Cultivating a sensible food system in the face of Climate Change and COVID

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Greetings readership!  I hope you are well during these unprecedented times!  Sorry it has taken me so long to post, life is exceptionally busy when the focus is on family and the land!

Following is an article I wrote for the Green Fire Times (Sept/Oct 2020).  If you want to read my original draft, see the text after the .pdf window below, it is a much more elaborate version… Enjoy!  Let me know your thoughts in the comments!


Miguel Santistevan

Click to access GFT_SepOct2020_Web.pdf



Cultivating a sensible food system in the face of Climate Change and COVID

By Miguel Santistevan


Our relationship to food is the most intimate relationship we have with our Earth and our bodies. Our flesh and bone is made of the elements of the Earth; recycled through the influences of sunlight and water; and coming into us through our sources of food and water. In times past, we worked together in relatively isolated communities to procure the essentials of life. Our survival and sustenance required cooperation through collective organization and labor. Life was often tough and uncertain, but we relied on each other and in the process have created the monuments our Human culture represented by the awesomeness of our diverse cuisine, art, dance, and folklore manifested by global humankind over time.

Our relationship with the abundance of food found on Earth eventually resulted in the development of agriculture which afforded our human population even more food and allowed our human population to thrive. An abundance of food allowed for the development culture which included the development of tools and technology.   The development of technology eventually created the means for us to have all the things we take for granted today. An abundance of food and other means of extracting materials and energy from the planet has ultimately given us technology like electricity, transportation, and plastic goods. Unfortunately this development has created an imbalance in our planet’s natural systems and has created all kind of problems such as Climate Change, other forms of pollution, and arguably our current Covid crisis. Though our opinions of Climate Change and Covid span a spectrum from terror to disbelief, it is impossible to deny the impact of loss and/or destruction that comes from the impact of storms and disease for those who feel their effects directly.

Rather than trying to understand the intricacies and complexities of the problem, I would rather focus on solutions. A superficial analysis of our food system in the contemporary context reveals the potential impact of Covid and Climate Change and should inspire motivation to address the problems now. We have already seen harvest failures, food shortages, and a rise in food prices due to the effects of extreme climate/weather events. With the coming of Covid, this situation is even worse. The impact of lockdown and sickness has resulted in a shortage of agricultural workers and created gaps that revealed weaknesses in our food system. Accounts of fields of vegetables being plowed under and similar losses in meat production were some of the impacts of Covid that are still rippling through our food system.

Knowing that this possibility became a reality, and that things are likely to get worse before they get better, it behooves us to actualize solutions as fast as possible. In order to change the food system, the average consumer (you, me, everyone) will have to be willing to do their part and “vote with their fork” by supporting local farmers. People are going to have to realize that we cannot have such a diverse array of foods in our diet at all times of the year. People who are used to processed foods are going to have to learn to prepare whole food alternatives. It is necessary for food to become regional, localized, specialized and adapted to its particular area. More people will have to become farmers, get into the food business, or otherwise support farmers and participate in a local food economy.

People will have to defer to the capabilities of the environment in which they live. This will become even truer as water shortages become more apparent, especially in the desert regions of the world (which are increasing.) In areas where climate extremes become the norm, season extension in the form of greenhouses along with the use of wind breaks, thermal mass, frost covers, and hail protection will be needed. Hoophouses are great for season extension, but we must find alternative means that do not rely on plastic. Extreme weather events that include wind, flooding, and hail are starting to get more and more problematic for food production so innovation and adaptation is required.  We are likely to see more problems with insects, plant diseases, and competition from invasives so we should not act surprised.  We will have to see these events and setbacks as evolutionary bottlenecks that are the guardrails for the direction of our adaptation.

Many wild plants, such as these “verdolagas” (puslane), are known to many just as weeds but actually have incredible food qualities .

At some point we will likely get serious about cultivating insects for protein, either for ourselves or for animal feed. There was a time when I spent much time and energy trying to figure out how to raise insects and other arthropods, or at least gather up as many bugs as possible. When I was growing crops and raising fish in a Grow Dome (see some of my past Chrysalis posts), the pill bugs and earwigs were in such abundance that I was losing my seedlings to their predation. I started to look at them as a problem that was actually an unmet need. I was buying fish food for aquaponics and chicken feed for my flock and realized that if I could create the conditions to encourage, breed, and contain insects and arthropods, I could have a significant source of calories and protein available to me and my fish and chickens. I won’t have a problem eating arthropods if I had to, but if a person does not want to eat the little beasties, then they can feed them to fish or chickens and eat their meat and eggs. When it comes to feeding fish, I once saw a system where roadkill was harvested; hung over a fishpond in a chicken wire basket; and the maggots living in the carrion would fall into the pond and feed the fish. The roadkill was carried to the far end of the pond on a pulley system, so the wafting odor of decay was minimized. For those who think it is not worth enduring occasional smells from this form of food production; I invite you to visit a Confined Animal Feedlot Operation to see how good our industrial food smells.

All cultivated food ultimately comes from seed, so in order to have a strong, resilient food system, we must have strong, resilient, and localized seed stock. Even meat depends on crops or grass that is ultimately produced from seed so our concept of a local seed stock has to extend beyond crops and also include forage and other useful wild and native plants. Unfortunately we find that seed is often produced separately from the farms that produce food and then that food is transported all over the world using fossil fuels to deliver it to the people who consume it.

Various pulses (legumes) such as these (L to R) “alberjón” (peas), beans, and “habas” (fava beans) are traditional to this region and are drought tolerant sources of protein and seed.

We need farms in every region that are dedicated to producing seed for the other farms in the area. We should not be relying on seed grown in the plains to produce food in the desert. I envision a cooperative model where a local seed farm not only provides seed to local farmers, but also serves as an educational center for everyday citizens who want to learn about agriculture (hands-on) and could get localized seeds and native plants to be grown in their own gardens at home. In a best-case scenario, local governments would see the importance of this for the citizens and lands under their jurisdiction and it would be funded and operated with the same importance as schools, citizen centers, and medical facilities. This model could be expanded to where the farms are engaged to produce food directly for school lunch, senior citizens, hospital facilities, and local food banks. You can’t always have your cake and eat it too, but we can often produce seed and still be able to eat the food in the case of many fruits and vegetables. We would have to be intentional about the creation and monitoring of such programs, however, to avoid the co-option by the Food Industry to make such programs subservient to their goals of profit and control.

With Climate Change, people are going to have to realize that you cannot have such a diverse array of foods in your diet at all times of the year. Our near future food system will likely not support things like mangos in temperate areas or fresh tomatoes in the winter, for example. Food will have to become regional, localized, specialized, and adapted to its particular area and people who live there will have to defer to the capabilities of the environment they live. This will become even more true as the effects of water shortages become more apparent, especially in the desert regions of the world (which are increasing.) This is going to be difficult for your average United States American, who seems to have a sense of entitlement, privilege, fear, and impatience when it comes to many things…

But I digress. The good news is that I believe there is plenty of good eating to be done even if it specialized and localized to the point where many foods we are used to and like are not readily available. I remember the oral histories told to me by my elders in rural northern New Mexico about how special it was to get an orange in a Christmas stocking, very likely the only orange some would get to eat all year. Today it is not uncommon to go to a cafeteria and see dozens of half eaten oranges in the trash or to allow oranges to get moldy and rotten on our kitchen counters. Our wasteful relationship to food has to be a thing of the past if we are to have a future. It has been said that about one-third of the food produced in United States is wasted, and I would argue that it is considerably more than that.

Amaranth (foreground) and maize (background) are drought tolerant crops that can be incredibly productive in harsh conditions when locally adapted and cared for traditionally.

But I digress again. There is plenty of good eating if you know your place in the region you live. The desert is actually the best example of neglected abundance since most people think the desert is defined by scarcity when the opposite is actually true. There are plenty of examples of indigenous people being able to grow and gather plenty of food in desert regions of the world. Even delicacies such as melon and peaches can be grown with little to no extra water if special attention is applied. Hopi and the Natives of the Pueblos have proven it so. But beyond that, drought tolerant and frost tolerant crops will be cornerstone to our caloric intake in regions such as ours. We will not be able to produce enough food from the farmland we have so we will have to view the landscape as a garden in and of itself. We should manage and cultivate the “wild lands” to support the proliferation of native or other useful plants that serve our food, medicine, and utilitarian needs. We can do this while also providing habitat and food for other organisms in the environment. Yes, we can have our cake, eat it, and share it too! As the planting dicho in acequia culture goes: “Para mi, para voz, y para los animalitos de Dios!” ([Planting] for me, for us, and for all of God’s animals).

The strongest crops I have found are of course the Native crops of North America such as corn, beans, and amaranth to name the champions, but many legumes and grains from the other side of the world hold incredible promise as well. For example, I have such great success with peas (alberjón) and lentils, even in the worst years of drought, that I could see these as the staple crop of our unpredictable Climate Change future. Much like dry beans, peas can be eaten fresh or allowed to dry for a soup pea (or sprouts!) in the winter months. Lentils are best as a dry crop but can also be sprouted for extra nutrition. Peas and lentils have a special place in my heart because, unlike beans, they are frost tolerant and can be planted earlier than any other crop. Garbanzos are also somewhat frost tolerant and have been described as the most drought tolerant pulse in the world.  Lentils are the most humble producer in the field, emerging before anyone else in early March before there is even any irrigation available in the acequia irrigation channels, which usually starts early April. The first irrigations of peas, lentils, garbanzo beans, and fava beans (which can all be planted before the first frost date) comes from winter and early spring snows that ultimately melt into the soil.

Garbanzos (right) and lentils (left) are resilient crops that are frost- and drought- tolerant.

Our concept of the food shed will have to be reduced to our region but expanded to the wild plants of the region along with the expansion of our concept in the capabilities of agriculture. Domestication is presented as a thing of the past and modernization, with its dependence on chemicals, machinery, and genetic manipulation, is presented as a thing of the future. But this is false to a true sense of food security. We cannot depend on anything that relies on fossil fuels anymore, I am sorry to say. The good news is that there can be abundance if we can participate in the expansion of our food consciousness and the health of our watersheds.

Before the market-based economy, gathering from the landscape was cornerstone to food security over the winter. Gathering piñon nuts is a great example that provided many calories over the winter and allowed family members and neighbors the chance to interact with each other and the landscape in the acquisition of this important food source. It could be said that in the early days, the relationship with the landscape to gather piñon was not just the taking of tree nuts, but nurturing of the landscape so that the stands of piñon trees became more robust over time. Just as it is believed that the Amazon rainforest is actually a cultivated garden developed by the indigenous people who lived there over generations, I believe the diversity and abundance seen in the desert landscape is first a result of our Native American neighbors managing this landscape for millennia. Later, the acequieros descended of Spanish and Mexican tradition carried this activity forward with the management of the upper watershed and surrounding common lands of the merced, or land grant. During these times, the land and waters were managed with the goal of cultivating biological wealth to sustain the local population, rather than the management of the land and water we see now whose goal is to cultivate and maximize profits from resource extraction for themselves or their corporation.

The loss of piñon stands to the bark beetle, like rampant “wild” fires in the forests, are indicators of lack of management (care and nurturing) of the landscapes in our backyards. Just as a sick person is more likely to heal with caregiving, we must turn our attention toward caring for the landscape instead of just “protecting” it as wilderness or expecting it to withstand its abuse for recreation.

But I digress again. There are many other Native plants that can serve as food crops that are in our midst but currently overlooked. How many “weeds” are out there that are actually edible? The wild spinach varieties (quelites) of the “jardín de riso” (wild plant garden) are the perfect example. But in the past we only looked at quelites for a fresh vegetable available as a weed in between our cultivated crops, or maybe we would dry (and later blanch and freeze) this abundance in the summer to make use of in the winter. But did my ancestors ever realize that the seeds gathered from the plants allowed to go to seed could also likely serve as a food source? I am interested in the food science that could show that many of our weeds could produce seeds that could be ground into flour and/or sprouted in a sunny window to provide a food source in the winter. We are surrounded by wild quinoa (lambsquarters) and wild amaranth (pigweed), that would likely serve as food sources if we were to start working with their natural cycles and seed.  Many patches of alfalfa have gone wild and produce seed each year that can be used for sprouting and perhaps made into meal.  Unfortunately, alfalfa in certain regions may have crossed with GMO alfalfa so beware!

Seeds from “weeds” like this wild spinach known as “quelite de burro” (mountain orach) could serve as a substantial source of food.

When it comes to food in the desert, we don’t need to look too much further than our iconic plant of the dryland: the cactus. Nopal (cactus pad) tacos anyone? The fruits from cholla and prickly pear cactus are also delectable and nutritious if you know how to process them so you don’t get thorns in your mouth!

This idea of cultivating “wild plants” could be expanded to shrubs and trees as well. Natives would gather the seeds of four-wing salt bush which surrounds many of our populated areas in New Mexico. The seeds have to be processed to remove the papery hull and then ground into flour to make crackers or porridge and then provide a substantial, but overlooked, food source. I assert that four-wing salt bush could provide the bulk of our carbohydrate needs in the desert if we had landscape management and attention to this mostly-ignored resource. Mesquite is another example in even drier areas than northern New Mexico.

A similar situation can be achieved with some plants and trees that are considered invasive, such as Siberian elm. Most anyone who has eaten fresh green Siberian elm seeds will agree that it is a good food source. Young and tender Siberian elm seeds can be eaten fresh in salads or even sautéed to make excellent eating. Again, a substantial but overlooked food source. If a person doesn’t want to eat Siberian Elm seeds, maybe they would be interested in a goat to eat the seeds AND the tree! The problem of many invasive plants can be a solution to a goat-meat shortage.  I am sure there are many other examples that we have not even thought of because we are not looking in that direction for food.

When it comes to “invasives,” we have to starting thinking “the problem is the solution” (as is said in Permaculture), and look for hidden opportunities in food and medicine acquisition from the landscape; or as feed for animals that will eat them. I am aware of techniques to turn small diameter timber into hemi cellulose that can then be fed to sheep, pigs, and goats. We could solve our overgrown-forest and fire-danger problems and create food security at the same time. The process to create hemi cellulose from small diameter timber also results in cellulose to grow mushrooms and lignin to provide us biodegradable solvents. When you start to view Nature and diversity as wealth, you will find we have almost infinite potential to create yields from resources we didn’t even know existed.

We also have to expand our ideas of agricultural methods and capabilities. It has been traditional to plant some crops in the Fall such as garlic, rye, and winter wheat. I have tremendous success with these crops, even on dry land in the case of wheat and rye (garlic does much better with water). These crops are tough, especially at higher elevations, and take advantage of all precipitation until they emerge in the Fall (rye and wheat) or in the early Spring (garlic).

Winter wheat is planted in the Fall, emerges before Winter sets in, and goes dormant until early Spring. By the time our water runs out in our high desert environment, the wheat has already finished its life cycle.

I have always noticed “volunteer” crops emerge in the spring, especially those from frost tolerant legumes mentioned earlier. So I tried planting these in the Fall as well and got a jump start on the agriculture season. When the Fall-planted peas emerged I was surprised at their capabilities but immediately did a second Springtime planting. So I already had crops growing in the field in the early spring while most farmers and gardeners were combing through seed catalogs getting ready for their planting in April and May. I have had similar results with corn and sorghum, though more incidental than intentional. Buckwheat is another crop that most farmers view as a cover crop, but actually produces abundantly as a pseudo grain in a self-seeding manner, year after year.

So in the earlier idea of having a farm to produce seed for other farmers, it would also be beneficial to have a farm or farms dedicated to research and pushing the envelope of what we think is possible with agricultural production. We have to create opportunities for farmers to innovate, but figure out how those farmers do not have to absorb the risk. I have met conventional and GMO farmers who might be willing to transition to “organic” production, but farmers of extensive farms do not have the time or the resources to take on this kind of risk. Conventional farmers are on a “commodity treadmill” and do not have the luxury of innovating when they have bills to pay and crops to produce. We as a society have to figure out how to support our farmers in the transition, rather than have them foot the blame and the bill when it comes to environmental damage from industrial agriculture.

Small farm research can contribute to the understanding of the resilient capabilities of crops grown in varying conditions and over generations.

Our relationship to food is a litmus test for our relationship to the Earth and to each other. Food was once about relationships to family, community and the landscape but has since mostly been transformed to a relationship with your wallet. The process has created collateral damage that looks like corporate control and slave labor on the production side; and disease, addiction, and depression on the consumer side. Not to mention the environmental devastation that results from extraction of water and minerals, the application of agriculture chemicals, and post-consumer trash from food packaging.

So, as we work to solve the problem of the food system, we will find we can solve many problems with this one effort. Local food creates attention to your local land, water and extended environment, including wildlife. Done correctly and with vision, we can simultaneously improve water quality, build soils, sequester carbon, and create habitat for pollinators and other organisms. Eating locally improves your health and increases your chances of surviving this and the next epidemic. And nourished children will better be able to develop in a changing world if they know where their food comes from and have a relationship to it. Whether it is in the fields, in the kitchen, at your dinner table, and/or in the halls of government; we need more focus and the priority has to be on our most basic needs, namely our sources of food, water, and our relationships to them.

Miguel Santistevan is a father, husband, educator, and farmer in Taos, N.M.  He completed a Master’s degree in agriculture ecology from the University of California, Davis, and practices Permaculture and acequia-irrigated farming with his wife and daughters.  He is the founder of the non-profit organization Agriculture Implementation Research & Education.

All text and photos copyright 2020 by Miguel Santistevan, reproduction by permission only.

  1. Richard Schrader

    Excellent digressions! You can digress with me all you want if you can keep on writing like that…. gracias!

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