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Welcome to the Pathfinder for Resources on Sustainable Agriculture in Arlington County, VA.

"Depending on how we spend them, our food dollars can either go to support a food industry devoted to quantity and convenience and "value" or they can nourish a food chain organized around values--values like quality and health. Yes, shopping this way takes more money and effort, but as soon as you begin to treat that expenditure as a kind of vote--a vote for health in the largest sense--food no longer seems like the smartest place to compromise."
-Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food

The pressure is building. While the earth’s population climbs ever closer toward 7 billion people, we simultaneously battle an obesity pandemic and world hunger. More and more research shows that the world’s current agricultural production methods are not sustainable and assuredly not a viable solution to either problem. Yet the United States government continues to subsidize the commercial production of soy and corn, neglecting the practices of crop rotation in favor of chemical fertilizers, genetically modified seeds, and pesticides. Encouraging this type of “monoculture” on farm land robs it of its natural resources and renders it unable to support life without the aid of the aforementioned additives.

Where did it all start?

Before the corn industry took America by storm following World War II, cattle and other herbivorous, pastured animals were raised in fields using rotational grazing. This grazing practice divides a pasture into several sections and moves the herd between sections regularly throughout the year to prevent over-grazing. In return, the cattle provided their rich manure to help replenish the pasture year after year. This manure was also used to fertilize the crops grown on the farm. (In fact, the working farm is very nearly a perfect cycle with no waste.)

However, once World War II ended, the U.S. found itself left with an overabundance of synthetic nitrogen which had been used to make bombs. In an attempt to use it, it was given to farmers to feed their fields. With synthetic nitrogen now replenishing the fields, there was no longer any need to pasture animals. That same land could be used for growing more corn. Thus, the animals moved from the farm to the feedlot, where nature's balanced cycle was indelibly broken. Farmers were no longer forced to rotate crops in order to keep nitrogen in the soil and corn became the golden child of the commercial agriculture industry. It has since made its way into over 2/3rds of consumer products.

And as for the cattle pushed to the feedlots? Crammed into enclosed spaces with hundreds like them, typically commercial steer are given access a diet of flaked corn, liquefied fat (often beef tallow or chicken fat), molasses, urea, silage, Rumensin and Tylosin (antibiotics), and synthetic estrogen. Cattle, however, are herbivorous by nature. Their stomachs contain a unique fermentation-like chamber where they can actually convert grasses into a form of protein. They're not biologically equipped to digest corn, and force-feeding it has created the host of problems (like bloat, acidosis, and infection) that make the antibiotics a necessity. In fact, cattle are so ill-equipped to digest this food that it can only be given to them for 150 days at most before they must be taken off of it. Pigs and chickens too bear this type of treatment in favor of creating larger operations and wider profit margins.

So what is "sustainable agriculture"?

People are starting to send a message. Farmers like Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms in Virginia are taking a stand for traditionally, ethically raised livestock and crops. These individuals promote the use of rotational grazing practices, crop cycling, and provide their animals with the foods that their biological makeup has equipped them to digest. It’s simply about making the right decisions and demanding more from producers and government officials.

“According to the FAO ‘world agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase’. The researchers estimate that’s about 2,720 calories per person per day. To help visualize this absurdity, consider that the beef in one Big Mac is equivalent—in terms of grain produced and consumed—to five loaves of bread. But instead of feeding the hungry with grain, a lot of it is going to the waistline of people in wealthy countries—often to their detriment.”
-Mark Bittman, Food Matters

Sustainable agriculture celebrates that food comes from a complex web of relationships between many living beings. While supporting a system based on sustainable practices comes with its sacrifices, it embraces the harmony between all of the living things, plant and animal, that provide us with sustenance and a sense of community.

This pathfinder seeks to guide users looking to learn more about sustainable agriculture and related topics, (such as the Slow Food movement) toward reliable sources available in the Arlington County Public Library Network (www.acornweb.org).

Visit the "How to Use this Wiki" page to learn more about the scope, selection, and best practices for accessing the resources found in the pathfinder.