Saturday, September 3, 2011


Global Land Grab

Fear of unrest and hunger for profit are sparking massive acquisitions of farmland.

By Terry J. Allen

An Egyptian demands a higher minimum wage in Cairo on May 2, 2010. In the seven months leading up to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in February, the trading price of wheat more than doubled, as nearly two dozen countries restricted food exports and choked global food supplies. (Photo by Khalee Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)
As China and others jockey for land and power, the weight of shifting empires and changing climate is threatening to crush international cooperation on ending hunger.
A 21st-century land rush is on. Driven by fear and lured by promises of high profits, foreign investors are scooping up vast tracts of farmland in some of the world’s hungriest countries to grow crops for export.
As the climate changes and populations shift and grow, billions of people around the globe face shortages of land and water, rising food prices and increasing hunger. Alarm over a future without affordable food and water is sparking unrest in a world already tinder-dried by repression and recession, corruption and mismanagement, boundary disputes and ancient feuds, ethnic tension and religious fundamentalism.
World leaders feel the heat. Calling food security concerns “extremely significant,” a 2009 U.N. report noted, “The acquisition of land internationally is one possible strategic choice to address the challenge.”

Fortunately for nervous rulers, the strategy of growing food abroad as shelter against the fires of revolution dovetails nicely with the goals of private and public capital. Governments drawing on sovereign wealth funds, and rich investors accessing state subsidies, have negotiated deals to acquire tens of millions of acres of farmland in Africa, South America and South Asia. When they export the food to their home countries, the valuable water used to grow the crops will ride along as a free bonus.

The largest investors in foreign croplands hail from China, India and South Korea, along with Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf states. What these countries have in common is that all were shaken financially or politically by the 2007-08 food crisis. And all lack sufficient land or water to ensure that they can feed their populations in the coming years—especially if, as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warns, climate change continues to “exacerbate land degradation and water scarcity in many places, and to increase the frequency of extreme weather events affecting harvests.”
Raw dealing
Available for chump change and unsecured promises, land around the world is changing hands at a rate unprecedented since the Colonial Era, when white men applied the ink of nationalism and greed to redraw maps of Africa, Asia and the New World. Seated at polished tables in Europe, they deployed merchants, missionaries and armies to lay claim to cultures and continents—and to the human, agricultural and mineral resources they held.

The “new colonialism” is less like a crusade and more like an ordinary business transaction floated on a promise of “win-win.” The deal-makers include international agribusinesses, investment banks, hedge funds and commodity traders, as well as pension funds, foundations and individuals attracted by the lure of cheap land and high profits. Even universities, including Harvard and Vanderbilt, are getting into the act, according to an extensive report by the Oakland Institute, a progressive policy think tank.

Most of the land deals occur in the private sector, “though often with strong financial and other support from government, and significant levels of government-owned investments,” according to the FAO. Conforming to this pattern and awash in oil income, the Saudi “government earmarked $5 billion to provide loans at preferential rates to Saudi companies to invest in countries with strong agricultural potential,” writes Mae-Wan Ho of the U.K.-based Institute of Science in Society, including large swaths of Indonesia and Thailand for rice, and possibly 6,000 acres for wheat in war-ravaged Sudan.
The investors are negotiating land transfers all the way from the top, with heads of states, down to tribal chiefs and impoverished landowners. Water rights, tax breaks and waivers on labor and environmental standards often sweeten the deals.
When they cannot buy land outright at prices ranging from cheap (a few dollars an acre) to stolen (“You get a bottle of Johnnie Walker, kneel down, clap three times, and make your offer of Johnnie Walker whiskey,” in one transaction reported by the Oakland Institute), investors lease vast tracts for as long as 99 years and for as little as 40 cents per acre per year.
According to the U.N.’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), some 2 billion people in the developing world depend on 500 million smallholder farms for their livelihoods. In Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, these small farmers produce about 80 percent of the food that local people consume.
But with spectacular speed, patchworks of plots that used to support local populations through subsistence farming and grazing are being amalgamated into massive industrial plantations. In Awassa, Ethiopia, a “plastic and steel structure already stretches over 50 acres—the size of 20 soccer fields,” writes John Vidal in South Africa’s Mail and Guardian.
With a 99-year lease for 2,500 acres, the developer, Saudi Sheikh Mohammed al-Amoudi, has brought in Spanish engineers and Dutch water technology, and hired 1,000 women to pick and pack 50 tons of food a day, writes Vidal. “Within 24 hours, it has been driven 200 miles to Addis Ababa and flown 1,000 miles to the shops and restaurants of Dubai, Jeddah and elsewhere in the Middle East.”
Unappeased hunger
Since long before the days of Roman bread-and-circus politics, leaders have feared the threat of hungry masses. Some have even felt their pain: “[D]uring the last major rise in food prices in 2007 and 2008, [the consequences] were grave,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a May FAO gathering in Rome. “For hundreds of millions of people, the staples of life, like rice, wheat or corn, were suddenly out of reach. People who were already vulnerable fell into an even greater danger zone.” But her next sentence made clear that humanitarian concerns were not the only motivation for establishing food security. “Anger and frustration over food prices sparked riots in dozens of countries,” she said.

The years 2007 and 2008 marked a turning point for both environmental consciousness and food insecurity. Before then, agricultural land had expanded by less than 10 million acres a year. But with the pile up of evidence for global warming, no one but the ideologically blinkered could see extensive droughts and other weather-related catastrophes as flukes. Sharply diminished yields triggered exporting countries to ban or curb grain sales, pushed prices up and helped trigger a series of riots that shook dozens of countries. World Bank President Robert Zoellick warned in 2008 that “33 countries around the world face potential social unrest because of the acute hike in food and energy prices.”

By 2009, deals were being struck for 111 million acres, with 75 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, according to a World Bank report. A year later, the bank upped the total to nearly 140 million acres.

These “land grabs,” says Lester Brown, encompass “an area that exceeds the croplands devoted to corn and wheat combined in the United States.” Brown, winner of a MacArthur Fellowship and the 1987 U.N. Environment Prize, is the founder of the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute.

Then, as if out of nowhere, the Arab Spring struck this year. Longstanding un- and underemployment and repression were key triggers, but as the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies noted, a “proximate factor behind the unrest was a spike in global food crises, which in turn was due in part to the extreme weather throughout the globe over the past year.” The Pentagon’s U.S. Quadrennial Defense Review called climate change a “threat multiplier.”

In the seven months before Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak was driven from power in February, the trading price of wheat had more than doubled. In August 2010, faced with droughts and wildfires, Russia had prioritized its own populations and restricted most grain exports, ensuring that prices would skyrocket. The choked supply line seriously impacted Egypt, which imports more than half its food.
By early 2011, some 21 countries had imposed export control measures including limits and outright bans on the foreign sale of particular crops.
Saudi jitters
Saudi Arabia had a ringside seat as the Arab Spring spread across the region. The House of Saud understood that national (i.e., their own) security rests on its ability to buy the quiescence, if not loyalty, of its citizens with affordable food and social welfare programs that make Sweden look like Tea Party paradise.

The sheiks had been watching the writing in the sand since the 1970s, when, after the Arab oil-export embargo, they realized their vulnerability: Just as the West was dependent on them for oil, they were dependent on others for food. The prospect of being forced to bend the stiff royal knee to Western-imposed economic pressures inspired the Saudis to apply their oil technology to drilling deep for water. Within a short period of time, using heavy irrigation, the country became self-sufficient in wheat. But unlike underground water supplies that are replenished by precipitation, fossil aquifers can be drained dry with jaw-dropping rapidity—and that is what is happening under the Arabian Peninsula.

Within a few decades, the prehistoric aquifer was almost exhausted, and by 2007, just when food riots were roiling the region, the Saudi wheat harvest had dropped precipitously. By 2016, the Saudi Ministry of Agriculture predicts the country will have to import 100 percent of the wheat it needs to feed its nearly 26 million people.

Saudi Arabia is one of 18 countries—which together contain half the world’s people—where water for irrigation is draining aquifers. But the export of “virtual water” incorporated into growing crops promises not only ecological problems, but political trouble downstream. Large-scale irrigation in Ethiopia and Sudan, for example, diverts water from the upper Nile River basin and cuts into Egypt’s already limited water supply.

Despite water woes, Sudan welcomes investors. “It’s the first country that gives us land without complicated procedures,” Mohammed Rasheed al-Balawi, a former agriculture manager of the Saudi firm Hadco, told the Financial Times. “The area is big, the people are friendly [and] they gave us the land almost free.”
Trading in human livelihoods
That characterization of terms is hotly disputed. Although both investors and host countries often refer to acquired land as under-developed or empty, the deals typically displace herders and small farmers, who are not consulted and, in any case, lack legal deeds. The World Bank estimates that between 2 and 10 percent of Africa’s land is held under formal land tenure, and most of that is in urban areas.

“The foreign companies are arriving in large numbers, depriving people of land they have used for centuries,” Ethiopian Nyikaw Ochalla told Vidal. The deals are done secretly. “The only thing the local people see is people coming with lots of tractors to invade their lands.”
As foreign investors pour in—from Arab princedoms, India, South Korea, China and other nations—hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians are being relocated. Many, “viewed as ‘squatters,’ are forcibly removed with no compensation,” Frederic Mousseau, policy director at the Oakland Institute, said in a press release.

Ironically, key targets of foreign agro-investment include the world’s hungriest countries: In Ethiopia, 13 million people receive international food aid and 41 percent are undernourished. The country’s massive transfer of physical wealth to foreign corporations is overseen by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. One of the parties he controls, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, owns at least five parastatal companies and has major stakes in the agricultural products market. A carefully worded 2009 World Bank report noted that in Ethiopia “there is an impression that endowment and state-owned enterprises benefit from privileged access to policymakers and resources and are consequently able to compete on unfair terms.”
Zenawi’s regime has granted control of 1.48 million acres to foreign entities. Since 2007 it has approved at least 815 foreign-financed agricultural projects and is now offering up at least 7.4 million acres, some leased for only 40 cents per acre per year, according to the Mail & Guardian.

“Karuturi, an Indian company, which owns large swaths of the region, is heavily involved in burning forests and grasslands to make way for potential farmland” for biofuels, according to Nebiyu Eyassu reporting in Pambazuka News. Compensation, when it occurs, can be paltry. In Ethiopia’s Gambella region alone, 45,000 families in 49 villages have been “dislocated,” Ethiopian-born writer and filmmaker Fikre Tolossa told the Commonwealth Club of California this March. “They will be resettled not too far from the lands they have been dispossessed of, so that they will be an ideal resource for cheap labor, should the need arise. After having lost their vast lands, they will end up owning a tiny piece of land: [3.2 acres] per family.”

If African men fare poorly in these deals, women often fare worse. Most of Africa’s small-scale farming is traditionally done by women who are rarely consulted about land deals. “[W]omen are more likely than men to spend the income they control on food, healthcare and their children’s education,” the International Food Policy Research Institute wrote in a 2011 report. So taking away the small plots they use to feed their families and generate income removes an important brake on hunger and extreme poverty for current and future generations.
’21st-century colonization’
Foreign investors are banking on a better outcome: up to 25 percent profits, buoyed by loose environmental and labor regulations common in desperately poor and corrupt countries. “Lack of transparency and of checks and balances in contract negotiations creates a breeding ground for corruption,” the FAO said, adding with understatement, “and deals that do not maximize the public interest.”

One of the public costs, lax environmental regulation, is a key perk for investors. If history is any guide, eventually—but not before great profits can be extracted—industrial monoculture agriculture will deplete soil and water; the perpetual chemical inputs including fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides will poison the environment; and pest and disease problems will strangle biodiversity.

But even when host governments impose contractual restrictions and protections, “there does not appear to be any significant enforcement of lease terms,” according to the Oakland Institute report. “Our agreement with government is purely commercial,” a foreign investor in Ethiopia told the Institute. “Government is charging us a rent. What we choose to do on the land for our own commercial intent is our own business. There are … no constraints, no contracts, none of that.”

The terms of Ethiopia’s land deals and how they are enforced are subject to the will of Zenawi, who was “re-elected” last year by 99.6 percent, down from 99.9 percent in 2008. The U.S. State Department has accused his authoritarian regime of serious human rights violations, including politically-motivated killings and torture by state security services. Human Rights Watch charges that “development assistance is underwriting the Ethiopian government’s repression.”

The “land grab” in Ethiopia’s Gambella and Oromia regions has elements of ethnic cleansing, says Rashid Songolo, chairman for Oromo Community Ireland, a nonprofit association that promotes the integration of the Oromos in Ireland. Property held by Oromos, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, has been selectively sold to foreign developers, he told In These Times, “as a form of punishment and looting for those societies that sympathize with opposition political groups like OLF [Oromo Liberation Front]. The Oromos are being displaced and forced into refugee camps all over the world and into modern day slavery, because of the new 21st-century colonization.”
Evidence gathered by Human Rights Watch tends to support this charge. It described Zenawi’s EPRDF party apparatchiks, including militias and spies, as deciding, based on loyalty, who gets donor-financed fertilizer, seeds, food aid and jobs. The New York Times reported that one farmer said he was told: “Unless you join the EPRDF, you could die and your family will starve to death.
One of the largest investors in Ethiopian farmland, Saudi businessman (and Ethiopian-born) Sheikh Mohammed al-Amoudi, is closely linked to the Zenawi’s regime and enjoys his support. Amoudi is also “close to the Saudi royal family, which sees him as a can-do guy and encourages his growing business empire in Ethiopia,” according to Forbes.

A self-made billionaire 12 times over and the second-richest man in Saudi Arabia, Amoudi grows wheat, rice, vegetables and flowers for the Saudi market on four farms in Ethiopia. His Saudi Star company leases 2,500 acres housing the Awassa greenhouse complex. In the next few years, he plans to spend $2 billion on acquiring and developing 1.25 million acres of farmland. Amoudi, whose mother was Ethiopian, says his projects are designed “to improve the livelihood of my people and help in the development of my country, and not as some might think to amass personal wealth or siphon my country’s wealth. … I need not prove this. …
[T]hose who bear responsibility for character defamation and false allegations should learn that there are consequences for their action.”
Beyond the ‘white man’s burden’
Even Saudi oil wealth pales before China’s enormous economic engine. With $332 billion in assets, the China Investment Corporation is one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds. And like the Saudis, China’s concerns about growing unrest and food insecurity are factors in its increasing investment in foreign farmland.

China’s “embrace of [Africa] is strategic, planned, long-term and still unfolding,” writes Deborah Brautigam, an American University specialist in China-Africa relations. She argues that China is more concerned with economic expansion than food security, which significant portions of its leadership believe is better ensured by adequate home production.

That may be difficult to achieve. While the United States has almost 3 acres of farmland per person, China has only .23 acres. And 5,000 years of intensive farming has depleted China’s soil, industrialization has poisoned much of its water, and development and urbanization have depleted rivers and land so that even as population and per capita consumption increase, the country has lost more than 20 million acres of arable land—just since the mid-1990s.

Although it is not clear that the outcome is different because of it, China has been described (and not only for the literal reason) as being unencumbered by the old “white man’s burden” of having to couch investment as altruism or even win-win. In a diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, Ambassador Johnnie Carson, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of African Affairs, called China “a very aggressive and pernicious economic competitor with no morals. … China is not in Africa for altruistic reasons [but] … for China primarily.” The high-horsed pronouncement took place, ironically enough, at a meeting in Nigeria with international oil companies—whose ventures are hardly distinguished by altruism.  In addition to Africa, China is investing in diverse cropland in Australia and New Zealand and looking to Indonesia for biofuels and to South America for soy for livestock production to feed its increasingly affluent population’s taste for meat and dairy. China’s South American interests are so extensive that some Brazilians, while crediting Chinese investment for their booming economy, fear for their autonomy.

“They are moving in,” Carlo Lovatelli, president of the Brazilian Association of Vegetable Oil Industries, told Alexei Barrionuevo of The New York Times, “looking for land and reliable partners. But what they would like to do is run the show alone.” “Some experts,” the Times noted, “say the partnership has devolved into a classic neo-colonial relationship in which China has the upper hand.” Last year 98 percent of China’s exports to Brazil were manufactured products, while almost 84 percent of Brazil’s exports to China were raw materials.

But it is not as if Brazil or other countries suddenly lost an idyllic independence. Some Brazilian farmers “say they share Chinese officials’ goal of breaking the stranglehold of international trading companies like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland,” Barrionuevo notes.
For the richer, not poorer
Over the last few decades, the United States—which long controlled industrial agriculture around the world, along with much of the global economy—has been losing ground. As the largest holder of U.S. debt, China has become, in effect, Washington’s banker, while the United States, the world’s largest grain producer, has become China’s farmer, a Forbes blog noted. Foreign agricultural land offers China a great place to invest its giant trade surplus—much of it courtesy of the U.S. consumers who buy up Chinese goods—as well as a hedge against food insecurity.
That insecurity is widespread and growing. After decades of promises and thousands of schemes, much of the world remains desperately malnourished. And now, as China, the United States and others jockey for land and power, the weight of shifting empires and changing climate is threatening to crush international cooperation on ending hunger. Over the last few years there has been “an ominous retreat from the idea of common purpose based on shared values,” said former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. “We have seen a worrying rise in protectionism, unilateral export bans, land grabs and exclusive deals that meet the food needs of the rich but not the poor.”
As fear of food insecurity mounts, even rich countries are not immune to foreign investment schemes that draw resources from one country to feed another.

A new foreign investment strategy aims to secure part of the U.S. grain harvest even before it reaches the open market, Brown told In These Times. South Korea, which imports 70 percent of its grain, has opened an office in Chicago. The public-private enterprise is planning to build grain elevators and “contract for crops directly from U.S. farmers, bypassing the large international trading firms,” he says. And “[w]ith China’s 1.4 billion increasingly affluent consumers starting to compete with U.S. consumers for the U.S. grain harvest,” Brown writes in Foreign Policy, “cheap food, seen by many as an American birthright, may be coming to an end.”
The new politics of food scarcity
Many investors say that they give back at least as much as they take. “We’ve really created something out of nothing in Africa,” said Anthony Poorter, Africa director for EmVest, the African subsidiary of Emergent Asset Management. “There are no shady deals.”

In areas with hungry people, inadequate roads and other infrastructural deficiencies, foreign capital is sorely needed to develop more rational farming operations that can promote prosperity, food security and jobs. And there is little doubt that monoculture industrial farming, genetically engineered seeds and input from pesticides and chemical fertilizers can more quickly create higher yields than small-scale subsistence farming. Properly managed, supporters of expo-agriculture argue, investment dollars can bring educational opportunities, healthcare and the possibility of safer, higher living standards to subsistence farmers and impoverished rural populations. 

Some investors also believe they are serving humanity: “Unless food production is boosted 50 percent before 2050,” said Poorter’s boss, Emergent CEO Susan Payne, “we face serious shortages globally.” Her company, which “went on record in 2007 to identify food security as the next energy security,” invests in 14 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and is aiming for an annual return of 25 percent or more.

But just as international development aid schemes, such as USAID’s, conform to the geopolitical strategies and economic goals of the dispensing country, private investment is shaped by an inner imperative: the need to turn a profit. Whatever the investors promise, or however decent they are as individuals, their bottom line is the bottom line.

“There is a real risk that the current scramble for land will transfer wealth from the poor and the marginalized to those who have access to capital and markets, with deeply regressive consequences,” warned UN Special Rapporteur Olivier de Schutter.
And as with many previous development plans, unintended consequences may pile up the human and economic costs. The investor country’s sought-after political and food stability may translate into instability in the host country, and that in turn may boomerang back on the investors and their backers. “This [land grab] is creating insecurity in the global food system that could be a much bigger threat to global security than terrorism,” says the Oakland Institute’s Mousseau.  Backlashes have already occurred. When word leaked that Madagascar planned to sell 3 million acres to the South Korean firm Daewoo Logistics, popular outrage quashed the deal and toppled Madagascar’s government. In the Philippines, as food prices were spiking in 2007, outcries from Filipino farmers stopped China from buying 2.5 million acres on which to grow export crops.

A pro-Oromia website warned that the situation in Ethiopia offered the “potential for a catastrophic unrest and poses a huge security headache not only for the country but for the whole world.”  These targeted peoples decry the new “land grab” as a more sophisticated incarnation of old colonialism—driven today by a tangle of factors, including climate change, population growth, fear of social unrest, diminishing water and land, trade restrictions, erosion and pollution, the volatility of commodity prices and markets, speculation, the energy crisis, agro-energy/biofuel production, the global financial crisis, carbon trading and on and on.

Private and government investors defend win-win agro-investment as part of the solution to world hunger and an important step on the path to prosperity. Reliance on the market and private profit-driven investment, they say, is an improvement over decades of failed NGO and “humanitarian” development schemes that failed to feed the planet’s almost 1 billion hungry people, or raise up the 2 billion who live on less than $2 a day.

From either viewpoint, it is clear that the geopolitics of food scarcity has undergone a major shift. Land is the new gold and mining it for export food, extracting its water to incorporate into crops and taking advantage of cheap labor and lax environmental laws are now, as Brown puts it, “integral parts of a global power struggle for food security.”

And all sides agree: When people are hungry enough, they are likely to choose the risk of revolution over the certainty of starvation. Governments that are unable to secure affordable food for their populations are vulnerable to the kind of social unrest that has long been part of history’s hunger not only for food, but for justice.
Terry J. Allen, an In These Times senior editor, has written the magazine's monthly investigative health and science column since 2006.
More information about Terry J. Allen

Friday, September 2, 2011


avatar for Eliot ColemanOrganic agriculture: deeply rooted in science and ecology

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Organic farming is often falsely represented as being unscientific. However, despite the popular assumption that it sprang full born from the delusions of 60s hippies, it has a more extensive, and scientifically respectable, provenance. If you look back at the first flush of notoriety in the 1940s, the names most often mentioned, Sir Albert Howard and J. I. Rodale, rather than being the initiators, were actually just popularizers of a groundswell of ideas that had begun to develop some 50 years earlier in the 1890s.
A growing coterie of farmers, landlords, scientists, and rural philosophers in both England and Germany had begun questioning the wisdom of the chemically based agriculture that had grown so prominent from its tiny beginning in the 1840s. Advances in biological sciences during the late 19th century, such as those that explained the workings of nitrogen fixation, mycorrhizal association, and soil microbial life supported their case. Those new sciences set the stage for a deeper understanding of natural processes, and offered inspiration as to how a modern biologically based agriculture might be formulated.
These new agriculturists were convinced that the thinking behind industrial agriculture was based upon the mistaken premise that nature is inadequate and needs to be replaced with human systems. They contended that by virtue of that mistake, industrial agriculture has to continually devise new crutches to solve the problems it creates (increasing the quantities of chemicals, stronger pesticides, fungicides, miticides, nematicides, soil sterilization, etc.) It wouldn't be the first time in the history of science that a theory based on a false premise appeared to be momentarily valid. Temporary functioning is not proof of concept. For example, if we had a book of the long discredited geocentric astronomy of Ptolemy, which was based on the sun revolving around the earth, we could still locate Jupiter in the sky tonight thanks to the many crutches devised by the Ptolemaists to prop up their misconceived system. As organic agriculture has become more prominent, the orthodoxy of chemical agriculture has found itself up against its own Galileo. It will be interesting to see who recants.
The new thinking in agriculture was focused on three issues -- how can long lasting soil fertility be achieved? How can pest problems in agriculture be prevented? How can the nutritional value of food crops be optimized? By the 1940s the answers to those questions had coalesced into a new biologically based concept of agriculture that can be simply stated as follows:
  1. Soil fertility can be raised to the highest levels by techniques that increase the percentage of soil organic matter, by rotating crops and livestock, and by maintaining soil minerals through using natural inputs such as limestone and other finely ground rock powders.
  2. The plant vigor resulting from doing #1 correctly renders plants resistant to pests and diseases.
  3. The plant quality resulting from doing #1 correctly provides the most nutritious possible food for maintaining human beings and their animals in bounteous health.
All three begin with and depend upon how the soil is treated. But the fertility of that crucial soil factor is not a function of purchased industrial products. It evolves from intelligent human interaction with the living processes of the earth itself. These are processes that are intrinsic to any soil maintained with organic matter. They are what the earth does. I am puzzled by how the practical success today of the many farms managed on biological rather than on chemical lines can coexist with the striking lack of interest (antagonism actually) from scientific agriculture in exploring why these farms succeed. The foundation upon which our Maine farm operates -- a sense that the systems of the natural world offer elegantly designed patterns worth following -- appears to be an indecipherable foreign language to agricultural science.
Skeptics have often misrepresented a biologically-based agriculture as if it is nothing but the substitution of purchased organic inputs for purchased chemical inputs. Even if there were evidence to document the rationale for a substitution philosophy, it would lose on the grounds of economics alone. Both bone meal and dried blood, for example, two popular "organic" fertilizers, are prohibitively expensive on a farm scale. Furthermore, such substitution thinking is not pertinent to the actual objective of a biological agriculture -- namely the development of sustainable, farm-generated systems for maintaining soil fertility. The concern is not the substitution of one fertilizer for another but rather the long-range practical and economic viability of farming practices. Supplies of blood and bone meal are no more assured than are supplies of chemical fertilizers that derive from finite and dwindling resources. We cannot depend upon an agriculture that relies on inputs from either source. What can be depended upon, however, is a biologically focused farming system that bases fertility maintenance on proven cultural practices with the addition of locally available waste products.
eliot colemanOrganic intellectual: Eliot Coleman, with produce.Photo: Barbara DamroschAmong those cultural practices I include:
Crop rotation: Firmin Bear of Rutgers stated that a well-planned crop rotation was worth 75 percent of everything else the farmer did.
Green manures: Deep-rooting legumes not only fix nitrogen, penetrate hardpan and greatly increase soil aeration but also bring up new mineral supplies from the lower depths of the soil.
Compost making: Of all the support systems for the biological farm, none is more fortuitous than the world's best soil amendment, compost, which can be made for free on the farm from what grows thereabout.
Mixed Stocking: Raising animals and crops on the same farm has both symbiotic and practical benefits. The crop residues feed the animals and the animal manures feed the soil.
Ley Farming: The fertility of land plowed up for row crops after 3 to 4 years in grass/clover pasture is close to that of virgin soil because of the enormous amount of plant fiber added by the perennial plant roots.
Undersowing: Establishing a green manure crop underneath the growing cash crop can often double organic matter production in the course of the year without any effect on the cash crop.
Rock Powders: The slow, measured availability to plants of mineral amendments (calcium, phosphorus, potassium, etc.) added to the soil as ground rock powders mimics the availability from natural soil particles.
Enhancing biodiversity: This includes practices such as growing a wide range of crops, sowing pastures with many different forbs in addition to grasses and legumes, carrying a mixture of livestock, establishing hedgerows for wildlife habitat, and so forth. The more components involved, the more stable the system. The aim of a biologically based agriculture is to cultivate ease and order rather than battle futilely against disease and disorder.
But, can you really farm that way? Can a successful agriculture be conducted by simply combining the known effects of natural processes with the management provided by intelligent human understanding of how to nourish those processes? If such an agriculture can work and could be made universal, then this new agriculture would be truly sustainable and have the power to transform the world. Back in 1967, when I began farming, none of us paid attention to whether agricultural science approved of our biological approach. We started farming with compost and cultural practices because the ideas made sense and, lo and behold, they worked. Alternative agricultural research today is showing that we were pretty astute. Studies are appearing almost too fast to read them all.
For example, the importance of soil organic matter is more appreciated every day even though, as a recent study concluded, "it is arguably the most complex and least understood component of soils." The bioactive humic substances produced by earthworms in compost have been found enormously valuable at enhancing root growth and availability of nutrients. Other work with composts has determined that they can control plant diseases through making the plant more resistant -- what Harry Hoitink of Ohio State calls "Systemic Acquired Resistance." The entomologist T. C. R White has explained how the effect of stressful growing conditions "upsets the metabolism of the plant in such a way as to" increase "survival and abundance of herbivores feeding on" the plant even though these "changes may often not be sufficient to produce visible signs of stress in the plant." The conclusion is that plants not genetically resistant to a pest can be made so through better growing conditions. But even genetic resistance makes no difference if negative growing conditions inhibit the expression of the genes. In USDA research to determine why tomatoes growing in mulch of vetch green manure were more disease resistant and longer lived than identical tomatoes with black plastic mulch, Kumar et al. found that the genes for longevity and resistance were not 'turning on' in the sections without the vetch mulch.
Nutritionists, to their dismay, have found what they call "dilution effects" in modern chemically adapted crops. Breeding programs aimed to produce high yielding cultivars, combined with intensive chemical fertilization to push yields higher, have resulted in vegetable and grain crops that are no longer as nourishing because their limited root systems can't absorb enough minor nutrients. The result is a "hidden hunger" caused by trace element deficiencies in those who consume those foods. The recent study by Brian Halweil, Still No Free Lunch, presents a very complete picture of the relationship between plant breeding, high chemical fertilizer use, and the decline in nutritional value of what we eat. A few forward-thinking scientists around the world are starting to look into biological issues, and they are finding that the system that biological farmers have been creating for the past 120 years is as good as they have claimed it to be.
How could these ideas have been so obvious, so logically presented, and yet so consistently ignored by the majority of agricultural scientists? Let me explain it metaphorically. Imagine if you will, an enormous tapestry hanging from the ceiling of a grand hall. The tapestry depicts the natural world in all its elegance. Subsoil and topsoil, plowed fields and green pastures, prairies and forests, valleys and mountains, sea and sky are all crisply represented. There are creatures large and small, birds and fishes, bacteria and fungi, predator and prey and the dynamic balances between them. You can also see farmers interacting harmoniously with that living world.
From where you stand on the front side of that tapestry, you don't find too many others with you. There is, however, a great buzz of noise coming from the other side. When you walk way down to the far end of the hall and peer around the corner you can then see the tapestry's reverse side. With its stray colors and loose threads, it gives only a vague picture of what is truly represented. What you find there are enormous crowds of people actively trying to decipher what they see and trying to solve problems that only exist on the backside of the tapestry. They have no idea that there is a front side and, when you mention it, you can tell they don't believe you. From where they stand, the vagueness of the tapestry has convinced them that nature is incompetent and needs a great deal of help from mankind to straighten her out.
The problem isn't that these people are ignorant. On the contrary; many of them are brilliant. Their leading scientific disciplines such as Discordant Thread Theory and Random Color Hypothesis are highly respected and extensively researched. The university Department of Untrimmed Ends enrolls many student applicants, eager to make careers in the field. A multitude of learned disquisitions are published in numerous scholarly journals. Huge industrial complexes have arisen in concert with their line of thinking and countless tons of stimulating and controlling substances are produced every year. The backsiders are convinced that as long as they keep expending enormous effort to compensate for Nature's flaws, all will be well.
However, when you step back to the front side of the tapestry, there are no flaws to be seen. You wonder if those backside people prove ecologist Frank Egler's statement, "Nature is not more complicated than we think -- Nature is more complicated than we can think." But that is obviously not the case on the front side. As you study the front side more thoroughly you begin to see the patterns involved. You notice that the agricultural practices of the front side farmers are designed to replicate the directions in which the natural world wants to go anyway. You notice how those practices have been selected to enhance the systems with which they interact. This is a biological agriculture and it will continue as long as the earth abides.
I can imagine three simple explanations for why the inhabitants of the backside of the tapestry fail to grasp the existence of a different reality, for why they can't imagine a world where soil preparation using compost, green manures, and rock minerals creates high yields of vigorous plants that do not need the protection of pesticides and fungicides. They have trouble understanding what I call a plant-positive approach (strengthening the plant through optimum growing conditions to prevent pests) as opposed to the conventional pest-negative approach (killing the pests that prey on weak plants). As Benjamin Walsh quipped in The Practical Entomologist (1886), "Let a man profess to have discovered some new Patent Powder Pimperlimplimp, a single pinch of which being thrown into each corner of a field will kill every bug throughout its whole extent, and people will listen to him with attention and respect. But tell them of any simple common-sense plan, based upon correct scientific principles, to check and keep within reasonable bounds the insect foes of the farmer, and they will laugh you to scorn."
The first explanation is the lack of a word. There is no word in our popular vocabulary to describe plant-positive thinking. We all know what the Department of Plant Pathology (pathos -- suffering) concerns itself with. But does any university have the antonymic Department of Plant ______? What would the word be? Euology (from the Greek eu -- good) or Sanology (from the Latin san -- health) might be suggested as possible new words. Or possibly call it the Department of Plant Phylactotrophy? (phylact -- protect; troph - nourish) What if all the Land Grant schools had a Deprtment of Eucrasiotrophic Agriculture? (Eu -- good; crasio -- constitution; trophic -- nourishing.) What if we lived in a world where we had the expectation of healthy plants rather than pest-ridden plants? What if the Department of Phytostenics (phyto -- plant, sten -- strength) published research explaining how plant health had to be subverted through mistaken cultural practices before pests could dominate? That would be a different world. But the fact remains that it is difficult for most people to comprehend a concept so foreign that their language has never had scientific words to define it.
The second explanation is that humans cannot imagine a world where they are not in charge. As a biological farmer, I work in partnership with nature, and I'm a very junior partner. Given the limited amount of hard knowledge available, I often refer to my management style as "competent ignorance" and I find that a very apt description. But my level of trust in the elegant design of the natural world, and willingness to be guided by it, is discomforting to those who think we should exercise total power over nature. Thomas Colwell in his chapter in the book Human Values And Natural Science is most emphatic on this point. "But though part of Nature, man's unique function ... lies in controlling and transforming the natural world, not piously seeking its guidance. How profoundly we believe this today. How could we help but believe it; the entire edifice of our civilization is built upon it. The Baconian conception of science as control over nature is not only an intellectual presupposition of ours, it is a deeply implanted emotional attitude as well."
The third explanation goes back to the beginning of the industrial revolution when the money world began to replace barter and exchange. At that point what would have been seen as the great benefit of a biological production system, minimal need for purchased inputs, suddenly came to be seen as its defect. In an industrially dominated money economy, the processes by which biological agriculture produces food are downright subversive. Because they are self-resourced through that partnership with the natural world noted above, they are independent of industry. By self-resourced I mean that for those participating in biological agriculture, the majority of the inputs are coming from within the farm. Thus, biological farmers who take full advantage of the earth's contributions do not need to purchase industry's products. Back in 1912, Cyril Hopkins, director of the Illinois State Experiment Station, was fully aware of that reality when he wrote in a University of Illinois agricultural circular; "The real question is, shall the farmer pay ten times as much as he ought to pay for food to enrich his soil? Shall he buy nitrogen at 45 to 50 cents a pound when the air above every acre contains 70 million pounds of free nitrogen?"
That may explain why so few people are aware of the simple ways by which perceptive farmers have learned to successfully satisfy human needs for food and fiber within the framework of Nature's biological realities. By being self-resourced, biological agriculture offers no foothold for industry, resulting in no advertising, no research and development, no buzz, no audience, no business. If everyone can grow bounteous yields of vigorous plants that are free of pests by using homemade compost and age-old biological techniques, there is no market for fungicides or pesticides or anhydrous ammonia. If a concept cannot be commodified, that is to say if it isn't dependent upon the purchase of industrial products, industry is antagonistic and the idea gets short shrift in our commercially dominated economy.
But maybe the problem is that we just don't believe any of this is possible. What? Farmers can grow broccoli without green worms? Livestock can be raised without antibiotics? Dream on! But I have come to these conclusions and can suggest these radical ideas because of what I see happening on my farm every day. We often jokingly refer to our farm as the National Empirical Research Station. When scientific evidence is lacking, practical experience is all we have to go on. And the facts are right in front of my eyes while I am cultivating or transplanting or tilling or mending fences. I see that the biologically based agriculture I have practiced for the past forty years really works. When I have done my job as a farmer correctly, when I have optimized the biology of crop production by maintaining soil organic matter, improving soil aeration and mineral balance, and providing adequate moisture, when I have paid close attention to enhancing natural processes, there is no down side. The livestock are in full health. There are no green worms on the broccoli. There are no root maggots in the onions. The yield and the quality of my farm products are consistently exceptional without any need for industrial products. The generosity of the earth provides my farm's inputs. Could it be that we the people have been conned into ignoring a whole other way of farming by a limited worldview that has never allowed us to consider non-commodifiable options?
Cartoonist Al Capp penned one of the best (and most entertaining) depictions of the difficulty of being a self-resourced community in a commodified world. In Sept. 1948, he introduced his readers to a new character in his Li'l Abner comic strip -- the Shmoo. Shmoos are affectionate little livestock that look like chubby bowling pins with short legs. Shmoos need no upkeep, multiply at will, and happily supply all manner of staple foods, such as milk, butter, eggs, and meat, to the inhabitants of Capp's fictional Appalachian village of Dogpatch. When Capp's hero Li'l Abner Yokum first discovers the Shmoos, their guardian warns him off. "Shmoos, mah boy -- is th' GREATEST MENACE TO HOOMANITY TH'WORLD HAS EVER KNOWN."
"Thass becuz they is so BAD?" Li'l Abner asks him. "No stupid," he replies. "Its because they're so GOOD! ... There are enough shmoos to supply EVERYBODY ON EARTH with ALL they can eat -- FOREVER! And there's NO CATCH! Shmoos don't eat anything, but multiply rapidly! -- OH, THIS IS A BLACK DAY FOR YOU, YOUNG YOKUM -- AND FOR ALL HUMANITY!" The saga eventually ends and the world returns to normal when the craven industrialist, J. Roaringham Fatback, fully aware of the commercial dangers of such a situation, hires exterminators to wipe out the shmoos. When a few shmoos survive and again multiply, the U.S. Government itself sends out its own extermination squads.
In an article for Cosmopolitan magazine in June 1949, Capp wrote about how he got the idea of the Shmoo. He might just as well have been writing about biological agriculture. "I was driving from New York City to my farm in New Hampshire. The top of my car was down, and on either side of me I could see the lush and lovely New England countryside ... It was the good earth at its generous summertime best, offering gifts to all. And the thought that came to me was this: Here we have this great and good and generous thing -- the Earth. It's eager to give us everything we need. All we have to do is just let it alone, just be happy with it."
Granted, we the people may be content with a generous earth, but those commercial interests selling palliatives for a supposedly stingy earth are not. Logically they fear they have nothing to sell to those who eschew their products. However, if they studied the needs of biological farmers they would discover a demand that I know exists for consultation and analytical services in lieu of products. Biological farmers could benefit enormously from improved soil biology tests, plant tissue analyses, livestock health and metabolic analyses, computerized crop rotation programs, and the like. The development of a range of services enabling the biological farmers to better keep their fingers on the pulse of these natural systems could be a whole new and positive direction for agricultural science.
But as it stands now, agricultural science lost its authenticity years ago under the influence of the chemical/industrial mindset and now finds itself perpetually etherized in the confused world on the backside of the tapestry. Ever ignorant of Nature's elegance, it comes up with backside products like methyl bromide and genetically modified plants. Agricultural science has become a tragic character not unlike the one portrayed in T. S. Eliot's poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." "At times, indeed, almost ridiculous. Almost, at times, the Fool." In my mind's eye I can picture Mother Nature, "settling a pillow by her head" while contemplating agricultural science's misunderstanding of the "overwhelming question" and saying, "That is not it at all. That is not what I meant, at all." Biological agriculture has dared to "disturb the universe" in its search for a better way to farm. Its success has created a solid foundation for the superiority of biology over chemistry in agriculture and has established the promise of a well-nourished future for human beings.
Eliot Coleman has over 30 years experience in all aspects of organic farming, including field vegetables, greenhouse vegetables, rotational grazing of cattle and sheep, and range poultry. He is the author of The New Organic Grower, Four Season Harvest, and most recently The Winter Harvest Handbook. He has contributed chapters to three scientific books on organic agriculture and has written extensively on the subject since 1975. Eliot and his wife Barbara Damrosch presently operate a commercial year-round market garden, in addition to horticultural research projects, at Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine.


 Will the real food movement please stand up?
Farmer Bob Comis recently suggested that the food movement is suffering from "multiple personality disorder." He argued that several vocal factions -- foodies, locavores, and "smallists" -- tend to dominate the food movement discussion, unrealistically distracting us from our ultimate objective: bringing affordable, organic food to all as part of a broader commitment to social justice.
For decades now, organic farmers and sustainable food activists of all stripes have been vexed by the question: Is this a movement? Can it scale and have meaningful impact?
At one eloquent and entrepreneurially-impeccably-credentialed end of the spectrum stands farmer Joel Salatin:
Don't let them confuse you. Organic farming is not an industry. It is a movement. It is part of a movement that began when the first indigenous peoples fought against the Conquistadors. It is fighting back against the modern Conquistadors, the multinational corporations, those who would patent and genetically modify life and destroy diversity.
At the other eloquent and entrepreneurially-impeccably-credentialed end of the spectrum stands Stonyfield Farm CEO Gary Hirshberg: "I hate the 'm' word. Organics is an industry. We must build and utilize industrial-scaled enterprises, if we are going to get toxics out of the food chain in one generation."
There are 6,132 farmers markets in the U.S., up 350 percent since 1994. There were 60 CSAs in 1990; today there are almost 13,000. Some 400,000 people belong to them. That seems movement-ish, until you consider some countervailing data. 50,000 in Copenhagen, alone, belong to a single box scheme. More than 60 million people play Farmville online. McDonald's first quarter profits in 2011 were $1.21 billion, up 11 percent from Q1 2010. So, despite Food Inc.'s nomination for an Oscar, Michael Pollan's single-handed splicing of the local, organic food gene into the American consciousness, and Jamie Oliver's much ballyhooed Food Revolution on TV, where's the (grass-fed, organic) beef? Where's the movement?  
The beginning of an answer lies with Paul Hawken, who beautifully argues in Blessed Unrest that it is a fool's game to try to put a single name on the millions of initiatives emerging around the globe as an immune response to the destruction of natural systems. Add to Hawken's prognosis Wendell Berry's disdain for movements. Berry fears that movements, however well-intentioned, devolve into warring special interests, abstractions that deflect us from reducing, in our daily lives, our complicity in the destructiveness of the modern economy.
Where does that leave us? 
Well, being stubborn, slogan-loving Americans, we could try to come up with names anyway: Foodie, locavore, vegan, localism, smallism, anti-GMOism, anti-Conquistadorism, anti-Twinkie-ism, raw milkism, school lunchism, ethical treatment of animalism, family farmism, urban farmism, farmers market vs. Walmartism, heirloom variety-ism, real foodism, slow foodism, indigenous culturism, nurture capitalism, biocharism, terroirism.
Or we can zoom out, and zoom down, and look for the broader and deeper process of which all this food related activism is a part. Here are some of the persectives of people who have been working for decades to transform the food system (or create new ones):
Think: Eliot Coleman's advice, "Feed the soil, not the plant." 
Think: Gary Snyder's observation: "Food is the field in which we daily explore our harming of the world."  
Think: Joan Gussow's aphorism, "I prefer butter to margarine, because I trust cows more than I trust chemists." 
Think: Odessa Piper's insight, "Local is the distance the heart can travel."
Along this Coleman-Snyder-Gussow-Piper axis lies the connection between the food movement and its deepest roots, which reach all the way to the nonviolent ethics of Gandhi and King.
This enterprise that we are a part of, with its new organic farmers and the host of small food enterprises that are emerging to bring their produce to market, is about an economy that does less harm. It's about rebuilding trust and reconnecting to one another and the places where we live. It's about healing the social and ecological relationships that have been broken by hundreds of years of linear, extractive pursuit of economic growth, industrialization, globalization, and consumerism. It's about pulling some of our money out of ever-accelerating financial markets and its myriad abstractions -- called, with more than a little irony, securities -- and putting it to work near where we live, in things that we understand, starting with food -- creating a more immediate and tangible kind of security.
This attention to and, even, celebration of the small, the slow and the local can seem, at times, rather precious against the scale of global economic, political, and environmental challenges. But it was agriculture that gave birth to the modern economy, and, as Paul Ehrlich recognizes, it must be agriculture that we fix if there is to be a postmodern economy:
The agricultural revolution led to a period of cultural evolution unprecedented in its rapidity and scale ... It is a story that starts with the obtaining of food but returns us to two aspects of human behavior that, although present in hunter-gatherers, became even more important in sedentary groups-religion and violence.
Can we imagine a pro-soil, pro-earthworm, pro-small farmer, anti-fiduciary-razzmatazz, pro non-capitalist-pig movement that becomes as robust in this second decade of the 21st century as the anti-war movement was in the 1960s? 
Peace Now. Fertility Now. Food Here Now. Slow Money.
Woody Tasch is president of Slow Money and Chairman Emeritus of Investor's Circle, a nonprofit network of angel investors, venture capitalists, foundations, and family offices that, since 1992, has facilitated the flow of $130 million to 200 early-stage companies and venture funds dedicated to sustainability. He lives in northern New Mexico.


The triumph of Jamie Oliver’s ‘nemesis’...
      School Lunches

Cross-posted from Gilt Taste.
It was all I could do not to scarf the entire stromboli, neatly packaged for me in a Styrofoam clamshell, while in the car. The dough was soft. The balance of ham and mozzarella, just right. And so, only about half was left when I parked on Third Avenue, the main drag in Huntington, W.Va., and offered a bite to some friends.
"Wow. That's great," said one.
"Yeah, where'd you get that?" asked another.
"You'll never believe it," I told them. "This is school lunch."
Times have changed since celebrity chef Jamie Oliver broadcast startling and deliberately inflammatory -- this was reality TV, after all -- images of kids here dumping trays of fresh food untouched into the trash. For those of you who missed Oliver's prime-time program, Food Revolution, the British chef arrived in Huntington in 2009 after it was named the most unhealthy metropolitan area in America and went to work ousting greasy burgers and pizza in favor of from-scratch meals made with fresh ingredients. Two years later, on the first week of school, which began in mid-August, students in Cabell County sat down to meals of from-scratch chicken quesadillas and brown rice and, on the day I visited, creamy chicken and noodles served with freshly made coleslaw, steamed broccoli with parmesan, an orange, and hot rolls, the smell of which floated enticingly through the halls.
And that stromboli? Well, it's not one of the meals that the school district is most proud of. The dough is made from scratch, of course. But school cooks would be happier if they actually made the ham or cheese. As I said, times have changed.
School officials repeatedly point out that the county's food already was 50 percent made from scratch before Oliver rolled into town. And you can't blame them for wanting a little credit. The culinary crusader may have focused the national klieg lights on this otherwise quiet Appalachian city, but it's local officials that have done the real work of overhauling school food. Over the last two years, Rhonda McCoy -- the school food service director who was portrayed on the show as an aloof bureaucrat more concerned with budgets and caloric counts than kids' health -- has redeveloped recipes, held after-hours taste tests, sourced fresh and unprocessed ingredients at affordable prices, bought new equipment and trained school cooks. She also endured an unprecedented four regulatory audits to ensure that the new meals met federal nutritional and caloric standards. She passed.  
potatoesPhoto: Jedd FlowersMcCoy hasn't stopped there. This year, she introduced free meals for all low-income students and free meals for all students at one county elementary school. She also plans to introduce lower-sugar flavored milk, and to buy a projected 12,000 pounds of sweet potatoes for the district, grown by a county high school's vocational agriculture students.  
Now, deservedly, McCoy's county is a model in the state. Last spring, Dr. Jorea Marple, the state schools superintendent, visited Cabell County and decided that other districts need to follow its path. As a result, eight counties -- most of which are in the poor, southern coal fields -- this fall will introduce 100 percent from-scratch meals at breakfast and lunch -- and provide them to all students, regardless of their family's income, free of charge.
It's easy to imagine how this kind of warp-speed transition might be painful for those eight lucky counties. My husband and I spent six months in Huntington researching a book about how and if the town can change its food culture, and in meeting after meeting, McCoy told me that she never objected to the changes that Oliver suggested, just the way and speed at which she was forced to implement them.
But this new set of cooks won't be starting from scratch. McCoy provided a binder full of USDA-approved recipes and order forms with all the ingredients they need to purchase. She also organized a two-day training where the now-experienced Cabell County cooks demonstrated recipes: rotisserie chicken, roasted potatoes, sugar snap peas, pizza sauce, and homemade salad dressings and croutons, among others. They also imparted tips and techniques for, say, quickly chopping dozens of heads of romaine lettuce or cabbage for coleslaw rather than just opening a bag.
salad barThe school salad bar Photo: Jedd FlowersAlice Gue, the school cook who Food Revolution viewers will remember as Oliver's grumpy nemesis, was one of the trainers. (And, for the record, she's one of the warmest, cuddliest school cooks I've met in years of covering the subject.) "It's a lot for them to take on but most were really excited," she told me after serving stromboli to almost 200 students. "You always get some people who will say, 'I can't do that. We have no time. We don't this or we don't do that.' Just like you get some people who say: 'Well, why do the extra work when the kids are just going to throw away the food?' And sure, some of them will. And if they don't eat it today, okay they didn't today. But down the road they will.  You have to take pride in what you do and what you put out there for these kids."
Pride is one thing. Money is another. And a lack of federal funds is the perennial reason for the piles of cheap, processed food that end up on children's trays. And so I asked McCoy: Where would West Virginia get the money for new equipment, better ingredients, and free lunches for all low-income students?
"I don't know," she said. "They're just going to find it."
It's a non-answer. But, in a way, it doesn't really matter. What does is that state and county leaders in West Virginia now agree that good food in schools is so important that they'll find some way to put it on students' plates. Or, to put it another way, remaking school food is more about leadership than cash. While chef-advocate Alice Waters and others would like to see the federal government spend $5 per student for organic, sustainable, and local school lunch, the Cabell County school district is proving that it's possible -- with dedication and a little ingenuity -- to put out tasty, from-scratch meals that both kids and a discriminating food writer will happily eat.
That's not to say that more money wouldn't help. Doling out money is how Congress leads. And school food would be a popular cause if children suddenly got the vote. But the experience in Cabell County proves that sometimes what schools need most is a push to change. "If I had to do it my way, we would have gone slower," McCoy told me. "But now that it's all done, I think, yes, it was worth it."
This article originally appeared on Gilt Taste.
Jane Black is a Brooklyn-based food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post (where she was a staff writer), the New York Times, Slate, New York magazine and other publications. To read more, visit