It’s growing season and I’m picking kale and arugula for salads, stir-fries and smoothies. I look at peach, pear and blueberry blossoms imagining future pies, jams and compotes. But I also know that the days are over when agriculture was about what we grew in our gardens. Much of our food comes from thousands of miles away. But even food grown in our country still depends on the global economy in more ways than one. Surprisingly, the war in Ukraine could have a profound impact on local agriculture.
Industrial agriculture today depends on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Many American farms are highly dependent on fossil fuels. And I’m not just talking about the transition from mules to tractors, but the fact that natural gas is a major component of most fertilizers today. Russia is by far the world’s largest fertilizer exporter and has publicly stated that it is restricting its distribution in response to NATO sanctions. CHS Inc., the largest agricultural cooperative in the United States, recently announced that it was concerned about obtaining Russian fertilizers because of sanctions that could make farming increasingly prohibitive. With rising gas prices due to these same sanctions, even domestic fertilizers, which also consume a lot of fossil fuels, become prohibitively expensive. Fertilizer prices were already skyrocketing before the crisis, so many fertilizer-dependent farmers are already feeling the pain.
Of course, this has not always been the case. In the past, agriculture was practiced in conjunction with nature, not against it. Crop rotation allowed the soil to replenish its nutrients. Growing grain and hay and having pasture for poultry and/or beef not only meant the farmer was more resilient to disease, flood or drought, but also the minerals generated by all operations farms could feed the crops. Farmers worked with nature by growing a diversity of crops of many species that naturally limited pests, while reducing weeds and preventing disease.
According to local agriculture resilience expert Laura Lengnick, eliminating diversity from the farming system means today’s farmer must both nurture the crops and do all of nature’s work by adding fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides which are all fossil energy products. “We have moved from nature-based agriculture to oil consumption.” Lengnick says that 40% of the high energy needs of an average American farm today come from chemicals that replace what nature did for them in the past.
This vulnerability to weather, pests, weeds and disease increases dramatically when a species is planted fence to fence. A financial adviser who advises a client to buy only one financial product instead of diversifying his portfolio would be closed for embezzlement. But too often, factory farming does just that, shunning diversity, making it far more vulnerable to financial ruin.
How did we move away from resilient agriculture? The shift from diversification to an industrial agricultural model from the 1950s seemed like a good thing. Farmers could specialize in one crop and let others grow other crops. Technology had to be our solution. But agriculture depends on nature and following patterns of cultivation outside of natural systems means an uphill battle that requires more fertilizers, more pesticides, which creates greater impacts on waterways and the environment. air. And with industrialization comes simplification. We now have areas of the country where the lion’s share of certain foods are grown, but that leaves our entire food system extremely vulnerable because those areas are also ground zero for the worst effects of climate change. For example, California’s Central Valley, the breadbasket of the United States, is now in its 21st year of drought, and pig farms in eastern North Carolina tend to be under water for some of the year due to hurricane-related flooding.
There is no shortage of positive responses, according to Lengnick. Instead of eating oil, which means prices will continue to rise, food systems will continue to be threatened, and the quality of what we eat will continue to decline, we can use solar-powered systems and we can return to portfolio farm diversification that is better for people, better for the land and better for the planet. Organic farming also significantly reduces chemicals derived from fossil fuels and works with natural systems. And it will be more resilient because it will be based on regional inputs rather than globally supplied fossil fuel-based inputs. Fortunately, more local farmers are doing just that. So if you’re not growing it yourself, buy local and ask your farmer what fertilizes his soil.
David Weintraub is a cultural curator, filmmaker and local environmental troublemaker who directs the Center for Cultural Preservation. Contact him at SaveCulture.org or 828-692-8062.