Change We Can Stomach

Monday, May 12th, 2008

In Change We Can Stomach, Dan Barber argues for small farms:

Until now, food production has been controlled by Big Agriculture, with its macho fixation on “average tonnage” and “record harvests.” But there’s a cost to its breadbasket-to-the-world bragging rights. Like those big Industrial Age factories that once billowed black smoke, American agriculture is mired in a mind-set that relies on capital, chemistry and machines. Food production is dependent on oil, in the form of fertilizers and pesticides, in the distances produce travels from farm to plate and in the energy it takes to process it.

For decades, environmentalists and small farmers have claimed that this is several kinds of madness. But industrial agriculture has simply responded that if we’re feeding more people more cheaply using less land, how terrible can our food system be?

He calls it a macho fixation on “average tonnage” and “record harvests”; I call it a rational focus on the bottom line. And as long as oil is cheap, using it to increase yields makes sense. The interesting question is, how will industrial agriculture react to higher oil prices? — with the complication that those higher oil prices might not stay high.

Anyway, Barber asserts that small farms are the most productive on earth. I’d like to know where these numbers come from:

A four-acre farm in the United States nets, on average, $1,400 per acre; a 1,364-acre farm nets $39 an acre. Big farms have long compensated for the disequilibrium with sheer quantity. But their economies of scale come from mass distribution, and with diesel fuel costing more than $4 per gallon in many locations, it’s no longer efficient to transport food 1,500 miles from where it’s grown.

Obviously if large corporations could net more money per acre by mimicking small farmers, they would. Are those “net” numbers ignoring the implicit cost of the small farmer’s labor?

Also, mass distribution does not cost much per mile, when those miles are traversed by ship or train, and the food is carried in bulk. That’s the localvore’s dilemma: local food can sometimes consume more energy — and produce more greenhouse gases — than food imported from great distances.

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