In Defense of Big Farms

Anyone who bites into a rock-hard California tomato in February and compares it to a sweet Jersey tomato in August quickly learns an indisputable truth: there are certain things large-scale agriculture can do, and certain things it can't.

And that's one of the many reasons everyone enjoys driving over to the local farmstand to buy produce. Not only are you supporting your local economy, you get a tomato that, well, actually tastes like a tomato.

But what happens during a drought, or a flood, or a poor year for crops in your part of the country? What happens when there's a shortage of local food?

I'll share one recent, and sobering, example of what happens. Remember the rice shortage of 2008? Most Americans don't, for reasons we'll get to in a moment. But sadly, this shortage created severe problems in dozens of countries around the world. In fact, nations like Senegal and Haiti faced skyrocking rice prices, food hoarding--even food riots.

But in the USA, almost no one remembers. Why? Because our ag and transport industries adapted so quickly that consumers hardly noticed. In fact, the only evidence of a rice shortage in our local grocery stores here in northern New Jersey was a brief limit of two 20-pound bags of rice per customer. And within two weeks, rice in our local stores was in oversupply and put on sale at 50% off.

Remember: this was a shortage severe enough to cause food riots in some countries. And while there was plenty of panicked media coverage of the horrors of the rice shortage, I never saw a single article discussing how our food industry adjusted to it so effectively.

Admittedly, Big Food and Big Ag can be hilariously easy targets to criticize. To the most paranoid among us, they represent everything wrong with America today: Big Food makes irresistible snacks as part of a master plan to fatten us all up, while Big Ag secretly grows genetically-modified produce, soaks it in e. coli for good measure, and then drives it cross-country in an orgy of fossil fuel consumption.

But this perception is parody, not reality. Today, the options available to American food shoppers have never been greater: the average American grocery store carries some 55,000 items, and in the dead of winter you can find anything from organic California raspberries at $6 a pint to regional potatoes at 59c a pound. I'll leave it to you to decide which is the better value.

In short, food is available to us in a range that is simply unimaginable to our grandparents' generation. And at the same time, American consumers are reaping the benefits of a full-blown renaissance in local food. A truly robust food industry -- one that can handle spot shortages, manage uncooperative regional weather, and adapt to the natural fluctations of food production -- needs to have both local and large-scale food production to work properly.

That's how we can protect the food needs of a nation of 300 million people.

A shorter version of this post ran in Dirt Magazine.


Julia said...

I think your argument about our ability to adapt to food shortages is actually a defense for local food systems. More specifically for bio-diverse farms. If a farm produces one thing, be it corn or rice, and they have crop failure, then there's a problem. But with a diverse farm, they can fall back on other crops to not only meet the demand of the community but also maintain financial viability of the farm.

Big Ag tends to promote mono-crop farms. Small, local farms tend to be more diverse. Yes, there may be a drought or a flood, but they'll still get food out of the ground.

Celia said...

I agree in principle that large-scale farms can more reliably feed the masses. However, the majority of those large farms are growing corn and soybeans to feed CAFO-raised livestock. Those mono-crop farms are also quickly depleting the nutrients in the land, basically burning it for future use. I don't think that's sustainable, and at some point we won't be able to do that anymore.

There's a place for larger farms, sure, but maybe reducing the CAFO operations and large-scale production of soy and corn we might end up being able to feed more people in a more responsible way.

The Calico Cat said...

I think that your reasoning is sound, though I don't care for the fact that many large farms are "forced" to use Monsanto soy beans...

Also I don't care for the policy that makes food into fuel. I find that that policy can make the costs to high for people who need to food to eat. (Not expressed in the best manner, but if a large far can get a dollar an eat to turn it into ethanol or to not grow it at all, then they will not sell corn for less that a dollar an ear to someone who needs it to eat.)

Kathy said...

Maybe the reason we didn't notice the rice shortage because we eat more than just rice. Rice is the major food in most third-world countries.

Big Farm = GMO
How can that be good in any way?
Same as Big Pharma. Neither one has our interests at heart.

Daniel said...

Good responses so far.

A quick word to Kathy: perhaps, but the absolute magnitude of rice consumption here in the USA dwarfs that of practically all third-world countries. The logistics of supplying a country like ours with rice are simply staggering.


Kathy said...

Yes. But if the U.S. never received another grain of rice, we would live. Most other countries wouldn't. That's my point.
The U.S. dwarfs most countries in most anything. We are "rich" in food. obscenely so.

and meanwhile, the lowly family farm is disappearing, while the middle-man increases his profit margin.

Anna said...

Our grocery bill is high. It's just my husband and I, but we live in Alaska where food is expensive and groceries for one week are usually around $100. My husband decided to go vegetarian recently so none of that money is spent on expensive meat and I don't buy lots of processed stuff. Most of the money is spent on fresh produce. Even so, as we left the grocery store Monday night I was thinking how fortunate we are to be able to just waltz into a store and choose whatever we want to buy, unlike people in many parts of the world. Also, I remember the rice shortage. At the time I was a cashier at the grocery store to help pay for school so I guess it was kind of hard not to notice. We eat a ton of rice but had recently purchased a 25 pound bag at Sam's Club so it didn't affect us. I did worry a lot about people who depend on rice an couldn't get it, though.

Laura said...

As with most areas of my life, I take the middle road on this issue. I agree whole-heartedly with your final comment:

"A truly robust food industry....needs to have both local and large-scale food production to work properly.That's how we can protect the food needs of a nation of 300 million people."

While I DO believe as educated consumers we need to seek out locally grown food when it's in season, and lean more toward veggies and away from meat for better health and to protect the environment, as a capable adult I don't expect to be protected from making poor food choices.

I'm grateful I have these choices to make. I believe we Americans, to our great shame, have forgotten that much of the world suffers from inadequate nutrition, and would be happy to eat meat or produce regardless of its origin.

I've been involved in charity trips over the past few years in Central and South America, and most recently in southern Africa. Many children in these countries are missing basic vitamins in their diets--in Zimbabwe the government neglects its citizens outright, allowing thousands to starve in 2008 in a country that was once the breadbasket of Africa.

If we are upset because our free market system allows for aggressive ad campaigns and some strong-arm practices by Big Ag over farmers, we should also accept that our tremendous scientific and financial resources have allowed us to create machinery and increase crop yields beyond our grandparents' wildest dreams. And without government intervention in terms of who's allowed to eat what, and when.

It's up to us to make proper food choices for ourselves, and for our families. And yes, to exercise our democratic muscles by supporting local agriculture and pushing for legislation that limits abuse of farm animals and the environment.

Thanks again, Daniel, for making us think.