Sunday, March 13, 2011

Omnivore's Dilemma: Chapter 8

Chapter 8:
1. Describe two ways in which the grasses upon which have come to depend coevolved with our distant ancestors to create the relationship that exists today between humans and corn, wheat, and rice (in particular, keeping in mind that there are other important grasses used for food across the world).
2. Give an overview of Joel Palatin's (Polyface farms) notion of "sustainable agriculture."


  1. 1. Grasses were able to out-compete later succession plant species by being advantageous to us. With their edible and nutritious seeds, grasses gave humans the incentive to protect them from species, which might out-compete them in a state of nature, such as weeds. Furthermore grasses evolved to have long root systems so that they could endure tilling and burning, agricultural maintenance processes. Grasses also solidified their co-evolutionary relationship with mankind by attracting the herbivores that humans have evolved to hunt. Humans, therefore, have an evolutionary and biological affinity towards grass, for it historically has comprised the terrain, which has fed both our wild prey and domesticated livestock. To preserve this grassland, humans have cultivated many practices that grasses have adapted to use for their own benefit, letting human intervention aid in such important tasks as seed dispersal.
    2. Joel Palatin’s vision of the sustainable farm is that of one that relies on a diversity of grasses to feed its livestock. Palatin not only advocates a return to polycultured pastures, mimicking nature, but also the employment of rotational grazing, so that his cattle don’t overgraze an area, but are allowed to roam, fertilizing and dispersing seeds as they go. “Polyface farm” also mimics nature in its use of a variety of animal species to perform their biological tasks, the roles they have inherited through thousands of years of co-evolution. Not only does he let his cattle outstrip nitrogen-based fertilizers in performance and sustainability, but he also uses his chickens as a substitute for pesticides; the chickens, after the cattle have grazed and upturned some of the soil, rid the pasture of grubs and other insects that would otherwise harm his crop. Joal Palatin firmly believes in the abandonment of the NPK input philosophy that dominates American agriculture and ties it to dependence on fossil fuels. Instead, Palatin is a “grass farmer,” the only kind of farmer that ensures his crops and animals are fuelled by the sun, just as nature intended.

  2. For perennial grasses, they developed deep root systems. Back in the times of hunter-gatherers, grass lands were integral for hunting. By keeping grass lands healthy and diverse, more animals would graze, allowing for more meat. Hunter-gatherers would routinely set fire to these grasslands to cycle nutrients and prevent trees from growing. To survive this, grasses had to develop deep root systems. This allowed the plants to survive fires and grazing.
    For annual grasses, they focused their energy into producing nutritious and calorie rich seeds. When agricultural practices arose, plants that presented high calorie or nutritious seeds were artificially chosen to survive. Farmers would ensure these plants would reproduce. To benefit, grasses focused their energies into producing higher calorie seeds. These plants were the early ancestors to rice, corn, wheat, etc.

    Palatin uses rotational grazing to benefit the grass to nourish his livestock. His sustainable agriculture is beyond organic. He uses his own animals to increase and maintain the integrity of his land and food. He says he is a grass farmer, and seems to tailor his animal grazing patterns around grass. He has cows graze first, and then chickens. The chickens clean up after the cows, and pick parasite and other bugs out of the cow manure. This feeds the chickens, cleans the fertilizer and spreads it amongst the grassland. His fields are also made up of very diverse grasses that in turn draw in a very diverse ecosystem. This helps mediate the soils. All these practices actually increases the productivity of the pasture, making this cycle a very sustainable practice.

  3. 1.
    Grasses have a long history of coevolving with humans in a way the benefits both species. Humans have long realized that, although we cannot directly eat perennial grasses, we did consume the large grazing mammals that did eat the grasses. Humans quickly realized that protecting grasses meant more food for us, so we took a direct interest in promoting grass growth. We did this by burning plains to remove the larger shrubs and trees, and in turn grasses evolved to resist fire by having deep root structures.
    Annual grasses developed a different approach for coevolution. They quickly evolved to allow humans to directly ingest their seeds, and thus ensure humans had reasons to protect their survival. The examples of this are all around us in wheat and corn.
    Joel Palatin has built his farming model around symbiosis. Instead of relying on synthesized components to produce his crops, he instead relies on natural approaches that provide the same services. The basic theory behind his farm is that “feeding ourselves from nature need not be a zero-sum proposition, one in which if there is more for us at the end of the season then there must be less for nature” (127). He achieves this model through a complicated rotation of a diverse number of species through his fields that ensure grass health and provide the same services that “artificial manure” and pesticides would otherwise provide.

  4. 1. The grasses that dominate today's agricultural world made themselves "attractive" to humans by becoming annuals and developing tasty, thick, and energy-rich seeds. The perennial grasses we find in lawns and prairies typically have tiny seeds that are useless to humans, and if people are to use the energy in grasses they must first have cows and other livestock eat the blades and then eat those animals (since humans
    lack a rumen or gizzard and typically throw up if they eat too much grass). The evolution of annual grasses changed humans from top-level consumers into primary consumers, since they could now eat these seeds directly and, since a trophic level was lost, could gain more energy from the plants. The process also made it easier for humans to use the grasses, for they now had control over the seeding, tilling, and harvesting process (even if it was to the plant's evolutionary benefit), and could better fit the plants into a settled agricultural system.
    I thought it was interesting to hear Johnny talk about the institute that is trying to undo this transition to annuals, and instead develop perennial varieties of rice, wheat, and other grasses that have the same energy-rich seeds. If this happened on a widespread level, it would be another great agricultural revolution.

    2. Salatin's farm is designed as a system where no artificial fertilizer, pesticide, or antibiotic inputs are used, and where none are needed (at least in most cases). His farm essentially cleans and maintains itself, and the reason it is different from most farms is that the animals, rather than relying on imported grain to survive, feed on grass that requires no money to keep and, simultaneously, keep those grasses healthy. One of my favorite examples of his "no inputs necessary" philosophy is his method of using chickens to "clean up" after the cows (by eating parasites and insect larvae in the turds) and fertilize the soil (by spreading the manure around). Truth be told, the farm does require some energy to function, as the animals must be carefully moved about to maintain the farm's fertility; however, a farm that may be slightly precarious in this sense is still much less precarious than a farm whose animals will succumb to virtually any pathogen, require a carefully maintained environment to survive, and must eat specially prepared food.

  5. 1) (1) In order to outcompete other plants, grass seeds evolved to become more nutritious and delicious to humans. Thus, we would keep wanting to spread the seed and find ways to do it. Grass seeds also became more durable by developing a "deep root system" and "a ground hugging crown" to protect themselves against grazing and fire. (2) Humans destroyed habitats full of perennial grasses in order to create monocultures of more delicious annuals.
    2) Polyface Farms mimics nature to create a "beyond organic" system. Palatin employs dozens of different types of animals, grasses, and other plants that work together through the rotational grazing method to thrive. He explained part of the cycle: cows graze the field then the chickens come and clean up after them, eating parasites and grubs and applying huge amounts of nitrogen to the soil. Through this method he is able to eliminate fossil fuels, petrochemicals, heavy machinery etc. Everything is completely natural and self-sustaining (nothing needs to be imported, such as grains to feed the livestock).

  6. 1. Grasses have coevolved with our ancestors in two different ways. Perennial grasses have evolved to have deep and strong roots. Even though humans didn’t directly eat the perennial grasses, the animals that humans did eat depended on them so humans would burn larger shrubs and trees to clear the land and the deep roots that the grasses evolved allowed them to survive. Annual grasses evolved to directly benefit humans. Because humans could benefit form their rich nutrients, the more nutritious seeds did the best. The grasses devoted their energy into becoming more and more nutrient rich so that humans wanted to grow them and eat their seeds.
    2. Joel Palatin’s notion of “substantial agriculture” is one that is built around symbiosis and relies on diversity and natural processes fuelled directly by the sun. Palatin envisions a return to polycultured pastures that also involve rotational grazing so that cattle fertilize and disperse seeds without overgrazing an area. After the cattle roam, chickens are sent out to clean and spread the fertilizer, making a very efficient and natural cycle that require very little outside energy.

  7. The organization that Johnny spoke of is The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. You can check out their website if you're interested at

  8. 1. Both perennial and annual grasses coevolved with our distant ancestors, but annuals became especially successful because of their ability to feed humans directly. The perennial grasses, which need open sunlight and clearings from trees to thrive coevolved with humans by being the source of food for the animals that people would eat. Humans would cut down trees which would in turn help the grasses to have more living space and larger populations, and would also allow for more food for the people. Annuals were successful in another way, by putting their energy into producing nutrient-rich seeds that humans would eat and then plant, which was successful for the propagation of the plant species as well as for feeding the humans. Annuals such as corn, wheat, and rice continue today to thrive off of the cultivation that humans provide for them on farms.

    2. Joel Salatin describes his farm as being "beyond organic." While it does not meet the government standards for being a certified organic farm, it is certainly more sustainable than an industrial organic farm that does. Salatin and Polyface Farm are all about grass farming, because the energy that feeds the farm comes from the grass, and so it is essential that the grass and soil health be maintained. Different parts of the farm work together in a way that requires little external input, or as Salatin says "the animals do the work around here." Another thing that Joel Salatin emphasizes is the importance in terms of sustainability of eating local, which is why he won't FedEx meat to Michael Pollan.

  9. 1. The first way grasses and humans have co-evolved involves the now widespread dominance of annual grasses. Many thousands of years ago, some grasses now known as rice, wheat, and corn mutated to become annuals, devoting all their energy to producing large, plump seeds instead of building a larger, more stable root system. This mutation would probably have hurt these grasses if not for humans, who took a liking to the taste of these grass’s new seeds. Humans “ripped up the great perennial-polyculture grasslands to make the earth safe for annuals”, leading to the large monoculture of these plants today. A second way grasses and humans have co-evolved involves cows. Humans, who like their meat, chose to bring in cattle to graze on the grass. While this might be bad for the individual grass leaves, it is good for the grass as species. The grass has a much greater biomass over a given period of time, mostly because the soil is much healthier with the constant influx of cow poop. This relationship is good for both grass and humans because it makes the grass healthier and gives humans healthy cows.
    2. Joel Palatin’s notion of sustainable agriculture is agriculture that takes into account every single negative effect his farm has and weighs them against each other to figure out how to minimize these effects. He actively chooses to not be “organic” because he looks at the bigger picture: buy non-organic corn from down the road or buy organic corn “covered in diesel”. His main priority is to keep his land and the world his farm affects healthy, not to green-wash his farm under one overused label or another.

  10. Grass has had a long history with humans as we have created a very benefitial mutualistic relationship with this plant. over the course of centuries grasses humans have come to protect grass because they provide a stable ground cover that can be fed on by our livestock. they also can be edible and have great nutritious value making them very enticing for that reason. As we have found more and more reasons to keep around grass, the alternatives, such as weeds, have proven to be tough competition; however, grass has given a ridiculous amount benefits to our society that have led us to want to keep it around. ecologically, grass can have a very deep roots which can help keep soil in place and keep dirt from washing away. these types of organisms have been able to continue living along side us because we are willing to put in effort to keep them around in exchange for their services.

    Palatin takes alot of this idea and puts it into action as he uses natural services to produce crops. examples of this are rotational grazing and natural pollination. by allowing his animals to move around when they graze and, in some cases, forcing his cattle and chickens to move, he is able to efficiently work crops and feed animals at the SAME time, WIHTOUT using and fertilizers. included in this method are very diverse amount of species that graze on the grass

  11. Our relationship with grass first really started with annual grasses that animals would eat and then we ate the animals because we couldnt digest the grass itself. The people who nurtured these plots of grass to attract animals could be called grass farmers just like Salatin. The second phase of our relationship with grasses was the invention of agriculture. Thousands of years ago the ancestors of wheat, rice, and corn began producing nutrient rich seeds that could nourish humans directly. We then started growing more and more monocultures of annuals.

    Salatin goes back to may of the old ways of grass farming. He believes in completely sustainable agriculture. He uses his chickens to fertilize the grass with their waste and lets them roam the grass fields picking out the weeds. He wouldnt even send Pollan a steak from his farm because that would not be sustainable. He wouldnt call himself organic because a lot of organic practices arent actually sustainable or the best choice (for example getting pesticide free chicken feed from hundreds of miles away when his neighbor has perfectly good corn feed that isnt technically organic because it may contain atrazine. He feeds his animals which servicing his fields and practicing crop rotation.

  12. 1. Pollan described two distinct phases of coevolution between grasses and humans. In the first phase, or the “Age of Perennials,” grasses evolved to be nourishing and tasty to animals that eat the grass and to withstand grazing and periodic fires, which supports the lives of animals humans want to eat, so in turn humans promote the welfare of the grasses. In the “Age of Annuals,” grasses evolved to skip the intermediate step with the animals. Two ways in which the grasses coevolved would be to produce nutritious, nourishing seeds that humans could directly utilize and that outcompeted the perennials.

    2. The success of Salatin’s farm can be credited to his notion of symbiosis. Salatin mimics the natural rotation of animals acting in an environment; he uses grass from which animals can thrive in a symbiotic cycle. After cattle graze on a plot of land, chickens follow, acting as the natural “sanitation crew,” creating no need for chemical pesticides. He firmly believes that feeding ourselves from nature does not have to mean that nature is always fundamentally hurt by our use of nature for food. His pastures have/will become better than when he started farming the land because of his method.

  13. Our ancestor hunter-gatherers set fire to savannas to burn down trees and improve soil quality in order to attract animals to certain grassy grazing areas. In order to withstand human fire and animal grazing, grasses evolved physiologically to become perennials. Deep-root systems and running crowns were an advantage in that they helped grasses grow back quickly after fire and grazing. Later on, grasses evolved even further, becoming annuals, so that humans did not need to eat animals in order to get nutrition from grass. Instead of investing more energy into roots for lasting longer, year-round and through hard winters, grasses invested more energy in producing nutritional, digestible seeds that human themselves could eat. Annual grasses were selected for by humans, over perennials, and thus agriculture, and namely monoculture, began.

    Joel Palatin’s notion of “sustainable agriculture” is based in the idea that the agriculture should try to mimic as closely as possible the way that food is grown in nature. Sustainable agriculture, unlike industrial agriculture, does not depend on methods aimed directly for maximum yield. Instead, it depends on ecological relationships and services working together in a natural way. The animals on Polyface farms do most of the work, while the people working on the farm do a little poking around to make sure everything goes smoothly. Palatin calls himself a grass farmer because grass is the foundation of the food chain on his farm, and as long as the grass is good and the farm animals are accordingly rotated on the land the grass is grown on, the farm remains sustainable.

  14. 1. Grasses were able to adapt to human activities: our razings, our need for nourishment, our prey that need to feed. They developed deep roots so even when we burned the grasses down, they would continue to exist. They developed nutritious leaves to keep our prey fat and happy to keep us fat and happy. Then grasses found out how to just make us fat and happy (no middle man needed.) They made their seeds great (wheat, rice and corn) and we ate and planted those in great quantities.
    2. What Salatin says is that “organic” is a technological term, when the abuse of technology is what got us into an unhealthy “food as commodity” mess to begin with. Salatin forgoes this vernacular altogether to think of farming and food as one in the same, a philosophy rather than a function. He values community support, and the preservation of an evolutionarily basic life system. He wants to impose himself as little as possible on the basic form of the life cycles he’s exploiting (even if he’s exploiting less, he’s still exploiting.)

  15. Sorry Jonna, I forgot to post this!
    1. During the Age of Perennials, hunter-gatherers did their best to cultivate and aid the health of the grasses, so that they could attract the animals they depended upon for food. Also, by promoting the grasses’ evolutionary success, the hunter-gatherers made the grasses more appealing to animals, thus fattening them, and having a larger food source for themselves. Father down on grasses’ evolutionary road, they developed a deep root system that allowed them to quickly recover and grow back after a disaster such as a fire. The deep root system also allows them to reproduce even if the stems get eaten or mowed down. I thought it was really funny when Pollan says “we’re playing right into its [grasses’] strategy for world domination.” It seems like we are!

    2. While reading about this “grass farmer’s” Polyface Farm, there were several places where I wrote “awesome,” or “good idea,” or even “!” in the margin. First of all, I think it just makes sense that a diversity of species are grown together because that is how it occurs naturally. As we learned earlier in the year, food webs and ecosystems are vastly intertwined and interrelated. It’s like that in nature for a reason; countless generations of evolution have chosen that way for nature to function, so it must be the most efficient and most healthy. When I read the phrase “hens are his ‘sanitation crew’,” this idea really made sense, of using nature’s naturally-occurring processes as ecological services that are completely free of cost and negative environmental impact. Salatin’s farm clearly seems to be a successful system, since at the end of the year, from just a hundred pasture acres, that huge abundance of fresh food was created. This actually “sustainable agriculture” has the added benefit of not just not harming the land it lives of, but actually improves the soil. Supporting the diversity of species to thrive together on the land promotes the life of earthworms, which improve the soil quality. It seems like common sense to me (although I don’t have the mindset of the corporations which is “make money as fast as I can”). Also, I thought Pollan’s writing about the “ant’s eye-view” was quite enlightening. Monocultures just destroy this immense net of life underneath the soil that performs such a key, FREE OF COST ecological service: “the earth’s stomach.” I know have a much greater appreciation (and respect actually) for grass.