Monday, March 29, 2010

We can have it both ways: Industrial Ag and Local Food Production


The Debate is Ongoing
It seems to me that there is a growing momentum of thoughtful debate over the realities of local food production versus industrial agriculture. A book review from Bloomberg news provided the inspiration for a needed discussion on this subject here this week. The book, "Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and how We Can Truly Eat Responsibly," is by James E. McWilliams.

Some quotes from the review:
Before Alice Waters and Michael Pollan, the ethical question about food was how to keep people from starving.....McWilliams asks what would happen if organic farming were widely adopted, noting that it could feed at most 4 billion people. The current world population is about 6.8 billion. So much for the organic solution. The locavores don’t fare much better. McWilliams says that rather than worrying about food miles -- that is, how far food has traveled to get to our plate -- we’d be better off checking an energy measurement known as a life-cycle assessment. A winter tomato grown in Spain that travels to England covers more miles than a local tomato but may still be more energy efficient, since most English tomatoes require hothouses....

“Just Food” is published by Little, Brown (258 pages, $25.99).

Besides this book review, there was much other writing I ran across along similar themes. From K-State Collegian, Frank Male wrote, "Industrialized Agriculture feeds the masses." It begins,
“Each Kansas Farmer feeds 128 people + you,” say the billboards posted around the state. The Physiocrats of the 18th century actually believed that all material wealth was derived from agriculture. Farming moved humanity up from the wasteland-existence of hunter-gatherers and made the development of cities and modern society possible. Without farming, we’d still be wandering around with clubs and drawing on cave walls...

And last week I ran a well-written article from the Boston Globe titled, "The promise and limits of local food," in which the author, Brian Donahue said,
Eating local is all the rage. As someone who dropped out to become a community farmer in the 1970s, and still farms, I am delighted. As someone who later dropped back into academia to become an environmental historian, I have my doubts about how much we can grow in New England. Watching some of my best students head down the same path, I feel I owe their parents an explanation.


The Reasonable Backlash Has Begun
Some of this writing was no doubt a backlash against prominent media articles, "Getting Real about the High Price of Cheap Food," from the recent cover of TIME magazine, and the NYT's "Food for the Soul," both of which farmers found to be highly offensive.

Documentaries have helped grow the public awareness, trying to inform people about the failures of cheap food policies and a goal of developing any new food product imaginable from surplus corn. Right now there is "Food, Inc." There was "King Corn," "The Future of Food," "Super Size Me," and "Fast Food Nation." These films explain how our current ag model has led to a prevalence of high obesity and poor health here in America. Add to that condition the car culture and the energy-slaves working for us so we no longer have to, and even our nation's youth has never been fatter.

These somewhat revolutionary thought movements always have a certain "hipness factor" to them, and right now the timing is ripe for those of us who have embraced this Michael Pollan way of thinking to revise or be at a tweaking point in attitude towards this subject. Sympathy, rather than disrespect for the farmer is perhaps just around the corner.

The Times, They are a chang'n
This economy and job loss situation may lead to a larger percentage of people seeking livings from agriculture related work than in the recent past. We've got the aging farmer demographic to encourage this. Farming is very hard work, is always a gamble, and often it can be a struggle just for survival, especially for the small scale farmer, and especially in our newly challenged rural economy of deflating agriculture commodities and farmland prices.

Realism is always what matters in the end, after idealism
If buying cheap food were all that mattered, we might not even home garden, as explained in the NYT's article below, Is Gardening Worth It, Financially? Buying bulk spaghetti sauce at Costco costs far less than it does to grow one's own produce, process it, and preserve it. You have a similar story in the backyard chicken movement if you calculate the cost per egg. But today, besides valuing quality and knowing where one's food comes from, there is a growing need for a feeling of some control over one's own food security, as we've grown too dependent upon the complex global supply chains. What if we had an economic meltdown? Or an oil supply disruption? A major railroad malfunction? War?

Things are far from perfect in this modern and complex world. Our currently powerful corporate strengths are without doubt causing many imbalances to the system of agriculture, as in the banking industry. Add a lot of bad politics plus powerful corporate lobbying to the mix and it becomes even more imbalanced. Within this past decade, many people have awakened to some new knowledge about, and priorities related to food. What they are willing to ingest into their own bodies, their private castles, has changed. Along with that comes some voting with dollars. And those attitudes are here to stay.

The logic seems to suggest the best compromise is a goal of feeding people locally with fruits and vegetables as much as possible from small local producers and continuing grain production using a more sustainable industrial model. An optimal accomplishment of those two things is highly related to weather and geography as well as fossil fuel prices and availability.

It would seem that part of the changing values should include policies that would encourage and financially reward the smaller to mid-sized farm producer. If we continue current trends, we could be left with mega-farms using equipment costing six-figure-digit amounts, and run with hired labor, only affordable to large corporations and hedge funds. The advancement of the smaller farm would provide more jobs, a growing and younger population base, improved cultural opportunities, social fabric, and a return of vitality to our rural areas which they need desperately right now. Plus, it would increase food security through more diversification.

There is room to allow some inefficiencies back into the industrial agriculture system, also, based upon the need for better land stewardship. The policies promoting overproduction and cheap food plus the goal of 50% of U.S. corn use going towards ethanol and production of other biofuels is faulty, at best. Those are overproduction and make-work projects at the expense of squandering some of our nation's best natural resources such as our high quality topsoil.

1919 LaCrosse by dok1.

Conclusion: In this past decade, food production, and consequently, the American farmer have received much negative publicity. Not all of the current criticisms and ideals are reality based. But, with a growing awareness in the American consumer changing his and her values in making food choices, changes are and will continue to evolve. We need smarter politics to help us strike a balance between desired local food producers as well as a need for improved approaches to efficient industrial agricultural methods which provide us with necessary calories, oils, and proteins. There will be more political, economic, and fossil fuel-related challenges along the way, some of which will help provide the inspiration for the desired changes.

Note: date written September 4, 2009