Food MythBusters — Do we really need industrial agriculture to feed the world?

8 11 2012

Last week we explored the arguments being used against sustainable agricultural practices being able to feel the world – and that only more of the “green revolution” concepts will do.  The biggest players in the food industry—from pesticide pushers to fertilizer makers to food processors and manufacturers—spend billions of dollars every year not selling food, but selling the idea that we need their products to feed the world.  Food MythBusters is dedicated to  leading the fight against the corporate control of our food system and showing a way to a world where we all have just good food – they want to change the common preconceptions we have about food.

Founder Anna Lappé is a national bestselling author, educator, and a founding principal of the Small Planet Institute and Small Planet Fund. Named one of TIME magazine’s “Eco” Who’s Who, Anna’s most recent book is Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It.

Food MythBusters first film is designed to address the common belief that sustainable agriculture cannot feel the world.

Feed the world, or protect the planet?

31 10 2012

Did you know that July 11, 1987 was the very first “World Population Day”? [1]   World Population Day was designed  “to track world population and bring light to population growth trends and issues related to it”.  That year, the world’s population was 5 billion – a result of about 200,000 years of population growth – and 24 years later, we had added 2 billion more.  Now 150 babies are being born every minute and the United Nations forecasts world population to reach 9 billion people by 2050.

I think you can easily google all the nightmare scenarios that this crushing population burden can have on our lives.  One question which continues to be very controversial is how we’re going to feed 9 billion people, when today nearly 1 billion people don’t have enough food to eat. The United Nations warns that food production needs to increase by 70% in order to feed the world in 2050. [2] But with agricultural land dwindling while more than 1 billion people go to bed hungry, how could we possible feed the whole world population in 2050?

Since the 1950’s, we’ve been able to increase food production significantly through the “magic” of the “Green Revolution”, which increased yields through the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, expansion of irrigation,  and genetic engineering.  The Green Revolution is a known quantity, and big chemical companies have lots at stake in ensuring that it continues down the same ol’ path of more agrochemicals and genetically modified crops, even though the world is different now.    Farmers continue to use a lot of chemicals, because there is no coast assigned to environmental externalities, and the profitability of doing things with lots of chemical input isn’t questioned, according to Matt Liebman, an agronomy professor at Iowa State Univeristy. [3]

But in the world of the 21st Century,  growth in food production is flattening, human population continues to increase, demand outstrips production and food prices soar. As Dale Allen Pfeiffer maintains in Eating Fossil Fuels, modern intensive agriculture – as developed through the Green Revolution – is unsustainable and has not been the panacea some hoped it would be. Technologically-enhanced agriculture has augmented soil erosion, polluted and overdrawn groundwater and surface water, and even (largely due to increased pesticide use) caused serious public health and environmental problems. Soil erosion, overtaxed cropland and water resource overdraft in turn lead to even greater use of fossil fuels and hydrocarbon products:

  • More hydrocarbon-based fertilizers must be applied,
  • along with more pesticides;
  • irrigation water requires more energy to pump;
  • and fossil fuels are used to process polluted water – a vicious cycle.

The data on yields, fertilizer and pesticide use (not to mention human health problems) supports these allegations. A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists called “Failure to Yield” sums it up nicely. (click here).

This food crisis has produced contradictory accounts of the problem and different ways of solving it.  One group is concerned mainly about feeding the world’s growing population. It argues that high and volatile prices will make the job harder and that more needs to be done to boost supplies through the spread of modern farming, plant research and food processing in poor countries. For this group, the Green Revolution was a stunning success and needs to be followed by a second one now.

The other group argues that modern agriculture produces food that is tasteless, nutritionally inadequate and environmentally disastrous. It thinks the Green Revolution has been a failure, or at least that it has done more environmental damage and brought fewer benefits than anyone expected. An influential book espousing this view, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, starts by asking: “What should we have for dinner?” By contrast, those worried about food supplies wonder: “Will there be anything for dinner?” The second group often proposes the tenants of organic agriculture as a way out of this crisis.

There is much skepticism and sometimes even outright opposition to sustainable agriculture. The popular belief is that switching to organic agriculture will almost certainly result in lower production, which couldn’t possibly be a way to feed 9 billion people.  Mark Rosegrant, of the International Food Policy Research Institute, sums up this view nicely by saying that going organic would require more land, and though not bad, per se, it is not an important part of the overall process to feed 9 billion people.[4] And The Economist, in a special report on “feeding the World”, said “Traditional and organic farming could feed Europeans and Americans well. It cannot feed the world.”[5]

Why am I obsessing about agriculture?  Agriculture and food production are the base of life and the economy and have multiple functions in creating healthy societies. It is at the center of addressing challenges like hunger and poverty, climate change and environment, women’s wellbeing and community health, income and employment. We certainly need to look beyond black/white, either/or options and find creative solutions to this crisis.

Agroecology is one of many terms people use to describe one approach to farming – others being sustainable agriculture, ecological agriculture, low-external input agriculture or people-centered agriculture.  Agroecology is: farming that “centers on food production that makes the best use of nature’s goods and services while not damaging these resources.” It applies ecology to the design of farming systems; uses a whole-systems approach to farming and food systems; and links ecology, culture, economics and society to create healthy environments, food production and communities.[6]  And agroecology  works (please see reports in the footnotes section below)[7]:

  • More food is produced.
  • Fewer inputs are required – meaning reduced expenses.
  • Soil fertility is improved.
  • Rainfall is captured and managed better.
  • Pests are managed better.
  • Greater income is generated.
  • Farming systems are diversified and produce synergistic benefits.
  • Farms and communities are more resilient to climate change and shocks such as hurricanes, droughts and food or fertilizer price spikes.
  • Carbon is sequestered in soils rich in organic matter and the integration of trees into farming systems.
  • And farmers and their organizations use their skills, knowledge and creativity to learn and manage the process. These women and men are the innovators and leaders creating healthy farming systems for their communities and countries.

In March, 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food , Olivier de Schutter, presented a new report, “Agro-ecology and the right to food”, which was based on an extensive review of recent scientific literature. The report demonstrates that agroecology, if sufficiently supported, can double food production in entire regions within 10 years while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty. “Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live — especially in unfavorable environments. …To date, agroecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 developing countries, with an average increase of 116% for all African projects,” De Schutter says.

Now Mark Bittman, writing in the New York Times, states that “it’s becoming clear that we can grow all the food we need, profitably, with far fewer chemicals. …Conventional agriculture can shed much of its chemical use – if it wants to”.[8]   He cites a study published by Iowa State University, in which researchers set up three plots: one replicated the typical Midwestern cycle of planting corn one year and then soybeans the next, along with its routine mix of chemicals. On another, they planted a three-year cycle that included oats; the third plot added a four-year cycle and alfalfa. The longer rotations also integrated the raising of livestock, whose manure was used as fertilizer. The longer rotations produced no downside at all – yields of corn and soy were better, nitrogen fertilizers and herbicides were reduced by up to 88%, and toxins in groundwater was reduced 200-fold – while profits didn’t decline by a single cent.  There was an increase in labor costs (but remember profits were stable), so “it’s a matter of paying people for their knowledge and smart work instead of paying chemical companies for poisons.”[9]

Mr. Bittman goes on to say :

No one expects Iowa corn and soybean farmers to turn this thing around tomorrow, but one might at least hope that the U.S.D.A.would trumpet the outcome. The agency declined to comment when I asked about it. One can guess that perhaps no one at the higher levels even knows about it, or that they’re afraid to tell Monsantoabout agency-supported research that demonstrates a decreased need for chemicals. (A conspiracy theorist might note that the journals Science and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences both turned down the study. It was finally published in PLOS One; I first read about it on the Union of Concerned Scientists Web site.)

I think this study is a good example of agroecology principles.  Mr. Bittman goes on to say:

When I asked Adam Davis, an author of the study who works for the U.S.D.A., to summarize the findings, he said, “These were simple changes patterned after those used by North American farmers for generations. What we found was that if you don’t hold the natural forces back they are going to work for you.”

THIS means that not only is weed suppression a direct result of systematic and increased crop rotation along with mulching, cultivation and other nonchemical techniques, but that by not poisoning the fields, we make it possible for insects, rodents and other critters to do their part and eat weeds and their seeds. In addition, by growing forage crops for cattle or other ruminants you can raise healthy animals that not only contribute to the health of the fields but provide fertilizer. (The same manure that’s a benefit in a system like this is a pollutant in large-scale, confined animal-rearing operations, where thousands of animals make manure disposal an extreme challenge.)

Perhaps most difficult to quantify is that this kind of farming — more thoughtful and less reflexive — requires more walking of the fields, more observations, more applications of fertilizer and chemicals if, when and where they’re needed, rather than on an all-inclusive schedule. “You substitute producer knowledge for blindly using inputs,” Davis says.

So: combine crop rotation, the re-integration of animals into crop production and intelligent farming, and you can use chemicals (to paraphrase the report’s abstract) to fine-tune rather than drive the system, with no loss in performance and in fact the gain of animal products.

Can you argue that less synthetic chemical use would not be a good thing?  This is big business, and naturally the food system will need big investors to effect any changes.  But some are waking up.  One investor who sees the need for change is Jeremy Grantham,  chief investment strategist for Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo & Co, LLC, who says:  “The U.S.D.A., the big ag schools, colleges, land grants, universities — they’re all behind standard farming, which is: sterilize the soil. Kill it dead, [then] put on fertilizer, fertilizer, fertilizer and water, and then beat the bugs back again with massive doses of insecticide and pesticide.” (At one point in the conversation, he said that most supporters of industrial agriculture, who tell “deliberate lies over and over again,” could have been taught everything they know by Goebbels.)  “I think a portfolio of farms that are doing state-of-the-art farming over a 20-, 30-year horizon will be the best investment money can buy.”[10]

[1] Adwell, Mandy, “World Population Day…2011”, The 9 Billion,

[2] Vidal, John, “Food Shortages could force world into vegetarianism, warns scientists”, The Guardian, August 26, 2012.

[3] Bittman, Mark, “A simple fix for farming”, The New York Times, October 21, 2012


[8] Bittman, Mark, “A simple fix for farming”, The New York Times, October 21, 2012

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bittman, Mark, “A Banker Bets on Organic Farming”, New York Times, August 28, 2012

Promise for the future

7 07 2011

For the past few weeks we’ve been talking about the Green Revolution, and the problem of feeding 9 billion people.

With respect to the Green Revolution, opinion is still divided as to how to assess its impact.   Vandana Shiva, founder of Navdanya (a movement of 500,000 seed keepers and organic farmers) said that the Green Revolution:

(has) led to reduced genetic diversity, increased vulnerability to pests, soil erosion, water shortages, reduced soil fertility, micronutrient deficiencies, soil contamination, reduced availability of nutritious food crops for the local population, the displacement of vast numbers of small farmers from their land, rural impoverishment and increased tensions and conflicts. The beneficiaries have been the agrochemical industry, large petrochemical companies, manufacturers of agricultural machinery, dam builders and large landowners.

The “miracle” seeds of the Green Revolution have become mechanisms for breeding new pests and creating new diseases.[1]

As Frederick Huyn notes, in his essay “Green Revolution” the only thing the Green Revolution achieved was “low yield from high ideals”.[2]   Yet there are those who credit the Green Revolution with helping to avoid mass starvation.

And as Juergen Voegele, director of agriculture and rural development for the World Bank, pointed out: “We already have close to one billion people who go hungry today, not because there is not enough food in the world but because they cannot afford to buy it.”[3]  An interesting article in Foreign Policy magazine pointed out that the poor, even if they have the money to buy food, sometimes use their money to buy other things instead, such as cell phones or televisions.[4]

So it’s a complicated formula.

Last week’s post introduced the argument that agriculture simply must reduce its environmental footprint.  So the question remains: what is the future of agriculture?  How can we feed people on Earth and still have a livable planet?

I like the suggestion that we have to learn from each other.   Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, says:  “You’re either with Michael Pollan or you’re with Monsanto, but neither paradigm can fully meet our needs.”  So some are calling for what is being called a “resilient hybrid strategy” to meet these challenges – a sort of third way between industrialized agriculture and organic.   We can all take lessons from each other – the organic camp need not see “technology” as anathema, and conventional agriculture shouldn’t dismiss organic principles out of hand.  We should ditch the rhetoric and create new, hybrid solutions that boost production, conserve resources and build a truly sustainable agriculture.  These might include precision agriculture, mixed with high-output composting and organic soil remedies; drip irrigation, plus buffer strips to reduce erosion and pollution; and new crop varieties that reduce water and fertilizer demand.  On the production end, finding agreement on what the science writer Paul Voosen recently described as “a unified theory of farming” is unlikely. But finding ways to break down either-or thinking and foster traditional agricultural methods or advanced technologies where they fit best is clearly feasible.[5]

It will be much more challenging to own up to what our individual choices mean in terms of food availability – and to change them.

We think there should be four key components in this effort:

1)    Make food a human right.

2)    Science must play a key role.

3)    Agriculture will need to be regionally controlled and locally adapted, and governments should sponsor crop and genetic research.

4)    Adopt agroecology – includes frugal use of water, minimizes use of external inputs and sequesters carbon.

Skeptics will say that you simply cannot grow organic crops and have comparable yields to those of conventional crops which have been “protected” by pesticides and boosted by synthetic fertilizers.  Yet many studies are showing that, with patience, they indeed can yield comparable – or better – results.[6]   But the biggest gains in an effort to triple agricultural production on today’s global farm acreage may come from improvements in crop genetics and wasteful, inefficient farming and food management practices.

One key part of this strategy must be to use genetics to our advantage.  According to Paul Collier, professor of economics at Oxford Univerity, “Genetic modification is analogous to nuclear power: nobody loves it, but climate change has made its adoption imperative.”

Humans have been improving production through genetic selection since agriculture began. For 99 percent of history this process was rather hit or miss and based on farmers saving seeds and saving animals.  Then Mendel discovered how genetic traits were passed along, and we’ve been able to build on that knowledge to create hybrids which are more productive than their counterparts.  These age-old techniques can now be complemented, supplemented, and perhaps supplanted by an assortment of molecular “tools” that allow for the deletion or insertion of a particular gene or genes to produce plants (animals and microorganisms) with novel traits, such as resistance to briny conditions, longer “shelf-life,” or enhanced nutrient content. A change in a plant’s genetic sequence changes the characteristics of the plant. Such manipulation of genes—genetic engineering—results in a genetically modified organism or GMO.

Both “traditional” biotechnology and “modern” biotechnology result in crops with combinations of genes that would not have existed absent human intervention. A drought-resistant crop can be developed through “traditional” methods involving crosses with resistant varieties, selection, and backcrossing. Modern biotechnology can speed up this process by identifying the particular genes associated with drought resistance and inserting them directly. Whether developed through traditional or modern means, the resultant plants will resist drought conditions but only the second, genetically engineered one, is a GMO.

The problem is that today most plant genetics research is conducted by corporations rather than by governments.  These companies focus on crops that offer the biggest short-term commercial return – such as “Roundup Ready” soybeans and corn.   And in order to protect their intellectual property, the seeds available are sterile, so farmers are required to buy new seeds each year.  This has led to the outright prohibition of GMO organisms in most organic standards.  There remains widespread public opposition to the technology in many parts of the world.

Yet the promise of genetics research (non tethered to corporate bottom lines) is compelling.  According to Jason Clay, a vice president of the World Wildlife Fund,  the biggest genetic gains in the future will probably come from working on tropical crops that have been ignored to date, such as cocoa, yams, sorghum, millet, cassava, peanuts, sugarcane and sunflower.[7]  This work would focus not only on increased production but also disease and drought resistance or tolerance, dwarf traits so that tree crops could be harvested with less labor and for longer, and more marketable traits.

In looking at the overall factors involved in agricultural production (land, labor and capital) – it’s clear we have an abundance of both labor and capital.  But we’re reaching the limit of how much land and water we can use to produce food, as the conversion of natural habitat for food production continues unabated:  the FAO estimated an additional 121 million hectares will be converted to crop production in order to meet demand for agricultural commodities by 2030.[8]  Future gains must come from increased efficiency rather than expansion.[9]

Governments must take a more active role – by sponsoring research in genetics or crop science, for example, or by stepping in to support farmers so they won’t feel they have to sell their land to investors.  In the past two years alone, as many as 50 million acres of land around the world have changed hands from locals to foreign investors [10].  It seems that climate change is pushing viable farmland northward due to higher temperatures.  It’s creating new farming opportunities on previously marginal land.  As a result, multinational investors and sovereign wealth funds  are purchasing significant amounts of land in these marginal locales because local farmers are generally poor, and see it as a good way to make quick cash.[11]  Investors from various parts of the world, including rising powers such as China, India, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, South Korea and Wall Street banks, such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, are trying to corner the market on the world’s ever decreasing farmland. All of these investors are betting that population growth and climate change, droughts, desertification and flooding will soon make food as valuable as oil.

Time’s a-wasting – let’s roll up our sleeves and work together.  We really don’t have any room for half measures or for blinkered self-interest.

But because I’m an eternal optimist, I have to look on the bright side, so will end with a passage from Indur Goklany, assistant program director on technology and science policy at the Department of Interior:

Until the start of the Industrial Revolution, mankind was poor, hungry, illiterate, constantly at the mercy of disease and the elements, and short-lived; child labor was the norm; and one’s life opportunities were predetermined by sex and parentage. Today, despite an octupling of the world’s population, mankind has never been wealthier, better fed, less hungry, better educated, longer-lived and healthier; less constrained by caste, class, and sex; and 75 percent of global population is no longer mired in absolute poverty. This progress was enabled by economic development and technological change driven by cheap energy — all made possible by institutions underlying individual economic freedom. To extend this progress to a larger share of humanity and those not yet born, even as the world’s population increases, what matters most is to continue to nourish or, if necessary, develop these institutions.[12]

[1] Shiva, Vandana, “The Green Revolution in the Punjab”, The Ecologist, Vol 21, No. 2, March-April 1991

[3] Revkin, Andrew C., “Varied Menus for Sustaining a Well-Fed World”, January 2011.

[4] Banerjee, Abhijit and Buflo, Esther, “More than 1 Billion People are Hungry in the World”, Foreign Policy, May/June 2011, page 67.

[5] Revkin, Andrew C., “Varied Menus for Sustaining a Well-Fed World”, January 2011.

[6] Vasilikiotis, Christos, “Can Organic Farming Feed The World?”,

[8] Ibid., Page 14

[9] Ibid., Page 14

(10) Funk, McKenzie, “Capatalists of Chaos: The Global Land Grab”, Rolling Stone, May 2010.

[11] “Genetically Modified Seeds Will Not Solve the World Hunger Crisis”,

Agroecology and the Green Revolution

30 06 2011

The promise of the Green Revolution was that it would end hunger through the magic of chemicals and genetic engineering.   The reasoning goes like this:  the miracle seeds of the Green Revolution increase grain yields;    higher yields mean more income for poor farmers, helping them to climb out of poverty, and more food means less hunger.  Dealing with the  root causes of poverty that contribute to hunger takes a very long time – but people are starving now.  So we must do what we can now  -  and that’s usually to increase production. The Green Revolution buys the time Third World countries desperately need to deal with the underlying social causes of poverty and to cut birth rates.

Today, though, growth in food production is flattening, human population continues to increase, demand outstrips production; food prices soar. As Dale Allen Pfeiffer maintains in Eating Fossil Fuels, modern intensive agriculture – as developed through the Green Revolution -  is unsustainable and has not been the panacea some hoped it would be. Technologically-enhanced agriculture has augmented soil erosion, polluted and overdrawn groundwater and surface water, and even (largely due to increased pesticide use) caused serious public health and environmental problems. Soil erosion, overtaxed cropland and water resource overdraft in turn lead to even greater use of fossil fuels and hydrocarbon products. More hydrocarbon-based fertilizers must be applied, along with more pesticides; irrigation water requires more energy to pump; and fossil fuels are used to process polluted water.  And the data on yields, and fertilizer and pesticide use (not to mention human health problems)  supports these allegations.  A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists called “Failure to Yield” sums it up nicely. (click here).

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma,  says the Achilles heel of current green revolution methods is a dependence on fossil fuels.  “The only way you can have one farmer feed 140 Americans is with monocultures. And monocultures need lots of fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and lots of fossil-fuel-based pesticides,” Pollan says. “That only works in an era of cheap fossil fuels, and that era is coming to an end. Moving anyone to a dependence on fossil fuels seems the height of irresponsibility.”

So is a reprise of the green revolution—with the traditional package of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation, supercharged by genetically engineered seeds—really the answer to the world’s food crisis?  As Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA, describes it:  the good news is that feeding the world in 2050 is completely possible; the bad news is that there isn’t a lot of money to be made by doing so.[1]

It has become clear that agriculture has to shrink its environmental footprint – to do more with less.  The world’s growing demand for agricultural production must be met not by bringing more land into production, with more gallons of water, or with more intensive use of inputs that impact the environment, but by being better stewards of existing resources through the use of technological innovation combined with policy reforms to ensure proper incentives are in place.[2]

A massive study (published in 2009)  called the “International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development”  concluded that the immense production increases brought about by science and technology in the past 30 years have failed to improve food access for many of the world’s poor. The six-year study, initiated by the World Bank and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and involving some 400 agricultural experts from around the globe, called for a paradigm shift in agriculture toward more sustainable and ecologically friendly practices that would benefit the world’s 900 million small farmers, not just agribusiness.  As the report states:  “business as usual is no longer an option”.[3]

Dr. Peter Rosset, former Director of Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy and an internationally renowned expert on food security, has this to say about the Green Revolution:

      In the final analysis, if the history of the Green Revolution has taught
      us one thing, it is that increased food production can-and often does-go
     hand in hand with greater hunger. If the very basis of staying
     competitive in farming is buying expensive inputs, then wealthier farmers
     will inexorably win out over the poor, who are unlikely to find adequate
     employment to compensate for the loss of farming livelihoods. Hunger is
     not caused by a shortage of food, and cannot be eliminated by producing

    This is why we must be skeptical when Monsanto, DuPont, Novartis, and
     other chemical-cum-biotechnology companies tell us that genetic
     engineering will boost crop yields and feed the hungry. The technologies
     they push have dubious benefits and well-documented risks, and the second
     Green Revolution they promise is no more likely to end hunger than the

    Far too many people do not have access to the food that is already
     available because of deep and growing inequality. If agriculture can play
     any role in alleviating hunger, it will only be to the extent that the
     bias toward wealthier and larger farmers is reversed through pro-poor
     alternatives like land reform and sustainable agriculture, which reduce
     inequality and make small farmers the center of an economically vibrant
     rural economy.

We began this series a few weeks ago with statements from several people who said that organic agriculture cannot feed the world.  Yet increasing numbers of scientists, policy panels and experts  are suggesting that agricultural practices pretty close to organic — perhaps best called “sustainable” — can feed more poor people sooner, begin to repair the damage caused by industrial production and, in the long term, become the norm.  This new way of looking at agriculture is called agroecology, which is simply the application of ecological principles to the production of food, fuel and pharmaceuticals.   The term is not associated with any one type of farming (i.e., organic, conventional or intensive) or management practices, but rather recognizes that there is no one formula for success.  Agroecology is concerned with optimizing yields while minimizing negative environmental and socio-economic impacts of modern technologies.

In March, 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food , Olivier de Schutter, presented a new report, “Agro-ecology and the right to food”,  which was based on an extensive review of recent scientific literature.  The report demonstrates that agroecology,  if sufficiently supported, can double food production in entire regions within 10 years while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty.  “To feed 9 billion people in 2050, we urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming techniques available,” says De Schutter.  “Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live — especially in unfavorable environments. …To date, agroecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 developing countries, with an average increase of 116% for all African projects,” De Schutter says. “Recent projects conducted in 20 African countries demonstrated a doubling of crop yields over a period of 3-10 years.”

The report calls for investment in extension services, storage facilities, and rural infrastructure like roads, electricity, and communication technologies, to help provide smallholders with access to markets, agricultural research and development, and education. Additionally, it notes the importance of providing farmers with credit and insurance against weather-related risks.

De Sheutter goes on to say: “We won’t solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations.” Instead, the report says the solution lies with smallholder farmers. Agro-ecology, according to De Sheutter, immediately helps “small farmers who must be able to farm in ways that are less expensive and more productive. But it benefits all of us, because it decelerates global warming and ecological destruction.”

The majority of the world’s hungry are smallholder farmers, capable of growing food but currently not growing enough food to feed their families each year. A net global increase in food production alone will not guarantee the end of hunger (as the poor cannot access food even when it is available), but an increase in productivity for poor farmers will make a dent in global hunger. Potentially, gains in productivity by smallholder farmers will provide an income to farmers as well, if they grow a surplus of food that they can sell.

As an example of how this process works, the UN report suggests that “rather than treating smallholder farmers as beneficiaries of aid, they should be seen as experts with knowledge that is complementary to formalized expertise”. For example, in Kenya, researchers and farmers developed a successful “push-pull” strategy to control pests in corn, and using town meetings, national radio broadcasts, and farmer field schools, spread the system to over 10,000 households.

The push-pull method involves pushing pests away from corn by interplanting corn with an insect repelling crop called Desmodium (which can be fed to livestock), while pulling the pests toward small nearby plots of Napier grass, “a plant that excretes a sticky gum which both attracts and traps pests.” In addition to controlling pests, this system produces livestock fodder, thus doubling corn yields and milk production at the same time. And it improves the soil to boot![4]

Further, by decentralizing production, floods in Southeast Asia, for example, might not mean huge shortfalls in the world’s rice crop; smaller scale farming makes the system less susceptible to climate shocks.  If you read the  story by Justin Gillis in the New York Times on May 5, which discusses the effects climate change is having on crop yields, this can only be a good thing.

Significantly, the UN report mentions that past efforts to combat hunger focused mostly on cereals such as wheat and rice which, while important, do not provide a wide enough range of nutrients to prevent malnutrition. Thus, the biodiversity in agroecological farming systems provide much needed nutrients. “For example,” the report says, “it has been estimated that indigenous fruits contribute on average about 42 percent of the natural food-basket that rural households rely on in southern Africa. This is not only an important source of vitamins and other micronutrients, but it also may be critical for sustenance during lean seasons.” Indeed, in agroecological farming systems around the world, plants a conventional American farm might consider weeds are eaten as food or used in traditional herbal medicine.

States and donors have a key role to play here. Private companies will not invest time and money in practices that cannot be rewarded by patents and which don’t open markets for chemical products or improved seeds.  The flood-tolerant rice mentioned above was created from an old strain grown in a small area of India, but decades of work were required to improve it.  But even after it was shown that this new variety was able to survive floods for twice as long as older varieties, there was no money for distribution of the seeds to the farmers.    Indeed, the distribution was made possible only through a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

American efforts to fight global hunger, to date, have focused more on crop breeding, particularly genetic engineering, and nitrogen fertilizer than agroecology. Whereas the new UN report notes that, “perhaps because [agroecological] practices cannot be rewarded by patents, the private sector has been largely absent from this line of research.”   The U.S. aggressively promotes public-private partnerships with corporations[5]  such as seed and chemical companies Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, and BASF; agribusiness companies Cargill, Bunge; and Archer Daniels Midland; processed food companies PepsiCo, Nestle, General Mills, Coca Cola, Unilever, and Kraft Foods; and the retail giant Wal-Mart.[6]

We need to look closely at all options since there is so much at stake.  To meet the challenges listed above, perhaps we need what Jon Foley calls a “resilient hybrid strategy”.   Foley, director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Minnesota, puts it this way:

I think we need a new kind of agriculture – kind of a third agriculture, between the big agribusiness, commercial approach to agriculture, and the lessons from organic and local systems…. Can we take the best of both of these and invent a more sustainable, and scalable agriculture?[7]

The New York Times article pointed out the success of a new variety of rice seeds that survived recent floods in India  after being submerged for 10 days.  “It’s the best example in agriculture,” said Julia Bailey-Serres, a researcher at the University of California, Riverside. “The submergence-tolerant rice essentially sits and waits out the flood.” (8)

But this path raises many concerns – for example, genetically modified seeds are anathema to much of Europe and many environmentalists.   And so far, genetic breakthroughs such as engineering plants that can fix their own nitrogen or are resistant to drought “has proven a lot harder than they thought,” says Michael Pollan, who says the  major problem with GMO seeds is that they’re intellectual property.   He is calling for an open source code  (i.e., divorcing genetic modifications from intellectual property). De Sheutter sees promise in marker-assisted selection and participatory plant breeding, which “uses the strength of modern science, while at the same time putting farmers in the driver’s seat.”

So what can be done?

[2] 2010 GAP Report, Global Harvest Initiative,

[3] Synthesis Report: International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development”, 2009

[6] Richardson, Jill, “Groundbreaking New UN Report on How to Feed the World’s Hungry:  Ditch Corporate-Controlled Agriculture”, March 13, 2011

[7] Revkin, Andrew, “A Hybrid Path to Feeding 9 Billion on a Still-Green Planet”, New York Times, March 3, 2011,

(8)  Gillis, Justin, “A Warming Planet Struggles to Feed Itself”, New York Times, May 5, 2011,

How much is enough?

1 06 2011

Last week I talked about the fears associated with feeding a world population of 7 billion – let alone 9 billion – and mentioned that there are those who see organic agriculture as a niche market, unable to provide the calories needed for those 9 billion.  The topic is extraordinarily complex, and we can only begin to review various components that figure significantly in the equation.  For those interested, I highly recommend the report published by The Government Office for Science (GO-Science), London, entitled “The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and Choices for Global Sustainability”.  The executive summary can be downloaded here.

To begin our exploration, let’s figure out how much food we’re talking about.  How much is enough?

The answer may surprise you.

Today, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)[1],   the world is producing enough food to provide every man, woman and child with 2,700 calories a day, several hundred more than most adults are thought to need (which is around 2,100 a day).  Indeed, Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA, stated on the Atlantic Food Channel that in 2008, globally, we grew enough food to feed over 11 billion people.  We grew 4,000 calories per day per person—roughly twice what people need to eat.[2]  Allowing for all the food that could be eaten but is turned into biofuels, and the staggering amounts wasted on the way, farmers are already producing much more than is required (to feed everyone in the world).  If there is a food problem, it does not look like a technical or biological one.[3]

Eric Holt Gimenez, of Food First (The Institute for Food and Development Policy) put it eloquently: “In 2008 more food was grown than ever before in history. In 2008 more people were obese than ever before in history. In 2008 more profit was made by food companies than ever before in history. And in 2008 more people went hungry than ever before in history.”  But why are people going hungry if we have enough food to feed them?

Amartya Sen,  Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics, argued that the 1943 Bengal famine, in which 3 million people died from starvation and malnutrition, was not caused by a shortage of basic food – indeed, India was exporting food during the time that millions of its citizens were dying.  It was, rather, caused by a bunch of other factors[i].  The primary reason, though, was that the poor couldn’t pay for their food:   India was experiencing an economic boom which raised food prices, thereby raising the cost of food beyond the means of millions of rural workers whose wages didn’t keep up.

And the price of our food keeps going up:  In early January, 2011, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that its Food Price Index had reached an all-time high in December, exceeding the previous record set during the 2007-08 price surge. Even more alarming, The FAO announced later that the December record had been broken in January as prices climbed an additional 3 percent – then in February they reached the highest level ever recorded.[4]

So if we accept Dr. Sen’s conclusion that food prices are the cause of hunger, what can be done to lower them?  That answer – surprise! – is also extremely complex, including political conflict, poverty, harmful economic systems, and yes, climate change.  To simplify things we’ll just look at one facet of the argument that goes like this:  “ if output can be increased then food prices will moderate”.

How do we increase output enough to moderate food prices AND to feed an additional 2 billion people?  It’s not an impossible task:  according to the FAO’s Kostas Stamoulis, producing enough food to feed the world in the next four decades should be easier than in the previous four.” [5]  But it means changing the way food is produced, stored, processed, distributed and accessed – all in a world constrained by Earth’s lands, oceans, and atmosphere.  But producing enough food in the world so that everyone can potentially be fed is not the same thing as ensuring food security for all.[ii]

In the past, if more food was needed farmers just cleared more land, or they went fishing. Yet over the past 5 decades, while grain production has more than doubled, the amount of land devoted to arable agriculture globally has increased by only about 9%[6].  In recent decades, agricultural land that was formerly productive has been lost to urbanization and other human uses, as well as to desertification, salinization, soil erosion, and other consequences of unsustainable land management.  Further losses, which may be exacerbated by climate change, are likely.  Some new land could be brought into cultivation, but the competition for land from other human activities makes this an increasingly unlikely and costly solution, particularly if protecting biodiversity and the public goods provided by natural ecosystems (for example, carbon storage in rainforest) are given higher priority.  Recent policy decisions to produce first-generation biofuels on good quality agricultural land have added to the competitive pressures[7].

So we’re going to have to produce more food on the same amount of land  – probably less.   And fishing doesn’t seem to be an answer:  Virtually all capture fisheries are fully exploited, and most are overexploited.

Recent studies suggest that the world will need 70 to 100% more food by 2050 [8].  How to achieve that is hotly debated between those who support conventional agriculture (more and better technology) and those who think organic agriculture is a better way to deal with the long term problems created by this food crisis.  You can’t argue the point without knowing a bit about the Green Revolution, since conventional agriculture looks to that model to support its argument.  And that’s next week’s blog.

[3] “Feeding the World”, The Economist

[4] Brown, Lester, “Why world food prices may keep climbing”, Guardian Environment Network,

[5] “Feeding the World”, Ibid.

[6] J. Pretty, Agricultural Sustainability: Concepts, principles and evidence.  Philos. Trans. R. Soc. London Ser. B Biol Sci 363, 447 (2008).

[7] J. Fargione, J Hill, D. Tilman, S. Polasky, P. Hawthorne, Land Clearing and the biofuel carbon debt, Science, 319, 1235 2008).

[i] The government at the time was not a democracy, and the rulers had little interest in listening to the poor, even in the midst of famine.  Dr. Sen believes that shortfalls in food supplies will not cause famine in a democracy because vote-seeking politicians will undertake relief efforts.  So the famine was a combination of a myriad of factors:  wages, distribution, even democracy.

[ii] For more on this topic, see “The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and Choices for Global Sustainability”, The Government Office for Science (GO-Science), London

A non organic future?

25 05 2011

According to the World Population Clock at the Office of Population Research at Princeton University, the population of the world is now 6.92 billion people.  We’re supposed to reach 7 billion by the end of October of this year, according to the United Nations.  This is much faster than anyone had expected and represents an increase of one billion people in just 12 years[1].

Hania Zlotnik,  director of the population division in the UN department of economic and social affairs, says  “What is astounding is that the last two billion have been reached in record time… it’s not about how many people there are but where they are:  most of these people are being added in the poorest countries of the world.”  That means those countries least able to handle these new citizens, and they’re already the most vulnerable to famine.

Whether there is a reasonable chance of slowing the population growth rate is still being hotly debated, but all agree that these new numbers are causing shockwaves in many areas.   One area which is attracting lots of attention looks at how we’re going to feed all these people.  And because we’re proponents of using organically grown fibers (and organic agriculture in general), we think it’s important to investigate these arguments about the benefits of organic vs. conventional agriculture.

At the start of 2011, according to The Economist in a special report  about feeding the  world, “The 9 billion – people question“, the “fact that agriculture has experienced two big price spikes in under four years suggests that something serious is rattling the world’s food chain.”   World food prices have risen above the peak they reached in early 2008.  The food industry is in crisis – and certainly the era of cheap food is over.   There are mounting concerns that we cannot feed even the current population, let alone the 9 billion people expected by 2050.

According to The Economist:  The world looks to farmers to do more than just produce food. Agriculture is also central to reducing hunger (which is not quite the same thing) and provides many people’s main route out of poverty. Food is probably the biggest single influence on people’s health, though in radically different ways in poor countries than in rich ones, where the big problem now is obesity. Food is also one of the few pleasures available to the poorest.

In The Economist’s view (which is held by many scientists, food companies, plant breeders and international development agencies)  traditional and organic agriculture is a luxury of the rich.  They say that this type of farming could feed Europeans and Americans well.   But it cannot feed the world.

Central panel: The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Hieronymus Bosch

Pedro Sanchez, Director and Senior Research Scholar at the Earth Institute of Columbia University, says  If you ask me point blank whether organic-based farming is better than conventional, my answer is no.  There are just too many of us, we just need too many nutrients.  And those nutrients come from plants that need nutrients that organic fertilizers can’t always provide.”

And Mark Rosegrant, of the International Food Policy Research Institute, points out that  organic production tends to have somewhat lower yields compared to non-organics. He says going all organic would require a whole lot more land. Organic farming is, he says, a niche market. It’s not bad, per se, but it’s not an important part of the overall process to feed 9 billion people.

Needless to say, we’re interested in finding out more about this topic!  We’ll start our own series (feeding and clothing 9 billion!) next week – the subject is really complex and we will need several weeks to do it justice.

Pesticide residues in cotton fibers

19 05 2011

We’re often asked if there are traces of pesticides in conventionally grown natural fibers – because people make the assumption that if pesticides are used on the plants, then there must be residuals in the fibers.  And because the chemicals used on conventional cotton crops are among the most toxic known, such as aldicarb ( which  can kill a man by just one drop absorbed thru the skin) and endosulfan (thought to be the most important source of fatal poisoning among cotton farmers in West Africa), as well as a host of confirmed carcinogens[1],   that seems a reasonable cause for concern.

But that question misses the whole point, as we’ll explain.

According to the modern agricultural industry,  cotton agriculture uses integrated pest management (IPM) systems to promote cotton’s environmental stance (author’s note:  reduction of costs doesn’t hurt either).

As the result, the use of chemicals on cotton crops is down:  On average “only” 20 lbs. of pesticides are applied to an acre of cotton today – as opposed to about 40 lbs. in the past. 

IPM is a great advance on the part of agriculture to use biological controls.  But 20 lbs. per acre is still a lot of really bad chemicals being used.  So the Bremen Cotton Exchange,[2]  on behalf of the industry, has sponsored a series of tests which were carried out by the Hohehnstein Research Institute  according to Oeko-Tex 100 Standard (also known as Eco Tex).  They tested for 228 possible substances including:

  • Formaldehyde
  • PCP
  • pH Value
  • Heavy Metals
  • Defoliants

All the test series confirm that the treatment and use of pesticides in cotton production, according to their report,  “does not pose any hazard for the processor of the raw material and none at all for the end consumer.”  This is the industry’s position, based on the test results from their studies.  On the other hand, there are other studies that do find pesticide residues in cotton textiles -  of nine different organochlorine pesticides at levels of 0.5 to 2 mg/kg.[3]  So there seems to be a difference of opinion as to whether there are pesticide residues in the cotton fibers or finished cloth.

But there is not much difference of opinion in the fact that pesticide residues pollute our soils.    Many different studies have found pesticide residues which pollute agriculture soils in various parts of the world. [4]

“Pesticide Residues in Soil & Water from Four Areas of Mali”, From Journal of Agricultural, Food & Environmental Sciences, Vol 1, issue 1, 2007

And just recently,  Science News reported that children exposed in the womb to pesticides have lower IQs than do kids with virtually no exposure.  According to Science News:

“Three new studies began in the late 1990s and followed children through age 7. Pesticide exposures stem from farm work in more than 300 low-income Mexican-American families in California, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and their colleagues report. In two comparably sized New York City populations, exposures likely trace to bug spraying of homes or eating treated produce.”

Among the California families, the average IQ for the 20 percent of children with the highest prenatal organophosphate exposure was 7 points lower compared with the least-exposed group.

“There was an amazing degree of consistency in the findings across all three studies,” notes Bruce Lanphear of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. And that’s concerning, he says, because a drop of seven IQ points “is a big deal. In fact, half of seven IQ points would be a big deal, especially when you see this across a population.”[5]

There is no dispute about the fact that cotton crops are grown using many millions of pounds of chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.  And research shows that extensive and intensive use of synthetic fertilizers, soil additives, defoliants and other substances wreak terrible havoc on soil, water, air and many, many living things – such as in the study cited above.

So what is the point that’s being missed?  Because conventional agriculture – despite advances in IPM – uses so many chemicals which are bad for us, shouldn’t the crops be grown organically?  That cuts to the chase –  in organically raised crops, there would be no toxic residues in the fibers, nor would the chemicals be wreaking havoc on our soils, water and air.  So the question of whether there are pesticide residues in the fibers becomes moot.  And though the United States and other countries might have banned the use of some chemicals, such as DDT, they’re still in use in parts of the world.

We’ve often touted the benefits of organic agriculture, and this seems to be yet another.  We think organic farming is so important that we’ll spend some time on the subject in our next few posts – because there are some who say that organic farming is just not the answer.  Are we between a rock and a hard place?

[1] Five of the top nine pesticides used on cotton in the U.S. (cyanide, dicofol, naled, propargite, and trifluralin) are known cancer-causing chemicals. All nine are classified by the U.S. EPA as Category I and II (dangerous chemicals).

[2] The purpose of the Bremen Cotton Exchange is “to maintain and promote the interests of all those connected with the cotton trade”.

[3] Zhang, X., Liao, Q and Zhang, Y, “Simultaneous determination of nine organochlorine pesticide residues in textile by high performance liquid chromatography, SEPU, 2007, 25(3), 380-383.

[4] ALSO: Journal of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences, Vol 1, Issue 1, 2007; “Pesticide Residues in Soil and Water from Four Cotton Growing Areas of Mali, West Africa   ALSO: Luchini, LC et al., “Monitoring of pesticide residues in a cotton crop soil”, Journal of Environmental Science and Health, January 2000, 35(1): 51-9  SEE ALSO:

Food vs. Fiber

2 03 2011

We’ve often been asked where we stand on the question of growing fiber crops on agricultural land when so many people go to bed hungry each night.  In today’s world, you must add another “F” to the equation:  fuel, because there is such a growing interest in biomass as energy. In fact, the picture is even more complicated than the phrase “food, fuel or fiber” suggests, because of the increasingly complex interactions between agriculture and industry.

One facet of the complexity of the situation is that most of these crops have multiple uses.  Sixty-five percent of the cotton crop, the world’s most popular natural fiber, is used for products other than fiber.  Or, put another way, we eat more of the cotton crop than we wear.  Other natural fibers also have multiple uses:

  • Cottonseed, flaxseed and hempseed are all used in food products
  • Biomass from hemp is much greater than that of any other natural fiber crop, and made hemp a darling of the biofuel industry.  All fiber crops can be used for biofuels
  • Many crops are used in livestock feed, pet food, and animal bedding and litter
  • They are all components of biobased polymers and other biocomposits

There was a wonderful explanation of the Food v. Fuel and Fiber argument made on, in December 2008, “Food, Fuel and Fiber? The Challenge of Using the Earth to Grow Energy” by Alan Atkisson.  We have summarized the major points below:

The question is, do we have enough land to grow all the food, fuel and fiber that we’re likely to need?  The answer to that question appears to be yes — but only in theory. The International Energy Agency notes that estimates on the potential for growth in biofuel production “vary considerably,” and that the most optimistic numbers “are based on the assumption of no water shortage and increased food agriculture yields in the coming decades, partly due to genetically modified crops.” This is a controversial assumption, to say the least.

Surveys from space show that there is still quite a lot of natural-plant-covered Earth remaining, which could be used for producing food, fuel, and fiber for human use. NASA recently studied how much of the Earth’s total land-based “Net Primary Productivity” — that is, the amount of solar energy captured by plants — is being used by humans, and it amounts to only 20% at the global scale. In other words, we could theoretically grow a lot more of everything on the productive land that remains.  Theoretically.

But of course, “growing more of everything” means converting more natural ecosystems into human agricultural and industrial systems. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, humans have already used up about half of the earth’s ecosystems, by converting them not just into agricultural land, but into houses, roads, cities, industrial installations, and even (unfortunately) deserts. To make matters still more complicated, draw-downs in things like ecosystems and other forms of “natural capital” are not a predictable, linear processes. There are “tipping points” in those systems, points of no return beyond which gradual change switches to sudden, irreversible change. As an example, while the IUCN, the world’s largest conservation organization, was preparing its report that a quarter of the world’s mammals face extinction, a scientist for energy giant BP was being quoted as saying that his company was interested in “the green parts” of the entire globe for possible development into biofuel production.

In systems-thinking terms, this change in energy technology, policy, and markets has greatly expanded and complexified a system that was not exactly simple to start with. The growth of biofuel and fiber demand has created new couplings, new feedback loops, and new, unpredictable complexities in the global agro-economic system. The global energy/food/fiber market has become the very definition of a “wicked problem,” which is a term invented by design theorist Horst Rittel. Wicked problems are “messy, circular, and aggresive” — a very apt summary of how the food-fuel-fiber system is behaving.

Wicked problems, said Rittel and his co-theorist Webber, are a special breed of problem. There is no way to get complete information about them. There is no “best” solution to them. Trial-and-error is the only strategy; better or worse is the only way to characterize the results. In the coming years, the world economy will be involved in a vast trial-and-error effort to “balance the books” between fuel, food, and fiber, while also trying to solve the other wicked problem that triggered the increase in biofuel production in the first place: climate change.

So is it possible to find evidence of the possibility of success now?  Fortunately, yes. Worldchanging pointed to a small farm in Italy which aims to be the world’s first carbon neutral farm – in just one year.  This optimism makes it possible to imagine the entire global farming sector following a similar stragety, guided by sustainability principles.  And new research is constantly being done which changes the expected parameters.  For example,  it’s possible, through biotechnology and other agricultural improvements, to increase yields of fiber and fuel crops using marginal lands.  For example:

  • We can grow fiber/fuel crops on barren land, brownfields, and  salt marshes.  A recent study has found that we can even grow fiber crops on radioactively contaminated arable land.
  • We can irrigate and fertilize with wastewater

As a result, we can have schemes for biomass energy plants, sugar plantations growing both sugar and ethanol, and wastewater-treating algae harvested for fuel.

Flat statements about fuel and fiber competing with food are ultimately products of limited imaginations.

Our oceans and your textile choices

23 02 2011

I just don’t know what it takes to change people’s habits.  We need a huge wake up call about the disastrous state of our oceans!  Our oceans are our life support system.  And they’re in trouble.

Because this is a blog about textile issues, I wanted to remind you that  the textile industry is the world’s #1 industrial polluter of fresh water.    So remember that  each time you choose a fabric that has been processed conventionally, in a mill which does not treat its wastewater, you’re  adding to the problem.  We’re all downstream.  And please also remember that a fabric marked “organic cotton” – though decidedly better than conventional cotton – is still a fabric which is 27% synthetic chemicals by weight,  processed at a mill which returned the untreated, chemically infused effluent to our oceans.


People once assumed that the ocean was so large that all pollutants would be diluted and dispersed to safe levels. But in reality, they have not disappeared – and some toxic man-made chemicals have even become more concentrated as they have entered the food chain.

Tiny animals at the bottom of the food chain, such as plankton in the oceans, absorb the chemicals as they feed. Because they do not break down easily, the chemicals accumulate in these organisms, becoming much more concentrated in their bodies than in the surrounding water or soil. These organisms are eaten by small animals, and the concentration rises again. These animals are in turn eaten by larger animals, which can travel large distances with their even further increased chemical load.

Animals higher up the food chain, such as seals, can have contamination levels millions of times higher than the water in which they live. And polar bears, which feed on seals, can have contamination levels up to 3 billion times higher than their environment.

Some scientists describe the chemical change in the ocean as throwing evolution into reverse: the chemical composition is going back toward the “primordial soup,” favoring the simplest organisms – indeed, algae, bacteria and jellyfish are growing unchecked –  and threatening or eliminating the more complex.  There are so many jellyfish in the ocean that many fisheries have given up their normal catch and are just harvesting jellyfish.[1] Clickhere to view Jellyfish Gone Wild by the National Science Foundation.  In fact, according to a report published in the Los Angeles Times, these most primitive organisms are exploding:  it’s a ‘rise of slime’ as one scientist calls it.   It’s killing larger species and sickening people.

Los Angeles Times report  in 2006 (click here to read the entire article)  sounds like something from a horror movie:  A spongy weed, reported to grow at 100 square meters per minute – literally fast enough to cover a football field sized area in an hour – has been plaguing fishermen in Australia.  The culprit, it was found, is a strain of cyanobacteria known as Lyngbya majuscula, an ancestor of modern-day bacteria and algae that flourished 2.7 billion years ago.  It has since shown up in at least a dozen places around the globe. It thrives in oxygen depleted water.   Once established, Lyngbya creates its own nitrogen fertilizer from decaying parts of the plant.

Many fishermen in Moreton Bay avoid working in the four months every year that Lyngbya clogs their waters because it is highly toxic to them.  When fishermen touch it, their skin breaks out in searing welts.  Their lips blister and peel.   As the weed blanketed miles of Moreton Bay over the last decade, it stained fishing nets a dark purple and left them coated with a powdery residue. When fishermen tried to shake it off the webbing, their throats constricted and they gasped for air.

After one man bit a fishing line in two, his mouth and tongue swelled so badly that he couldn’t eat solid food for a week.

Scientists in labs studying the bacteria couldn’t even be in the same room with it, the smell was so pungent.  It’s like “The Blob” come to life.

Scientist Jeremy Jackson says that we have forgotten the basic rule of thumb:  “Be careful what you dump in the swimming pool, and make sure the filter is working.”

And to add insult to  our ocean’s injury, the number of dead zones – where there is so little oxygen only microbes can survive – has doubled every 10 years since the 1960s [2].  In 2008, there were 400 dead zones [3].   So does that make you worry?  It should.   This is an example of what mathematicians call “exponential growth”, and it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t really impact us until we’re about to be kicked in the teeth.

To demonstrate the concept, there is an old story about a king who was presented with a gorgeous handmade chessboard by one of his subjects.  The king was delighted, and asked what the man wanted in return.  The courtier surprised the king by asking for one grain of rice on the first square, two grains on the second, four grains on the third etc. The king readily agreed and asked for the rice to be brought.   But there was not enough rice in the world to fill the courtier’s request (see note below) – the total amount of rice required would be 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of rice.   This is about  460 billion tons, or 6 times the entire weight of the Earth’s biomass.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

And to see how the problem can become critical overnight (because according to the laws of exponential growth, the larger the quantity becomes, the faster it grows):  Imagine having a pond with water lily leaves floating on the surface. The lily population doubles in size every day and if left unchecked will smother the pond in 30 days, killing all the other living things in the water. We want to save the pond, so we check the lilies every day.   Yet day after day the plant seems small and so it is decided to leave it to grow until it half-covers the pond, before cutting it back. But the pond doesn’t becomes half covered until day 29 – leaving just one day to save the pond.  (4)

This concept has even led to the phrase “second half of the chessboard”, which refers to a point where an exponentially growing factor begins to have a significant impact.

So this news about the ocean dead zones – you might think that a dead zone the size of the state of Oregon is no big deal, but the area is growing exponentially.  How many years do we have until we reach the second half of the chessboard?

We must stop messing up our oceans.   If not for yourself, do it for your children. “You wouldn’t let a child open up a cabinet under the sink and start tasting the chemicals down there,” Fabien Cousteau says. “So why would you dump those chemicals down the drain and have them end up on your plate, which you then feed to your child?” (5)

NOTE regarding rice on the chessboard:

The total number of grains of rice on the first half of the chessboard is 1 + 2 + 4 + 8 + 16 + 32 + 64 + 128 + 256 + 512 + 1024 … + 2,147,483,648, for a total of exactly 232 − 1 = 4,294,967,295 grains of rice, or about 100,000 kg of rice, with the mass of one grain of rice being roughly 25 mg.

The total number of grains of rice on the second half of the chessboard is 232 + 233 + 234 … + 263, for a total of 264 − 232 grains of rice. This is about 460 billion tonnes, or 6 times the entire weight of the Earth biomass.

On the 64th square of the chessboard there would be exactly 263 = 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 grains of rice. In total, on the entire chessboard there would be exactly 264 − 1 = 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of rice.

[2] Diaz, Robert J., and Rosenberg, Rutger, “Spreading Dead Zones and Consequences for Marine Ecosystems”, Science, August 2008.


(4)  Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. (1972) The Limits to Growth. New York: University Books. ISBN 0-87663-165-0



9 06 2010

When we talk about wool, we almost always mean the fiber from sheep, although the term “wool” can be applied to the hair of other mammals including cashmere and mohair from goats, vicuna, alpaca and camel from animals in the camel family and angora from rabbits.

As with many discoveries of early man, anthropologists believe the use of wool came out of the challenge to survive – Neolithic man used pelts from animals to keep warm.

Sheep (Ovis aries) were first domesticated 10 000 years ago.  The British sought to protect their own wool industry during the eighteenth century, and passed laws requiring native English wool be used – for example, judges, professors, and students were required to  wear robes made of English wool. Another law required that the dead be buried in native wool. When the American colonies began to compete with the motherland, the English passed a series of laws in an attempt to protect their “golden fleece.” One law even threatened the amputation of the hand of any colonist caught trying to improve the blood line of American sheep.

Today, wool is a global industry, with Australia, Argentina, the United States, and New Zealand serving as the major suppliers of raw wool – but wool is produced worldwide in about 100 countries on half a million farms.   Wool producers range from small farmers to large scale grazing operations.  While the United States is the largest consumer of wool fabric, Australia is the leading supplier. Australian wool accounts for approximately one-fourth of the world’s production.

The annual global output is now estimated at 2.2 billion pounds, yet wool represents less than 5 percent of the world consumption of fibers. Wool is an expensive fiber to produce and process.  Though cotton is the number one plant used for fabrics and the number one natural fiber overall, the number one source for animal fiber is still wool.

Two terms one often sees are Merino and worsted.  The main difference between them is that Merino pertains to the type of fiber while worsted pertains to the process the fibers go through:

Merino is a term used in the textile industry which has varied meanings:  originally it meant wool made from a specific breed of sheep:  the Merino.  Merino sheep are regarded as having some of the finest and softest wool of any sheep: it is finely crimped and soft, fibers are commonly 65 – 100 mm (2.5 – 4 inches) long and generally less than 24 microns in diameter.

But now the term has broader use and may pertain to an article which just contains some percentage of wool from Merino sheep – or even just a fine wool and cotton yarn!  The Australian Wool Testing Authority Ltd is trying to institute a definition for Merino wool, citing fiber diameter and comfort factors.

The essential feature of a worsted yarn is its long, straight fibers which lie parallel to each other, the result of having been both carded AND combed.

So yes, you can have Merino worsted wools!


In scientific terms, wool is considered to be a protein called keratin. Its length usually ranges from 1.5 to 15 inches (3.8 to 38 centimeters) depending on the breed of sheep. Fiber diameter ranges from 16 microns in superfine merino wool (similar to cashmere) to more than 40 microns in coarse hairy wools.  Wool has several qualities that distinguish it from hair or fur: it is crimped (meaning it has waves),  it has a different texture or handle, it is  elastic, and it grows in staples (clusters).

Each wool fiber is made up of three essential components: the cuticle, the cortex, and the medulla.

  • The cuticle is the outer layer. It is a protective layer of scales arranged like shingles or fish scales.   They are sometimes described as little “barbs” because it’s the points of the scales that give wool the reputation for being prickly.
    • When two fibers come in contact with each other, these scales tend to cling and stick to each other. It’s this physical clinging and sticking that allows wool fibers to be spun into thread so easily.  And it’s also what causes the fiber to interlock – or felt.   See below for more information on this.

    Scales on a wool fiber under electron microscope

  • The cortex is the inner structure made up of millions of cigar-shaped cortical cells. The arrangement of these cells is responsible for the natural crimp unique to wool fiber.  The amount of crimp corresponds to the fineness of the wool fibers.  A fine wool like Merino may have up to 100 crimps per inch, while the coarser wools may have as few as 1 to 2. Hair, by contrast, has little if any scales and no crimp, and little ability to bind into yarn.  Its wool’s scaling and crimp that make it easier to spin into yarn, because the individual fibers attach to each other, so they stay together.
  • Rarely found in fine wools, the medulla comprises a series of cells (similar to honeycombs) that provide air spaces, giving wool its thermal insulation value.

The Manufacturing Process

The major steps necessary to process wool from the sheep into yarns are:  shearing, cleaning and scouring, grading and sorting, carding.


Sheep are usually sheared once a year—usually in the springtime. The fleece recovered from a sheep can weigh between 6 and 18 pounds (2.7 and 8.1 kilograms); as much as possible, the fleece is kept in one piece. While most sheep are still sheared by hand, new technologies have been developed that use computers and sensitive, robot-controlled arms to do the clipping.


Grading is the breaking up of the fleece based on overall quality. Wool fibers are judged not only on the basis of their strength but also by their fineness (diameter), length, crimp (waviness) and color.  In wool grading, high quality does not always mean high durability.

In sorting, the wool is broken up into sections of different quality fibers, from different parts of the body. The best quality of wool comes from the shoulders and sides of the sheep and is used for clothing; the lesser quality comes from the lower legs and is used to make rugs.


Scouring in the true sense of the word in the textile industry means simply removing any foreign material from the fabric; the term scour grew up around the washing of cottons and linens.

Wool taken directly from the sheep is called “raw” or “greasy”  wool.  It contains a substantial amount of natural contaminants, such as  sand, dirt, grease, and dried sweat (called suint) as well as pesticide residues from the treatment of sheep to prevent disease; the weight of contaminants accounts for about 30 to 70%  of the total weight of the fleece.

To clean the wool, the fiber is washed in a series of alkaline baths containing water, soap, and soda ash or a similar alkali. The scouring effluent contains these impurities, which has high levels of COD (chemical oxygen demand) and BOD (biochemical oxygen demand), suspended solids, organic matter and sheep dip chemicals.  These levels represent a significant pollution load:   the organic effluent from a typical wool-scouring plant is approximately equal to the sewage from a town of 50,000 people.[1]

The effluent is separated into three categories:

  1. grease – when refined, this is known as lanolin, which is saved and sold for a variety of consumer products.
  2. liquor (water) – discharged to sewage works or open waters
  3. sludge – this needs to be disposed of too:   The sludge contains high levels of organic materials such as the potentially toxic sheep dip pesticides (such as organochlorines, organophosphates and synthetic prethroids).   In the EU, landfills will now only accept non-recoverable and inert waste.  Since the global production of wool sludge is over 930,000 tons, research is being done on the feasibility of disposing of scouring waste by composting, incineration and other methods.

The processing stages to this point cause the natural fiber alignment of the scales (or “barbs” as mentioned above) to be completely disrupted; the scales no longer line up “tip to base” as they would in the fleece. Those scales make raw wool itchy and also cause the fiber to shrink when wet.

In order to prevent this shrinkage (also called felting), and to make the wool more comfortable when worn next to the skin, many producers use chlorine to “burn” off the scales…this doesn’t entirely remove them, but it does lessen their profile, and then the fibers are coated with a synthetic polymer resin, which essentially glues down the scales. This allows the wool to be machine washed without felting, and gets rid of the shrinkage of the fabric associated with felting.  This is the chemistry behind Superwash wool.  The tradeoff, of course, is that this chlorination process is highly toxic.

See our blog post on Organic Wool to read about the environmental effects of wool scouring and chlorination.  It’s not pretty.


Next, the fibers are passed through a series of metal teeth.  The teeth untangle the fibers and arrange them into a flat sheet called a web. The web is then formed into narrow ropes known as silvers.   Carding  is one of the processes that untangles the wool fibers and lays them straight; it also removes residual dirt and other matter left in the fibers.  Combing is the next process, which removes shorter length fibers and helps to further straighten the fibers and lay them parallel.  Combing also helps to clean more debris from the fibers.

  • Carding only produces woolenyarn.   Woolen yarns:
    • Have a short staple (1-4 inch long fibers).
    • Are carded ONLY
    • Have a slack twist
    • Are weaker, softer and bulkier than worsted
  • Carding and Combing produces worsted yarn.Worsted yarns:
    • Have a long staple (4 inch and longer)
    • Have a tight twist in spinning
    • Are stronger, finer, smoother and harder than woolen yarns.


Wool is highly regarded as one of the most lavish natural fibers in the world.  Lightweight, versatile, resistant to dirt and considered somewhat water repellant, non wrinkling, and durable, wool:

  • Can absorb almost 30% of its own weight in water – and it can also release it.  This makes it breathable and extremely comfortable next to the skin.  It can absorb sweat and release it as vapor, keeping you cool and dry.  It prevents the clammy, cold feeling you may experience when wearing some types of synthetic clothing and sweating.
  • Is resistant to static electricity,  because the moisture retained within the fabric conducts electricity. This is why wool garments are much less likely to spark or cling to the body. The use of wool car seat covers or carpets reduces the risk of a shock when a person touches a grounded object.
  • fabrics have a greater bulk than other textiles because of the crimp, and retain air, which is a great insulation.  It keeps you warm when you’re cold, but insulation also works both ways – Bedouins and Tuaregs use wool clothes to keep the heat out.  And it does not cling to the skin, allowing for air circulation next to the skin.
  • fibers can be bent 20,000 times without breaking (compared to cotton, which breaks after 3,000 bends or rayon, which can be bent only 75 times without breaking), and have the power to elongate (it can be stretched 25 – 30% before breaking), stretch and recover. This natural elasticity and memory  returns to its natural shape
  • doesn’t readily catch fire – its ignition point is higher than cotton and some synthetics.  Even if it does burn, it burns slowly (not melting or dripping as in synthetics) and self-extinguishes when the source of the flame is removed.  It contributes less to toxic gases and smoke than synthetics, and is therefore often specified for high safety environments such as trains and aircraft.
  • has a naturally high UV protection, which is much higher than most synthetics and cotton.
  • is considered by the medical profession to be hypoallergenic.
  • is hydrophilic—it has a strong affinity for water—and therefore is easily dyed.

[1] Christoe, Jock; The treatment of wool scouring effluents in Australia, China and India”,  project # AS1/1997/069;


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