Antibiotic Resistance at Factory Farms “Scares the Hell Out of” Scientists


The headline above caught my attention when it first appeared in 2009.  Johns Hopkins University Scientists declared that antibiotics should be banned from animal feed.  If we didn’t take action, they warned we are likely to see an explosion of human deaths from previously preventable bacterial diseases as antibiotics become less effective.  I was sure this news would result in a public uproar….. I was wrong.   So when the latest news reports on antibiotic resistance appeared outlining the potential crisis in human healthcare, I had to wonder – maybe this time?  Will there be a public outcry about the use of antibiotics in the animal industry now?  Well, not yet!

While we have known this is an emerging global problem for some time, recently the medical profession is talking about a “catastrophic threat –  as big a risk as terrorism.”  There seems to be two point-sources for antibiotic resistance; one is hospitals which need antibiotics to safely do even simple surgeries.  The other place antibiotic resistance is developing is CAFO’s (concentrated animal feeding operations) or “factory farms.”

A well-documented report on the use of antibiotics in factory farms states:

Animals live in close confinement, often standing or laying in their own waste, and are under constant stress that inhibits their immune systems and makes them more prone to infection.  When drug-resistant bacteria develop in industrial livestock facilities, they can reach the human population through food, the environment (i.e., water, soil, and air), or by direct human- animal contact.  

In response to this problem, the FDA asked the animal industry to voluntarily reduce the amount of antibiotics used in factory farms.  The Animal Drug User Fee Act (ADUFA) requires drug companies to report the amount of antibiotic drugs sold or distributed for use in food-producing animals (although the industry seems to be fighting back to keep this information out of public eyes).  So how did the animal industry respond to this reasonable request?    A recent report of the Pew Charitable Trusts (a reputable group) reported that antibiotic sales for meat and poultry are soaring!

If we have known about this problem for a long time, why is nothing being done?  Last November, several hundred thousand citizens, including many senators and congressmen, urged the FDA to take action. It is doubtful however than anything will change without a public outcry. Pew Health Initiatives asks you to take action! They write;

On April 16, 2013, Pew will be hosting the second annual Supermoms Against Superbugs Advocacy Day. Concerned moms, dads and other caregivers will come to the nation’s capital to lobby the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Congress and the White House to rein in the overuse of antibiotics in meat and poultry production – a practice that breeds dangerous superbugs that can infect humans.  Learn how you can get involved

There is a safe way to raise animals for meat without antibiotics!  You can make a clear statement of support for changes in legislation by signing the petition here refusing to buy meat products produced in a factory farm.  Learn more about the safe raising of animals and find producers non-factory farmed meat at Eat Wild or at your local farmers market!


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Agriculture is a business – AND a way to connect with the divine


I have a student who reminds me that agriculture is a business – which is true.  But there is something about the business of agriculture that makes it much more than simply the efficient production and marketing of food and fiber.  Many people (including farmers) recognize that some forms of agriculture can feed both the human body and the human soul.  Some of us see local, sustainable food and farming as a way to participate in natural ecological cycles and thus connect with all of creation – and perhaps even the divine.

I believe this awareness of a larger purpose for agriculture is something that farmers should not ignore, as they seek creative ways to market local food.  In a world in which people crave entertainment and try to find meaning in distractions such as passive consumption of sporting events or “recreational” shopping, more and more people are finding a sense of purpose or a connection with “a power greater than themselves” through the act of purposeful eating.

Wendell Berry (1) wrote that “…eating is an agricultural act. Most eaters, however, are no longer aware that this is true.”  Everyone living has no choice but to participate in agriculture through the act of food consumption. This can be either a sterile, hurried act, offering little cause for joy — or a creative, spiritual act of connecting with the earth and thus with all of Creation.

According to Berry “when food… is no longer associated with farming and with the land, then the eaters are suffering a kind of cultural amnesia that is misleading and dangerous.”  This amnesia gets in the way of understanding food and farming as a source of both physical and spiritual nourishment.

Berry presents a few ideas on how we may learn to free ourselves from this cultural amnesia. He suggests that we:

  • grow our own food to the extent that we can,
  • cook and serve our own food,
  • learn the origins of the food we eat,
  • get to know a local farmer, and;
  • learn more about the biology, ecology and sociology of our food.

I would add to the list, composting all usable kitchen and garden “wastes”, as a necessary means of participating in natural ecological cycles.

I believe the nature of our interaction with the earth is an expression of how we see ourselves as human beings. Wes Jackson (2) describes our awareness of the earth as a technologically mediated rather than a direct personal experience.

When Astronaut Edgar Mitchell is asked about his experience on the moon “he replies that he was too busy being operational to experience the moon.”  According to Jackson, we have become  “..more operational, with less and less time to experience the earth.”  Buying pre-packaged food at the supermarket for example, or eating at fast food outlets surely do not add to the direct human experience of the earth.

The disconnection between the human species and the earth is reinforced by a Cartesian worldview that divides wholes into parts and gives priority to the importance of the part (humans) over the whole (the earth). Science is particularly good at dividing wholes for the purpose of study.  However when we do this, we sacrifice an understanding of those characteristics that only have meaning at the level of the whole.  It would be foolish to try to measure the speed of an Olympic runner by examining her foot. It is equally as foolish to try to understand the health of a human or an ecosystem by studying its parts.

The science of Sir Issac Newton and Descartes is based upon an understanding of a mechanical universe in which whole systems can be dismantled for study. This understanding is indeed quite useful when the area of study is actually mechanical.

However, people, farms and ecosystems are not machines but living systems born of an organic universe in which the parts are interdependent components within a hierarchy of increasing complexity.

Agriculture is highly efficient and successful when considered simply at its own level. But when it is viewed as a component of a hierarchy of increasing complexity, it fails in the sense that it causes a continual erosion of the capacity of the earth to support life (including but not limited to human life).  An agriculture that destroys both natural and social systems fails to achieve its own larger purpose. Wendell Berry (3) writes; “an agriculture cannot survive long at the expense of the natural systems that support it…  A culture cannot survive long at the expense either of its agricultural or its natural sources.  To live at the expense of the source of life is obviously suicidal.”

I believe farming should be viewed as both an economic (business) and a moral act. Americans (and most of western society) worship the economic act, while ignoring the moral implications. Aldo Leopold (4) boldly stated that we must understand an act as (morally) right “… when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”  If we consider agriculture as merely an economic act, then the business of agriculture is a grand success, as it is efficient at extracting resources from the earth.  On the other hand, if farming is more than a just a business then we must acknowledge that industrial agriculture fails to “preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.”

Leopold does not stand alone in his broad understanding of a successful agriculture.  E.F. Schumacher (5), wrote that agriculture must fulfill at least three tasks: “to keep man in touch with living nature…; to humanize and ennoble man’s wider habitat; and to bring forth the foodstuffs and other materials which are needed…”

In this statement he acknowledges the need to serve both an economic and a moral purpose.  Schumacher continues; “I do not believe that a civilization which recognizes only the third of these tasks, and which pursues it with such ruthlessness and violence that the other two tasks are not merely neglected but systematically counteracted, has any chance of long-term survival.”

A world in which agriculture is merely an economic act is doomed to continue causing damage to both the global ecosystem and the human soul.  We need to view agriculture as both a business AND a means of connecting with something larger than ourselves; with our community, with the earth, and perhaps even with the divine.


(1) Berry, W. 1990. The pleasures of eating. IN: What are People For? North Point Press. San Francisco.

(2) Jackson, W. 1990. Making Sustainable Agriculture Work. IN: Our Sustainable Table. Ed. R. Clark. North Point Press. San Francisco.

(3)  Berry, W. 1977. The Unsettling of America. Sierra Club Press.

(4) Aldo Leopold. 1949. A Sand County Almanac. Ballantine Books.

(5) Schumacher, E.F. 1972. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.  Harper Perennial.

NOTE: this blog post is an abbreviated and slightly revised version of an essay I wrote in 1997, Agriculture is a business, a lifestyle and a conversation with the universe.


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Sustainable Agriculture 2011: a year in review


At this time of the year, when every journalist, essayist and blogger seems to be reflecting on the past year…… well, why not?

This past year, many of my blog posts focused on the need to build the local food movement as means of enhancing food security and sustainability in troubled times.  I began the year with an essay on the most local of all local foods….. that which we grow ourselves in “Gardening and Living by Three Ecological Rules.”   In this post, I suggested gardening is the perfect way to live according to the three ecological rules for sustainable living:

  1. Use current solar income for energy (whenever possible)
  2. Recycle everything material (waste equals food)
  3. Encourage biological diversity (necessary for 1 & 2 to function)

In March, I wrote “Collapse of the Industrial Food System,” in which I claim that a system which allows large corporations to control the food supply is fundamentally unjust and dangerous.  I followed this with some thoughts on “Dealing with Collapse of the Food System”  in which I suggest that we must promote a more local and regional food system so that we are not so reliant on the globalized, industrialized system.  We need;

  1. tax incentives for small, integrated farms committed to selling within their own community,
  2. public investment in infrastructure to support a bioregional food system (within a specific foodshed),
  3. changes in zoning regulations to support the “homegrown food revolution” and
  4. education programs encouraging family, neighborhood, community self-sufficiency, and local farming.

In preparation for April 17, the International Day of Action working toward “Food Sovereignty – the People’s Response” I reminded readers of a recent United Nations study which claims that small farmers, using agroecological techniques, can double food production in 10 years.   These techniques are supported by the International Peasants Movement, La Via Campesina, which claims that peasants can feed the world.

Returning to the personal once again I wrote in “Growing Our Own Food Can Strengthen Our Spiritual Connection with the Earth” that rediscovering the sacred is an act of healing..  I wrote “in forgetting the sacred we have become unhealthy and un-whole.  From this place of illness, we ask the wrong questions and seek after the false-gods of consumerism and superficial amusements.  I believe we must rediscover ways to reconnect with the earth, perhaps by growing our own food, raising a few hens (for the eggs and the laughs), and buying real food from people in our own communities we know and trust, if we are to heal the damage we have caused to the global ecosystem and the human soul.

In May, I went from the personal to the community level of sustainability in “Just Grow Food: Public Opportunities & Responsibilities.”   In June, I proposed that a worldwide network of interlinked local and regional food systems should be developed to balance the globalized, industrial food system in my essay “Local Food: Let’s Get Serious – NOW!

In August, I tried to deepen our understanding of why we must “Relocalize the Food System to Support Democracy.”   And we marked the height of the harvest season in New England with a New York Times report that suggested that an increasing number of farmers are competing for customers  in a market that is not expanding as fast as production.  I cried out that we need more people to buy local – and we need your help to make this happen!

Finally, I finished the year by exploring the Occupy Movement with the posts “Occupy the Food System” and “Occupy with Education and Policy Work” in which I encouraged some of the occupiers to continue the struggle by joining with the many food and farming education and policy organizations that have been working on these issues for years.

As gratifying as it is to see a garden on the White House lawn… only 1% of the American public buys directly from farmers on a regular basis.

Lets join this 1% – and buy more food from our neighbors!


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends and perhaps comment below.  For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please check out my web page Just Food Now.  And go here for more of my posts.

Agroecology – science for a sustainable agriculture


I’m teaching Sustainable Agriculture again this fall at the University of Massachusetts and one of the questions that often arises is “what sort of research should the university be doing to move us toward a more sustainable agriculture.”  I’ve been thinking about this for a long time – the answer is agricultural systems ecology (or agroecology for short).

Agroecology is the framework which will allow us to scientifically address multiple interrelated objectives of economic viability, social equity, and environmental integrity. An agroecosystem may be a field, a farm, or a larger region such as a river valley.  Implicit in agroecological research and education is the idea that knowledge of ecosystem relationships will allow farmers to manage inputs and processes in agricultural production systems and thereby optimize for productivity, sustainability, stability and social equity.

A systematic research method for agroecosystem analysis was described by Gordon Conway, of the Centre for Environmental Technology at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London (Conway, G. 1985. Agroecosystem Analysis. Agr. Admin. Vol. 20:31-55).  Agroecosystem analysis is based on ecological principles that govern relationships among biotic (living) communities and the abiotic environment.  Biotic relationships may be described by principles of predator/prey interactions, competition for food sources and habitats, cooperation and commensalism etc.  Abiotic relationships are described by nutrient cycling, carbon cycles, energy cycles, etc. over space and time.

Conway suggests that four system properties may be used to understand the dynamics of an agro-ecosystem.  They are;

  • productivity,
  • stability,
  • sustainability, and
  • equitability.

Productivity is the quantity of product or output from an agroecosystem per unit of some specified input. For an agroecologist, output may include a marketable product such as bushels of corn, as well as negative products of a system like water runoff, pesticides leaking from the system, or soil lost. Of course, tons per hectare is a standard measure of productivity. But productivity can also be expressed in other units of output per unit of input. Inputs may be measured in tons of fertilizer, monetary value of pesticide, or kilocalories needed to deliver irrigation water.

Stability is consistency of production in spite of short term upsetting influences such as uneven rainfall, pest explosions, price variability, etc. Annual variations in productivity indicate a lack of stability.

Sustainability is the ability to maintain a desired level of production over time, in spite of long term destabilizing influences. Examples of these are; increasing soil salinity, off-site effects of soil erosion, declining market prices, or accumulation of biotoxins in the environment. Systems which rely on heavy inputs of non-renewable and rapidly diminishing resources are not considered to be sustainable. Sustainability is a measure of persistence or long-term resilience of a production system.

Equitability can be used as an indicator of agroecosystem performance which incorporates the social dimension. Social equity is a measure of the degree in which resources and products of a production system are equally distributed throughout the human population. This implies that equality of product availability (output) and equality of resource availability (inputs) are the preferred norm.

A research and/or educational institution that employs agroecosystem analysis will probably conduct more studies on complex relationships among the various components of a agroecosystem that go beyond simple cause and effect.  There will be more research on inputs and outputs that are measured in currencies other than monetary units, such as carbon, nitrogen, and calories.  This will provide the basis for better nutrient management recommendations. There will be more studies on relationships among pest populations, predator populations, host populations (both agricultural crop and non-crop species), and environmental influences on these. This will provide the basis for better pest management recommendations. There will be more studies on interspecific relationships among crop plants and the effect of these on pest populations. This will provide the basis for innovative multiple cropping systems.

Ecological principles will provide an appropriate framework in which to better understand and manage the impact of agricultural systems on the food supply, the environment and people. I believe that ecological approaches to agriculture can be the common ground upon which we address the needs of society, while employing the tools of scholarly research and teaching, for which public institutions are best equipped.


This paper was presented by John Gerber,  as part of a U.S.A.I.D. sponsored workshop on sustainable agriculture in Lusaka, Zambia, September 18-21, 1990.


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Sustainable agriculture jobs after college?


If you listen to the news these days, everyone is talking about jobs, jobs, jobs (the lack of them).  Although the unemployment rate is dropping, it’s still a pretty depressing picture for recent college grads (as well as anyone else just entering the workforce).  Students (and parents) are asking if the value of a college education is worth the cost. 

Good question!

I’m the academic adviser for students in our Sustainable Food and Farming program at the University of Massachusetts and I often get asked by parents – so will my kid get a job when they graduate?  My response is “maybe” – but if they graduate from UMass they will be prepared to create good work that is needed on the planet. This may not be the most satisfying answer for a parent – but in a rapidly changing world, its honest.

Getting a Job

There’s a difference between “getting a job” after graduation and creating good work.  We know that there are not enough jobs for everyone in the U.S. who wants to work today – but there is plenty of good work that MUST be done.  A graduating senior searching for a job may or may not find employment.  Those who graduate with a degree in Sustainable Food and Farming have had some luck searching these lists:

So, there are jobs in sustainable food and farming.  Interestingly, one of the options suggested in the blog post “Can’t find a job? Six alternatives” is working on a farm.  Some of our students in fact, do want to farm, but many are also interested in education, public policy, advocacy and community development related to food and farming.

But a “job” may not be the best choice for everyone!  In fact, many of the jobs we will be doing in ten years may not even exist today.  The world is changing fast.What job will I get after college?” is a self-limiting question.  A more important question (that is addressed in an article about “Jobs of the Future“) is “….how are we going to live?”  And especially, how are we going to live in a world in which the industrial food system is collapsing? Students in our program learn to see crisis as an opportunity for creating their own good work.

Creating Good Work

The great British economist, E.F. Schumacher, author of the classic text Small is Beautiful, wrote a lovely little book called Good Work about this topic.  According to Schumacher, good work needs to provide for three things.  It should:

1…provide a decent living (food, clothing, housing etc.).
2…enable the worker to use and perfect their native gifts.
3…allow the worker the opportunity to serve, collaborate and work with other people to free us from our inborn egocentricity.

Finding a job may serve the first need without addressing the other two.  When I ask my students if their parents are happy in their work, there is often a hesitation.  I often hear that “Dad seems okay and makes a good living – but you know he always wanted to …. (fill in the blank).

I’m sure many adults in the workforce are fulfilled by their work and challenged in a way that “frees them from their inborn egocentricity.”   But frankly, many are not.   We need good work to provide us with a reason for being and a sense of belonging if we want to be happy.

Robert Frost wrote in “Two Tramps at Mudtime”

My object in living is to unite

My avocation and my vocation…

Our dream should be to unite our avocation (that which we love) and our vocation (that which we do).  We should “love what we do and do what we love.”

While some students are trained for entry level jobs, students who want to learn to thrive in this new world learn how to learn.  They meet entrepreneurs who have followed their own dream and are busy creating new businesses, non-profit organizations, or are self-employed.  They are introduced to systems thinking, grant writing, and holistic decision-making.  They are awarded academic credit for apprenticeships or for gaining experience by “wwoofing” in  the U.S. and around the world.

This is not to deny the value of a job that “provides a decent living.”  But money is not enough.  Even during the Great Depression when the unemployment rate exceeded 25%, Franklyn Delano Roosevelt, stated in his 1933 presidential inaugural address:

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.  The joy, the moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of …. profits.  These dark days… will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and others.”

To Minister to Ourselves and Others

I encourage students not to sell themselves short but to articulate and pursue their dream.  I encourage them to think about how they might be useful – to themselves and their families – but also to others and the planet.  I often share a hard hitting essay by Derrick Jensen titled Who Are You?, in which he quotes Carolyn Raffensperger, who advises us to ask what is the biggest and most important challenge we can address with our gifts and skills.  Like E.F. Schumacher, Carolyn recognizes that to be fulfilled and happy we must not only provide for our own living – we  must “minister to ourselves and others.

Good work will provide us with a living, allow us to perfect our gifts, and perhaps most importantly …good work will allow us to be useful to others and the planet.

There is much work to be done on a planet facing the “perfect storm” of climate change, peak oil and global economic crisis.  Business as usual is not enough.  We know that crisis creates opportunity for those willing to try something new.

At a time when the federal government seems intent on stimulating the economy by encouraging new industrial jobs – we need to learn how to create good work by focusing on what is really needed.  This will require creativity, sacrifice and the willingness to learn from our mistakes.  But what other choice do we have – really?

For Part II of this blog, see


See “Finding Good Work” for more links to work opportunities and internships.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   Go here for more of my posts.  To get a college degree see: UMass Sustainable Food and Farming or earn a 15 credit Certificate from UMass.

Sustainable agriculture and the public university


My last blog presented a vision of sustainable agriculture and called for a renewed commitment of the “body, heart and soul” of those of us working at public universities like the University of Massachusetts to agricultural research, teaching and outreach.  However if the public universities don’t re-energize their agricultural programs at a time when a billion people are hungry, another billion malnourished, and still another billion “overfed”, others surely will!

Agricultural education is traditionally associated with state universities, but many private colleges are adding courses on sustainable food and farming today.  I was asked recently by a reporter if there was much difference between these new programs and that of the public land grant university.  While I applaud the growth of the colleges into this field, I don’t believe they can provide quite the same “breadth and depth” of study as a major research university.  I must add however this will only remain true IF we invest in this important area of study and put the public back into the public university.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately as UMass is working to strengthen our agricultural programs by merging our Bachelor of Science programs in Sustainable Food and Farming and Managing Green Landscapes with the nearly 100 year old Stockbridge School of Agriculture.  This blog presents some of my own thinking on the role of the public university and the opportunity we have at UMass to create our own destiny.

Here is what I believe to be true…

  • My truth is that the industrial agricultural system currently practiced in most of the developed world is not sustainable, as it continues to leak toxins from their point of application, uses natural resources such as fossil fuel and water at rates greater than replacement, puts farmers and ranchers off the land, and results in a poorly nourished citizenry.  I believe that in New England, we can at least partially address these problems by investing in the continued development of more local farms and distribution networks.
  • My truth is that the commitment of the U.S. public university system to agricultural research and education has waned over the past 30 years, as discipline-bound science has come to dominate the research agenda.  Interdisciplinary research and application oriented studies that benefit small family farms, ranches and green businesses are not adequately supported through public or private funding.  Agricultural programs at the land grant (public) universities have suffered and are in danger of disappearing at a time when they are badly needed to address the triple threat of peak oil, global climate change and global pandemic from factory farms.
  • My truth tells me that the human quest for sustainability of the earth, including human and non-human communities, may be the best hope we have to revive those agricultural research, education and outreach programs of the public land grant university.  Maybe, just maybe, working in partnership with progressive farmers, consumers, and environmental and social activists to find a new way to farm, new ways to distribute food to those in need, and new ways to live, our public university agricultural research and education programs may experience a rebirth at a time they are most needed.

Its all about sustainability

The term sustainability is overused and abused by politicians, academics, agricultural commodity group leaders, and corporate public relations executives.  It has been co-opted by evangelists for the current industrial agricultural system, who continually try to narrow the definition to economic sustainability at the expense of environmental integrity and social equity.  There are times when I feel that we need a new word to describe the kind of agriculture that lasts.

But mostly I feel the debate, argument and even some of the hyperbole has been a good thing, for it focuses our attention on the lack of sustainability of the current industrial food and farming system.  So for me sustainability remains a big beautiful idea which acknowledges the importance of financial or economic vitality, but balances that goal with ecological integrity and social equity.

The quest for a more sustainable agriculture is a vision worthy of the full commitment of the “body, heart and soul” of those of us at the public university who teach, do research and work with people in communities.   It is a way for us to serve the public good while at the same time creating a sense of purpose in our lives.

Serving the public good

I believe that a clear understanding of how the land grant organization serves American citizens, those today and those yet to be born, is key to the future of the institution.  Most people agree that the system has an obligation to serve the public.  But we have difficulty talking about “who is the public ‑‑ and what is the public good?

Many of the current research, education and outreach programs are designed not to serve “the public” but to serve particular publics, or special interest groups.  I propose that there are interests, common to all people which we might call “basic human needs” such as:

  • affordable and nutritionally adequate food;
  • adequate clothing and shelter;
  • a healthy, livable environment free of violence;
  • opportunities to provide for one’s livelihood; and
  • accessible educational opportunities.

Our teaching, research and outreach should serve these larger public goods by working with the farmers, consumers and communities dedicated to building a more local food production and distribution system.  This is truly “public work.”

Working for the public university

Many of us came to work in agriculture at public universities because we cared about people, hunger, or the environment.  Over time however, we found ourselves working for the economic self-interests of those who held money and power.  Our current system of rewards and advancement pushes us in this direction.  If we are to save ourselves and the agricultural programs of the university, we must reestablish a commitment to public service.

There have been times in my own university career when I’ve traded off my civic ideals for personal advancement.  I too am a “sinner”.  Today I try to speak and live my truth, even when that truth is not very popular.

I know many faculty who have maintained a commitment to their ideals and have directed their work toward public priorities.  Many of these women and men affiliate with the sustainable agriculture research and education agenda.  If you are an agricultural researcher, teacher or extension worker, you are invited to join them.  This may be our last best chance.

In any case, I encourage you to speak out and tell your own truth  – whether you agree with mine or not.  As the Red Queen told Alice  “always speak the truth — think before you speak and write it down afterwards.

And perhaps you will “write it down” in the comments box below!


For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.  And go here for more of my posts.

The future of sustainable food and farming


I got a call from the dean of my college recently.  He asked me to stop by and share a few thoughts on the future of sustainable agriculture in New England.  While sustainability has become “wicked cool” at the University of Massachusetts and our undergraduate major in Sustainable Food and Farming has grown rapidly, he wanted to know “what is this sustainable agriculture thing all about?”  Well, I babbled something or other – but here is what I wish I had said:

1.  First, a sustainable agriculture MUST address the multiple interrelated objectives of economic vitality, environmental integrity, and social equity or justice.

This claim is understood by most governments, the United Nations, farm and advocacy groups, and universities.  Some corporations and agricultural commodity groups would like to present sustainable agriculture more narrowly (focused primarily on economic sustainability), but this self-serving position is in the minority today.  The sustainability movement grew out of the environmental movement of the 1970’s by adding social equity/justice to the conversation during the 1980’s – creating the so-called triple bottom line.

2. The long-term viability of large-scale, industrial agricultural systems is threatened by rising oil prices and global climate change.

Industrial food production and distribution systems are financially efficient in the short-term and have resulted in low food prices.  However this system is highly dependent on chemical and energy subsidies and is vulnerable to collapse or at least decay.  As energy costs go up and government begins to take climate change more seriously, global food prices will continue to rise and we will need to look at more energy-efficient alternatives.

3. Although theoretically it is possible to imagine a large-scale industrial agricultural system that is more sustainable, we do not have the political will to develop the necessary government regulations and tax incentives to move corporate farms and major food distributors in this direction.

It would be possible to create a global, corporation-dominated sustainable agricultural system with the appropriate government-imposed constraints and incentives if we had the political willWe don’t – at least not at present.  The structure and purpose of the corporation itself won’t permit even the most progressive and courageous corporate leaders (and there are some) to voluntarily sacrifice profit to become more environmentally responsible and committed to social justice for very long.

Large-scale, corporate sustainable farming such as that proposed by Walmart will continue to maximize profit at the expense of the other two sustainability objectives, regardless of what their advertising campaigns might say.  Current experiments in sustainability by a few food giants are likely to be short lived, as the structure of the global corporation is designed to make money at all (sometimes legal and sometimes not) cost.  We must look to more local alternatives if we want long term environmental protection, equitable access to food and land, and a fair distribution of wealth.

4. A food and farming system with a local focus, managed by families and local community groups rather than corporations, is more likely to address all three of the sustainability objectives.

Addressing environmental and social justice priorities will be more likely when producers and consumers know each other and are part of a shared community.  As long as the negative impacts of doing business impact people “far away”, most of us will overlook these impacts in exchange for maximizing financial return.  However when farmers, distributors and consumers engage within a community, they will be more likely to include environmental and social impact into their decision-making.

Even the “father” of capitalism, Adam Smith, understood the need for a fair distribution of wealth.  His concept that the “invisible hand” of the free market (guided by competition, self-interest, and supply and demand) would result in efficient and fair distribution of resources was in fact based on two assumptions that are no longer true.

the first assumption was ethical.  In the 18th century, there was a sense of “right and wrong” promulgated at least partially by the church.  Even when people and businesses cheated their customers, they were not proud of it (as it seems some CEO’s are today).  The second assumption that is no longer true is that most economic transactions took place between people who knew each other.   It was difficult to cheat a neighbor that you had to see every day.

The global marketplace has lost both a sense of “right and wrong” and any personal connection between producer and consumer.  Transactions are anonymous and the only “wrong” seems to be getting caught.  Under these conditions, the global market no longer generates a fair distribution of wealth.  We must relocalize the food system if we want it to be sustainable.

5. As energy prices continue to rise, local agriculture will become more economically competitive if and only if we develop integrated crop and livestock polyculture systems based on three ecological principles.

The principles are:

A.  Ecological “Rule” Number One – Use Current Solar Income

B. Ecological “Rule” Number Two – Waste Equals Food

C. Ecological “Rule” Number Three – Enhance Diversity

If local farms are modeled after large industrial farms, they too will be negatively effected by increasing fossil fuel costs much like their larger cousins.  Unlike large monoculture farms however, small farms can be managed as ecological systems.  Progressive farmers are experimenting with new ways to integrate crops and livestock to use energy and nutrients more efficiently and agroecological research at the university must support this effort.  Science is important to the future of this work, but the science must be framed in ecological principles to be sustainable.

Although quite small, Edible forest gardens which mimic late-stage ecological succession, are perhaps the best example of a sustainable food production system.  But even simpler intercropping or polyculture systems are more energy and nutrient efficient than large monocultures.  It is imperative for small, local farms to continue to transition to ecologically managed systems if they are to be competitive and sustainable in the long run.  Consumers can participate in this transition, by supporting these farms and working to make local agriculture thrive in their own community.  


The future of sustainable agriculture in New England is local

In the future we will see a further strengthening of local markets (especially into the inner city) and the development of new integrated crop an livestock farming systems.  While it will surely look different in other regions of the world, sustainable agriculture will be local in New England.  Some food items such as grain and dry beans, will be shipped by rail to feed livestock and people and hopefully will be sold through locally owned businesses.  But a recent analysis of local opportunities suggests that in New England, it is possible for us to produce most of our vegetables, half of our fruit, and also provide  for all of our dairy, beef, lamb and chicken needs for a population of about 15 million.  This could be done if we reduce our meat consumption, eat more more fruits and vegetables, and increase the amount of farmland in production by about three-fold (similar to what it was in 1945).

Finally, I wish I had told the dean that the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge School of Agriculture should play a lead role in this relocalization move toward a more sustainable New England.  Our undergraduate teaching program is already moving rapidly in this direction.  But it will also require a greater investment in agroecological research and more effective outreach working in partnership with progressive family farmers and non-profit community groups to realize the dream.  In 25 years, I hope people will talk about the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture as a leader in the relocalization of food and farming systems in New England.

Finally, as the Stockbridge emblem reminds us, this work will require the full commitment of our “body, heart and soul.”   Personally, I pray that we are ready for the challenge!


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends and add your comments below.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my posts.

Just food now; public opportunities and responsibilities


One of my previous posts described how the modern industrial food system is in “collapse.”  In this post, I offer some ideas on how town government, local colleges and community organizations can get involved to .…

“just grow food – and – grow food justly.”

The author and Amherst Farmers Market Manager and UMass grad, Sarah Berquist

While the USDA, the American Farm Bureau and national commodity groups like to talk about promoting local agriculture, most of their policies are more supportive of “big agriculture.”   If we are going to “grow food justly” we might want to look closer to home.  We need to start in our own backyards and neighborhoods and then work with town government, colleges and community organizations to strengthen the local food system.

This blog focuses on my experience working in my hometown, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Local Opportunities

One of the mantras from “big ag” is that you can’t feed the world with local food.  Well lets think again.  First, we need to ask what do we mean by local?  For a New Englander the answer may be obvious, as there is a strong sense of regional identity that stops at the Hudson River.  One of my favorite stories is of an 18th century tax collector from New York who tried to impose his authority over independent Vermonters.  Ethan Allen (of Green Mountain Boys fame) is reported to have shot him with buckshot (not fatally) and chased him away with the cry…the gods of the valley are not the gods of the hills.” Although today we clearly need to trade with those outside of our region, it would be good to know just how much food are able to grow for ourselves in New England.

Toward that end, the Amherst Agricultural and Conservation Commissions invited Dr. Brian Donahue, Professor of Environmental History at Brandeis University (and a local farmer himself), to speak to a group of local residents about what might be possible.  Professor Donahue shared his estimates of how much food could be realistically produced in New England.  He thought we could grow:

  • Almost all of our vegetables
  • Half of our fruit
  • All of our  dairy products
  • Most of our beef and lamb
  • Most of our pastured pork, poultry and eggs

The following 25-minute video clip from his presentation provides more detail:

Can we grow more food in New England? from John Gerber on Vimeo.

Professor Donahue said that although this was possible, it was by no means going to be easy.  If we want to grow more of our own food in New England, we have some work to do!

Local Responsibility

Ben Hewett’s book “The Town that Food Saved” tells the story of Hardwick, Vermont, a community that took responsibility for its own future.  While Amherst, MA may be a more cosmopolitan community, local food has an important place in our history and culture as well.  Our town emblem for example, is “the book and the plow”.   These symbols represent our respective commitment to higher education (we have 3 colleges in town) and farming (we are proud of our agricultural roots).  While this partnership is tested from time to time (as UMass faculty sometimes deride our history as a “cow college,” and farmers at times may laugh among themselves about the “eggheads” on campus), our success as a healthy community depends on mutual respect for both of these traditions.  This partnership is one of the strengths of our town and a foundation upon which we are trying to build a vibrant community-based food system.

To build a more vibrant local food system, town government, the colleges and community organizations need to take more responsibility.

Here are a few ideas to consider, based on a few of our experiences in Amherst:

Local government might:



Colleges and universities can help by:

Community organizations might:

As an example of a community-led project, a study commissioned by our neighboring town, Feed Northampton, proposes a public investment in food hubs that might provide communal food processing, packaging, cold storage and redistribution.  It might also include a slaughter facility, a community kitchen for processing vegetables, a maple sugar boiler, a cider press,  and a flour mill.  And residents of Sedgwick, Maine recently voted to adopt a Local Food and Self-Governance Ordinance, setting a precedent for other towns looking to preserve small-scale farming and food processing.  If we are going to have a more robust local agriculture, we need to take more responsibility for creating that vision ourselves.

I believe that we must work together to build more resilience into a food system that is dominated by global corporations, vulnerable to collapse in the industrial world, and already in collapse in many developing countries (as evidenced by recent unrest) by growing more food locally.

However if  your own town government, local organizations and colleges fail to provide leadership, it is up to “average” citizens to lead the way.  If we “start parade” the local leaders will gladly jump up in front and wave our “local foods”  flag!  My next blog will examine personal responsibility for helping to create a vibrant community-based food system and ask the question, “so how do I help?”


For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now. And go here for more of my posts.  And for those of you from Amherst, please send me your favorite public initiatives to promote local food to add to my list for a future blog.

The future of food; dealing with collapse


Did you know that almost one billion people are hungry – another one billion are chronically malnourished –  and still another one billion others are overweight due to poor eating habits?

This is a global food crisis!

Last week, I explored the root causes of this crisis.  Isn’t it strange to think that the structural cause of the food crisis is actually the industrial food system itself!  As fossil fuel becomes increasingly expensive, the system that is so dependent on petroleum for fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation technology, packaging and shipping, is unraveling at the seams and triggering political unrest.

But before you accuse me of being one of those “door and gloom” bloggers, I think there are realistic solutions to this crisis (especially for food exporting countries like the U.S.).  Other aspects of industrial societies are likely to experience more severe disruption than the food supply as oil prices rise.  This is at least partly because there are steps that individuals and local communities can take to respond to increasing food prices and potential shortages.  Today’s blog post examines some of those steps.

Last week I made the bold claim that we need to think creatively about;

  1. tax incentives for small, integrated farms committed to selling within their own community,
  2. public investment to support bioregional food systems (within a specific foodshed),
  3. changes in zoning regulations to support the “homegrown food revolution”and
  4. education programs encouraging family, neighborhood, community self-sufficiency, and local farming.

These social structures are needed to help us build much-needed resilience into the current industrial food system, which is vulnerable to collapse in the industrial world and already in collapse in many developing countries.  It is time to take action!

Of course the skeptic in me still wants to ask “how likely are those of us who are well-fed (perhaps overfed)  to take action“?  Evan D. G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas, in their book Empires of Food: Feast Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, state that we are unlikely to get serious about a new food system until we have “a public outcry for tax incentives directed at promoting sustainable agriculture.”  Are you willing to cry out?

In previous posts, I wrote that we need to shift our way of thinking before we are likely to create those necessary social structures.  But until we can imagine a future different from the past, it is unlikely we will see such a shift of thinking.  Imagination is key.

Lots of people today are interested in talking about solutions.  We are planning a public event in my hometown, Amherst, Massachusetts that might be an example.  This sort of event is not difficult to organize.  There are good resources and models within the Transition Towns movement and some communities have done their own research, such as Feed Northampton.  The important thing right now is to imagine a future different from the past, because peak oil changes EVERYTHING.

So, drawing from the experience of others (and my own imagination), here are some ideas to consider that might be applied to your own community:

  1. If you live in an urban area, consider growing food on rooftops, especially of public buildings which may have large flat expanses of roof.  This not only produces food but makes heating and cooling the building less expensive.  Look to re-configure parking lots with raised beds such as the organiponicos in Cuba.
  2. If you live in a suburban area, tear up that lawn and just grow food now! Don’t forget to consider hens, chickens and rabbits for meat, perhaps a milking goat, and bees!
  3. If you are in a rural area, ask if there are more human food crops that can be grown.  Much of the farmland in New England, for example, is still used to produce hay (some for cows, but much for riding horses).  Is this the best use of farm land?
  4. And no matter where you live, think about ways your community can make food farming a more attractive lifestyle.  Farmers (especially those who don’t own land) struggle with the economics of a food system that keeps food artificially cheap.  If we want more local food, we may need to help these farms compete more effectively within the global food system.  The Feed Northampton report, for example, proposes a public investment in food hubs that might provide communal food processing, packaging, cold storage and redistribution.  It might also include a slaughter facility, a community kitchen for processing vegetables, a maple sugar boiler, a cider press,  and a flour mill.

We need to begin by imagining possibilities and then get to work.  There are plenty of examples of ways in which you can get involved in creating a sustainable food system.  Think about:

1. Slow Food

2. Fair Trade

3. Bioregionalism

3. Public commitment to human right to a nutritious diet

4. Public commitment to insure food producers earn a living wage

5. Zoning laws that allow urban and suburban families to raise their own food (including animals) – a right to survival law

6. Decent wages and training for farm labor

7. Education for young farm managers

8. Research into appropriate technologies

9. Programs to bring local food into the workplace

10.  And of course, grow our own!

These are a beginning.  Lets dream together about the world we want to create….. and then lets get to work!

What suggestions do you have for creating a more sustainable food system?  Please post them below.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. If you are interested in taking college courses in Sustainable Food and Farming online this summer, check us out at UMass.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my posts.

Reflecting on the “early days” of sustainable agriculture research and education


Today, many public universities including my own promote their research and educational efforts in support of a more sustainable agriculture.  It wasn’t always this way.  The end of the year seems like a good time for reflection – to see what we can learn from our past.  So lets look back to the “early days” of sustainable agriculture, the late 1980’s, when a loosely organized contingency of farmers invented an idea they called “sustainable agriculture.”

The  early advocates of sustainable agriculture were mostly  farmers. They generally managed mid-sized farms, but there was no consistent pattern, no typical type of farm that led the way into sustainable agriculture.  Some were organic, others not.  The unifying characteristic among these early advocates was that all had weathered the severe financial stress of the mid-1980’s – and they were still farming.

In the late 1980’s, the concept of sustainable agriculture was poorly defined and much debated.  It received immediate and vocal support from the environmental community – resulting in immediate and vocal distrust from mainstream agricultural institutions.  The cries of the environmentalists generally reflected a poor understanding of agriculture. The response from agricultural commodity groups, agribusiness, and public universities ranged from confused to openly hostile.

But these farmer-driven and farmer managed sustainable agriculture organizations persisted.  Perhaps uneasy with much of the debate, they simply got down to work and began doing research and education on their own.  Some of the farmer-led sustainable agriculture organizations became well established, and began calling for assistance from their public research and educational institutions.

The response from the public university system to their call for help was at best mixed and at worst loaded with animosity, derision and ridicule.  Some faculty reacted to the call for help with respect and curiosity, and these individuals were initially marginalized by most mainstream faculty and college leadership.  This was a lonely time for the early advocates of sustainable agriculture within the university system.  But this had to change, as the signs that “modern farming” was in trouble were becoming increasingly obvious to anyone willing to look.  Remember….

  • In the late 80’s we were emerging from a farm crisis that had accelerated the rate in which farmers were leaving the farm.
  • The public had been frightened by two major media events causing us to worry about pesticides on our food, one concerning the safety of apples, the other concerning grapes from Chile.
  • Pesticide residues were being found in rural wells, surface waters, snowfall, windblown soil and fog.
  • Soil erosion made the front page of the Chicago Tribune and the CEO of Archer Daniels, Midland Co. claimed that soil loss was more dangerous a threat than nuclear war.

Overtime, more faculty and administrators came to look on sustainable agriculture as an opportunity rather than a threat.  When public funding became available through the U.S.D.A. Low-input Sustainable Agriculture program, university scientists began to pay more attention.  At first cautious but eventually more enthusiastic partnerships between the universities and the non-profit organizations (which were required for public funding) emerged.   Today, public research and education in sustainable agriculture is almost “mainstream”.  But this transition took time.

Most Americans probably assume that public institutions have an obligation to serve the public good.  And how better for a public land grant university to serve the public than to address the continued degradation of the land that provides our sustenance?   Solving important public problems is what public university science should be all about.  But in the 1980’s many agricultural scientists could not admit there was a problem.

Reports that only 5% of rural wells had traces of pesticide and only 12% of rural wells had high nitrate levels were not viewed as a problem by apologists for industrial agriculture inside and outside the university.  During the winter of 1989-90, an analysis of every major snowfall event across the corn belt found only traces of the commonly used corn herbicide, Atrazine.  This was declared simply the cost of doing business – the “price of bounty.”

Even once we acknowledged evidence that all was not right, the debate continued as to whether the problem was indeed worth our attention. The scientists inside the public university system who had invested so much in the development of industrial agriculture remained reluctant to accept that something might be wrong.  It took public groups to bring pressure on the university system to begin to address these problems.   In a democracy, the public must be involved.  While science can help define the problem, community values and public debate must help determine where public resources are focused.

As a young scientist deeply engaged in the sustainable agriculture controversy, I found the response of some of my colleagues disappointing.  Somehow I expected scientists to respond with more curiosity to the claims being made by farmers and environmentalists that something was not right with American agriculture. 

Today, most university agricultural programs are willing to address the environmental degradation and resource depletion associated with modern agriculture.  But new ideas are often still met with skepticism, and some of the most interesting work being done  in sustainable food and farming is not initiated inside the university, but by creative practitioners.  New ideas that came from outside the university, and deserving of our attention are:

  • permaculture and forest gardening,
  • rotational grazing and seasonal dairying,
  • food sovereignty,
  • carbon farming,
  • urban agriculture, and
  • edible landscapes….

We still need to face some unpleasant truths about the public university system.

We will likely continue to be skeptics, as that is the nature of science.  But I hope we can learn to be more open to innovation and creativity when it comes from outside the institution.   Many farmers have criticized the public land grant universities as being reluctant to consider new ideas generated in the field (the “not invented here” syndrome).

There is some truth to this critique.

If we are to learn from the “early days” of sustainable agriculture, we must recognize that criticism from outside the institution should be welcomed. It says that someone cares about what we do and how we are doing it. And if we are willing to listen, the criticism helps us focus on what we should be doing. It keeps us sharp – and it pushes us to do better.

Please don’t stop caring and criticizing YOUR public university.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my posts.