“US Farmers Feed the World!”
As a slogan, it’s catchy. From the standpoint of soil, environmental and ecological health, it’s pretty darned stupid. Ask yourself a few basic questions:
First, why should any country be considered responsible for feeding another country? Second, how do those foods get from one place to another and how much irreplaceable fossil fuel are we using to get them there? Third, what impact does it have on the local economy when most of the food comes from somewhere else? Fourth, what impact does this have on the country growing the food?
There’s a big difference between humanitarian efforts in times of disaster and a regular program of supplying basic foodstuffs to another country on the other wide of the world. Feeding encourages dependency rather than resilient self-reliance. It also makes the country being fed vulnerable to political shifts and food shortages. Finally, it makes the country doing the feeding focus on quantity rather than quality, as you have to grow a lot to make it worthwhile to ship.
Planes, ships, trains and trucks, all of which use fossil fuel. The last figures I saw were that it takes 15 calories of energy to produce and ship one calorie of fod. Sustainable? Not hardly. And what happens when something disrupts the transportation system? Most American grocery stores have three days worth of food on the shelves. One good snowstorm, flood, power outage or tornado will take care of that.
The local economy becomes subject to the whims of a marketplace that has nothing to do with the local economy. Local farmers are driven out of business. Few people thousands of miles away care if the food is being produced with child or slave labor. Food becomes a “commodity” to be bought and sold on the stock exchange. If speculators want to make a killing by manipulating the market, it’s much easier to do when food distribution is centralized. It’s also a lot easier to play politics with food once a country becomes dependent on this outside system. Indigenous varieties of vegetables, fruits, grains and animals become extinct, because the high-volume operators in another country don’t care about these unique foods that have sustained people for thousands of years. That loss of genetic diversity is a really big deal in the face of climate change.
Think of exporting food as opening a large pipeline. What goes out of the pipeline are all of the water, minerals, fertilizer and fiber used to grow that food. And here’s the real problem — the pipeline is one-way: you never get it back. So you’ve drained your aquifers, eroded your soil and leached it of valuable minerals. In the US, we are losing soil at 10 times the rate at which it is replenished; in some areas, it’s much worse than that. Major aquifers (from which we get the water to irrigate the crops we eat and export, not to mention municipal use and our drinking water) are in trouble all over the US. What did you get in return from this one-way pipeline? Well, yeah, I know the answer, but you can’t eat money.
Maybe we should be asking some very different questions.
For example, how can we build systems that promote and support local farming and food distribution? Everybody has a slightly different version of “local,” and there’s a big difference between a 50-mile definition and a 500-mile definition. Before the age of the automobile, “local” was probably more like 10-to-25 miles. Perhaps “local” should be a day’s travel (which is where the 10-to-25 mile definition came from; it was what you could reasonably cover on foot or horseback).
How can we help other countries maintain their food independence? While there have always been famines, traditional farming methods are adapted to the unique conditions or a particular area. The Anasazi and Hopi Indians were able to grow food in desert conditions. Australia’s vegetation adapted to severe swings in wet and dry conditions. As water becomes more scarce, knowing how to raise food in desert conditions becomes more important. What can we learn from these traditional farmers and how will we learn it if they all get food from us?
What do we need to change in our food-growing methods? Well, for a start, we need to quit plowing millions of acres for wheat, corn and soybeans, which are some of the top export crops and also very fossil fuel-intensive, conventional fertilizer-intensive, herbicide-intensive and pesticide-intensive. We should be raising meat, dairy, pork and poultry on pasture, with supplements of things like root crops, milk and weeds from the vegetable gardens.
How do we need to change our eating habits? OK, this may be the game-changer. As long as we continue to load our shopping carts at the supermarket instead of the farmers’ market or our own gardens, the producers will go right on producing. As long as we consider it perfectly normal to have mangoes and bananas and tomatoes and New Zealand lamb available all year round, even if they’re shipped thousands of miles, nothing is going to change. As long as we go for the microwavable meal instead of the one we have to cook ourselves… well, you get the picture.