Mega Farms Hold a Key to Sustainable Agriculture
The recall of a half billion eggs is another nauseating chapter in the threat to our food supply. E-coli in salad greens, cereal recalls, tainted peanut butter all come to mind—and for us pet lovers, the 2007-08 pet food scare reminded us that even our favorite pooch or kitty were at risk. But despite those harrowing stories, the fact is that more healthful food choices are available now than ever before. Yes, fast, processed, and packaged meals are everywhere, but anyone who grew up in the 1970s or 1980s remembers how limited our food options were. Farmers’ markets were infrequent; organic and natural food stores were difficult to find; and forget about alterative restaurant sites on the web like HappyCow.com. There simply are more—and improved--eating choices than available a generation ago. Take tomatoes. Remember the days, not that long ago, when you had few choices? Maybe there were cherry tomatoes, and some plum tomatoes, but the standard Solanum lycopersicum were what you found at the supermarket—usually green, often hard as an apple, and if you lucky, it would ripen in a week and you could hack it and add it to your salad. Now you can buy countless varieties, including those Rothko-like heirlooms in all sorts of patterns and colors, many of which are organic. From its humble origins in Peru, the tomato has taken the world by storm the past 500 years, becoming the staple of cuisines from Armenian to Italian to Oaxacan. Annual global consumption is over 100 million tons and growing. Most tomatoes that are grown and produced for mass consumption are three of the 4000 so varieties in existence: AB2, the Sun 6366, and the Asgrow 410. One farm that grows those mass-produced tomatoes while working hard to ensure their sustainability is in Yolo County, California, not far from UC-Davis. Frank Muller and his family raise what they call “process tomatoes,” the fruit that end up in salsas, ketchup, and marinara sauce. The family manages 219 tracts, raising everything from garlic to almonds to wheat, as well as cover crops that reduce erosion while boosting the soil’s biodiversity. But the tomato dominates: the Mullers raise about 60,000 tons of tomatoes annually. Their output ends up in Stockton and then Kentucky, where it becomes Unilever’s Ragu spaghetti sauce. Spreadsheets and GPS technology drive the Mullers’ quest to mitigate the environmental effects of their farm. Every day, Frank Muller gauges the levels of organic matter, phosphates, nitrogen, and other minerals in the soil. He can name the various pests and number of them on each acre. Drip irrigation systems wind through the farm, which emits fertilizer as well. If the soil already has the desired amount of nitrogen, he holds back, as he did in 2008 when fertilizer prices soared during the commodities boom. Should farmers across the US matched the Mullers’ decrease in fertilizer use, 2.5 million less tons of nitrogen fertilizer would have been used in 2008. And if all 300,000 acres in California that grow tomatoes switched to drip irrigation, the amount of water saved would be enough to equal the entire amount used by the Yolo Irrigation District in one year—or a dam’s worth of water. The Muller family’s farm participates in the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, an initiative to develop a system for measuring environmental performance throughout the specialty crop supply chain. The project will offer metrics to enable operators at any point along the supply chain to benchmark, compare, and communicate their own performance. As more customers demand that companies to explain the “sustainability” of their supply chain, the Stewardship Index will provide its participants data with which anyone from farmers to retailers can compare their performance as compared to that of their peers’. Organic foods are becoming more popular—some estimates their sales have tripled or quadrupled over the past decade—but only about 1% of the farms in the US--and 0.5% of pastureland—is certified organic. Will the remaining 99% of farmland really switch to organic? If more farmers would adopt the practices of the Muller family, we may just watch the next food revolution fueled by companies like Nestle, Unilever, Wal-Mart, and Tesco. Some will blanche at the thought, but the Mullers may just be defining the future of food production. To follow the fascinating trail of the Mullers’ tomatoes, read Frederick Kaufman’s article on the Natural Resources Defense Council’s blog. The article will also appear in the NRDC's OnEarth Magazine this fall.