Food Fight

Seasoned Debate on Local Food and Big Agriculture

by by Fraser Evans

illustration by by Annika Finne

At the beginning of the year, a few of my housemates approached me with an invitation to participate along with them in a local produce delivery program. As a member, I would receive a weekly assortment of vegetables, all grown on local Rhode Island farms. At first this sounded great, but when I looked at the service’s online order form, my enthusiasm quickly waned. While the selection was significant, it was primarily composed of obscure and specialized ingredients, things which hardly lent themselves to standard weeknight cooking. Moreover, the options were all restricted by complex schedules of seasonal availability. In the end, I declined the offer, opting instead to stick with my local Stop and Shop.

Prior to this offer, I had never dedicated much thought to where my food came from, nor had I ever felt that I ought to. Most of the food in my grocery store is the product of Big Agriculture, grown and distributed by large corporations using methods of mass production. I understand the reflexive distrust of food produced in such an industrial and anonymous way, but the more I considered it, the more natural it seemed that my food would be purchased at a grocery store rather than delivered to my doorstep by a local farmer.

Ever since humans stopped chasing our meals from place to place and started trying to grow them in the ground, we’ve been on a trajectory moving from many people exerting great effort to produce very little, towards few people using refined methods to provide great quantity; it’s this very trajectory of efficiency that is directly responsible for everything we call civilization. After all, there is not much time for arts and culture, let alone science and economic development, if the entire population must toil in the fields all day simply to survive.

Viewed in this light, the history of agricultural innovations is in many ways a chronicle of liberation. In ancient times, improvements in irrigation and the domestication of animals allowed some members of the community to leave the fields and establish a rudimentary economy by becoming merchants and artisans. Even so, the majority of the population was still relegated to laborious farm work; it wasn’t until the industrial revolution and the invention of motorized machinery that the common man was finally given the option of a non-agrarian life. The advent of refrigeration opened up huge swaths of previously uninhabitable land to large-scale development. And with the application of pesticides and genetic enhancements, harvests have become more reliable and efficient than ever. Modern agriculture, far from an unnatural aberration, is the logical product of millennia of progress, and in many ways a crowning human achievement.

Members of the local food movement, however, find this state of affairs deeply troubling. Admittedly, locally grown produce is often marginally fresher than more distant alternatives, and the sensationalized image of pesticide-drenched, genetically mutated, and assembly-line-packaged food is disturbing. Given the constant refinement of agricultural production throughout history, however, it seems puzzling to draw the line at modern efficiencies. When Native Americans advised the Pilgrims to slip a fish head underneath their corn crop, no one objected to this fruitful but counterintuitive suggestion. Yet if anyone had protested on the basis of a mystical dedication to the purity of the dirt, he would have justifiably wound up on trial for witchcraft. Frost-resistant oranges and blight-immune potatoes produced on mega-farms are not causes for paranoia, but miraculous solutions to real dangers. When viewed critically, the local food movement is essentially a small group of people conflating their personal notions of what is natural with an objective standard, and imputing a normative ethic onto the geographical origin of their neighbors’ dinners.

Proponents of the local food movement are eager to attack the agricultural industry for the environmental impact of transporting food over long distances and the alleged health effects of pesticides and fertilizers. While these predictable arguments might be valid observations—and although Big Agriculture is far from perfect—the fundamental impossibility of local food as an alternative renders them an irrelevant sideshow to legitimate scientific and economic debate.

If local food activists were to consider their own demands seriously, they would be forced to acknowledge the unsustainability inherent in their supposedly sustainable utopia. To create a society in which every person’s food was grown within fifty miles of his home would require enormous sacrifice—specifically, the diminution of the lives of a third of the population to the very form of menial farm work that people have been struggling to escape for centuries. As a consequence of the inefficiencies inherent in small-scale farm operations, many more farmers would be required to feed the same number of people, not to mention the fact that farming in many regions is completely unproductive. Since there is simply not enough land surrounding most urban areas to feed existing populations, a realization of the local food dream would have to be accompanied by mass resettlement campaigns. While there may be something quaint in the image of a humble farming class, few people are volunteering for the role. The local food movement is so myopically transfixed on its arbitrary criteria that it has failed to comprehend the extent to which its principles are incompatible with our most treasured personal freedoms.

Not surprisingly, the local food movement seems mostly comprised of members of the relatively privileged classes. After all, there’s not much time to worry about your avocado’s SkyMiles if it takes two jobs just to put dinner on the table. Only those who are economically protected from the implications of a truly agrarian economy are capable of launching complaints against the innovations that have empowered so many.
While locally-grown produce is indeed local, and not subject to some of the treatments of mass-produced food, consumption of it is a personal taste and not grounds for a political movement. Though members of the local food movement are well-intentioned and admirable in their passion, the nature of their project remains in many ways, artificially oversized. --Jared McGaha and Wilson Foster

Our food system is designed to produce a great quantity of inexpensive calories and is extremely good at it.

Efficiency and mechanization are directly responsible for our modern civilization, including our reliance on genetically uniform crop production and fossil-fuel use. The food industry requires consistency in raw materials, which leads to a loss of agricultural biodiversity. But biodiversity sustains production and maintains agro-ecosystems in the long run.

How we feed ourselves is profoundly intertwined with a dependence on artificially cheap energy. Many people will be faced with the responsibility of growing their own food if we aren’t prepared when fossil fuels run dry, which at current consumption rates is roughly estimated to occur in 50 to 120 years. Colin Campbell, a geologist with over 40 years of experience in the oil industry, analyzed the discovery and production of oil fields around the world. In his book The End of Cheap Oil, he wrote that “within the next decade, the supply of conventional oil will be unable to keep up with demand.”

Cheap energy promoted the integration of oil and natural gas in farm practices and removed the need for diversity in plant life. Cheap energy removed the need for diversity in animal life, creating feedlots—confined animal cities that separate the fertilizing benefits of farm animal droppings from farmland and create pollutants. Cheap energy led to government-subsidized grain that sells for much less than it costs to grow. Cheap energy means that food often travels incredibly long distances.

The economical mindset in the food industry encouraged the production of chemical fertilizers, which are made from natural gas, and pesticides, which are made from petroleum. Pesticides encourage high crop yields and prevent diseases, mosquitoes, lice, and bedbugs, and some pesticides are thought to be safe for humans. But the chemicals you might find on food in a grocery store are complicated and toxic when combined with certain substances. Potential reactions are so complex that the effects of the pesticide are virtually unable to be tested.

A lack of information concerning our food system encourages the less-informed to buy from chain stores that sell tomatoes picked by farm workers receiving wages and undergoing working conditions that meet the legal standards of modern-day slavery, as documented by the Coalition for Immokalee Workers. Worst of all, it encourages the view of food as a commodity and not as a life-sustaining necessity.

Some might argue that farming in a place like New Mexico, which lacks rich soil and abundant water, would require excessive amounts of resources—but agricultural studies have indeed come a long way. Farmers learn to use what they have, after taking the time to learn from other growers and to research the science behind farming in their area.

There are techniques to conserve water in a desert, such as capturing it in abundance during a monsoon. Farmers can exercise their creativity and intellect by designing rainwater catchment devices, especially during idle seasons. In New Mexico, a farm in Arroyo Hondo catches 45,000 gallons of rainwater a year and uses little water drawn from streams or aquifers.
The food system is reparable with policy change. Large-scale agriculture needs to end its dependence on exploiting treasured resources and specializing in one product and start considering decentralization, improving workers’ rights, promoting public health, and encouraging communication between the farmer and the consumer. It would be advantageous to subsidize farmers who use cover crops, compost, and have a variety of crops. These activities decrease erosion and promote a closed system that requires less input of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Grazing animals enrich the soil and harvest their own feed. Properly subsidizing farmers will encourage people to pursue the career and ensure a prolific food supply.

There are healthy options for growing more food on a large scale and in smaller spaces. Unused pieces of land, especially in abandoned urban areas and on flat roofs of buildings, may require clean up and owner permission, but are goldmines for food production. Many crops grown today are processed into inferior calories of fat and sugar. Livestock consume 40 percent of the world’s grain output, and cars and trucks consume 11 percent of the world’s corn and soybean crop. If we can reduce that, there should be space to grow enough food for human consumption.
This requires larger rural communities and more people growing more food. There are many people willing to grow food for people who don’t enjoy manual labor, but these people are being discouraged to continue by large companies with money, time, and patenting power.

Monsanto, a world leader in the genetic modification of seeds, is a corporation taking over our food supply. Since the 1980s, the company has won 674 patents on seeds, the life forms required for food production. Monsanto hires private investigators to obtain information about farming activities, going to great lengths to prove infringement of their genetically modified seeds. Violations are accidental in some cases—patented seeds can blow into farmers’ fields or be carried in by animals—but Monsanto makes sure those who don’t want to use their products are at a commercial disadvantage. In most cases, the accusations bring Monsanto more money and practically force farmers to use their product.

Though anyone can make a comfortable living wage as a farmer, these sorts of obstacles discourage people from considering the farming career. It may be impossible to create a just and healthy food system if negative attitudes and outdated laws remain.