Nuance – Ag and Food issues are never as simple as you might want to believe.

Posted on Jan 20, 2013 | 1 comment

The internet has increased the velocity of information flow incredibly – information can spread across the globe before anyone really stops to consider whether it makes sense. I got caught in one of those last night. I tweeted a link to a CBC news article on the impact of rising quinoa prices on Bolivian farmers. The article was partially based on a piece NPR did a couple of months ago. Those seemed like reliable sources to me so, even though the economist in me was triggering my “spidey sense,” I tweeted the link. Thankfully, one of my followers pointed me to a response to the NPR article by someone currently living in Bolivia putting together a documentary on quinoa. Their take was the exact opposite. Instead of the poor peasants being forced to change their diets because the they couldn’t afford to eat the quinoa they grew, the story was of improving economies and increased standards of living. Hat-tip to @hopefulkat.

I should know better. One of the big points in my book is that every issue around food and agriculture has nuances. If you’re not connected to agriculture, you hear of the evil Roundup that is polluting the earth. I can show you maps of the erosion potential of Western Canada from 1981 and 2006. There has been a vast improvement across the Prairies. One change in agricultural practices is responsible for the majority of the improvement – the switch from alternate year summer fallow (only planting a crop every other year and working the soil to kill weeds in the in-between year) to a no-till crop production system. Roundup was one of the watershed herbicides that made no-till agriculture possible.

I don’t have any tools in my organic bag that can have that kind of impact on soil erosion in Western Canada and still produce grain crops. I would want to switch the Prairies back to Prairie and rotationally graze cattle on them. The soils would be protected (we would actually be building soil) and we would harvest calories and protein in the form of meat. But there are groups loudly proclaiming that eating meat destroys the environment and causes starving people. I’m here to tell you that it isn’t that simple. On the Canadian Prairies, well managed cattle and sheep will do far less damage and preserve the ability to produce food further into the future than any organic grain production system that I’m currently aware of.  Poorly managed cattle will create deserts. Well managed cattle can reclaim productive land from deserts.

One Comment

  1. What you are saying, Harry, is absolutely true – no grass land restoration can happen without grazing animals. The notorious cow methane problem has recently been proven as yet another misunderstanding of ours – there is bacteria in the soil that uses methane exhaled from grazing animals as its only energy source – http://www.angusaustralia.com.au/Marketing/JONES-CarbonFriendlyBeef(27April10).pdf The cows are not the problem; the cow management is.
    As to restoring the prairies and any other grass land, there is a completely natural (and quick) system of doing it without any chemicals, Roundup to say the least. It achieves pasture enrichment and Carbon sequestration through water retention, pasture rotation, grass mixes and gravitational irrigation.

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