New Internationalist

Less means more

Issue 421

After meeting Carlo Leifert, a professor in ecological agriculture who has been researching low-input farming, Wayne Roberts is now convinced that the merging of farm, food, health and environment concerns will become the new normal.

Carlo Leifert

The great divide between food and farming is about to become a blur as a result of pioneering scientific research in Europe that’s pushing the boundaries of health and agricultural policy. Though no poem insists that ‘food is food and agriculture is agriculture, and never the twain shall meet’, that may as well be the watchword in both fields. The chasm between the two is rarely bridged at any level of public discussion or decision-making. Food writers rarely report on farms, and vice versa. Nutritionists rarely discuss anything that happens to food before it’s harvested, and vice versa for agronomists; even the champions of organic farming rarely make nutritional claims. Doctors barely know about nutrition and hospitals serve what is called hospital food, just as farmers and processors don’t fret about what happens to diabetes rates when all their corn is turned into cheap pop and junkfood filler. Government ministries and departments of food and agriculture rarely meet, let alone worry about harmonizing their policies.

The two solitudes

I’ve long believed that the vice versas of the Two Solitudes of food and farm are responsible for most of the ills in both worlds, and so was all ears when Carlo Leifert came to speak to the annual Canadian Organic Growers (COG) conference in Toronto during February. Leifert, a professor of ecological agriculture at Newcastle University in England, manages 31 institutes in a collaborative research project that’s revolutionizing our understanding of how humble farming methods – not just high-tech food storage, packaging and cooking methods – can boost health outcomes of food. Leifert’s team is tasked to help farmers do more with less by using low-cost methods to grow high-value food – thus the name of his project, the Quality Low Input Food Project.

The less is more approach applies as much to eaters as farmers; turns out that organic eats are so much more nutrient-dense that this could well become the new low-input weight-loss fad

The work is funded by the European Union, which hopes to shift its hundreds of billions of dollars in yearly agricultural subsidies away from encouraging high volume and toward encouraging high nutritional and environmental quality. The less is more approach applies as much to eaters as farmers; turns out that organic eats are so much more nutrient-dense that this could well become the new low-input weight-loss fad.

From quantity to quality

The shift from quantity to quality is a huge shift for Europe, where heart-wrenching memories of widespread famines during the 1930s and ’40s inspired policies that drive up food production. That obsession has held firm, even as populations began to suffer more from obesity than hunger, and as mountains of unsold food surplus, rather than shortages, kept farming in perpetual crisis. But as the research by Leifert’s team gains ground, the merging of farm, food, health and environment concerns will become the new normal. I predict this convergence if the food and health field will outshine the significance of the 1990s convergence of the media, information, computer and entertainment industries.

Leifert wastes no time getting to his findings. Organic farming methods ‘are the only way forward,’ he begins his talk at COG. ‘Even in the short term, organic is the only way to achieve acceptable yields.’

Those are fighting words for the champions of costly chemical fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, tractors and harvesters, the stock in trade of typical farmers in the Global North, often backed by more expensive capital equipment than the typical factory worker. Though many have criticized the environmental and social costs of capital-intensive methods that emptied the countryside population and polluted its ground and water, none have dared challenge the supremacy of high inputs when it comes to production of cheap and plentiful food.

Leifert, who has a PhD in microbiology, insists his views are based strictly on science, not personal preferences. Over a long lunch at the Yorkville organic restaurant, True, he lays out the objective reasons why the high-input farming methods that produced low-cost food in the recent past are fast becoming obsolete.

With about 30 years’ supply left in the world, mostly in Africa and Canada, the cost of phosphorus imports alone is already so expensive that it is starting to drive European conventional food prices to the level of organic

Chemical fertilizer made up of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) is the foundation stone of modern industrialized agriculture, since it let farmers specialize and grow the same crops on the same field year after year. Organic farmers, who spread their time composting and rotating many crops of veggies, grains, animals and green manures, couldn’t compete on labour time or price.

The N in NPK is the headline act in conventional agriculture because it’s the chemical elixir that gives plants energy, albeit at a cost of spewing out 2.38 tons of global-warming gases for every ton of fossil fuel-based nitrogen – not exactly a high environmental quality.

Phosphorus - the limiting factor

But the sleeper when it comes to resources and productivity is the P for mined phosphorus, which Leifert calls ‘the bottleneck’ or ‘limiting factor’ of plant production, since no other chemical has an impact without phosphorus. With about 30 years’ supply left in the world, mostly in Africa and Canada, the cost of phosphorus imports alone is already so expensive that it is starting to drive European conventional food prices to the level of organic, he says. The organic fertility strategy, which relies on recycling crop and animal wastes instead of purchasing them from off-farm, can survive the resource crunch, Leifert argues. But the trump card is nutritional quality.

It turns out that synthetic fertilizers produced quantity at the expense of quality, for the simple reason that artificial nitrogen encouraged plants to grow fast to compete for light, thereby prioritizing starch relative to complex nutrients. Pesticides also discouraged plant production of nutrients, which may have evolved to protect plants from pests, he says.

When it comes to meat and milk, the organic leg up is even more dramatic. There is more protein, more Vitamin E, more lutein, more caretenoids and more omega 3 fats in food coming from animals wandering outdoors to chew on fresh pasture, Leifert’s research team has proven – much better than the results from animals fattened fast inside a barn on stored grains. That makes for a healthy difference in cancer, heart disease, diabetes, some child allergies and even e-coli incidents, he says, and a significant reduction in medical costs. As well, a person gets the same nutrients from 10 to 20 per cent less calories, Leifert says. ‘If obesity is a major problem, then that’s a benefit.’

Give cows grass!

He’s the first to admit his findings aren’t based on rocket science. Exhaustive research covering differences in northern and southern European farms, in winter and summer, in barns and out in the fresh air, proves ‘we have to give cows grass,’ he says. ‘We could have told you that before.’ Indeed, Sir Albert Howard, one of the pioneers of organic farming in the 1940s, based his arguments on organic farming’s yeoman service to health exclusively on the superiority of fields composted with manure and crop wastes. This fertility ‘is the basis of the public health system of the future,’ Howard wrote during the 1940s, and can reverse the ‘famine of quality’ resulting from ‘vast supplies of bastard nitrogen’ left over from war industries. Only the fragmentation into distinct specialities could prevent public awareness of these benefits, Howard warned of ‘the plague of so-called experts’ who have specialized to the point where they learn ‘more and more about less and less.’

That plague may now be coming to an end. Individuals who buy organic food can now expect to get more nutrients for their money, and public health likewise depends on higher-cost food that leads to lower-cost medicine – a smart and humane trade-off since food-based disease prevention is always cheaper and happier than medical cures.

Adapted from NOW Magazine, 28 April 2009

Wayne Roberts is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food.

Comments on Less means more

Leave your comment