Nourishing the Planet’s Kimberlee Davies spoke recently with Matt Ray, the principal farmer for Sweet Water Organics, an aquaponics training organization in Milwaukee, about his experience in the field of aquaponics.
Sweet Water Organics uses aquaponics technology to grow food in downtown Milwaukee.
What is aquaponics? How did you become involved?
Aquaponics has been around for centuries. It was traditionally a technique in tropical climates, using floating bamboo rafts with vegetation in fresh water pools. This was simply the adaptation of agriculture to the tropics. The technique has become cutting edge over the last 20 years. We can adapt aquaponics to today’s geographies and culture.
Aquaponics is a blending of aquaculture (the raising of aquatic animals) and hydroponics (growing plants in water without soil). In aquaponics, aquatic animals serve as the nutrition base for the plants. The great thing about aquaponics is that it is a closed system; it doesn’t have to flow in one pipe and out of another.
I saw it begin to pop up in the late 1980s, starting with the Virgin Islands, Australia, and even Asia, where fish are grown symbiotically with rice paddies. Forward-thinking farmers and activists began to develop the practice in non-tropical climates, and academics began researching the field. Twenty years later, we have a lot more people doing it. Scientific data has emerged to support the spread and success of this technique. It’s possible to take the nuts and bolts and adapt them to wherever you are. It’s going to work and it can be replicated.
There are an estimated 18,000 community gardens in the United States and Canada, according to the group Why Hunger, and thousands more worldwide. Designing Healthy Communities, a project of the nonprofit Media Policy Center, notes that community gardens “can play a significant role in enhancing the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being necessary to build healthy and socially sustainable communities.”
Naasir Ali participates in the “Growing Food…Growing Together” program at the Washington Youth Garden. (Photo credit: Cintia Cabib)
At Common Good City Farm, a work-exchange program enables local residents to volunteer in the garden in exchange for fresh produce. One volunteer explains just how important the garden is for her: “The garden plays a big role in my life because it feeds me. I live out of this garden: whatever I get every Wednesday, that’s what feeds me for the whole week.”
At Fort Stevens Community Garden, an organic garden run by the National Park Service, immigrant gardeners from around the world grow fruits and vegetables that are native to their homelands in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The Park Service also provides land and water for the Melvin Hazen Community Garden, which was once a World War II victory garden.
Check out this op-ed published in the Inter Press Service news agency, about Worldwatch’s recent Vital Signs report on organic agriculture.
The article discusses the benefits and opportunities of organic farming worldwide. Irganic farmland has grown more than threefold since 1999; in this time, certified organic products have created a niche market, allowing farmers to earn premium prices over conventional products, particularly when selling to supermarkets or restaurants.
Despite the growing worldwide demand for organic food, clothing, and other products, the area of land certified as organic still makes up just 0.9 percent of global agricultural land. In 2010, the latest year for which data are available, 37 million hectares of land were organically farmed—an area that has grown more than threefold since 1999.
Certified organic farmland still represents just .9 percent of all agricultural land. (Photo credit: Andrew Hyde)
There is large regional variation in the area of land farmed organically. Oceania, which includes Australia, New Zealand, and Pacific Island nations, leads the world in certified organic land, with 12.1 million hectares in 2010. In contrast, North America had 2.6 million hectares of organic land, and Africa had just over 1 million hectares.
Reliable data are lacking for land that is farmed using organic principles but that is not certified organic. Many farmers, particularly subsistence farmers or those selling to local markets, farm organically but do not acquire organic certification. Certified organic products have created a niche market in recent decades, allowing farmers to earn premium prices over conventional products, particularly when selling to supermarkets or restaurants.
The countries with the most certified organic producers in 2010 were India (400,551 farmers), Uganda (188,625), and Mexico (128,826), while the region that added the most organic farmland between 2009 and 2010 was Europe. Overall, the amount of organically farmed land worldwide dropped slightly, by 0.1 percent, between 2009 and 2010—due largely to a decrease in organic land in India and China.
This summer, record temperatures and limited rainfall parched vast areas of U.S. cropland, and with Earth’s surface air temperature projected to rise 0.69 degrees Celsius by 2030, global food production will be even more unpredictable. Although agriculture is a major driver of human-caused climate change, contributing an estimated 25 to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, when done sustainably it can be an important key to mitigating climate change.
Agroforestry is one practice that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions while adapting to the effects of climate change. (Photo credit: Christensen Fund)
Because of its reliance on healthy soil, adequate water, and a delicate balance of gases such as carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, farming is the human endeavor most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. But agriculture’s strong interrelationships with both climatic and environmental variables also make it a significant player in reducing climate-altering emissions as well as helping the world adapt to the realities of a warming planet.
The good news is that agriculture can hold an important key to mitigating climate change. Practices such as using animal manure rather than artificial fertilizer, planting trees on farms to reduce soil erosion and sequester carbon, and growing food in cities all hold huge potential for reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the global agricultural sector could potentially reduce and remove 80 to 88 percent of the carbon dioxide that it currently emits. By adopting more-sustainable approaches, small-scale agriculture in developing countries has the potential to contribute 70 percent of agriculture’s global mitigation of climate change. And many of these innovations have the potential to be replicated, adapted, and scaled up for application on larger farms, helping to improve water availability, increase diversity, and improve soil quality, as well as mitigate climate change. (more…)
Citywatch: Whether it’s action or traction in the food world, cities are stepping up to the plate. The world is fast going urban, as are challenges of social, economic and environmental well being. Citywatch is crucial to Worldwatch. Wayne Roberts, retired manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council, has his eye out for the future of food in the city. Click here to read more from Wayne.
Stanford recently released a controversial study comparing organic and conventionally produced foods (Photo Credit: Susan Troccolo)
The international media had a field day headlining a Stanford university study dissing the nutritional benefits of organic food. I hope it’s not too late for me to ask a few questions that might steer the debate in a more useful direction.
I would like the media to explain why a study that was not based on either original research or professional expertise was considered so significant.
The paper, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, is strictly a “meta-analysis,” combining some of the findings of some 200 other scientists’ publications over the years. It is the ninth such paper to come out in a decade, and the fourth to turn thumbs down on organic claims to significant superiority in the nutritional realm – not exactly trail-blazing stuff. Nor, considering the ability of writers to cherry pick various findings from different individual studies, does a meta-analysis inherently prove much more than ability to cherry pick. That’s why new hard research, rather than summaries of old research, is usually the stuff of news stories.
I would also like to ask why no-one checked the qualifications of this 12-person team, which was granted immediate credibility, despite the absence of a professional nutritionist, agrologist or bio-medical specialist. One is a librarian, a few are graduate students, several are medical doctors who specialize in such fields as infectious disease, bio-terrorism, diagnosis or HIV, one is a mathematician, one an administrator, one a research assistant.
The heavy-hitter on the team is Igram Olkin, an 88 year-old retired professor of statistics. Stanford University media releases cite his renown as a specialist in meta-analysis, without mentioning that his name is batted around as a paid witness on statistics for the tobacco industry. Given that the Stanford team’s use of statistics is subjected to withering criticism by organic advocate and academic Charles Benbrook, it’s odd no mainstream reporter checked to see if where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
It’s also a bit odd that no-one asked what an article on nutritional merits of organic foods was doing in a medical journal, given that doctors have minimal training, credentials or interest in this field – although maybe I’ve just answered my own question.
One of the first things I learned when researching for my first serious food book some 15 years ago was that the relation between organic and nutrition does not compute.
Nutritional levels vary according to a host of factors. One big one is the quality of soil long before anyone farmed it organically or conventionally (no history of volcanoes in New York means no rich volcanic ash in the soil, for example). Another factor that has little to do with organic or conventional is when the crop was picked (tomatoes get most of their vitamin C as they turn red, not when they’re hard and green, which is when they get picked by machines).
The list of crucial questions and variables keeps growing: how long was the produce in a truck or store, under what conditions was the food stored, how was the food prepared (some vitamins are destroyed by heat, some nutrients only become available when heated).
It’s quite likely that healthier and stronger plants grow on organically-managed soils, without any help from synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. But that’s no guarantee that the plants bulked up on more nutrients. Organic or not, plants work to meet their own survival needs, not ours, and the optimum level of vitamin B needed by a particular plant may or may not work best for humans. That’s why people choose particular plants if they’re looking for high doses of particular nutrients.
Put the whole mix together, and a study based on analysis of a conventional ruby red tomato, lightly cooked immediately after picking, will probably show more nutrients than an organic tomato picked green from an industrial organic farm a week ago, hauled across the continent on a truck, and left to sit at a salad bar, for example. These are the kinds of things that affect nutrient levels, and anyone who knows more about nutrition than editors of a conventional medical journal would hear alarms ringing in their ears if writers started making a big case about nutrient differences with or without organic.
This is why nutrition expert Marion Nestle started her blog item on the controversy by saying “sigh,” as in “have I not explained this a hundred times already?” Organic advocates rarely make a nutritional claim, she points out. So the Stanford article is knocking down a straw man.
With dairy and meat, new evidence suggests that a key issue is how animals are treated. Still- controversial studies suggest that grass-fed animals have more nutritious milk and meat than animals fed corn and soy – no matter whether organic or conventional. That’s only logical, given that most animals evolved to eat grass rather than corn or soy, which are good for bulking up fast, but not necessarily so good for complex nutrients.
Organic scores well, even in the Stanford study, in terms of pesticide residue, which is as important to personal health as nutrients. Almost no-one is suffering from scurvy, rickets or wasting in North America or Europe, where the Stanford study got a lot of media, but breast, prostate, colon and bladder cancers have affected almost every family. A strong case can be made that toxic residues from pesticides, brought into the body by food, are implicated in these cancers. So this isn’t exactly a minor selling point for organics.
On the question of toxins, however, I’m also intrigued that there are any—not 30 per cent less, but any—pesticide residues on organic. That can only mean that the toxins from conventional fields migrated by air, rain or water table to organic fields, and who knows where else.
Why didn’t that set off media alarm bells? It means that people who pay extra for organic are still getting toxic residues that rightfully belong to the people who produced and bought conventional food.
This is an issue worthy of a meta-analysis. Are organic consumers dupes, taking the toxic bullet for people who saved money thanks to pesticides. Is it fair that some farmers get to cut their production costs by spreading toxins throughout the environment?
Since the Stanford team is asking whether organic costs more when it doesn’t deliver more nutrients, why doesn’t the team also ask the flip side of the question—whether conventional gets to charge less because the toxic load is passed on to everyone?
That question gets to the penultimate tricky question of agricultural prices. Why do some get to offload costs to the environment for free, while those who contribute to a safer environment get no fee compensating them for their extra work on behalf of the public good? If an environmental fee was paid to the farmer producing the environmental service, then all farmers would compete on an even playing field, and no academics would ever have to ask whether organic delivers more value for the money.
Why doesn’t the Stanford team, or any of the media following their study, ask that? There I go again, answering my own question.
Wayne Roberts is on the board of Unitarian Service Committee of Canada-Seeds of Survival, which funds “cials” in Honduras, and he toured Honduras as one of their delegation.
To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.
Organic farming work being done on the Dago Dala Hera orphanage property. (Photo Credit: Patrick Odoyo)
Name: Patrick Odoyo
Affiliation: Program Coordinator, Dago Dala Hera Orphanage of Kenya
Biography: Patrick Odoyo is the program director and coordinator for Dago Dala Hera Orphanage in Dago Kaminasuo, Kenya, a children’s center and home offering the services of education, skills training, and room and board for children affected with HIV/AIDS. He is also a guest lecturer on African studies and his life experiences at the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation and the University of Michigan.
What are the day-to-day operations like at Dago Dala Hera?
There are 114 children who attend the day school at the orphanage and 36 girls who permanently reside there during the day and night. The day is a mixture of residential activities centered on the main component of education and schooling for the children.
How successful have your fundraising events in the U.S. been?
Fundraising in the U.S. has been difficult but we have been active in organizing church meetings and creative fundraisers. Due to donor fatigue and the fact that we are not yet a 501k organization, it has been difficult to get people to donate. But our soccer tournament has been very successful—it started in 2008 from the planning efforts of village volunteers. The annual Kick it with Kenya soccer tournament held in rural villages all across Western Kenya, brings vital public health education on HIV/AIDS to its youth, and earns proceeds that benefit the orphanage operations.
How does intensive organic farming benefit the Dago Dala Hera?
Through organic farming we teach ways in which students can be self-sustaining. Planting Moringa trees benefits residents because the trees provide immense medicinal and nutritional value in addition to water purification properties the seeds provide. Our vegetable nurseries provide nutrition and nourishment while at the same time saving the residents money. Instead of buying produce from vendors or the market, residents of the orphanage can grow them out of their small garden, sell the excess, and make money at the same time. The money is also used to pay for their schooling beyond the 8th grade, which comes at a fee for children in Kenya.
Soaring temperatures and low precipitation could not occur at a worse time for many farmers in the United States. Intensifying drought conditions are affecting corn and soybean crops throughout the Midwest, raising grain prices as well as concerns about future food prices. The U.S. Drought Monitor reports that 88 percent of this year’s corn crop and 77 percent of the soybean crop are now affected by the most severe drought since 1988. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is providing drought assistance to 1,584 counties across 32 states and warns of increased food prices in 2013 as a result of corn and soybean yield losses.
Drought is plaguing the United States, driving up food prices. (Photo credit: KPBS San Diego)
Corn is currently selling at around $9 a bushel, a 50 percent increase from June, while soybeans are selling at a record high of $17 a bushel as a result of drought-related losses in crop yields. The increased prices may benefit farmers in the short run, but consumers will experience the aftermath of price increases in the form of more money spent on poultry, beef, pork, and dairy products.
Nearly half of all domestic corn production is used as livestock feed, a trend that is now encouraging larger livestock producers to import corn from Brazil while smaller farmers must reduce herd sizes by sending more animals to the market. Most immediately, poultry prices are expected to rise 3.5 to 4.5 percent due to the animals’ more rapid growth and therefore more sudden response to higher feed prices. The price of beef is projected to rise the highest—4 to 5 percent by November—but at a slower rate, reflecting the longer growth period and higher feed requirements of beef cattle.
Higher U.S. grain prices could have an even greater impact worldwide. The United States is the world’s largest corn producer as well as a major exporter of crop-derived agricultural products. Declining domestic production could translate into exacerbated food security problems abroad. Countries that import corn and soybean byproducts or animal feed, such as Japan and Mexico, will be affected the most.
Climate change is making it increasingly important to protect local agriculture in the United States and address the issues underlying its vulnerability to natural disasters, such as drought.
The Nourishing the Planet (www.NourishingthePlanet.org) project highlights 12 agricultural innovations that can help make U.S. and global agriculture more drought resilient, as well as sustainable.
Pests can be, well, a pest. They infest crops and reduce yields, reducing overall agricultural production and food security. To deal with pests, such as mealybugs or spider mites, most farmers use chemical pesticides which can impact health, pollute water supplies through runoff, and, if pesticides are misused or overused, can actually kill plants. Finding new methods to get rid of pests without requiring chemical inputs has increasingly become a priority for many farmers.
Implementing these methods can save crops from destructive pests without the need for harmful pesticides. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
Today, Nourishing the Planet introduces five crop management methods that control pests without using chemical pesticides.
1. Crop rotation: Crop rotation involves alternating the species of crop that a farmer grows on his or her land each year. Rotating crops helps prevent pests from getting used to the type of plant that is being cultivated. Planting different species of crops each growing season also promotes soil fertility. Planting legumes, a plant that helps fertilize crops through nitrogen fixing bacteria that it has on its roots, and then planting crops that require high levels of nitrogen helps make sure that soil is healthy each growing season. And healthy soil helps protect against pests because an imbalance in plant nutrition increases a harvest’s vulnerability to pests, according to Mans Lanting of ETC Foundation, a non- profit that focuses on linking agricultural sustainability to social development.
The panel at the launch of "Eating Planet" in New York City. (Photo credit: Leeann Lavin)
During the event, Samuel Fromartz, editor-in-chief of the Food & Environment Reporting Network, moderated a discussion where speakers debated some of the issues the addressed in the book: the paradoxes of the global food system, the cultural value of food, production and consumption trends, and the effects of individual eating habits on health and on the environment. “More than one-third of the food produced today does not even reach people plates—about 1.3 billion tons per year—placing unnecessary pressure on land, water, and soil resources,” said Bloom. “All of us; producers, consumers, policy makers, and those in the food industry need to make an effort to reduce the amount of food that is wasted and its environmental impact.”
Although agriculture is more productive and efficient than ever before, more than 1 billion people worldwide remain chronically hungry, and another 1 billion people are overweight or obese. “The fundamental problem continuing to cause both hunger and obesity is that it is difficult, almost everywhere in the world to access nutritious foods,” said Gustafson. “In the developed world, food is abundant, but the most abundant is usually the least nutritious and most calorie dense. In the developing world, you can often still access soft drinks or packaged processed foods, but not the diversity of healthy foods that are needed for good nutrition.”
“Unfortunately, what we all need is more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and healthy proteins for good nutrition,” added Nourishing the Planet project director and Eating Planet contributing author, Danielle Nierenberg, who convened the panel. “Until those foods are the focus of agricultural systems all around the world, both sides of the malnutrition coin—hunger and obesity—are likely to persist.” Nourishing the Planet and BCFN hope for Eating Planet to contribute to sustainable food and agriculture development in many ways. “The study’s conclusions represent a major step toward ensuring that agriculture contributes to health, environmental sustainability, income generation, and food security,” said Paolo Barilla, Vice President of the Barilla Group. “The ingredients will vary by country and region, but there are some key components that will lead to healthier food systems everywhere.”