Rethinking Farms

Dan ImhoffWhen it comes to sustainable food and farming, author and researcher Dan Imhoff likes to get his hands dirty. He not only edited CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories (Earth Aware Editions) a coffee table-style book of industrialized meat production, and authored Food Fight: the Citizen’s Guide to a Food and Farm Bill (Watershed Media), but over a decade ago he co-founded the organization Wild Farm Alliance. That organization works to better integrate farms with the natural world. Below, he talks to E about his vision and our food system shortcomings…

1. E Magazine: Tell me about the Wild Farm Alliance.

Dan Imhoff: It’s one of the best ideas I’ve ever had. We started with a group of people trying to address this idea that agricultural diversity is important, but ecological biodiversity is essential. And it seemed like we had two camps, and we still do: the conservation biology camp which is really trying to protect wild places but realizing that those wild places are becoming islands; and then sustainable agriculture which really dominates the landscape and through which wild biodiversity has to pass if it’s going to be connected and continue. The Wild Farm Alliance really tries to bridge those two camps.

2. E: Are you educating farmers?

D.I.: It started as an education process. Over time we began to look for intervention points. One of the intervention points became the organic standards. The organic standards require biodiversity protection on the farm but they don’t really define what that is. So Wild Farm Alliance works with organic certification organizations to flesh out what biodiversity protection is. A second intervention point really came with the E. Coli outbreak in Salinas Valley, California. The spinach industry responded by making wild biodiversity the scapegoat of that problem: ripping out miles of habitat; poisoning animals; fencing off riparian areas. We’ve really tried to become a leading voice saying that biodiversity is not the culprit in food safety issues. Collecting the data and the research and the studies that show that if anything wild biodiversity can be a real benefit to food safety.

3. E: Are farmers receptive to these ideas or is there resistance?

D.I.: Farmers are always more receptive when there’s money to maintain or implement these types of practices or some type of support. There are many cropping systems that lend themselves to this naturally. The more wild the system, the more wild it can be. The more monoculture-intensive the system, the more nature seems to be the enemy. If you’re a pasture-based farmer, preserving that natural cycle—the water cycle and the nutrient cycle—and keeping deep-rooted perennial plants is really in your favor. That’s going to be how you make your living. However, living with predators might be a challenge.

4. E: Do you think organic standards go far enough in protecting the land and peoples’ health?

D.I.: Standards to me are a marketing vehicle. Any organic farm, like any farm, is going to be different from the next. The real question is “How does the farm fit the land where it’s taking place?” and “How much of those natural cycles is it preserving as it makes a crop?”

5. E: In terms of industrial agriculture and industrial meat production, is one worse than the other?

D.I.: Right now agriculture is mainly at the service of industrial meat production. When you look at the crops that we seem to support most heavily—corn, cotton, soybeans, even to some extent wheat and rice—they’re all fed to animals. So they’re all used to create a surplus to jam into animals to pump into our food system. They’re not necessarily in service of getting healthy foods on human beings’ plates.

6. E: Is reducing meat consumption the only way we’ll see a more sustainable shift in the system?

D.I.: At a certain point you have to look at the land on a soils and watershed basis and see what types of agriculture that land most easily supports. And getting the animals out of intensive confinement and back out onto the land and letting the land feed those animals, that’s really the direction that we need to go. The amount of water, the amount of resources, the amount of pollution associated with grain-feeding animals is just not sustainable in the long term. How many animals can we support with grass-based diversified operations? No one has really crunched those numbers. In general, people who are looking at the crisis of agriculture say we need to produce less animals.

BRITA BELLI is the editor of E.