Norman Borlaug & Sustainable Food

Norman Borlaug

Norman Borlaug

He was credited with saving the lives a billion people and awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal for his work. He also set agriculture down its current path of massive monocultures, chemical fertilizers, and continuous cultivation of more and more virgin land.

How can one person have such a massive impact on agriculture both for good and for bad?

Today we’re talking about Norman Borlaug, who died seven years ago last week.

 

Who again?

Norman Borlaug was born on March 25th, 1914 in Iowa. He studied Biology as an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota and spent most of his college days wrestling. He later pursued a PhD in plant pathology and genetics, also from the University of Minnesota, and completed it 1942.

What did he do?

In 1944, Borlaug was invited to take a job with the Cooperative Wheat Research Production Program in Mexico. This program was a joint effort between the US government and the Mexican government in combination with the Rockefeller foundation. Its goal was to increase wheat yields in Mexico.

Norman went at it, using crossbreeding techniques to study and alter the wheat for more desirable traits – namely increased yield. Over the next 16 years, Borlaug dramatically changed wheat production in Mexico. He created semi-dwarf strains of wheat that had shorter stems and larger heads of grain. When he fed them with nitrogen fertilizer and other chemicals, the amount of wheat he could grow basically exploded. He increased Mexico’s wheat harvest by 600% by 1963. 600%! This was a really big deal.

The Green Revolution

In the 1960s and 1970s, Borlaug turned his attention to India and Pakistan. By introducing his varieties of wheat there (which included rice and maize strains), he increased the number of calories available to people in those countries, thereby increasing Earth's carrying capacity. (Carrying capacity: the number of people that can be supported without destroying the environment). Borlaug is credited with saving millions and millions of lives. More specifically, his work allowed people to live who otherwise would not have had enough food to do so.

This increase in yield around the world was called the Green Revolution and our hero, Norman, was named the movement’s father. In 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to the world food supply.

Later on...

Borlaug continued to work in the field for decades, later teaching and speaking on agriculture and agribusiness. He believed that high yields via intensive cultivation, fertilizers, and pesticides were the way to feed the people of the world. He was essentially the creator of industrial agriculture.

Organic farming, Borlaug said, just couldn’t cut it, it simply didn’t produce enough. He supported GMO technologies believing that farmers had messed with breeding for thousands of years, and should keep doing so. He believed GMOs were the only solution for when the unused arable land around the world runs out.

He passed away in Texas, at the age of 95, in 2009.

 

Critics of Borlaug say….

Pause: It doesn’t feel right to say “critics of Borlaug.” How can we criticize someone whose research and work saved so many people’s lives? His work was viewed as miraculous!

Yet seeing the effects of his work, there ARE critics. The world’s agricultural systems and its food supply are extremely complex, and Borlaug’s discoveries set us down our current path, with its environmental problems, large biotech ag companies, and injustices.

We've learned A LOT since Borlaug started working and we now know the damages we've caused. Borlaug didn't intend for that to happen, he was very much a product of his time.

So what?

The Green Revolution stood on the pillars of intensive chemical input, monocultures, and big agricultural corporations. It reduced soil fertility, reduced genetic diversity, and increased erosion. It gave us our current (broken) food system. It created some problems along with all the life-saving.

In case you haven’t noticed, the problems it created are the exact opposite of the tenets and goals of the sustainable food movement.

Borlaug's work allowed for more yield than ever before and saved so many people, but at what cost? How can we address those problems now from an environmentally sustainable perspective and keep on feeding everyone? 

The answer is: no one knows for sure...yet.

 

The sustainable food movement is here to stay and is working on answers. A new and different green revolution for the future. Stay tuned, it's going to be exciting.

 

Based on reading this, what's your opinion about Norman Borlaug?

Deep Dive: Monocultures & Polycultures

Today we’re taking a deep dive into monocultures and polycultures and why they are important.

Monoculture: the use of land for growing only one type of crop or supporting only one species of animal.

Polyculture: the use of land for growing more than one type of crop or supporting more than one species of animal.

Some background:

Since the 1970's, our agriculture system in the US has prioritized yields – more corn, more soybeans, more wheat, and more efficient growing. To get these high yields (which we have!), growers typically grow one crop on large amounts of land. They grow that one crop season after season because (1) there is a market for it and (2) they get government subsidies to do so (a story for another day). In this country, we're growing a massive crop every year of dent corn (roughly 90 million acres), soybeans (roughly 77 million acres), and winter wheat (roughly 42 million acres).

This system (which is a monoculture) has successfully created huge numbers of calories available for consumption by people and animals. BUT, there are some major problems with it.

 

Other monoculture examples:

For corporations like McDonalds, making French fries that taste the same in every restaurant requires buying millions of the same kind of potato over and over. Hence, there's a huge market for Russet Burbank potatoes -- McDonalds’ primary fry-maker.

As individuals making our food choices on a daily basis, most of us eat the same 20 things repeatedly. We eat a lot of one type of cuisine, or we go to the same restaurant and order the same menu item every week. We even get stuck making the same few dishes at home over and over.

At restaurants, many chefs won’t try cooking with new or unusual ingredients, or even different types of meats, veggies, and fish. They like to stick with what works which, of course, makes sense. If it’s working well, why fix it? It's bringing in customers and revenue.

But these monocultures aren’t working well enough. They are problematic and they deserve our attention.

 

So what’s wrong with them?

Our monoculture system is broken because it forces growers to reduce diversity. In planting one variety of a crop, we are essentially putting all our eggs in one basket. If a fungus or pest gets to one plant in the crop, it can damage all the plants because they are all genetically identical. This leaves our crops too exposed and, as a result, growers have to spray aggressively to keep away pests. At the moment, the action taken by growers is protecting crops, but it won’t be long before pests evolve beyond the chemicals we spray. Additionally, fertilizing and spraying is really bad for the soil and the environment (see dead zones).

We are trying to take control of nature and it won’t work. We should be working with nature, not trying to outdo it!

Remember reading about the Irish potato famine? It was the disaster that killed one million people living in Ireland between 1845 and 1852. Caused by Phytophthora infestans, a disease known as potato blight, it affected many countries in Europe, but was disproportionately catastrophic for Ireland. This was because the Irish relied heavily on potatoes for food and had planted mostly one variety. There was very little genetic diversity in the potato crop, so when the disease came in contact with the plants, it wiped them all out at once. In 1846, 3/4ths of the entire potato crop in Ireland was lost.

This tragedy serves as a cautionary tale for what we’ve been doing for the past 40 years in America. We’ve gotten stuck in monocultures and to fix our broken food system, we need to switch to more polycultures.

 

Why are polycultures awesome?

Planting more varieties of crops together on the same land spreads out risk and helps the environment. If a certain crop fails one year, others will still thrive. If one crop depletes the soil, others will enrich it. Polycultures also allow for fewer preventative inputs and wiser use of resources. This is how the natural world functions without human interaction and it’s a model from which we can benefit.

Planting polycultures and consuming polyculturally (a made-up word that should be in our language) is also better for our health. Trying different fruits, vegetables, and grains gives our bodies access to more varied nutrients and gets us excited about interesting-tasting foods. There are hundreds of kinds of potatoes, apples, and squashes, but at the grocery store, only a few are available.

 

So what can you do?

1) Get educated. Had you heard about monocultures and polycultures before reading this post? Heard of them, but couldn’t remember what they were or why they mattered? Spend a few minutes this week thinking about what you eat and how much of it is the same old routine. Learn more about growing varieties of plants and seed diversity.

2) Shop differently. What grocery store are you going to? Maybe once a week or once a month, try a more sustainable option. Look for a farmers’ market to buy directly from a grower, check out a health food grocery store, look up if there are any food co-ops in your area. When you go, buy a variety of something you've never seen before. Fruits and vegetables are a low-commitment way to test out something new. Sometimes, you just can’t get the unusual varieties of apple at your grocery store, but if you connect with a farmer, it might open up new possibilities. And if you discover that you love cooking with Nootka Rose garlic, tell a friend, teach a relative, talk more about what you’re eating and where it came from.

I submit these two suggestions to you humbly. They are not panaceas. Fixing our food system is a massive goal. One that probably won’t be solved in my lifetime. Instead of throwing our hands up and deeming it unsolvable, let’s work on each moving the needle a little bit. Take the time to learn about our food system and figure out how YOU can make your difference.

Deep Dive: Bread

I’ve loved eating bread for as long as I can remember.

Recently, I’ve started baking my own bread. I took a bread-baking class last summer (Bread baking 101), but never had the courage to try it at home. This spring, I was inspired to finally have at it on my own after attending a 100% extraction whole-wheat bread baking class. What the heck does that mean? Don’t worry, we’ll get to it.

Bread is a seemingly magical food. Take some simple ingredients and turn them into something completely different. So let’s dive in as I explain how to take the things from this picture:

And turn them into the thing in this picture:

INGREDIENTS:

Basic bread is made up of 4 things: flour, water, salt, and air. Yes, there are other things to add if you want, but this is the basic recipe and this is what I’m talking about today.

We’ll spend the most time on flour.

 

Flour:

Flour can be complicated, but it’s also the most interesting ingredient in bread because it provides the most options. You’ll recall from when I wrote about baking bran muffins that the part of wheat we harvest, the seed, is called the kernel. The kernel is made up of three parts: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. The white flour I baked with for much of my life is made from the endosperm (which is mostly carbohydrates). The bran and the germ are the nutritious parts of the kernel.

Got that? Three parts of the kernel. White flour is made of the least healthy part.  

You can bake bread with a mixture of these three parts of the kernel and you don’t even have to use wheat kernels. You can you use spelt, rye, millet, amaranth and so on. But let’s say you do want to use wheat (a common choice).

Now you have to decide how refined your flour will be.

This matters because of gluten. GLUTEN! Currently vilified in popular American culture (which I believe is ridiculous), this is the key protein that gives bread its ability to rise. Gluten makes protein chains which make dough stretchy and sticky and give the bread structure when it is baked. The type of flour you use greatly affects these gluten chains.

The bran and germ of a wheat kernel are sharp and pointy, so they cause many more cuts in the gluten chains, breaking up the structure. White flour (the endosperm) is not nearly as sharp, so it doesn’t cut up the gluten as much and that allows for an easier rising process. You can absolutely still make nicely risen bread from the whole kernel (sharp germ and all), but it might be a little bit trickier.

If you’re looking to make a bread which includes all the parts of the kernel (which you very well might want to because it’s got better nutritional content), you get to make another choice. Do you want to use all of it? Or would you like to sift out the biggest pieces after they’re milled so they cut the gluten up just a little bit less? If you want to use it all, this is called 100% extraction whole wheat flour. If you’re looking to use a flour that has been sifted somewhat, you may find yourself buying an 80% extraction flour. The 100% extraction is the most nutritious.

How does this translate into the final product? These are all things that will change the flavor and density of your bread. If you use 100% extraction, you’re not baking something that looks like Wonderbread. You’re baking something that’s hearty and dense, with a deeper flavor.

I’m biased, but I think that's the way to go to make delicious, substantial bread.

Water:

Water is pretty straightforward. Or is it? Some people suggest using filtered water based on where you live and what minerals are in your water supply. I haven’t tried this; I’ve just been using tap water.

Salt:

Kosher salt works well as its grains are larger than average table salt grains. You can also use sea salt. What are the differences? That’s a deep dive for another day!

Air:

Air is mixed into the other ingredients through the bread-making process. You don’t need any special air for this. The stuff you’re breathing right now will do fine. : )

BONUS INGREDIENT: sourdough starter!

It was sounding pretty easy wasn’t it?

It turns out, there’s a little more to it, because if you mix up some flour, water, and salt, and stir it to get some air in there, then you bake it. It won’t be bread.  (Matzah, anyone?)

You need something else to make it rise. Here is the true magic of bread: the tiny microbes that turn that flour and water into something that can rise---AKA: YEAST.

If you’ve made bread before, you might have used a packet of dried yeast. Interesting stuff, you had to mix it with a bit of water, wait about 10 minutes, and watch for bubbles to know you hadn’t killed it by leaving it stuck behind the tea bags in your cabinet for years.

But you can make yeast on your own. You don’t need to buy it. It’s a culture of microorganisms that’s all around and once you’ve got it in a jar, it’s called a sourdough starter and it's made of "wild yeast."

To whip up your own batch, you need the basic ingredients we already talked about, plus about a week. You’ll take some flour and water, mix them together, and leave the mixture out on the counter. After a few days, it’ll start getting weird, and maybe stinky. But the bacteria in the air will start eating the sugar in the flour and fermenting it, releasing carbon dioxide. After a week, you’ll have your own petri dish of sourdough starter. You’re ready! Now you can add that to the flour and water you’ll use when you’re ready to make bread and the tiny yeast organisms will get to work.

You can save the starter on your counter or in your fridge and feed it to keep it going for every loaf of bread you bake. To keep it strong, scoop out about half of it and replace it with new flour and water in a 1:1 ratio. Do this daily if it’s on the counter or weekly if it’s in the fridge.

Any bread made with this starter can be called a sourdough bread.

 

RATIOS FOR BAKING:

There are a million basic sourdough bread recipes on the internet and in cookbooks. Check out a few here, here, and here. The key is the ratio between your flour and your water. You can make a wetter dough (something like 80%) or a drier dough (something like 65%). To get the percentage, figure out how much flour you’ll use and multiple by your percentage to determine the amount of water needed. If you’re using a sharper flour (something with more of the wheat kernel in it), you might need a more hydrated dough.

If this sounds like too much math for you, just stick to a recipe at first and you'll be fine!

 

TECHNIQUE:

Because the makeup of bread is so simple, technique and process counts for a lot in determining the finished product. You’ll be mixing, observing, kneading, resting, scoring, and baking. This is more of an art than a science.

The process can take from a few hours to multiple days, depending on your procedures and your setting. Most people agree on a few basics:

  1. Mix up the flour, water, and salt.
  2. Wait a bit.
  3. Add the sourdough starter.
  4. Wait some more.
  5. Knead the dough.
  6. Wait some more.
  7. Knead it again.
  8. Wait some more.
  9. Shape it into whatever lovely-looking shape you want to eat later.
  10. Wait some more.
  11. Score the top (which means: cut some slits in it so it won’t explode as it rises).
  12. Bake.
  13. Wait some more.
  14. Eat.

Bread baking is an exercise in patience!

Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to it; it forces me to do something with which I am uncomfortable. I'm also fascinated by how much variation there is. Because there are so many options within the 14 steps above, bread making becomes an art. If you get the right ingredients and follow the right steps, you’ll get bread of some sort. Then the fun begins.

I’ve been taking notes and pictures because each time I’ve made bread at home, I’ve tweaked my methods a bit. It’s all in search of my favorite loaf, but the journey is really the joy here.

I am by no means an expert. In fact, I’m still a bread-baking newbie. So if you have suggestions for me, I would love to hear them.

 

Now that we’ve unraveled the mysteries of bread, give it a try! And don’t worry, even if it’s not pretty, it’ll probably still smell and taste delicious.

Got questions? Let me know!