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July 10, 2006

Exploring Alternatives to Factory Farming

I just wanted to point out that we've posted an excellent "sidebar" complementing Michelle Chen's piece on the impact of factory farms, which we ran last monday.

We didn't want to overburden the original story with an exploration of alternative forms of agriculture. But we also didn't want to let that crucial debate go unnoticed. So Michelle expanded it a bit and now it stands alone as a short feature that looks much farther than corporate media's typical cursory reviews of the subject.


jamielejeune: Context is important when defining

I realize that the original article was addressing farming in the US and the statement that small-scale livestock production methods are "far from sustainable, simply because they are not an efficient use of natural resources," was likely made in that context. However, since one of the sources was the GLOBAL Hunger Alliance, I'd like to broaden things a bit in space and time to illustrate that context is a crucially important consideration in any discussion of "efficiency". In certain times and places, domesticated animals, especially the milk, meat and manure of ruminants, are key to human survival and an important shaper of the landscapes we are familiar with and depend on. First, consider the contemporary situation of the Nuer, a herding people whose longstanding problems in the Darfur region of Sudan the mainstream press has only recently publicized. The news reports rarely mention their environment: seemingly endless flat plains where most of the year is hot and rainfall is scarce and unpredictable. During the short rainy season, precipitation floods the plains and the Nuer live on tiny sand ridges that were undetectable in the dry season. In such an environment, rain-fed agriculture is an uncertain proposition and the crops of sorghum the Nuer grow often fail. Their beloved cattle are crucial to survival because they can travel to the shifting areas where rain does fall during the long dry season. In the context of their climate and environment, livestock production combined with fishing, gathering and farming is the only subsistence strategy possible. In the 1970's and 80's the Harvard Institute for International Development sent in a team of development researchers who thought that they could use "appropriate" technologies (deep bore wells, small tractors, etc.) to improve the agriculture of the Nuer and related ethnic groups in the area. The project's spectacular failure is documented in the book "Between a Swamp and a Hard Place: Developmental Challenges in Remote Rural Africa" by David C. Cole, one of the project directors. What he found was that the indigenous tools and subsistence strategies of the Nuer were the most efficient choices given the constraints of the local environment. The same case could be made for many herding peoples found in other parts of Africa and Asia. Next, consider the context of smallholder subsistence farming constrained by limited landholding. Livestock production may not be efficient from a national or global perspective, but from a household perspective it can be both necessary and an efficient use of available resources. Take the example of the family of my partner, Dey, in Southern Thailand. On 1/10 acre of land (~4500 sq. feet) live 15 people. To put that in perspective, consider that the average American family home (not the land, but the home itself) is 2,300 sq. feet. With 1/10 acre they certainly don't have enough ground to grow rice -- they barely have enough room to properly shelter all 15 of them! Yet, through animal husbandry, they have been able to meet almost all of their food needs from that same land and the unused resources of their neighbors. On their 1/10 acre they have 200+ ducks, 4 goats, 3 cows, and 40-50 chickens, in addition to fruit trees, coconuts, herbs and tubers. The ducks feed on fish in the neighbor's rice paddy and are also fed sago palm gathered from unused swampland along with a little waste fish from other neighbors who are traditional fishers. The sale of the eggs those ducks produce daily provides the money to buy rice, oil, vegetables, dried chilies, salt and fish sauce for the familiy. The chickens, fed on food scraps and rice polishings, contribute both eggs and meat a couple times a week. The cows and goats, grazed in an adjacent fallow rice paddy where they themselves return the favor of using the land by providing necessary supplementary fertilizer back to the paddy, are either sold for much needed cash income or are consumed as part of community or family events and holidays. They also supplement their diet by catching catfish and mullet in nearby streams and ponds, and gathering greens and mushrooms in the rubber smallholdings on the other side of the rice paddy. Dey's family aren't educated, moneyed, back-to-the-landers with solar panels, CSA schemes, and a biodiesel truck (though you can find them in Thailand too) that can choose to raise cows or soy. They are illiterate subsistence farmers living as their situation requires. And, unless Dey and I completely subsidize their livelihood with our earnings, animal husbandry is a very efficient use of their available knowledge and resources to keep them all properly fed. (Also, as a brief aside, I should say that, contrary to generalized popular western beliefs about Asia, as far as Southern Thailand is concerned, the food system and foodways of the locals have never included beans, much less soy, in any appreciable amount. Beans only appear in sweets, and never in any savory Southern Thai dish. Animal proteins, albeit in relatively small amounts, have always been the norm). For a final case, lets return to the US, but go back in time, to consider the development of the amazingly fertile topsoils of the American plains. They are the base on which US food security was built and continues to depend on (even considering our use of fossil fuel based fertilizers). Those soils, once over eight feet deep in some places, were formed over tens of thousands of years by the relationship between Native Americans and the North American Bison. The Native Americans didn't simply hunt the bison, they actively managed the landscape through the use of fire to expand the grasslands the bison fed on. In turn, the bison fed them and provided clothing and shelter. Perhaps a morally abhorrent strategy for some, but considering the resources available at the time, certainly efficient for Native Americans. And, a lucky thing for the late-comer, grain-growing farmers that displaced them. Many more examples could be presented, but these three are sufficient for the moment. The argument could also be made that ruminants and fowl will have to be utilized to maintain soil fertility if organic grain farming is to become the norm in the future, but I won't bore anyone further with the details here either. I've gone on long enough and anyone interested can find the info elsewhere. I would like to finish by stating that none of this is intended to contradict the overall intent expressed in the article or attack any particular view. I completely agree that in most cases, and especially in the case of CAFO's, livestock production is grossly inefficient and harmful to the environment and human health. However, I believe that this is not always necessarily so and that context must be carefully considered when defining "efficiency". In any case, I hope that I've added some thought provoking examples of animal husbandry to those that we already picture in our minds when thinking about these issues.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.