Building Community At America's Table

Posts tagged “monoculture

Meal Four: Diversity, Sustainability and the Anthropomorphizing Biologist

– written by Ellen

We do a lot of talking to Ag folks of all stripes —  and no matter what kind of agriculture you believe in, at its very core, it is the intersection of nature and man. In agriculture, man seeks to leverage nature to his advantage.

But there is another side to how nature and man interact, one of mutually sustainable coexistence, and Darryl Coates lives in that space. Darryl, District Wildlife Biologist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, was the gracious star of Meal Four: Diversity, Sustainability and the Anthromorphizing Biologist.

I call him that because when you talk to Darryl about animals and nature, he tends to slide into feelings — his own, the environment’s, the animals’ — within a sentence or two of every paragraph.

Darryl talking forage grasses at Chef Camp

For example, he himself owns a pig and believes his pig is really happy living a piggy life doing piggy things. In fact, he was sure his pig was especially happy on the day we met him for Meal Four as his pig was at “Sex Camp” with two sows. “Who,” he asked, “couldn’t imagine that any pig would love that?”

I was particularly fascinated by this biologist who talked about his pig’s feelings because, of course, biology is science. And I’ve heard a lot of folks who seem to use science as justification for, say, depigifying our pigs. In fact, I get a general feeling of derision and scorn, like I am an un-evolved human, when I dare to hint that pigs are happiest when they are doing piggy things.

So, Darryl’s ideas, frankly, felt like home to me. It was a relief to have a scientist confirm that pigs do have an essential pig nature and expressing that in their lives is vital. Which is why I was hoping that Darryl, since he was a scientist, could help me sort through the sciencification of agriculture.

It’s a big task, and I hope in time he will be up for the challenge, but for the purposes of our Meal, I myself decided to start with one question: “How does science define sustainability?”

For me, this is an essential conversational fulcrum if we are going to somehow bridge the gap between BigAg and LittleAg — it’s the piece those on “our side” won’t let go of and, I’d argue, the piece that BigAg can’t afford to ignore.

I am learning through this One Hundred Meals project that our culture, no matter how much it frightens me personally, seems destined to embed science into every nook and cranny of agriculture. And so, if agriculture is going to hinge upon science, then I feel we need a way to work a sane perspective of sustainability into the equation.

Sustainability, in my opinion, is ground zero of the divide between the Big Ag and Small Ag folks. And by that I am not saying that both sides don’t claim the vast superiority of their view of sustainability, they do — but they are so diametrically opposed in their idea of what the word means that the word itself is ineffectual in any discourse.

To Darryl, who I should note has not yet logged his official answer of what sustainability is, lack of sustainability results in disease, pollution and starvation. “Not human starvation, nutrient starvation.” And he focuses a lot of his conversation on how nature will ultimately weigh in if an ecosystem is unsustainable by the manifestation of disease, pollution and starvation.

Too many wolves in a wood — the herd gets culled naturally by lack of food. Planting the same type of vegetable in the same spot in your garden each year — the bugs and disease will concentrate in your soil and doom your crop before you can start thinking about dinner. Not enough diversity in the field corn grown in the United States — something will eventually give.

And the odd thing is, from the potato famine (in Ireland) to the potato blight (in America) to, say, Dutch Elm disease, we can see this pattern again and again. It is a pattern, really, that defies any idea of sustainability because nature delivers disease, pollution and starvation, it seems, every time it encounters an unsustainable lack of diversity.

Darryl talks a lot about diversity. In many ways his job is focused on the impacts of the lack thereof.

Take those Dutch Elm trees. They were densely planted in a community near him because it’s just plain ol’ easier for the community leaders to just buy one kind of tree and plant it in mass. Plus, it must be acknowledged, most communities like the symmetry of a stand of similar trees. Here’s the thing, though, The environment of those trees, densely planted with no diversity, was unsustainable and so they succumbed to disease and were replaced, essentially wholesale, with ash. Of course they ended up diseased and now the talk is replacing them, all of them, with maples. Darryl anticipates that in 50 years, maple blight will ravage the trees planted because no one seems interested in learning mother nature’s lesson just yet.

It’s hard to imagine why man doesn’t seem to ever learn this lesson.

And as Grant and I prepare to travel down to St. Louis to tour Monsanto, this idea of diversity — and the growing lack thereof — is what is weighing on my mind.

I think it is a first step to discussing how science and sustainability can intersect. After all, I am quite sure there is no argument against the idea that biodiversity is essential to human health and sustainability.  This is scientific fact.

And yet from my perspective, the deeper a person bows to the altar of science-based agriculture, the more they seem to ignore the science of biodiversity. And no, I am not referring to the cursory nod to diversity in the form of rotating between corn and soybeans with a cover crop on the off-season. I’m talking actual thriving diversity — of seed, of crop, of fostering beneficial insects as well as allowing for the wild experimentation that comes from naturally occurring adaptation of breeds to environment one gets from heirlooms rather than hybrids.

And since the Monsantoization of agriculture seems, to me, the titillating height of anti-diversitism, I should be interested to hear how the scientists respond.

Is it the lure of productivity? The idea that, if you consider this year, growing one type of corn in the field is the most productive and thus the best? Will they ignore the question and divert the conversation to feeding starving folks, which tends to happen a lot. Or is there some bit of their argument, a valid point, I have yet to hear?

A part of me wishes that Darryl was coming with us to Monsanto, since he has access to his scientific background to inform his questions and comments. But, thankfully enough, Darryl’s ideas are blissfully simple, in the way mother nature is, at its core, quite incredibly simple — diversity works well and nature tends to ensure the sustainability of all species by keeping everything in check.

And when it gets out of whack, for whatever reason, the mother will react like a woman scorned.


Meal Four: A Rural Perspective, For Some Perspective

– written by Grant

Living in a big city sometimes makes your opinions on agriculture suspect. What do you know about farming?

Enter Darryl Coates, keeper of bees, skinner of rabbits and wildlife biologist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Meal Four with Darryl was in Gibson City, Illinois – pop. 3300 ish. To underscore that we were city folk in the country, as we walked in to meet Darryl at the Country Kettle, Ellen joked to me: “Bet you’re the only man with a purse here.” (Yes, I carry a small shoulder bag!)

Which is all to say, Darryl brings a rural viewpoint to the conversation.

And he brings the perspective of someone who’s spent over 17 years working to manage Illinois wildlife and tree populations. He has a field scientist’s perspective on natural systems and applies that thinking to his analysis of agriculture. As he puts it, his science is “adaptive management”.

He notes that wild animal populations live outside, they have exposure to a varied diet of their choosing and they are exposed to the elements and illness. Barring unregulated hunting pressure, this creates a resilient system and healthy animals. Of course farming and agriculture is an artificial system man creates, but in Darryl’s mind, we would be better served learning from and more closely imitating nature’s systems.

It’s interesting that as we learned from Kris Travis at Spence Farm, everyone has their own definition of sustainable. For Darryl, it includes:

  • Control amount of waste.
  • Use waste in positive manner.
  • The herd is not kept all together (and sick animals are separated).
  • You don’t need hormones and inoculations.

When these get out of balance, in nature or on farms, you have population corrections of animals, plants or soil through disease, pollution and starvation.

Speaking of balance, one of nature’s pillars of success that Darryl fears we are most ignoring, is diversity.

Large scale agriculture often purports to offer us “choice”, but Darryl doesn’t see it. We grow one corn type in this country: “yellow dent #2”. How is that choice? How is that diversity? To the naturalist’s mind, this is life on a knife edge because we are only fostering one crop, one species. If blight or drought or a yellow-dent-#2-loving pest hits that crop, we may be sorry to have all our eggs in one basket.

And Darryl recalled the steak taste-test we did together at Spence Farm chef camp (see Meal Two posts for more on Spence Farm). We grilled six steaks, some pastured, some grain-fed, some grain finished and also from a variety of species, Angus, Holstein and more, including an anonymous commodity steak from the grocery store. Did they taste different? Oh YES! Does agriculture foster that sort of choice? No, it raises one beef cattle, feeds it the same across the country and it tastes the same everywhere. Is that consumer choice? Is that an environmentally safe move from the perspective of a wildlife biologist who values diversity? No.

I read a terrific essay recently by Seth Teter that compared monoculture farming to monoculture thinking. He essentially challenges us to be broad thinkers and avoid the dogma that is monoculture ideology. If you are a proponent of biological diversity, he says, you should also be a proponent of thought diversity. I fully agree. I think Darryl brings us some diversity thinking. He acknowledges that agriculture, all agriculture, is a better steward of the land than it’s ever been. But he fears the monoculture planting, the monoculture thinking that ag is chasing now too. In economics terms, you could see on his face and read in his tone that he fears a “correction”.

When the correction hits, will we see it as nature’s response to our widespread use of single crops and single species?