Along with transportation and energy production/distribution, agriculture is one of our country’s largest opportunities to make progressive steps in achieving a more sustainable economy. Being extremely resource intensive, farming is intrinsically linked to our use of energy, oil and water. But as one of our oldest industries, food production takes a place at the core of American values and given that food is considered to be a non-negotiable necessity it is given a great deal of breathing room. Its place in politics and the kitchen of every American household could make any fundamental changes to its operation a long time coming.
What has to change:
There is a tendency to think of farmers as “one with the land.” Still having romantic roots in American heritage, farming can be thought of as a natural process with hands buried in rich, clean soil. Once upon a time, perhaps it was. However, American farming of today is a science that requires large inputs of resources.
As I touched on in a previous article, agriculture uses vast amounts of water. Second only to thermoelectric power generation, irrigation comprises 31% of our national water usage. Some of these methods still use surface water flood systems for distribution—markedly less efficient than advanced sprinkler technologies, though unsurprisingly cheaper. As a nation that is seeing longer and deeper droughts that lead to municipal water deficits, an opportunity to lower irrigation even 10% could provide four times the amount of water we use in all homes every year.
Though thought of as natural, farming is closely tied to the petroleum industry and oil prices. Fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides all have their roots in oil and the more we over-farm land, the more chemicals we need to generate a constant volume of crops. According to biologist and writer Janine Benyus, “since 1945, pesticide use has risen 3,300 percent, but overall crop loss to pests has not gone down. In fact despite our pounding the United States with 2.2 billion pounds of pesticides every year, crop losses have increased 20 percent.”
A challenge to change the way we farm can quickly irk oil interests. In 2001, over $11 billion of pesticides were sold in the U.S.–accounting for 34% of the global volume–according to the E.P.A. Some experts say that we have placed ourselves in a cyclical process where oil products beget oil products. In her book Biomimicry, Benyus argues that our current industry requires $2.70 of oil products to produce $4.00 worth of crops. Additionally, all of those chemicals require energy to produce, package, transport and apply.
We also throw a great deal of money at farming. Next to the oil industry, agriculture is one of the most bountiful recipients of government subsidies used to help keep the prices of food cheap for the American consumer. Taxpayers spend tens of billion dollars a year helping to pay farmers so that our trips to the supermarket cost less.
Why it won’t change:
Despite the ways that farming could become a more streamlined industry, arguably better for U.S. citizens, few sectors of the economy can claim such an entrenched position in our society.
The U.S. has long since taken the stance of wanting to be a food-rich nation that can provide enough produce to leave a net-exporting. Wheat, for example, is one of our countries largest exports and goes all over the world. This can easily be spun as a national security precaution for the country. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2007 there were $70.9 billion of agricultural exports.
Efforts to revamp the agriculture industry can meet an uphill battle at Capitol Hill. Farming interests have a protected position in the government for a number of reasons. The middle of the country is responsible for bulk of our farming with produce coming from states with lowest population densities. Farther away from the coasts, economies become less varied in the heartland, leaving agriculture interests as a larger portion of total economic fuel than a given industry could achieve in a coastal state. The result is a larger percentage of voters being aligned on larger range of political issues, making their government representatives less likely to veer far from constituent opinion if they have goals for re-election.
When it comes to fashioning new laws on the federal level, while state population may be rewarded in the House of Representatives, the fact that Kansas has one sixth of the population of New York (3 million vs. 19.5 million) makes no difference in the Senate. Both states get the same two senators, making the political presence of the agricultural heartland a force to be reckoned with since it can take only 11% of the nation’s population to block a bill.
We have also become rather reliant on cheap food prices and our society is calibrated to its current price levels. It is easy to believe that any efforts to reshape the farming industry that raise costs would be passed onto the end-buyers. No politician wants to be responsible for making meat, potatoes and milk more expensive to low-income voters.
A recent article in the Economist also points out that the life in the rural Midwest is much more carbon-dependent than their coastal, urban brethren. Notions like mass transit and hybrid electrics are few and far between in the Great Plains where the long drives of trucks and hard hours of farm equipment are tied closely to gas prices. While not necessarily against sustainability, many farming families do not see how they can live their lives without the use of fossil fuels.
What are the options?
So what about organic? Organic farming does do away with the chemical base behind engineered crops and could drastically change the way that farming is practiced. As a resident of New York, I see organic food as a common occurrence in high demand, but it is easy for those of us living in the coastal United States to lose site of what is still a very small, expensive market. According to the Organic Consumer Association organic sales totaled $17 billion in 2006 leaving it as only 3% of the country’s retail food and beverage market. Furthermore, only 31% of sales came from mainstream grocery stores with the majority coming from natural chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s or small independent operations.
Permaculture is an evolving practice that suggests food can be planted not in single-crop, plowed, chemical soaked fields, but diverse combinations of plants combined on the same plot that use each other to control pests, weeds and nutrients. The Land Institute is one of the leading entities in permaculture study as it tests combinations of crops to see which are most successful. These fields reportedly use less water, no artificial additives and produce higher yields. Naturally (no pun intended), the catch comes in the lack of affordability in maintenance and harvesting—but they are working on it.
An example is the Native American tradition of Three Sisters Farming, or companion farming, that combines corn, squash and climbing beans in the same plot with each helping the others grow. The corn provides a climbing surface for the beans, which in turn add nitrogen to the soil. Meanwhile, the squash helps retain moisture in the soil as a ground cover that blocks out the sun. The synergy of the system strikes a familiar chord with a well balanced ecosystem. This type of exploration takes time. Native Americans likely had generations to master their practice. We have been working on it for one.
The size of the subsidies that farmers receive should also give the government a large bargaining chip for beginning to gradually implement change. Requirements for percentages of alternative energy or mandating certain efficiencies for irrigation equipment can be accomplished by linking goals to the prospect of tax-payer cash.
I am also not convinced that sustainability and renewables cannot play a larger role in changing the landscape of a common farmer’s lifestyle. The roofs of barns and homes are prime for solar power collection that can be used to power cars, farm vehicles or water pumps. We are already beginning to see fields being planted beneath wind turbines. Food and animal waste has a future in anaerobic power generation were oxygen deprived chambers can help bacteria compose food into methane gas. Hydroponics and vertical farming are also possibilities dotting the horizon. Unsurprisingly, one of the largest hurdles to overcome is a population’s resistance to change.
Photo Credit: Flickr Uncle Phooey