In Defense of Big Farms

Readers, I'm travelling right now, so please enjoy this post from Casual Kitchen's archives. See you in another week or two, and thank you for indulging me while I take a brief break from writing.

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, no one even 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 320 million people.

A shorter version of this post ran in Dirt Magazine.

No comments: