably superior to any fig I have ever seen.”

The story of animal, insect and plant invaders is as old as the world itself. When humankind first began to roam, these beings tagged along. In strange new lands, the human instinct to collect unique specimens was born. So bits and pieces of non-natives came back with them – if indeed, these peoples ever returned to their points of origin.

From the tea-horse trade route in ancient Tibet to the Silk Road trade across Asia, Russia, Arabia and Africa into Europe, humans have moved about in search of economic opportunity. Certain plants and animals have been successfully raised far from their native regions when there were similarities in soil and climate: cotton, indigo, tobacco, rice, silk and wool come to mind along with all our domesticated animals. Other peoples moved to find religious freedom, escape tyrannical regimes, or just to have more living space. Whether intentionally or inadvertently, plants, animals and insects came with them.

By the eighteenth century, the quest began to find plants with beauty and ornament, hardiness, resiliance, disease resistance or unusual form or color. Collectors such as our founding fathers, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, continually sought these qualities in their garden plants while keeping an eye out for species with economic or useful value to the new country. The Dutch collected bulbs from Turkey. The Victorians sent plant explorers around the world to bring back new curiosities. Such searching continues in the field of horticulture with modern day plant explorers like Dan Hinckley and Darrell Probst, as well as woody plant selector and hybridizer Dr. Michael Dirr.

Seeds have several ways to travel: they can float, stick, or blow. They can be eaten by animals like birds, pass through their digestive systems, and germinate in place. Bits of some roots or stems can grow readily if cut on purpose or acidentally. Now that we move about ever more widely in the 21st century, the movement of invaders has quickened. Natural controls in the land of origin, such as insect predators, host-specific funguses or herbivores, do not always accompany the invading plants. It may take eons for such controls to “catch up.” Meanwhile, our own native plants have evolved in place with their own control systems intact. And they may not be able to withstand the quickly moving, overpowering characteristics of many invaders.

Bringing the taste for non-native plants home to our own Northeastern United States:

Leslie Mehrhoff

Leslie J. Mehrhoff worked for the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UConn as the curator of the George Safford Torrey Herbarium. He was involved in organizations including, but not limited to, the Connecticut Botanical Society, New England Wildflower Society, and the Torrey Botanical Club. He also participated in various committees such as the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, CT chapter of The Nature Conservancy, The CT Invasive Plant Working Group, and served as one of the Invasive Plant Atlas of New England Project Managers.

• David Fairchild, plant explorer extraordinaire for the USDA in the early 1900s, had trouble propagating kudzu from cuttings but then had overwhelming success with seeds (he also collected what turned out to be many economically and culturally successful crops such as oranges and avocados)
• E. H. Wilson, Keeper of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston in the 1920s and 30s and a plant explorer in his own right, wrote about shrubs with berries for birds and recommended privet and buckthorn (as well as native viburnums and a host of “good” plants)
• State extension service agents wrote pamphlets in the 1950s through 70s advocating the use of many non-native exotic plants for erosion control and wildlife forage, including multiflora rose and autumn olive
• Most American yards today are 80% lawn and 20% non-native ornamental shrubs that provide absolutely no nutritional value to our native insects, birds and wildlife per the research of Douglas Tallamy, Professor of Entomology at the University of Delaware and best-selling author
• Lurking at the edges of these yards are a legion of non-native plant invaders that are spiraling out of control with the potential to destroy native ecosystems, change soil chemistry, biology, and structure while creating early season shade in monocultures that wipe out the native plant understory over time
• Invading continues: Asian Longhorned Beetle, Emerald Ash Borer, Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, Gypsy Moth, Colorado Potato Beetle, and numerous other insect pests have become scourges in our time and have damaged both native and non-native plants along with field crops

The field of conservation biology is a young science. The late Dr. Leslie Mehrhoff, member of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut and Curator of its Herbarium, was one of the early researchers into the science of invasiveness. In 1999, a group of experts in horticulture, conservation, natural resources, agriculture, academic science and land management convened in Massachusetts under the aegis of the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. They identified themselves as the Massachusetts Invasive Plant Advisory Group (MIPAG). This entity turned to Dr. Mehrhoff’s research as a starting point for their work on the question of identifying and listing invasive plants. A similar relationship developed in Connecticut between Dr. Mehrhoff and the Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group, founded in 1997.

MIPAG released a document in 2005 listing plants classifed by scientific criteria of Invasive, Like Invasive, Potentially Invasive, or Evaluated but not meeting Criteria of Invasiveness. This list was last updated in 2016 and is found at https://www.massnrc.org/mipag/speciesreviewed_alpha.htm, and the Connecticut list can be viewed at https://www.invasive.org/species/list.cfm?id=66. Another valuable resource is the website of the Invasive Plant Atlas of New England, https://www.eddmaps.org/ipane/, continually updated by trained volunteer field spotters and professionals. There is a smart phone app to report sightings of invasives directly from the field. Lists include plants, insects, diseases and wildlife.

Also in 1999, a group of NOFA members from Massachusetts and Connecticut involved in the landscape business banded together to meet monthly under the leadership of Dr. Kimberly Stoner. Our goal was to write standards for the organic care of landscapes, modeled after what existed for organic farmers. We would do that and more, going on to develop an annual accreditation course to train land care professionals and presenting a series of public outreach lectures to raise awareness of this alternative to traditional chemical- and pesticide-based landscaping. I was fortunate to be a part of the group at the same time that I began my own organic landscape gardening company.

David Fairchild

David Grandison Fairchild (1869 – 1954) was an American botanist and plant explorer. Fairchild was responsible for the introduction of more than 200,000 exotic plants and varieties of established crops into the United States, including soybeans, pistachios, mangos, nectarines, dates, bamboos, and flowering cherries. Certain varieties of wheat, cotton, and rice became especially economically important.

We were able to adopt much of the organic farming standards. However, we noticed that there was no mention of invasive plants and how to deal with them. Donald Bishop, one of our number, was charged with researching and writing this section. He was at the time a member of the new MIPAG entity and owner of an organic land care business. With each of the five succeeding editions of the Standards for Organic Land Care, this chapter has had an update. Now entitled “Native, Exotic and Invasive Plants,” this section of the Standards is worth reading (www.organiclandcare.net).

In the nearly 20 years since the writing of the Standards, I notice that clients are now much more aware of which plants are invasive and which are non-invasive or native. There are a few people who request that we leave the invasive plant in place, saying “at least it’s green” or “it screens me from my neighbor.” We work carefully to educate these clients, dropping nuggets of wisdom and leading by example. In time, we will replace those outlying invasive plants with a native alternative.

Most states have watch lists or lists of prohibited plants that are published online for reference. Burning bush, red barberry and Norway maples are no longer propagated and sold by nurseries, at least in this area, but may be available on the Internet from other states. Buyer beware! However, these and other invasive species still grow in many yards.

It is up to us individually to create what Doug Tallamy is calling “Homegrown National Park” of at least 80% native plants in our own backyards, nourishing the caterpillars and the birds that consume them. This web of life is fragile and oh-so important to our own lives.

Recommended Reading List:

Fairchild, David, The World Was My Garden: Travels of a Plant Explorer. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943.
Grimshaw, John. The Gardener’s Atlas: The Origins, Discovery and Cultivation of the World’s Most Popular Garden Plants. London: Quarto Publishing, 1998.
Shepherd, Sue, Seeds of Fortune: A Gardening Dynasty. New York: Bloomsbury, 2003.
Spongberg, Stephen, A Reunion of Trees: The Discovery of Exotic Plants and Their Introduction Into North American and European Landscapes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990.
Tallamy, Douglas, Bringing Nature Home. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2007.
Tallamy, Douglas, Nature’s Best Hope. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2020.
Todd, Kim, Tinkering with Eden: A Natural History of Exotics in America. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001.
Wilson, E.H., Aristocrats of the Garden. New York: Doubleday, Page and Company, 1917.
Wulf, Andrea, Founding Gardeners. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.
Wulf, Andrea, Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession. London: William Heinemann, 2008.

Priscilla Hutt Williams is Founder and President of Pumpkin Brook Organic Gardening in Townsend, Massachusetts and a co-author of the first edition of Standards for Organic Land Care: Practices for the Design and Maintenance of Ecological Landscapes, 2001.