Good Food is Inefficient, and That’s the Point

by Megan Hosterman

The tech sector is finding new ways to make food efficient, and natural systems and cultural heritage across the country stand to be left behind.

At a conference last fall in Oakland CA, two entrepreneurs stood in front of a room of urban planners, political officials, and business leaders, to share their vision for food production of the future. In a single retrofitted warehouse, their technology would create organic food along with water purification and reuse that would revolutionize agriculture. Dense and centralized food production using the latest and greatest technology could feed the world’s urban centers, and retire the need for land and water for agricultural production.

Their thinking is not unique. Many companies, scientists, and government leaders are calling for innovations to solve the very complicated problem of anthropogenic overshoot. Even Bill Nye (the science guy) recently changed his position on GMOs, supporting the controversial approach to growing food because GMOs are engineered to grow more food on less land and using less water. The theme is common: Inventions that can outwit the capacity of Earth as we continue to procreate, consume, and emit at unprecedented global rates means we all get to keep doing what we’re doing and no one gets hurt.

The problem with the notion of inventing our way out of the problem of overpopulation, mass consumption, and climate change, is that it negates a very basic and important cornerstone of what it means to be human. Agriculture, equal parts art and science, has led civilization toward advancement for the past 10,000 years. Though agriculture has widely become synonymous with Monsanto’s “suicide seeds” and corporate feedlots that have managed to trade the art of agriculture for the art of business, the truth is that agriculture, like most things, is incredibly diverse in its history, environmental impacts, economic costs and benefits, and social influence.

As suburbs sprawl and urban centers grow in population, more Americans have become disconnected from their food and water sources (72 % of consumers know nothing or very little about where their food comes from) and critical of the highly publicized negative impacts of agriculture. Last year, during California’s water drought, the almond implored anger from the recently water conscious for its1,929 gallons of water used per pound, and ranching has long been derided as irresponsible and obsolete. It appears that most Americans have long forgotten Farmer-poet Wendell Berry’s timeless advice, “eating is an agricultural act.”

Farming and ranching, and the people who do it, are diverse. Farmers I’ve met range from 80 year-old Hispanic farmers in northern New Mexico, who produce food on small tracts of land that have been in their families for over 400 years, to starry-eyed hippies in the foothills of southern Colorado who have embraced a new Back-to-the-Land movement as a symbol of activism against globalized capitalism. Some ranchers I’ve met, use sustainable methods that actually help grass grow, while others degrade public lands to dust and demand they get to do it for free – and most are somewhere in between. Some farmers use pesticides, and others use organic compost. Some ranchers shoot wolves, while others see the presence of predators as a blessing; it means the ecosystem is well. But all ranchers and farmers share a sense of protecting a heritage that demands their attunement to nature, be it seedlings or calves; droughts or floods. In rural communities across the country, that heritage ties people together through social trust and a common understanding of how the world works.

Producing food requires a lot of land and a lot of water to irrigate that land. Agriculture uses 51% of US land and 80% of water. Privately owned ranches and farms require an immense amount of time and hard work. The use of land and water to grow good food is not efficient – And the real value of private agriculture is not even monetary. The use of so much land and water provides not only food, but can also provide wildlife habitat, scenic views, outdoor recreation, and puts water to use near the river it comes from which means it soaks back into the ground to continue the water cycle.

“In a world of trade-offs, perhaps the most important value of vast swaths of privately held agricultural lands across the country are a safeguard against development.”

In a world of trade-offs, perhaps the most important value of vast swaths of privately held agricultural lands across the country are a safeguard against development. One acre of farm or ranchland is lost every minute in the US (American Farmland Trust). Suburban sprawl, industrial development, and the general fragmentation of land and piping of water creates places that do not need to be sustained, and instead can be used up and thrown away.

In this sense, agricultural producers represent a 10,000-yearlong heritage of husbandry and stewardship, in the face of emerging technological panaceas that have the potential to erase that heritage and transform rural places. In an unlikely best case scenario that would require extreme governmental foresight and a lot of tax dollars, that transformation could look like protected preserves and public parks, solar fields, and wind farms, where restoration of natural systems exceeds the environmental benefits of agriculture. In the worst case scenario that sustains oligarchic tendencies of the free market, that transformation could look like dams and water pipelines that dry up rivers, tangles of roads travelled by diesel semis, and oil and gas wells as far as the eye can see. In the best case, rural communities will likely be left behind as their livelihoods are desecrated in exchange for a tourism economy that is almost always followed by a service economy. In the worst case scenario, rural communities will likely be left behind as their livelihoods are desecrated in exchange for a corporate paradigm that directly conflicts with long-term stewardship of natural resources. Unintended consequences should be taken seriously.

We are hard-wired to expect that efficiency is always the best way forward. The tech companies we love have built entire brands around it, and our frustrations when dealing with inefficient government bureaucracy (been to the DMV recently, anyone?) prove it. But food production is not the same as technology. Good food is inefficient, and that’s the point.

Megan Hosterman is an environmental planner experienced in agricultural conservation and land management in the Western United States.

Published in September 2017

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