Thursday, March 29, 2012
Growing Carrots is a Matter of National Security
If you walk into any super market in the industrialized world, chances are good you will see a produce section overflowing with a wide and colorful assortment of fruits and vegetables. Aisle upon aisle in the store will be fully stocked. The worldwide phenomenon of these stores symbolizes the fragile times that we live in. It represents an almost taken-for-granted abundance and an alarming disconnect from the natural world as well as evidence of the achievement of a global economy. But what would happen if distribution lines failed, and those grocery store shelves were suddenly empty, as happens often in the developing world?
The United States and the rest of the Eurocentric world has traditionally been very resource rich, capable of producing great quantities of food stuffs, and supporting complex food systems. At present China, India, the European Union, and the United States are the four largest producers of wheat. However, no country should assume how it will provide basic necessities for its people in a time when the world population is exceeding 7 billion, global warming is changing climates in many bioregions, and the time of peak oil has passed.
A food system includes many diverse activities. The food has to be produced, processed, distributed, sold, prepared, consumed, and the waste has to be disposed of. It should not be assumed that the current abundance will be perpetual and thought needs to be put into planning for the upcoming centuries. One of the duties of a national government is to plan to head off disasters that could weaken its position and make life precarious for its citizens. Before disaster strikes, thought should be put into national security and disaster aversion plans to ensure the provision of food for all people. Among other considerations, the plans should include promoting the growing of local, organic food. Further, money, time and manpower, education, and attention should be given to programs that could subsidize small local farmers, create green zones, and promote individual and community gardens. Currently, food supply chains rely too heavily on the long distance transport of food, the use of non-renewable resources to grow food, and a vulnerable system without enough extra flexibility that may be necessary to be able to respond rapidly enough in a quickly changing world.
In the present time, most food that Americans buy in the store is better traveled than they are. In a curriculum guide distributed from www.agclassroom.org/ok by the state of Oklahoma it is estimated that any given food item in a grocery store “travels an average 1300 miles from the farm” to a table. The American Automobile Association estimated in the fall of 2011 that Americans would travel on average 706 miles during the 2011 holiday season. In the October 2011 edition of BBC’s “Good Food” magazine Clare Hargreaves wrote that while 38% of the apples consumed in the United Kingdom are grown in the U.K., 12% of the overall fruit eaten in the country is imported. In part because of European Union grants distributed in the 1970’s that encouraged the conversion of orchards to other uses, the U.K. lost an estimated two thirds of its traditional orchards over a 60-year period. Joanna Blythman writing for “The Independent” wrote in an article published in 2007 about how far food has to travel to be consumed in the U.K. Examples of her listing of where fruits and vegetables are typically imported from includes the following: apples that have traveled 3700 miles from the United States; beef that has traveled 6900 miles from Argentina; pineapples that have traveled 3100 miles from Ghana; and blueberries that have traveled 5600 miles from South Africa. Without even discussing the addition of greenhouse gases that add to global warming because of the use of cargo planes to transport the produce; the worldwide health effects on individuals from particulate matter polluting the air from the use of these jets; the political ramifications of agribusiness monoculture plantations exporting produce from societies unable to feed local peoples; or any of a collection of the other dire issues, transporting food stuffs across the planet uses rapidly depleting oil reserves. Rich Pirog and his co-authors from Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in a report titled “Food, Fuel, and Freeways: An Iowa perspective on how far food travels, fuel usage, and greenhouse gas emissions” wrote that “In the past 30 years there has been a significant global increase in fossil fuel use. One reason for the rise in U.S. fossil fuel use is the increased use of trucks to transport goods. In 1965, there were 787,000 combination trucks registered in the United States, and these vehicles consumed 6.658 billion gallons of fuel. In 1997, there were 1,790,000 combination trucks that used 20.294 billion gallons of fuel. Many of these trucks transport food throughout the United States.” The metropolis of New York City has over 8 million people. Without being alarmist, a case could be made that an alternative plan and long term preparation to ensure there is adequate food supplies for an urban area of this size is important. Many what if scenarios such as what if severe fuel shortages occur should be considered. Further implementing plans now would conserve shrinking oil reserves.
While millions of acres are farmed across the United States and any developed plan may not be able to fully move this food production away from the reliance on agribusiness farms, having a reduced dependency on these farms may make a difference and save precious resources. If food were to be grown closer to urban areas or in specially zoned green zones within the cities, there would be a supply of food more readily available with much less fuel consumption. Further, if individual and community gardens were promoted and people were taught to grow and preserve their own food, currently unused space and resources such as rooftops, vacant lots, and lawns could be converted to gardens. Community supported agriculture enterprises could be given contracts to farm in urban areas and sell shares to community members. All of these measures would create locally grown food and reduce consumption of finite quantities of oil. Both of these aims are desirable.
Statistics from the United States Environmental Protection Agency show in the United States alone, corn is grown on 72.7 million acres distributed across 400,000 farms. That means that each farm would average over 181 acres. Over 350,000 farms in the U.S. covering 73 million acres of farmland grow soybeans. Farming these large land areas as monocultures maximizes profits. Modern farming techniques involve adding nitrogen to the soil early in the spring before seed is planted and administering chemical fertilizers and pesticides throughout the growing season. Disregarding what constant use of pesticides is doing to the environment or the effects of runoff containing excess nitrogen, the use of chemical fertilizers depletes nutrients from the soil. Research in recent years has shown that an ever-increasing amount of fertilizer is necessary to maintain annual crop production because most chemical fertilizers only augment the soil with three main elements—nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Micronutrients are not added back into the soil. Also over time the soil becomes acidified and requires the addition of lime to free up essential nutrients that plants need.
In addition to actually depleting the soil over time with constant use, chemical fertilizers also use up another resource. To make chemical fertilizer natural gas and steam are pumped into a large vessel. After this air is pumped into the system and the oxygen is removed by burning off the natural gas and steam. Nitrogen, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide remain. The carbon dioxide is removed and an electric current is used to produce ammonia. The ammonia is mixed with nitric acid and the result is ammonium nitrate to be used as fertilizer. Natural gas, which could be used for heating or other uses, is a limited resource that is being consumed to make fertilizer.
In making an alternative disaster prevention or security plan, all resources should be considered precious and used or conserved accordingly. The United States Environmental Protection Agency reported in 2010 Americans generated over 250 million tons of garbage and 85 million tons of refuse were recycled. Composting is a way to recycle organic garbage. It is organic and soil that is augmented with organic matter does not become depleted, it becomes richer and better able to sustain plant growth. In addition, crops that are fertilized with sewage have been shown to be safe for consumption and successive purifying of wastewater through successive plantings purifies the water. The future of agriculture may require a return to more and smaller organic farms that are less resource depleting and more capable of producing greater yields. Further, agriculture practices such as permaculture techniques examine the way that producing food interacts with the whole of society and its needs. The building and maintaining of soil quality, fostering beneficial insect habitats, creating a beautiful environment, considering the mutual enhancement of cooperative plantings, and planting indigenous plants capable of thriving without added irrigation are all aims of permaculture in addition to producing food.
Across the globe climate change is happening. Final frost and first frost days, minimum and average daily temperatures, and rainfall patterns are changing. These shifts directly affect how and where food is grown and things cannot be done without thought and planning. Having too great of a focus on one region to produce food for a country or on one or two gigantic corporate agribusinesses to grow and distribute food globally creates a scenario of vulnerability. For instance 50% of the total corn crop in the United States is grown in the state of Iowa. What happens if because of climate change Iowa can no longer grow corn? It would be devastating if the breadbasket of any nation suffered a climate disaster such as a severe drought at a time when the ever-burgeoning population of the planet makes sustained food production a necessity. Or what happens if after a corporate agribusiness moves into an area, effectively removes the growing of local indigenous food, and then leaves because doing business in that country is no longer profitable due to shrinking world resources? International aid should not solely aim to export western modern agricultural methods, it should also work to maintain and protect local ownership of land and native land cultivation methods and crops. Hybrids that require chemical fertilizers and pesticides may increase yields for now, but a diversity of seeds need to be banked to give greater flexibility.
Flexibility needs to be strived for in the types of farms. Small farms where the people directly working the soil are connected to the decisions about what to plant are more nimble and can make decisions about what to plant season to season. If traditionally a region was optimal for growing tomatoes and peppers but suddenly no longer has the sustained warm temperatures to do so, the farmer may have to switch crops in order to remain solvent. But if the entire farm is not planted only with tomatoes and peppers this switch is easier. Smaller farms that do not grow monocultures may not have great resources available but can make a shift to new crops easier. The large agribusiness farms have many more obstacles to overcome to change what crop they are growing but they can sustain greater losses. If a region that was dependent on irrigation from hundreds of miles away no longer has the water resources to grow strawberries, they have to change to growing something else if they want to remain farming. Retooling and changing what is grown on a massive scale will require a huge investment. For the agribusinesses this investment might be profitable. In an era of climate change, both of these types of farms may be important and flexibility to deal with unimagined crisis needs to be created. Any disaster prevention plan should create conditions and subsidize a diversity of types of farms to give the most options to respond to unforeseen negative circumstances.
The world is changing. The future will not look like today. The grocery stores of the future may not exist. To prepare for the future, thought should be put into national security and disaster aversion plans to ensure the provision of food for all people. The plans should include promoting the growing of local, organic food to make food more readily available without being transported hundreds of miles and to better use resources to grow the food. Further, many options should be created and encouraged for the growing of food to make the whole system more resilient.
American Automobile Association (2011, November 17). AAA Projects 42.5 Million Americans Will Travel This Thanksgiving, Four Percent More Than Last Year. AAA.com. Retrieved from http://newsroom.aaa.com/2011/11/aaa-projects-42-5-million-americans-will-travel-this-thanksgiving-four-percent-more-than-last-year/
Blythman, Joanna (2007, May 13). Food miles: The true cost of putting imported food on your plate. The Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/green-living/food-miles-the-true-cost-of-putting-imported-food-on-your-plate-451139.html
Environmental Protection Agency (2009, September 10). Major Crops Grown in the United States. Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/agriculture/ag101/cropmajor.html
Hargreaves, Clare (2011, October). Bearing Fruit. BBC Good Food Magazine, page 84.
Oklahoma Ag in the Classroom. How Far Did It Travel?. Retrieved from http://www.agclassroom.org/ok
Pirog, R., Van Pelt, T., Enshayan, K., & Cook, E. (2001). Food, Fuel, and Freeways: An Iowa perspective on how far food travels, fuel usage, and greenhouse gas emissions. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
United States Department of Agriculture: Economic Resereach Service (2009, March 17). Wheat. Retrieved from http://www.ers.usda.gov/briefing/wheat/background.htm