Friday, July 3, 2009

Stark contrast

I drive through a beautiful part of the Peace River valley every morning on my way to work. It is a little flood plain set against the hills of the valley in which lies a farmers field, lush forest, abundant wildlife, and a small residential development that, although within city limits, looks akin to country living. In the fall and winter the field is crawling with deer and the occasional moose. In the spring, it is a collection of roadside creeks channeling the spring runoff into the mighty Peace. And when summer comes, it really pops. There is a plethora of wild roses growing along the road that just recently bloomed. The boreal forest abutting the fields is lush with greenery. So it was with some confusion that I read the articles in the Globe and Mail about the catastrophic drought affecting most of Alberta right now, including the Peace River region. If all I had to rely on was my visual input during the day, I wouldn't believe it. But I talk to my parents, still devoted, hard-working farmers, and I read the data. Large swaths of Alberta have received less than 40% of average precipitation in the last 60 days. Peace River has received only 40-60% of average precipitation.

But why do my eyes deceive me? As I drive through this valley every day, all I can see is the lush green forest. However, I noticed something today. Although the farmer's field of canola looks healthy at first glance, a closer look reveals that the stems are sparsely placed and that the vibrant yellow flower of the canola plant is already in bloom. The end of June? That's not right. How could it be in bloom? The drought. And many fields up here look like this. So it got me to wandering about the abundant greenery adjacent to the field. It was a stark contrast. Amidst this environmental devastation that ranks this June as the driest on Canadian records, this forest thrives. How is this possible?

I don't know enough about industrial agriculture to claim that it is a failure as a Western experiment. But the whole contrast got me wondering. Numerous seedlings germinated in this forest during this horrible drought. The canopy is full of leaves and the wild roses are chalk full of beautiful pink flowers blooming right when they're supposed to. All this with no synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides. So is industrial agriculture inefficient? Does it make the very products it grows and sells susceptible to destruction?

What I have found doesn't look good. Consider a forest: it is a self-sustaining ecosystem. If done right, agriculture should at least be sustainable, if not self-sustainable. However, studies have shown over the last many years that the energy efficiency of our food system has drastically declined. The energy output-energy input ratio has gone from around 100 in pre-industrial societies (that is we get 100 calories of food energy out for every 1 calorie of energy put in) to less than 1 in today's agricultural system. And that doesn't even include the transportation of our food which brings this ratio much lower. For example, iceberg lettuce was included in one detailed study that showed we need to put 127 calories IN to produce and ship to source 1 calorie of iceberg lettuce to the consumer. Johns Hopkins University estimates that the average input for 1 calorie of North American food is 3 calories.

How about the farms and crops themselves? A study done in 1989 by the National Research Council concluded that "Well-managed alternative farming systems nearly always use less synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics per unit of production than conventional farms. Reduced use of these inputs lowers production costs and lessens agriculture’s potential for adverse environmental and health effects without decreasing and in some cases increasing per acre crop yields and the productivity of livestock management systems.” The article goes on to state that various studies and agricultural experts have concluded that "small farms almost always produce far more agricultural output per unit area than larger farms...[that] smaller farm sizes are 2 to 10 times more productive per unit acre than larger ones...[that] the smallest farms surveyed in the study, those of 27 acres or less, are more than ten times as productive (in dollar output per acre) than large farms (6,000 acres or more), and extremely small farms (4 acres or less) can be over a hundred times as productive."

Finally, the practice of monoculture, row-on-row planting increases the susceptibility of the crop to environmental calamities like drought and, what farmers are now expecting is the next kick coming to Alberta, grasshoppers. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Southern Corn Leaf Blight in 1970 destroyed 60% of the US corn crop. That was almost 40 years ago now, and already it demonstrates the dangers of monoculture farming.

Is it time for us to reconsider our modern agricultural system? I don't know, but it's certainly got me thinking. Any thoughts?

No comments: