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Is the new food movement a promising path to the democratic and sustainable Anthropocene Jedediah Purdy seeks? I share his goals and values, but the new food movement will not get us there. Purdy describes it as offering us “an agricultural landscape—preserved under easements or helped along by a network of farmers markets and farm-to-table organizations—whose cultural contribution is that people can work on it.” This arrangement can be appealing in small doses, but if we try to feed more than a tiny part of our society this way, serious damage will be done, both to the natural environment and to our democracy. It comes down to economics.
The number of farmers markets in America has indeed increased more than fourfold in the past two decades. We now also have roughly thirteen thousand farms devoted to community supported agriculture, selling directly to customers. Yet the share of our nation’s total fresh produce moving through these local channels is still tiny, just 1.6 percent. If we tried to grow and sell all of our fresh produce through these highly localized arrangements, it would hardly be a plus for the environment, since it would necessitate a roughly sixtyfold increase in the amount of land used for farming in peri-urban communities. Plowing up all of our golf courses would only get us partway there, so wildlife habitats would have to suffer. In colder sections of the country, localized production would require expanded greenhouse use during the winter months, with large carbon-based energy demands. Nor would carbon emissions from transport decline. Localized systems move very small loads of food in pickup trucks and personal vehicles, as opposed to bulk shipment by boat or rail, incurring a much larger carbon footprint per tomato delivered. Beyond fresh produce, localizing meat, dairy, egg, and field-crop production would mean moving these operations away from lightly populated agricultural states into more densely populated areas much closer to cities, another land-use nightmare. There would also be dangers to public health from closer proximity to animal diseases and waste.
Moving toward a localized food system built around diversified small farms would also place important social values at risk. Purdy’s small-farm landscape would require far more human labor in agriculture compared to our current large-scale mechanized systems. The last time we had a Purdy-style diversified small farm system was 120 years ago, when 40 percent of Americans lived and worked on farms, compared to less than 2 percent today. Children provided a significant portion of the labor. Going back to the land on this scale would therefore require either social coercion or the lure of dramatically higher farm wages—paid for by much higher food prices, which would be unjust to the poor. Purdy’s vision would be easier to accommodate if we could switch the nation to a vegetarian diet, but this would be coercive to the 97 percent of Americans who currently eat meat.
Fortunately, the current performance of conventional farming is opening an escape from these problems. On a per unit of production basis, America’s large and specialized commercial farms are better at conserving soil, water, and wildlife habitat than are the small, diversified, local farms favored by the new food movement. Our large farms can afford the technical innovations (GPS-steered equipment, soil mapping, remote sensing, precision planting, variable-rate chemical application systems, laser-leveled fields, drip irrigation) capable of producing food using far less land, labor, water, and chemicals. Since 1940, as American farms have grown larger and upgraded their technology, corn production has quintupled, even as the total area planted with corn has decreased. Total production has continued to rise, yet nitrogen fertilizer use peaked in 1981, and pesticide use peaked in 1973. In corn production between 1980 and 2011, irrigation water use per bushel of production declined 53 percent, energy use declined 43 percent, and greenhouse gas emissions declined 36 percent.
What saves nature, then, is not a lyrical return to the less capable farming systems of the past. Attempting that would be bad for nature and for our democratic society. The way to save both nature and democracy is to embrace more productive systems that depend less on human labor and on natural resources. This means new investments in technology, more specialization, more scale, and capturing greater efficiencies through trade. We need to get over the fact that this isn’t romantic.
Robert Paarlberg, Adjunct Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College, is author of The United States of Excess.
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