Healthy Soil makes for Healthy Plants makes for Healthy People

by Guest Writer

Nutrition begins at the source. When Bob bites into a peach today he can taste the evolution of agriculture in America – on the outside it is blushing and sumptuous but on the inside it has become hard, bland and pallid.

When I was raised our peaches came in wooden boxes in little paper cups, and were individually wrapped, And they were delicious, they were wonderful, I haven’t had a peach like that in years. When I discovered why, all of a sudden those kinds of advances in agriculture were not very appealing to me because I had experienced the end result first hand. I had experienced what a fresh, ripe peach tastes like, and then these awful things that you bought at the store that looked beautiful, but didn’t have any taste.”

Bob M. Quinn is the founder and president of the organic farming operation Kamut International that grows an ancient strain of wheat known as “khorasan”. Bob has a Ph. D in Biochemistry and he is the third generation of an American farming legacy that began in Montana back in 1920. Throughout his experience growing up and working on the farm, Bob came to realize something quite disturbing; modern agricultural practices had gradually stripped food not only of its taste, but of its nutritional value. It is common sense, if the plants and animals we eat aren’t nourished properly, neither are we. When pesticides and fertilizers were introduced back in the 1950s they revolutionized agriculture in America, allowing for greater yields and more successful transportation of crops. However, the quality of the crop was diminished due to impacts on the soil.

Herbicides and fertilizers were an instant success because at the time they weren’t farming in a way that would control the weeds or maintain soil fertility. The soils started to wear out after only twenty years of cropping because nothing was being put back into the soil naturally.

Even after having received his Ph.D in biochemistry, Bob wasn’t fully convinced that a plant could tell the difference between a molecule of nitrogen coming from a natural source like a pile of manure, or from a man-made fertilizer in the soil.

The difference I came to learn is that it’s not just the molecule that makes the difference, it is the health and vitality of the soil and if the soil is alive. It is much more complex than just dumping nitrogen onto the ground through a fertilizer which will change the soil chemistry and biology, sometimes to the detriment of the plants. Then you have to put on more chemicals to keep the plants alive and everything is under stress. We are starting to learn, even with people, that the more stress you have, the more prone you are to disease and other kinds of breakdowns in the system, it is the same with any living organism.

This is what inspired Bob to become one of the leaders in lobbying on Capitol Hill this past April with the Organic Trade Association, alongside cereal mogul General Mills, for amendments to the 2012 Farm Bill that will encourage organic and sustainable agriculture in the name of healthy eating. While in Washington, General Mills revealed to Bob that organic was the fastest growing sector of their production.

Every five years, congress passes the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act, also referred to as the “Farm Bill,” which is charged with regulating agricultural practices in the United States. On June 21st the Senate approved the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 with significant bipartisan support (65 to 35). The Senate approved amendments that will eliminate direct payments to farmers based on their harvests, normally a safety net for American farmers. The primary safety net in the event of damages and poor harvests will be crop insurance. The bill will now move on to the House for deliberation and must be approved prior to the August recess before the current Farm Bill expires on September 30th 2012. The amendments to the 2012 Farm Bill represent a movement away from the U.S.’s traditional, “cheap food” policy.

For years, federal legislation has encouraged high input, high output larger scale agricultural operations with direct payments to farmers based on the size of their harvest. This system left little room for variation in farming techniques such as sustainable and organic methods. In order to advance organic farming in the U.S. the Organic Trade Association calls for more viable insurance for organic farmers and a redirection of funds for research to match the percentage of agricultural production that is organic.

“The Farm Bill is designed for chemical, high intensity monoculture and doesn’t allow for rotations. The whole system had been set up so that the more crop you raised, the more money you got. Because I didn’t fit into one of the programs they didn’t have time to help me. They try to have a ‘one package fits all’ system and if you don’t fit that package, you’re out. That is frustrating to me.”

What many people don’t realize is that agriculture is a tremendous component of the U.S. economy. Agricultural policy, as expressed throughout Farm Bills over the years, is charged with maintaining the success of this major economic sector. The United States controls nearly half of the planet’s grain exports and generated over 130 billion dollars in revenue in 2011. Farming produces an economic commodity, just as mining produces oil or precious metal commodities. It is somewhat unsettling to hear that the food we ingest is considered a commodity and is mass-produced for economic purposes rather than carefully tended to so that it is fit for human consumption. But growing organic crops under sustainable conditions takes longer, is more expensive, more risky and will generally produce a smaller harvest than a large chemical-based, industrial farming operation will.

Over the years Bob has watched U.S. agricultural policy go from being adamantly against small scale, organic and sustainable agricultural production to absorbing a more neutral stance. Despite the forces working against it, the organic and sustainable agriculture movement is gaining momentum and notoriety in the United States. We consider Bob to be a pioneer of this movement and we are honored to have him share his experiences and his wisdom with us. We will continue to pay attention to how the Farm Bill evolves and we encourage our readers to do the same.

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