At my brother Henry’s farm in central Illinois, the garlic harvest is one of the annual events that requires all hands on deck. The massive undertaking took on even more urgency this year as drought hastened the drying process, leading to yellow leaf tips by mid-June, indicating it was time to dig the garlic.
In the 20 years that Henry has been farming, this is the first year the garlic harvest has happened in June. This is also the first year when we had more than 25 helpers in the field, a veritable “crop mob,” thanks to some Evanston, Ill., farmers market volunteers and about 20 Illinois State University students.
Our Grandma Henrietta always said, “Many hands make light work,” and there was plenty of evidence of the truth of that aphorism. As the sun was setting after the first day of the garlic harvest, Henry calculated that 7,300 soft neck garlic plants (mainly the New York White variety) had been pulled, plus a few hundred small ones, plus about 1,200 large ones to be saved back as seed and planted in October. In addition, more than 1,000 of the hard-neck German Extra Hardy were pulled, adding up to about 10,000 plants out of the ground, which was roughly two-thirds of the total harvested this year.
The sheer number of plants to be pulled required everyone to work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a two-hour siesta during the hottest part of the day. Henry was driven by twin engines of urgency. First, he needed to get the garlic out of the ground before it dried down too much and the tight bulbs began to open. An exploding bulb is less marketable and harder to rub clean of its flaky, outer skins. Plus, dirt gets in the center of an opening bulb, providing a perfect habitat for microbes that cause dry rot. Second, Henry was painfully aware that each hour devoted to the garlic harvest was an hour when people weren’t available to attack the weeds that were growing unmolested by hands or hoes.
Thanks to all the helping hands, instead of spending the entire week harvesting garlic, as we often do, we needed only two days and were then able to go back to the planting, trellising, mulching and myriad other pressing tasks.
In addition to the many helping hands, the work went swiftly because of the improved implement Henry had the local machine shop fabricate for him last year. Instead of the old implement consisting of four arrow-shaped sweeps, which was used along with pitch forks and strong backs, Henry now has a single broad blade that the tractor pulls beneath all the heads of garlic in the three rows that make up a bed. The blade cuts through the tight mop of roots, allowing the harvesters to easily pull up the dislodged garlic plants, shake off the dirt and stack them in neat pyramids, which are then brought to the hay rack.
When the rack is piled high, Henry hitches it to the pickup and drives it up to the barn where he and the interns, volunteers and family members work sorting and bunching it until, or even after, dark.
Each year we set aside the largest bulbs, about 10% of the total. The individual cloves from these bulbs will be planted in late October or early November. Until then, they hang in a separate section of the barn so that we will not inadvertently cut them down to sell. This selecting of the biggest and the best for the next year’s crop has been done since the dawn of agriculture, long before Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian monk, scientist and gardener, figured out the laws of inheritance. Mendel elucidated the mechanism behind what early farmers knew intuitively: saving the seed from the best plants capitalizes on random genetic variation. In this way, our garlic gets bigger and healthier and better tasting year by year as we select those plants best suited to our soil and our climate.
During this year’s drought, we had worried about the garlic and whether the bulbs would fill out. But garlic is an impressive scavenger of water — a single bulb can have roots that reach 30 inches down with a lateral spread of 18 inches in every direction — and so our garlic managed to get the water it needed, and the bulbs we have just harvested are quite magnificent.
Top photo: Harvested garlic. Credit: Terra Brockman
“Dark roast coffee has more caffeine than light roast.”
“Wear a scarf and you won’t catch a cold.”
“We need genetically modified crops to feed the world.”
There are some assertions you hear so often that it’s easy to believe they must be true.
I live in central Illinois, the buckle of America’s corn belt, and I can’t count how many times I’ve heard that last one in recent years. It’s a variation on what I heard as I was growing up — I represent the fourth generation of a farming family here — that agricultural chemicals and factory farming were tools required to feed the world.
It’s time to challenge the claim that we need genetically modified crops — and to delve into the assumptions and motivations underlying that idea.
One assumption is that people go hungry only because not enough food is being produced. But when you divide the amount of food on Earth by the number of mouths to feed (as many scholars in various disciplines have done), you find that there is enough to feed every person and then some. Hunger does not stem from insufficient food production, but rather from issues of food waste and access (most often poverty, but also political corruption).
And what about the oft-repeated claim that there will be more than 9 billion mouths to feed by 2050? For a lesson in confusing trend with destiny, consider that in the late 1890s, it was predicted that by 1950 the streets of New York City would be 9 feet deep in horse manure. Of course, the manure problem was eliminated when the source (horses) was removed. Likewise, the problem of feeding a large population can be remedied if the source, population growth, is addressed.
Population control (or lack thereof) aside, the biggest assumption to challenge is that GM crops are needed to feed poor people around the world. While received wisdom and persuasive multimillion-dollar ad campaigns affirm this version of reality, scientific studies do not. And while the studies referenced below do not have millions of publicity dollars behind them, they do have convincing numbers.
- In the most comprehensive analysis of world agriculture to date, five U.N. agencies and the World Bank enlisted more than 400 scientists and development experts from 80 countries over four years to produce the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD). This report warns that expensive, short-term fixes — including GM crops — are not likely to reduce long-term hunger and poverty. Instead, the study recommends a suite of sustainable techniques based on a sophisticated understanding of biological systems, including cover cropping, mulching, intercropping, composting and crop rotation.
- The Environmental Food Crisis, a recent report by the U.N. Environment Program, confirms the IAASTD findings and predicts further food crises due to environmental collapse, much of it caused by high-chemical-input agriculture. It also endorses ecological practices.
- To analyze how such sustainable practices affect on-the-ground productivity in the developing world, researchers at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom analyzed 286 projects in 57 countries, following 12.6 million farmers who were transitioning toward sustainable agriculture. The results, published in a report titled, Agroecological Approaches to Agricultural Development, found an average yield increase of 79% across a broad spectrum of crops, in a wide variety of soil and climate conditions.
- Similarly, the University of Michigancompared data from almost 100 studies and concluded that a worldwide switch to organic practices would actually increase global food production by as much as 50% — enough to feed a population of 9 billion people without putting any additional acreage into production.
While it is true that conventional yields have increased over the years, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report, Failure to Yield, finds that most of the increases were due to conventional breeding — that is, crossing different varieties of one species together — not by genetic modification. The report also points out that the biotech industry has been promising better yields since the mid-1990s without significant results.
While neither the Union of Concerned Scientists nor I (after all, my father is a geneticist) dismiss the possibility that genetic modification may someday improve crop yield or nutrition, such benefits are, to date, purely speculative.
It makes no sense to defend expensive and unproven genetic modification instead of inexpensive sustainable practices proven to substantially increase yields and feed people, especially in developing countries. Yet the “we need GMOs to feed the world” mantra continues unabated for a welter of interconnected reasons, most of which trace back to money.
A handful of extremely wealthy companies dominates the U.S. and international GM seed markets with two main products: Roundup Ready soybeans and corn, and Bt insect-resistant corn. Neither of these are feeding starving children or protecting the environment. Rather, what these products do is make money -– vast amounts of it -– for the corporations. This money has influenced legislators, researchers, farmers and public opinion through expensive and effective lobbying, granting, advertising and public relations.
Money is a powerful persuader, and it can fool a lot of people for a long time, especially when paired with half-truths that appeal to our sense of empathy and altruism. But here in the Land of Lincoln we remember what Honest Abe said: “You may fool all the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time.”
The truth is that the companies proclaiming we will go hungry without genetically modified crops are fooling the world, not feeding it.
Oh, and by the way, light roast coffee has more caffeine than dark roast. And eating well and getting plenty of sleep prevents more colds than a scarf.
Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and a fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, “The Seasons on Henry’s Farm,” now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.