It all adds up: the cost of true farming

For most farmers, the decision to use chemical fertilizers is an easy one. For every ton of ammonium nitrate a farmer uses, he pays $387 and sees a return of between $666 and $2,066—as much as 500 percent. The math simply makes sense.

Or at least it appears to. A 2013 European study calculated the total costs of using nitrogen fertilizer, including things like the cost of cleaning up chemical runoff into local waterways. What they found was that adding nitrogen fertilizer did not deliver a windfall, but resulted in damages to the environment, society and public health that ranged from $990 to a whopping $5,172 per ton. “If the damage done was charged to the farmer or fertilizer supplier, it would cancel out the benefit and it would transform agriculture all over the world,” says Patrick Holden, a farmer and the director of the U.K.-based Sustainable Food Trust.

Transforming agriculture is exactly what Holden has set out to do. His strategy is to put precise dollar figures on the costs of industrial agriculture. These are the so-called externalities that we hear about so often from food-reformers who argue that cheap food isn’t really cheap.

The problem is that without hard numbers, the issue remains stubbornly abstract. This is why a financial reckoning—what Holden calls true cost accounting—is so important. Only with real figures in hand can we at last have serious conversations about how to hold producers accountable and begin to level the playing field for sustainable producers.

In my latest column for the Stone Barns Center, I write explain true cost accounting and why it is essential to move forward the debate about sustainable food and to advance sensible policies.

Take a read and let me know what you think.

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Do family farms make ag more sustainable?

I moderated a super lively debate at the Food Tank’s first annual summit last month. To start, we talked about just what a family farm is. After all, a huge industrial farm could be owned by one family…And Cargill is privately held, too.) We had an impressive set of panelists including Mark Smallwood of the Rodale Institute, Kathy Ozer, executive director of the National Family Farm Coalition, Chandler Goule of the National Farmers Union, and Eric Hansen of the  National Young Farmers Coalition, among others.

It was a huge topic to cover in an hour but we did it. We even managed to (somehow) get intel on who on the panel had tattoos under their suits. You can watch the session here.

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Making dietary guidelines sustainable

For the first time in American history, the government is weighing whether sustainability should shape our national dietary guidelines. A draft recommendation circulated by a nutrition advisory committee argues that a diet “higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with lesser environmental impact.” The committee specifically called out cattle ranches as a contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions and deforestation.

Predictably, the beef industry is apoplectic. Advice to eat less meat would affect meal plans in schools, military bases, federal cafeterias and, perhaps more important, undercut the industry’s claim that beef is what should be for dinner. Over the last few months, its powerful lobby has filed comments in the federal register and persuaded Congress to sneak a directive into an appropriations bill that declares sustainability, climate change and production practices beyond the scope of the advisory committee and warns federal agencies to ignore such suggestions in the final guidelines.

The congressional meddling made headlines. What the media failed to note, however, is that Congress is wrong. There is no limit on what can or should be considered in devising guidelines for healthy eating. The legislation mandates onlythat the guidelines “shall contain nutritional and dietary information and guidelines for the general public… [and] shall be based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge which is current at the time the report is prepared.” Like the media, politicians don’t let facts get in the way of a good story.

In my latest column for the Stone Barns Center, I look at whether sustainable farming practices should help to shape our nation’s dietary guidelines. The answer: Yes. Studies prove that sustainability can shape the health of individuals and society as a whole. If there is no arable land to grow crops; if pesticide runoff poisons our waterways; if greenhouse-gas emissions nudge temperature levels too high, it doesn’t much matter what foods a panel of experts tells us to eat to promote our health and well-being. We won’t have a lot of options.

Being healthy is about more than just eating the right nutrients—and we have an obesity epidemic to prove it.

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Frozen dinners shoot for delicious

In the 21st century battle for American appetites, one clear loser has emerged: TV dinners. Sales have tumbled over the last five years, with many customers opting for higher-end fast-food like Chipotle, and millennials, who were raised to equate fresh with healthy, avoiding frozen meals altogether. So dire is the situation that this spring, food-manufacturing rivals including ConAgra and Nestlé came together to launch a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign to salvage the industry’s reputation. Its slogan: Frozen: How Fresh Stays Fresh.

They have a point. Freezing is not inherently wrong; in fact, the technology brilliantly preserves flavors and nutrients. But perhaps a better strategy would be to hand over the PR to a new generation of companies that is working to satisfy modern appetites. Some stand out for their taste and sophisticated flavors. (I would happily serve chocolate souffle’s from Babeth’s Feast at my next dinner party.) Others limit fat and sodium, use antibiotic-free and humanely raised meats, and liberally employ hip “nutrient-dense” ingredients such as pomegranate and kale. In short: You’ll be hard pressed to find what author and food guru Michael Pollan calls “foodlike substances” in the frozen dinners I write about the Wall Street Journal this week. Things are looking up.

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If the low-fat diet is a lie, what the hell should we eat?

For almost 40 years, the U.S. government, public-health experts, nutritionists, and family doctors insisted that a low-fat diet was the key to a long and healthy life—and we listened. We guiltlessly chowed down on pretzels and baked potatoes. We listened to gurus like Susan Powter (stop the insanity!) and suffered through the Master Cleanse, 10 days of nothing but lemon water spiked with cayenne and maple syrup. And what do we have to show for it? After decades of nutritional torture, more than two thirds of American adults are overweight or obese. A tenth of Americans have type 2 diabetes, a once uncommon disease in which the body cannot produce enough insulin to regulate sugar in the blood. And heart disease, the killer that shooed us down the low-fat path in the first place, remains the number-one cause of death in the U.S.

In this month’s Elle Magazine, I look at the new science in support of a low-carb diet and wonder: If the low-fat diet didn’t work, is there any reason to believe that scientists have it right this time? My answer: There is no one diet that will make us lean and healthy. Every woman has to use common sense and listen to her body.

As the twentieth-century critic H. L. Mencken once said: “There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.”

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A win win for agriculture

Modern agriculture is all about tradeoffs. Monocrops are more “efficient,” but we lose the benefits of biodiversity. Irrigation allows drought-ridden California to keep growing strawberries and salad greens, but groundwater reserves have fallen to record lows.

What if we could develop a kind of farming with no tradeoffs? An agricultural system that produces healthy soils, high yields and a net-negative effect on greenhouse gases? A growing chorus of experts says that agricultural Shangri-La does exist, and it’s called carbon farming.

In my latest column for the Stone Barns Center, I look at the the promise of carbon sequestration in agriculture. After all, Timothy La Salle, a sustainable ag consultant told me: “Even if we shut down all of our carbon emissions today, we’d still need to capture what is in the atmosphere. Nothing is proven to do that except for one thing: photosynthesis. We have to take what we have released over millennia from the soil and put it back in.”

I’m not the only one talking about carbon farming, or resilient agriculture as it is also called. My hero Michael Pollan is a fan.

See what you think.

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  • About Me

    Jane BlackI am a Brooklyn-based food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. My work appears in the Washington Post, (where I was a staff writer), the New York Times, Slate, New York magazine and other publications. On this site, you will find my blog and links to my written work and my Washington Post columns.

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