Friday, September 3, 2010

Sustainable sentiments

Wherein your blogger, unwisely disregarding the epigram about angels and where they decline to tread, rushes in once more with a far-too-long essay on land, food, and local agriculture before putting that topic finally (he hopes) behind him, at least for a while  . . .

When I moved to a small farm 30 years ago I set out to be a practical romantic. I had all of the longing for a connection with nature and land and real things that many of the local-food advocates who responded to my recent New York Times Op-Ed expressed in their numerous and often passionate responses. (See also the letters in last Saturday's Times.) The lessons my children learned from growing up on a farm and from the (still) wonderful 4-H program — knowing where food comes from, experiencing the rewards of hard work, caring for animals — were of a worth that remains incalculable. In that time our local sheep-producers organization has grown by leaps and bounds; it was a bunch of old farts and now there are new young families with small children and plenty of savvy people selling their locally raised lamb to nearby restaurants and farmers' markets. Even if this is a drop in the bucket of American agriculture it's good for lots of reasons, not least that it offers another economic purpose for the land around here than simply to serve as the substrate for 6,000 square foot houses.

But I was on guard from the very start against sentimentality, because I knew all too well that sentimentality is but a hair's breadth from arrogance and pretension. I had read enough of American social, geographic, and economic history to know that no matter how much Thomas Jefferson and Currier and Ives glorified and romanticized the American farmer, the people who actually grew up on farms couldn't wait to get away from them. The work was brutally hard, the isolation stultifying. We still like to imagine pastoral scenes of community barn-raisings and rows of canning jars brimming with peaches and mornings fresh with the smell of new-mown hay; then you read what life was really like. Animals and the land were abused in ways literally unthinkable today; diets were atrocious; diseases of man, animal, and plants devastating.

Some of my instinctive suspicion of the local-food movement as a movement — as opposed to just people offering a product to compete with other products in the marketplace — is the wariness I feel towards anyone who puts on the razzamatazz to push their wares. Whenever anyone starts telling me I need to hand over my money as a moral imperative, a moral virtue, or for the salvation of the planet, my first instinct is to check to make sure my wallet is still in my pocket. The language of the huckster pervades this business; to look at most of the websites and literature of local/organic/sustainable sellers you'd think they wouldn't dream of taking your money, so noble is their calling ("We are in the redemption business: healing the land, healing the food, healing the economy, and healing the culture," reads one typical specimen). Old rule of commercial interaction: when someone says it's not about money . . . it's about money.

But what I really object to is the failure of local and organic advocates to confront the true implications of the agenda they are promoting — which would quite simply be devastating for the global environment were we ever compelled to do what an increasing number of its acolytes say we must do. And all I will say to those who so indignantly deny that locavores are "doctrinaire" (I never said they were "loco" or "rabid") is: look at virtually any of the gazillions of local food websites and books, with their lists of arbitrary rules, their admonitions to limit consumption to a 100-mile radius, their "ten steps to becoming a locavore" (as if it were a religion or self-help program), their grandiose claims for what this will all accomplish.

Among the winners in the unintentionally ironic responses I received ("if you call me a fanatic, I'll kill you" division) was a Huffiingtonpost item entitled "Myth of the Rabid Locavore." After asserting that I must have made up all the figures I cited (since they did not square with her romantic world view) the author of this post called this statement of mine
eating food from a long way off is often the single best thing you can do for the environment, as counterintuitive as that sounds
"so ludicrous" that I had to publish it on my own website "because hey, the New York Times is only willing to go so far." But in fact I made exactly the same point in my Times article, when I pointed out that by using modern, high-yielding farm technologies and concentrating the production of crops where they grow best, we have
spared hundreds of millions of acres for nature preserves, forests and parks that otherwise would have come under the plow. . . . The best way to make the most of these truly precious resources of land, favorable climates and human labor is to grow lettuce, oranges, wheat, peppers, bananas, whatever, in the places where they grow best and with the most efficient technologies — and then pay the relatively tiny energy cost to get them to market, as we do with every other commodity in the economy. Sometimes that means growing vegetables in your backyard. Sometimes that means buying vegetables grown in California or Costa Rica
This is the crux of the entire matter. We can grow tomatoes and cucumbers and pumpkins and basil near cities both because these crops are practical for small acreages and because the economics work: they generate high returns that make it pay to grow them on expensive land. But fresh vegetables suitable for local production account for only about 5% of the land that directly feeds human beings (I'm leaving animal forage, exported grain, and the entire corn crop out of the equation altogether, so you don't need to start telling me again about the evils of corn-fed beef and high-fructose corn syrup).

Nearly all of the the rest of the land that directly feeds people (see chart below) is taken up by basic staples like wheat, oilseeds, and dried beans. These are the crops that supply even vegetarians the bulk of their calories — and these are crops that are all fundamentally ill-suited for small or "local" cultivation. Never mind even the economics of it (these crops do not return enough per acre to make it pay to grow them on expensive land near cities): even if you were living off a trust fund, you couldn't find, near U.S. population centers, the 60 million acres of farmland needed to grow these staples.

But much more to the point: why on earth would you want to try to grow these staple crops "locally"? Wheat grows very well in the Midwest where the climate, soil, and natural rainfall are conducive; it grows extraordinarily well there in large stands that can be fertilized and harvested efficiently. Yields per acre, thanks to the development of advanced strains of wheat and the extensive use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, have more than tripled in the last century. Worldwide, hybrid varieties and synthetic nitrogen have generated even greater improvements in per-acre yields of rice and other staple food crops. Denounce big-ag all you want; buy local tomatoes all you want; the fact remains that chemical fertilizer, combine harvesters, hybrid crops, and modern transportation networks have done a few billion times more to save the planet than you ever will.

This is not just some theoretical argument about efficiency for efficiency's sake, nor is it an economic argument. You can grow these staple food crops like wheat and rice and pulses and oilseeds the old way on 3 or 4 or 5 times more land, or you can grow them on large plots using modern technology on 3 or 4 or 5 times less land. And we're talking about huge amounts of land, with huge environmental consequences. In India alone, improvements in wheat farming alone have spared 100 million acres of additional cropland that would otherwise have had to be slashed out of forests somewhere over the last 50 years to produce the same amount of wheat that Indian farmers produce today thanks to technological advances. That's the equivalent of three Iowas or 50 Yellowstone National Parks. Without modern farming, we literally would have already cut down every acre of rainforest just to grow the staple food crops that feed the world. Would that be "sustainable"?

Many readers insisted that since we are (supposedly) about to run out of oil, we have to shift to local food production. As I just said, it's literally impossible to do so — the extensive cropland required to raise the staple crops that provide the bulk of our subsistence even if we're vegetarians does not exist around cities. (And by the way it never has. Humans since Roman times have transported grain and cooking oil long distances to feed urban populations.) But it's also just plain bad environmental policy to do so even if we could, for the reasons I've just cited. And unless we contemplate a future with no energy use at all (unlikely), modern agriculture — including its relatively small transportation component — is among the most environmentally efficient energy expenditures we can make. There's a lot of frivolous energy uses we ought to eliminate before we start dismantling the essential energy uses that keep us fed.

Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, by the way, is produced from natural gas, not oil, and for decades natural gas reserves have actually increased faster than we've been consuming them.

And why, but why, is it "unsustainable" to employ GM varieties? We've been breeding plants and practicing genetic selection for thousands of years; genetic modification is a way to modify one specific trait that we can accurately identify in order to increase yield, earliness, disease resistance — all improvements that reduce chemical and energy inputs. Isn't that a good thing?

And, O, for just a bit of scientific levelheadedness towards all of the ridiculously exaggerated claims about the nutritional and health superiority of "organic" produce (for which there is not a scrap of evidence). This is a matter that raises basic ethical questions, too: the way all too many "organic" and "natural" producers are trying to market themselves by running down their fellow farmers with scare stories and false claims of nutritional or health superiority. (I'm thinking in particular of the joker in Virginia who goes around trumpeting how his lambs are raised without hormones, and darkly implying that everyone else's is; in fact I've never heard of a single farm-flock producer using growth hormones in lambs.)

And while we're at it, why exactly is it so terrible to grow corn where it grows extraordinarily well and turn it into high-quality protein in the form of beef, pork, chickens, milk, cheese, and eggs? Of course this is a more energy-intensive product than flour or vegetable oil. But I keep coming back to the fact that on-farm energy inputs in the U.S. as a whole amount to 2 to 3 percent of U.S. fossil fuel consumption — corn, beef, and all. Households use ten times as much energy for heating, air-conditioning, and running appliances (including, in the average American home, powering your TV set six hours a day).

Finally, we're told that food security depends on local self-reliance. But the locavores have it exactly backwards on this point. Nothing is more vulnerable than self-reliance: one storm that destroys the crop one year, one local outbreak of an insect pest or blight — and if you have no other source to shift to the result is famine. This was the story throughout human history before modern transportation and commerce networks. Networks on the other hand are inherently resilient because a disruption in one spot will be easily compensated for by another. Everyone has been pointing to the recent incident of salmonella-infected eggs as proof of the dangers of globally interdependent "big ag." Yet half a billion eggs were recalled and I sure didn't notice any shortage of eggs in my store, nor even an increase in price. And don't think local means immunity from such problems: the devastating hoof-and-mouth epidemic in Britain a few years ago began on a small, local, traditional farm where pigs roamed around in the muck and ate natural, recycled food.

The growing urban faith that a return to “natural” or traditional farming methods can cure our many ills ultimately has its roots in the nineteenth-century Romantic reaction against industrialization and the loss of the bucolic, a history I explored in my book Nature's Keepers (available in fine second-hand book stores everywhere). But it’s a city-slicker’s attitude, like that of the tragic protagonist in Jean de Florette who wishes to return to the land to “cultivate the authentic,” to the derision of the locals and ultimately his own fatal end. There's also echoes of David Brooks's Bobos in Paradise in all of this: the yuppie-generation compulsion to justify epicureanism as selfless virtue, personal indulgence as global good.

It's only the luxury of affluence that allows us to forget the misery, poverty, and precariousness of subsistence farming, still the lot of all too many in the world — and that allows us to overlook the fact that the modern agriculture we so often decry is what makes our modern, comfortable existence even possible. It is, ironically, our modern distance from the realities of farming — which the local-food advocates at least in their hearts want to bridge — that allows us to believe that buying local is anything but a tiny factor in our global land use patterns and environmental impact, or that more dangerously leads us to believe that a tiny bit of (harmless in itself) self-indulgence ought to be generalized into an imperative for the whole world: for which it would be a disaster.

Data from USDA Census of Agriculture and Steve Savage