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The Return of Family Farms?

May 19, 2008


Food security continues to make headlines around the globe. In the past several weeks, I have written several posts on the subject of food and a growing crisis over rising prices. The crisis, however, is not easing [“World Aid Agencies Faulted in Food Crisis,” by Colum Lynch, Washington Post, 19 May 2008]. Despite catching the interest of the Bill and Melinda Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, analysts claim that agriculture hasn’t been “hip” enough to capture enough of the world’s attention.

“Buffeted by food riots at home, Senegal’s president, Abdoulaye Wade, this month lashed out at a distant culprit: The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO], which he slammed as a wasteful ‘bottomless pit of money’ that should be abolished for failing to help increase global food production. Wade’s broadside is part of a backlash against multilateral organizations that were created after World War II — including the FAO, the World Bank and the World Food Program — tasked with weaving together a safety net for the world’s poorest. The recent spike in food prices has ripped a massive tear in that net, triggering riots around the world and threatening to plunge more than 100 million people into extreme poverty. Analysts say decades of neglect of agriculture by those agencies have left many countries with less food to feed their people. ‘There has been a very deep institutional failure over how we deal with food problems,’ said C. Peter Timmer, a Stanford University scholar who studies food security. ‘Everybody understands that 80 percent of the world’s poor are in rural areas. But the World Bank for 30 years has basically said market signals don’t support agriculture, so we can’t support agriculture.’ … Last year, the World Bank commissioned an internal review of its agricultural programs in Africa, concluding that ‘over time, the importance of agriculture in the Bank’s rural strategy has declined.’ The bank’s Independent Evaluation Group noted that total international agricultural aid fell from $1.9 billion in 1981 to less than $1 billion by 2001, and that the bank cut its number of agricultural specialists for Africa from 40 to 17 over the past decade.”

Just to give you an idea of what that means, each World Bank agricultural specialist must cover an area the size of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado combined. Chef and restaurateur Dan Barber suggests that one solution to food security in the U.S. (and elsewhere) is to encourage the development of regional agriculture groups that can compete with the large agri-businesses that currently dominate the agricultural landscape [“Change We Can Stomach,” New York Times, 11 May 2008]. Barber writes:

“Cooking, like farming, for all its down-home community spirit, is essentially a solitary craft. But lately it’s feeling more like a lonely burden. Finding guilt-free food for our menus — food that’s clean, green and humane — is about as easy as securing a housing loan. And we’re suddenly paying more — 75 percent more in the last six years — to stock our pantries. Around the world, from Cairo to Port-au-Prince, increases in food prices have governments facing riots born of shortages and hunger. It’s enough to make you want to toss in the toque. But here’s the good news: if you’re a chef, or an eater who cares about where your food comes from (and there are a lot of you out there), we can have a hand in making food for the future downright delicious.”

Barber’s basic argument is that consumers, by demanding food grown more responsibly, can affect what eventually gets to their plates. The questions raised by this approach include how much will this cost and whether it really helps solve the world’s food security problems. Barber thinks it can.

“Farming has the potential to go through the greatest upheaval since the Green Revolution, bringing harvests that are more healthful, sustainable and, yes, even more flavorful. The change is being pushed along by market forces that influence how our farmers farm. Until now, food production has been controlled by Big Agriculture, with its macho fixation on ‘average tonnage’ and ‘record harvests.’ But there’s a cost to its breadbasket-to-the-world bragging rights. Like those big Industrial Age factories that once billowed black smoke, American agriculture is mired in a mind-set that relies on capital, chemistry and machines. Food production is dependent on oil, in the form of fertilizers and pesticides, in the distances produce travels from farm to plate and in the energy it takes to process it. For decades, environmentalists and small farmers have claimed that this is several kinds of madness. But industrial agriculture has simply responded that if we’re feeding more people more cheaply using less land, how terrible can our food system be?”

That last question is a good one. Obviously, Barber thinks there is a problem or he wouldn’t have written his op-ed piece. Having set the stage by asking that pertinent question, he goes on to make his point.

“Now that argument no longer holds true. With the price of oil at more than $120 a barrel (up from less than $30 for most of the last 50 years), small and midsize nonpolluting farms, the ones growing the healthiest and best-tasting food, are gaining a competitive advantage. They aren’t as reliant on oil, because they use fewer large machines and less pesticide and fertilizer. In fact, small farms are the most productive on earth. A four-acre farm in the United States nets, on average, $1,400 per acre; a 1,364-acre farm nets $39 an acre. Big farms have long compensated for the disequilibrium with sheer quantity. But their economies of scale come from mass distribution, and with diesel fuel costing more than $4 per gallon in many locations, it’s no longer efficient to transport food 1,500 miles from where it’s grown.”

Barber is certainly correct about the effects of rising oil prices on both the production and transportation of food. Truckers are near the breaking point in trying to be competitive and trying to make a decent living. Railroad companies are ecstatic. Suddenly they have gained a competitive advantage in the mass transportation business. Putting that aside, however, the question remains, can 341 small farms really take the place of one large farm? Are there enough people still willing to farm small acreage farms? Barber’s answers are not quite so certain. The only thing that is certain is that his solution is not going to save consumers money.

“The high cost of oil alone will not be enough to reform American agriculture, however. As long as agricultural companies exploit the poor and extract labor from them at slave wages, and as long as they aren’t required to pay the price for the pollution they so brazenly produce, their system will stay afloat. If financially pinched Americans opt for the cheapest (and the least healthful) foods rather than cook their own, the food industry will continue to reach for the lowest common denominator. But it is possible to nudge the revolution along — for instance, by changing how we measure the value of food. If we stop calculating the cost per quantity and begin considering the cost per nutrient value, the demand for higher-quality food would rise.”

With that argument, Barber’s line of reasoning seems to have derailed. Cost per nutrient value sounds great, but it is hard to put “cost per nutrient value” on a product’s label or on those little tags at the supermarket that provide cost/ounce data. However, he persists:

“Organic fruits and vegetables contain 40 percent more nutrients than their chemical-fed counterparts. And animals raised on pasture provide us with meat and dairy products containing more beta carotene and at least three times as much C.L.A. (conjugated linoleic acid, shown in animal studies to reduce the risk of cancer) than those raised on grain. Where good nutrition goes, flavor tends to follow. Chefs are the first to admit that an impossibly sweet, flavor-filled carrot has nothing to do with our work. It has to do with growing the right seed in healthy, nutrient-rich soil.”

All of that sounds great. Getting cattle off grains and on grass may make more grain available for human consumption, but does it change the amount of methane produced by cattle? In previous posts, I’ve noted that Timberland has tried to reduce its “carbon footprint” by having ranchers change the feed used by cattle (whose hides are used to make Timberland boots) so that they release less methane gas. There are probably lots of such tradeoffs that need to be considered. Even then, consumer habits are the biggest pole in this particular tent. Every big supermarket now has an organic section. That section is not very large because consumers aren’t willing to pay the higher prices charged for organic food. It is mostly the well-to-do who are found shopping there. Barber comes back closer to earth when he discusses cooperation among farmers.

“Increasingly we can see the wisdom of diversified farming operations, where there are built-in relationships among plants and animals. A dairy farm can provide manure for a neighboring potato farm, for example, which can in turn offer potato scraps as extra feed for the herd. When crops and livestock are judiciously mixed, agriculture wisely mimics nature. To encourage small, diversified farms is not to make a nostalgic bid to revert to the agrarian ways of our ancestors. It is to look toward the future, leapfrogging past the age of heavy machinery and pollution, to farms that take advantage of the sun’s free energy and use the waste of one species as food for another.”

All of this, of course, assumes the availability of fertile land and willing farmers. Many countries require fertilizer because they have plenty of sun but little arable land [see my post Fertilizing to End Famine]. Barber makes sense when he recommends that the waste products of one sector be used to support efforts in another sector. The same is true about selling food in markets nearer to where it is grown. This is good business as well as being responsible business. My partner Tom Barnett points out that this is more-or-less being done now. Only 18 percent of wheat crops are exported transnationally. The numbers for other grains are even lower: sorghum (14%), corn (12%), and rice (7%). The numbers are likely higher for more perishable foodstuffs. People in the developed world, however, have become used to eating what they like year around. Eating seasonal foods is not a pattern in most rich countries. Changing that eating pattern would be difficult and there would likely be unexpected (and negative) consequences in the agricultural sector of countries that rely on exporting food to the developed world. Barber, however, argues just the opposite claiming, “For years, the United States has flooded the world with food exports, displacing small farmers and disrupting domestic markets.” There’s probably truth in both arguments. Assuming enough small farmers can be found to carry out Barber’s plan, his implementation scheme makes sense — both here and abroad.

“Our support of the local food movement is an important example of this approach, but it’s not enough. As demand for fresh, local food rises, we cannot continue to rely entirely on farmers’ markets. Asking every farmer to plant, harvest, drive his pickup truck to a market and sell his goods there is like asking me to cook, take reservations, serve and wash the dishes. We now need to support a system of well-coordinated regional farm networks, each suited to the food it can best grow. Farmers organized into marketing networks that can promote their common brands (like the Organic Valley Family of Farms in the Midwest) can ease the economic and ecological burden of food production and transportation. They can also distribute their products to new markets, including poor communities that have relied mainly on food from convenience stores. Similar networks could also operate in the countries that are now experiencing food shortages. … As escalating food prices threaten an additional 100 million people with hunger, a new concept of humanitarian aid is required. Local farming efforts focused on conserving natural resources and biodiversity are essential to improving food security in developing countries, as a report just published by the International Assessment of Agriculture Science and Technology for Development has concluded. We must build on these tenets, providing financial and technical assistance to small farmers across the world.”

As I noted above, the big “IF” in this scheme centers on the availability of farmers. Barber concedes this is a growing problem.

“Regional systems will work only if there is enough small-scale farming going on to make them viable. With a less energy-intensive food system in place, we will need more muscle power devoted to food production, and more people on the farm. (The need is especially urgent when you consider that the average age of today’s American farmer is over 55.) In order to move gracefully into a post-industrial agriculture economy, we also need to rethink how we educate the people who will grow our food. Land-grant universities and agricultural schools, dependent on financing from agribusiness, focus on maximum extraction from the land — take more, sell more, waste more.”

Barber provides no suggestions about how to change demographic trends that are leaving the U.S. with an aging farmer population nor how to change consumer’s food buying habits nor how wages can be raised so that people can afford more expensive organic food. Without viable strategies to meet these two challenges, Barber’s scheme simply falls apart. He will have more luck pushing it in developing countries where the agricultural sector is still a major part of countries’ economies. Not only is Barber’s lack of a road map unsatisfying, his concluding paragraph is downright patronizing. His last words: “The future belongs to the gourmet.” Unfortunately, only the relatively wealthy can afford to become gourmets and he doesn’t tell us how he would guide the poor and the gastronomically challenged to that promised land.

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