An industrial employee heads out early in the morning, stopping by the local coffee shop outside of Dubuque for a quick breakfast or perhaps an Egg Macmuffin. On arrival at work, he checks the work schedule, and goes to the equipment shed to warm up the rig he will be using today. On arrival at the supplies warehouse, he finds a bevy of forklift operators unloading new supplies from a semi at the loading dock. He hails one and puts in his order for the day. He will be spreading fertilizer on a thousand acres of one month old roundup ready corn plants, His spreader has an air conditioned cab, gps guidance system, radio communication, music player, and retails for well above $100,000.
Technically, this farm is privately owned. The owner/proprietor goes out once or twice a week to assess the condition and needs of his crop. Most of the time, he is working with his accountant to gauge how price futures are comparing to costs and whether he is getting the most competitive interest rates on his seasonal loans. Since his crop is contracted to one of the three big grain marketers, he doesn’t have an opportunity to seek a better price. If the weather, diseases, and pestilence stay within parameters, he will make enough to pay off his loans, his workers, make a little profit for himself, and survive to plant another year.
The "Green Revolution" that created this farming system was intended to greatly expand farm output through mechanization, economies of scale, industrially produced fertilizers, and miracle seeds. Production increased four fold, but at great cost.
Farm equipment alone accounts for 10-12% of all our greenhouse gas emissions, second only to transportation. In the 1930’s, one calorie of energy could produce 6 calories of food. Today’s agribiz uses 3 calories of energy to produce 1 calorie of food (yes, that is 18 times more!).
The economies of scale have virtually eliminated farming as an occupation of self employed, middle-income families. Before the green revolution, 26% of our population were farmers; now only 1½% are. The new scale meant that only very large businesses could compete. The current status of what is termed "vertical integration" is that only 3 corporations control the entire grain market, 6 corporations control 80% of the meat market, and one corporation, Monsanto, controls 60% or the precious seed market for the entire world! What happened to the farmers that were put out of business? Rural America has been devastated; those that remained became members of disinherited America, the unemployed or underemployed jetsam that compete for the low wage jobs that corporations dole out at their sole discretion, Who are the beneficiaries of this vastly increased productivity? The farmers get 2 cents on the dollar; the rest of the people actually working to bring that food to you may pick up a total of 8 cents more.
So, despite the inherent inequalities of this system, it is the only way we are going to be able to feed a population of 7 billion and counting, right? Well, no. It turns out that there is already enough food to feed every person on Earth a diet of 3500 calories/day. The reason we have a billion hungry people is that they can’t afford to buy the food available and they no longer have the land they need to grow it.
Even if there is enough food now, won’t giving up the higher productivity of agribiz eventually leave us with too little capacity to meet the growing demand? Probably not: industrial farming out-produces organic only when conditions are good. Organic is actually more productive than industrial farming when a crop is stressed, as our crops most certainly will be in the future. Organic farming is far more labor intensive, but the many rewards of independent family farming don’t seem such a hard sell. Did I mention the 7 billion people?
But industrial food is so much cheaper than organic! How can we afford it? Industrial agriculture is rife with external costs that you don’t realize you are paying. First, there are farming subsidies to the tune of $289/ person/year. Second, there are fossil fuel subsidies. Third, there is mitigation of soil, water, and air pollution, soil erosion and degradation, and destructive weather. What price a destroyed life support system? Fourth, there are health costs due to chemical pollutants and nutritional deficiencies. Fifth, there is the continual leak of precious local wealth up to the 1%. We need to think about that when we reach for those boxed and bagged prepared foods in the store.
Locally controlled organic farming is inherently far more sustainable than industrial agriculture. It builds soil, protects water, reduces our carbon footprint, utilizes fewer nonrenewable non-local resources, increases our resilience to change, and keeps the wealth in local communities.
Our community is particularly well suited to developing an ample local organic food supply. We have lots of available land, ample rainfall, and a local organic community with skills and experience. To create a twenty-first century community, we need to build on this foundation to make ourselves less dependent on mega-corporations and fossil fuels, and more able to feed ourselves with healthy uncontaminated food.
Think about putting in a garden this year!