Ian Petrie

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I first saw this story in the National Observer, an interesting on-line publication. It had an odd, complicated title “The dirt on the transformational soil millennials resist paying for and how it could help save the world.” That certainly caught my attention.

Reporter Marc Fawcett-Atkinson spoke to a young fourth generation buckwheat farmer from Manitoba named Anastasia Fyke. She talked about things that I write about in almost every column, but with a much more genuine and experienced voice than mine. “Our agricultural sector is structured so the costs associated with improving the environmental status of agriculture aren’t being rewarded by the increased price of food or an increase in the price the producer receives” Fyke says.

Anastasia Fyke, like many people, is very concerned about climate change. Climate experts warn that droughts, floods, wildfires and unstable weather will become the norm as CO2 emissions continue to rise. Fyke accepts that agriculture is a major contributor to emissions (about 8% in 2018), but she’s just as sure that farmers can play a critical role in capturing and lowering emissions if they had the financial capability to do it.

“I hear a lot of flak, especially from my own generation, blaming farmers for all these climate things,” she said. “But people aren’t willing to pay for it.”

Fyke is a millennial herself (born between 1981 and 1996). She’s convinced that if farmers didn’t have to squeeze money out of every field every year to keep up with rising costs and shrinking net incomes then there would be the opportunity for what many call regenerative agriculture practices, cover crops that aren’t harvested but capture carbon and add it as organic matter to the soil, restoring degraded land and improving water retention. As soils improve, farmers need less artificial nitrogen fertilizer that also add to greenhouse gases by releasing ammonia and nitrous oxides.

Regenerative agriculture is a new word on an old concept called biodynamic farming that started in the 1920’s when Rudolph Steiner gave a series of lectures on the impact of chemical fertilizer use on European farms. Soils were degrading, erosion was increasing. Steiner called it “an 'enlivening' of farmers' soils and spirits.” For her part Anastasia Fyke says climate change has made these practices essential, but they will only happen if farmers make more money.

Also quoted in the article is David Burton, a soil scientist at Dalhousie University. He says Fyke is on to something. “Our agricultural sector is structured so the costs associated with improving the environmental status of agriculture aren’t being rewarded by the increased price of food or an increase in the price the producer receives.”

The only thing I would add to what Fyke is arguing is that she’s letting my generation (the dreaded boomers, late 1940’s-50’s) off the hook by focusing on millennials. We’re the ones who have benefited from a reasonably priced education, lots of job opportunities, relatively cheap housing, energy, and food prices. We’re the ones who need to step up and pay farmers properly. Boomers in executive positions in food processing and retail companies especially should lead the way. Their grandchildren will be deeply disappointed when they discover that short-changing farmers so big companies can make more money has lead to an uninhabitable world.

The other story comes from a writer with a last name many will know, Lappe´. Francis Moore Lappe´ wrote Diet for a Small Planet in 1971. It was one of the first books to warn that the

incredible growth in productivity from the wider use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides comes with consequences too for both humans and the land. Her daughter, Anna, continues the critique of industrial farming methods including livestock production, but has now added warnings about what appears to be a bold new solution, meatless hamburgers.

She wrote an article called “Impossible Foods, Impossible Claims”, questioning whether the “meatless” revolution is as healthy for the plant as so many claim. She has particular concern about the dependence on GMO soybean varieties to produce the protein isolate needed to produce the burgers. More than 90% of the fields growing these soybeans use blanket spraying of glyphosate herbicides like Round-Up.

She writes Impossible Food’s “commitment to genetically engineered soy belies a growing body of evidence that these crops are harming, not helping, the planet. In an era of a climate emergency and biodiversity crisis, we need to be working, with ever greater urgency, to eliminate our dependence on toxic pesticides — not doubling down on it.”

There has also been criticism of vegetable-based meats for its heavy reliance on China which supplies the majority of the meatless burger ingredients. It’s similar to North America’s dependence on China for drug components. Processing costs for the various ingredients are much lower there. Meatless producers are following the same path as electronics manufacturers looking for the cheapest sources.

I would argue that grass and forage grown on pastures to feed cattle are part of the carbon-capturing cycle and soil building that Anastasia Fyke wants to see. As I’ve written before, give me a real locally produced hamburger please.

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