Our food supply
The way our food is grown has changed immensely during the past century. And not for the better. America has exchanged farming for industrial agriculture. We have exchanged families living and working on the land for hourly workers that commute from their homes. Maximum production and profit today have replaced caring for the soil and nutritious crops. The latest whiz-bang science has taken the place of common sense and the wisdom of the ages.
These continuing changes have allowed us to greatly increase the amount of food grown. Many acres that were formerly desert and thicket and creek bank now produce food crops. The amount of food produced per acre has increased. Less food is lost to spoilage between field and market than ever before and the food in our supermarkets has never been prettier, with brighter colors, fewer blemishes and more uniform sizes.
The “improvements” of our modern food supply have costs. To gain efficiency, farms have become single-crop entities. There are few farms left that have chickens, dairy cows, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, radishes, berries, apples and nuts spread over 150 acres. Farms now grow wheat on thousands of acres. Corn grows uninterrupted for as far as the eye can see. Dairy and beef cattle spend most of their time in feedlots eating grain, prevented from “wasting energy” by moving too much. Chickens get two square feet and a steady supply of grain to promote the fastest possible growth and time to slaughter.
Of the 30 species and 30,000 varieties of wheat, less than a dozen cover those endless acres of North America. In 1903 a farmer could choose from 307 varieties of corn to plant but all of today’s industrial corn varieties are counted on one hand. A hundred years ago there were more than 400 varieties of tomato seeds available but only eighty to choose from now. The same has happened to dairy cattle, beef cattle, chickens and other plant crops. Apple and other fruit tree varieties are also disappearing at a rapid rate as commercial orchards concentrate on the most profitable varieties and all of the others slowly die off.
The cost to the soil is also high. Growing one variety of one crop every year rapidly depletes soil nutrients and minerals. Constant plowing and leveling, heavy applications of herbicides and insecticides to kill weeds and insect pests, additions of petroleum-based fertilizers and trucked-in minerals all conspire to kill all of the natural life in the soil. The result is loose soil with little organic content that is easily eroded by water or wind.
Proof of coming problems
Nobody sees Gros Michel bananas now. Until 1965 they were the only commercially exported banana. They were very good bananas. Then a fungal disease came along. Gros Michel bananas are now extinct.
The banana industry hustled and struggled and was soon exporting Cavendish bananas all over the world. Cavendish are not as good as Gros Michel but were the next best variety available. Now everyone eats Cavendish bananas and hardly anyone knows there are more than 300 varieties of bananas to choose from. But only the Cavendish variety is grown on plantations and exported. This is in spite of pleadings from the growers to introduce more varieties to prevent a repeat of the Gros Michel catastrophe. And now a new fungus disease is attacking Cavendish bananas, spreading from plantation to plantation and crossing oceans. Few have any hope of keeping this new disease from spreading or of finding a cure. All because the big corporations controlling the banana industry insisted that uniformity and consistency were more important than safety and variety. Because they did not want to believe what happened to the Gros Michel bananas could ever happen again.
A single disease could do the same thing to millions of acres of wheat, corn, soy and other crops on our modern industrial “farms”. Huge swaths of land are planted with identical varieties of crops. There are no ready supplies of other varieties of seeds to take their place. There are small caches of “heirloom” seeds in private hands and grown by a few small-scale and hobby farmers but it would take years to build up enough seed-stock to grow any of them on a truly commercial scope. Almost all of our current food crops are in this same situation.
Climate change poses another problem of the same sort. Because commercial food crop varieties are so limited in number, where those crops can be grown is also limited. As the local weather gets hotter or cooler, wetter or drier, many of our staple crops just won’t grow where they used to grow.
Variety, diversity and geographic dissemination are the safety nets of our food supply. All three of these safety net have been lost by modern agriculture. Variety has been reduced to the most profitable. Diversity has been reduced to improve efficiency. And geographic dissemination has been reduced in favor of increased yields. So we have fewer varieties of food crops growing alone in concentrated areas.
What we need, for the future safety of our food supply, is more varieties of each crop planted in smaller fields amongst other types of crops all across the country. The hot and dry Southwest, the hot and moist Southeast, New England and the Midwest all need to grow several varieties of crops that are best suited to those climates.
More varieties of each crop type means more resistance to any disease. Some varieties of tomato or carrot or pear or wheat will always be able to survive any disease. Smaller plots of each crop, surrounded by different crops and spread across many small farms makes the transmission of any disease much more difficult than jumping from plant to plant across unbroken miles of a single wheat variety. Growing crops across a wider geographic range, even with lower yields, makes it harder for any disease to get to all of a crop.
Smaller farms growing multiple varieties of multiple crops have other advantages over big industrial farms. The soil stay healthier because of crop rotation and higher use of natural organic composted fertilizers rather than artificial chemical fertilizers. The crops stay healthier without pesticides or herbicides because smaller fields are easier and more efficient to weed mechanically and mixed crops attract fewer insect pests. Smaller farms are more energy efficient because nothing needs to be moved as far or as often as on huge industrial farms.
How do we get there?
We all have to vote with our wallets. Support small local farmers by buying their produce, eggs and milk at local farmers’ markets, produce stands and other outlets. Reward local farmers by being brave and exploring the different varieties of crops they grow; don’t be afraid of white carrots and eight-inch long okra and green or pink or blue eggshells. Buying what they grow keeps these independent farmers in business.
Grow your own. Even just a few pots on the patio or windowsill. Try growing a yellow grape tomato plant or purple potatoes or blue lacy kale. Grow your own herbs for cooking. It gives you a real appreciation for where all of our food really comes from and that place isn’t a supermarket.
Just think more about our food supply. This alone will make a difference. Think about our food when you vote – is that congressman going to support new laws to make it more difficult for small farmers to compete against giant corporations? Think about where our food comes from when you shop – why are we buying bell peppers grown three thousand miles away for $4.99 per pound at the supermarket instead of bell peppers grown ten miles away for $2.99 per pound at the produce stand? Think about our food supply when you eat- how much tastier is that locally grown Indigo Rose black tomato compared to the pasty-pink hybrid from California?
All of these things will make a difference. They will have an impact and start moving things in the right direction. We just need to start doing them now while there is still time. Before the next big crop disease comes along.