Michael Pollan: Polycultures: A step in the right direction
Michael Pollan was the keynote speaker at the Georgia Organics Conference March 21, 2009. The event was held at Agnes Scott College. He addressed the audience after they enjoyed a farmers feast (made from local food) about his thoughts on the "state of the movement." The address is available for viewing in its entirety or in separate parts.
Michael: So, how do you do it? How do you get this food system off of fossil fuel? I’m gonna run through just a very rough sketch. I've spelled it out in more detail if you wanna look at that article and things I’m working on now. But, how do you move -- the big move, though, is to move from monocultures to polycultures. It’s really that simple and that complicated.
The big move is doing what the pioneers of organic always understood, which how do you -- how does nature do this? How does nature produce so much biomass year after year without fossil fuel fertilizers and without fossil fuel pesticides? That’s a real head-scratcher. Well, we know how nature does it. Nature does it by having a great many species in combination, plants, and animals, such that one fertilizes another. And by not having monocultures, insect problems are not a serious problem. Nature, you know, can produce lots of food from little more than sunshine, soil, and water.
Sustainable agriculture, contrary to what a lot of people think outside of this room, is not, however, just a matter of turning back the clock. This is not, as farmers in the Midwest tell you, “Oh that’s, yeah, my great-grandfather was an organic farmer, ‘cause he didn’t have pesticides.” In fact, it is a highly sophisticated and new -- it is a post-industrial, not a preindustrial agriculture, and we know we can do it. We have models. We have models at every scale. We have the model of Joel Salatin and his six species polyculture in Virginia. We have the model of Will Allen’s farm in inner-city Milwaukee. I don't know how many species he has, but it looks like about 20. And then, you know, you might say, if you are Saxby Chambliss or somebody like that, “Well, those are all tiny.” Well, in fact, there are big models. There are models in Argentina, farms that dwarf any American farm, 10,000, 20,000-acre farms on eight-year rotations. Five years of cattle on pasture rotated, building up so much fertility in the soil, so much carbon, that they can then grow three years of grain without any fertilizer, without any herbicide. So, we can do this, we can figure it out. We’re just not working on it as a, you know, on the national level. And to do it, of course, one of the things we’re gonna need to do is shift the entire research agenda to away from creating sophisticated inputs for farmers to buy, toward systems, processes. We have to understand, the Department of Agriculture has to understand, the departments -- the land grant colleges have to understand, that a really clever rotation is as ingenious a technology as a new genetically-modified drought-resistant corn seed.
Why don't we think that? Well, it doesn’t come in a box. And it can't be patented. And that is a problem. The private sector will not invest in inventing new processes. And that’s why it’s gonna have to be a public deal.
There’s a lot else we can do. I’ll just throw out a few ideas. At the level of the farm, ‘cause as I said, we gotta deal with the farm, we have to deal with the marketplace, and we have to deal with us, the consumer, the eater, if we’re gonna really move this, resolarize this food system. First, we have to reward farmers for diversifying. We’ve gotta pay our farmers more the more crops they grow, the more days of the year that their fields are green. We need to -- and we need to stop penalizing people taking subsidies from growing specialty crops. Now they’re forbidden. If you take -- if you have corn land or soy land or cotton land, you're not allowed to grow vegetables. That’s certainly standing in the way of change. We need to diversify farms, and one of the ways to do that is essentially to change the whole incentive structure of the subsidy system, which right now has been designed to maximize production of five crops and nothing else. But, you know, again, we set those subsidies up because there was a public good we wanted our farmers to satisfy. That public good has changed.
So how do we change the incentives to give us what we now want, which is healthy food? Well, there’s a lot of things we can do. We can pay farmers for ecosystem services. We can pay them for the quality of their farming rather than the quantity and we can measure those things. We can pay them for putting in bee habitats. We can pay them for sequestering carbon. And I think one of the most important struggles of the next couple years will be, “How is agriculture incorporated into the new carbon trading regime that we will probably have?”
There are three options here. You could leave agriculture out, which big ag will lobby to do, because they don't wanna pay taxes on their carbon and they know how much carbon they’re responsible for. You could, plan B, do what the environmentalists, many of the more conventional ones would like to see, which is, “Let’s penalize farmers for putting carbon into the atmosphere, for the, you know, the dairy industry in Tulare County, California, or the feedlots in North Carolina, the hog confinements. So, let’s charge them for that carbon.”
But I think the third and best alternative is to have a regime that includes both sticks and carrots. Because we know now that agriculture not only -- we can not only mitigate its climate change impact, we can actually turn agriculture into one of the most important solutions to the climate change problem. We have a 700 million acre potential carbon sink, the agricultural lands in America. And if we reward farmers for sequestering carbon and performing these other, you know, valuable services, for making biochar, for generating energy, we can enlist them in the solution; and nothing would drive change faster than if farmers were directly rewarded for contributing to solving the climate change problem. So, I think that that is something as we start talking about this new regime of carbon trading, we need to have a seat at that table and have a clear agenda that we don't -- we wanna be at that table and we want both carrots and sticks for agriculture. I think that that’s very, very important.