Feeding the world

I’ve begun to wonder when the idea of feeding the world first became a moral imperative among farmers. Why is it that farmers have inherited the responsibility to feed everyone who has decided to do something else no matter what the personal cost?

I think I know how this idea came into being. As scientists and governments conceived of the idea that there were “too many farmers” back in the 20s and after, more and more people stopped farming to do other things. Yet, these people still needed food, so they came to rely on the people who continued to farm more and more. Now, the number of people who farm has decreased to less than 1 percent of the population (which also begs the question what the more than 99 percent of everyone else is actually doing), so the rest of the population is desperate for the farmers to keep farming, whether they realize they are or not.

Further, the non-farmers are often terrified of any suggestion that farming might need to be done differently, because changes that fail could spell no food for them. In a lot of ways, farming has become like social security: let’s not change it because changes might affect me, even though I am doing nothing to contribute to the system’s success as it currently exists.

Meanwhile, the system itself is failing. Because so few people farm, very few people know what it actually takes to feed the world. And what it takes is a huge amount of equipment and fuel, both of which are becoming so expensive that fewer and fewer farmers can afford to continue doing it. If things continue the way they are now, eventually farmers won’t be able to feed the world because the world will have made farming to expensive to be done by anyone.

I understand that many, many people will counter what I am saying here with variations of the argument: “how is paying a farmer to raise food for me any different than paying anyone else to do something for me I can’t or won’t do?” To me, the answer is that most other things you pay people to do for you don’t necessarily have to be done and you probably won’t die from them not doing it.

So now, the question for me is why am I doing this? I know the answers, and I have come to realize that I am not doing it to feed the world. I’m doing it because I want to convince the world to feed itself.


The cost of food

I recently came across an article on Gizmag.com about AeroFarms urban vertical aeroponic systems. I found the article to be an interesting and exciting description of yet another way for humans to grow food in environments where food production has been traditionally difficult or impossible.

What caught my attention more than the article, though, were the comments. The first comment was by someone blasting the technology because the commenter assumed the technology would not help make food production cheaper and more accessible to non-food producers.

Frankly, as someone who has recently entered the food production business, one of the conclusions I reached at the very beginning is that the idea that food production should be cheaper and more accessible to non-food producers is part of the reason why food continues to get more expensive, more inaccessible, and more scarce.

Not even 50 years ago, most people were involved either directly or indirectly in food production. In the United States, a majority of the population still lived in places considered rural and either worked on farms or at businesses that supported farms. Then came along the modernist idea that said we had too many farmers who did not produce enough cheap food, and the government and scientists engaged in an aggressive campaign to transform agriculture into what their modernized thinking believed it should be.

The result was that the number of people who list their occupation as “farmer” has dropped to less than 2 percent of the population. Meanwhile, most agricultural production in the United States has degenerated to just five major food sources: corn, soybeans, beef, chicken, and milk (yes, there is also pork, but it is not nearly as big as the top five). Further, most of the “food” sold in most grocery stores no longer comes from a farm but from a factory where the constituent components are processed, rendered, and reconstituted into things that look and smell like food but are more like a chemistry experiment gone awry.

And this method of food production has come with a hefty price tag that the world is only just starting to pay. Massive use of chemical fertilizers and killing agents have poisoned the ground, water, and air. There are places that are simply dead because of farm runoff. New, potent super weeds and bugs have come into existence as a result of forced selective breeding from the use of chemicals and medicines in food production. In some places, the obsessive focus on scientific food production (the NPK model) has resulted in farms that have “farmed out” due to the unavailability of the thousands of trace nutrients and soil components plants actually need to be healthy. Compact feeding operations create environmental damage on par with major chemical spills.

All of these problems factor back into the “cheap and accessible” model. Because people still demand inexpensive food they did not grow, modern agriculture must respond with more chemicals, more damaging cultivation methods, more concentrated food production systems, all of which compound the problems even more.

Unless everyone considers another way. AeroFarms, and the thousands of companies like it, are attempting to do something that the modern farming mythology cannot do: return mankind to a society centered around feeding itself–the theme of all of human history–without demanding that modern people give up their urbanized lives to return to rustic farm settings.

Of course, at first such technologies will be expensive and hard to come by, but over time, the best technologies will take hold, become more prevalent, and become less expensive. Further, the locally or self-produced model circumvents the “cheap and accessible” model and adds the benefit of increased local and individual independence from the vagaries of the worldwide economy and commodity markets.

So, if people really want cheap and accessible food, the best way to ensure that goal is for them to grow it themselves or to support those growing it specifically for them. Everyone can have enough food if enough people are growing it, but all of us have to start supporting that idea first.