This is something I’ve been thinking about since November. One of the big political cries in the US, on both ends of the political spectrum, was some form of increased isolationism, framed mostly as getting the US out of various entanglements in various countries, and investing in the many, many places that have been left behind by globalization.
Admittedly, I’ve been part of that, because I think global consumerism has been one of the driving forces for climate change, so I’ve been one of the activists yelling for the US to get out of [wherever] for [some perfectly good reason]. There’s this romantic logic that if we all just consume less, go live semi-rural lives where we grow part or all of our food in carbon-capturing oversized gardens (no-till, of course) and are total locavores, that it will all just work out.
Of course, when you look around the world, you see exactly the opposite, that people are leaving the land, because it can no longer support them, so they either to move to a nearby city for work or to join the stream of immigrants looking for work around the world.
There are a variety of reasons for moving. In places like Senegal (per Years of Living Dangerously), climate change on the edge of the Sahel has made farming impossible, so husbands go to the city, to Libya, or even Europe, to earn wages to support their families. In places like the California Central Valley, its aquifer depletion. In other rural places, it’s the shut down of the local factory, competition with neighboring industrial farms, and the like.
This is not to say that the urge to small farming is entirely wrong. In a collapse, such as currently in Kinshasa, or in 1990s Russia, local gardening is critically important to keeping people fed. There are simply two profound problems with it.
The first is that I don’t think you can feed 10 billion people by making them all peasants. According to the ol’ Wikipedia (link to article on arable land), there are between 0 (Singapore) and 2 (Australia) hectares of arable land per country per person, in 2013, and the average is 0.2 hectares. Just in general, it’s not easy to support a person even on two acres of arable land, and it takes real skill to feed yourself reliably on 0.2 hectares. Of course, fishing and ranching make some use of non-arable land, and the FAO, source of those figures, doesn’t count tree and shrub crops (orchards and vineyards) as arable land. Still, the math is against feeding 10 billion on tiny farms. Indeed, it says something about our system that we can actually feed people with the amount of arable land we have.
This leads to the second problem: small farms are unstable. Through simple bad luck, even the best farmer can have a bad year and go into debt. Over time, through simple luck, there tends to be a cycle where the luckiest people get huge farms, while the worst farmers (and the unluckiest ones) lose their land and possibly their families. Yes, there’s a lot of skill involved in farming, but the point is that even simple luck will, over time, produce winners and losers. This is an ancient problem. When people are stuck with their land (meaning they can’t go off and clear another plot elsewhere), it leads to growing inequality that ultimately ends in either revolution or redistribution, if you believe Piketty and Graeber. So even if we put everybody out on the land, some people would fail, and we’d need some provision for them if we don’t want them starving.
So small farming is out? Not really. We need to preserve this way of life and the associated cultivars and domestic species, because it’s the life boat for when things go bad. Cuba and Russia survived in part because they got serious about gardening, and we should think about doing that too.
The other loop of the Gordian knot, though, is the system we have, where most people live in cities, and a lot of rural people feel like the forgotten discards of progress as they watch their communities fall apart around them. This is efficient in some ways, but inefficient in others.
The benefits of putting most people in cities and turning food production over to skilled specialists include:
- Allowing food to move to people. Food is mostly water. When you ship food, you grow it where there is (at the moment) a surplus of water, (presumably) to a place where water is in short supply. Grain especially takes a lot of water, not because each grain is full of water, but because they are such tiny parts of the plants that produced them. For every pound of grain, there are many pounds of water-soaked biomass either left on the farm or going somewhere else. The upshot is that it’s often more effective to move food to people than it is to move water to people for them to grow their own food.
- Economies of scale and supply chains. These are the classic economic arguments, and there’s a bit of truth to them. Supply chains, in particular, make it possible to plan food, as do futures markets that pay people to produce and take out the uncertainties.
But there are problems with these approaches. Take growing plants on groundwater in California or Texas. We’re mining a limited supply of non-renewable water and shipping it back east where water falls from the sky. This doesn’t make sense, except for a web of government regulations and subsidies that suppress certain kinds of farming in the east and subsidize them in the western US (this per Cadillac Desert) . It’s a short-term solution to feeding people, and there will likely be food shortages and political unrest in the poorer parts of the world as farms fed by the Ogallala aquifer run dry in about 20 years. This isn’t just a problem for the US, either. It’s a problem, to my knowledge, in Australia and the Middle East off the top of my head, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t double the number in the comments.
Economies of scale may be financially efficient, but I’ve heard evidence (and I’d like to see the study) that suggests that small farming is resource efficient, because you have more expertise per acre to maximize yield either over the short or long term. Whether such fine scale artisanal skill is profitable depends on a variety of things, including living standards, aspirations, taxes, input costs, net revenues, and so forth. Still, this is the expertise we need to keep if we are forced to transition away from industrial farming and go to subsistence agriculture.
Supply chains are part of the problem, environmentally. There is a need for a particular amount of a particular product at a particular place and a particular time. That’s the essence of a futures contract. The problem is that nature doesn’t run on those kinds of futures. A sustainable system doesn’t produce an entirely predictable yield, especially if many species are involved. This is what you see in a CSA (community supported agriculture) box, where what comes off the farm varies widely from week to week, year to year, depending on the weather. You can feed a family this way, if the family is flexible in what they’re willing to eat. However, if your business is baking bread for thousands of people, you need tons of bread wheat on a predictable schedule. Getting soft wheat that’s suitable for tortillas or durum wheat for pasta might be a better fit for the climate in a particular growing season, but as a baker, you can’t readily switch to making tortillas or pasta. This is one reason why our diet is getting simpler if we depend on supermarket foods. We’re eating what fits into a complex supply chain, not what works sustainably in a changing climate. As a result, farmers feeding huge supply chains have to subsidize their crops with things like fertilizers, pesticides, and extra water, all of which have their non-sustainable aspects.
And that’s the Gordian knot: we’ve got one set of complex, intractable problems if we try to force everybody back onto the land (as the Communist found out), but we’ve got a different set of intractable problems if we try to house everybody densely in cities. There’s not an easy answer to any of this, especially in a blog post. But that’s not all. The problem with the two loops of this Gordian knot is that a lot of fairly conservative people, stuck out in the boonies, would like support for their small farms or (if they’re in the West), their welfare ranches. And a bunch of liberals, myself sometimes included, would like to see more people making a living in rural areas. Unfortunately, putting more people out to farm less land could make it harder to feed the teeming hordes in the growing cities by increasing the costs of food and decreasing its predictability, especially if the farmer is trying to farm sustainably rather than to keep a supply chain full. What do you do if you’re a politician? It is, perhaps, the third loop in the Gordian Knot. Rural economies are still shrinking and suffering, but, as in the US and Britain, they have the political clout to make their voices heard and to cause real trouble for the internationalists who are trying to keep everything working. But if you give them what they want, there might be problems in the inner cities due to rising food prices. Still, it’s worth casting a jaundiced eye at simple articles that talk about “the future of food” as if a small group of technologies will save us all. The solution is going to be complex, vary over time and space, and probably be ad hoc in more places than we’d like to admit. Still, keeping things going beats starving.
7 Comments so far
Leave a comment