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Farming into the Future

My friend and colleague Dr. Jeff Ray (USDA-ARS Stoneville) sent me an article that I believe is a worthwhile read. The article by Hidde Boersma and Maarten Boudry titled “Local Farming Can’t Save the Planet” appears on Quillette, an online platform for free thought. Quotes by the authors of the article immediately follow, and set the stage for the remaining narrative.

“Instead of hauling foodstuffs around the globe, we’re told, we need to appreciate local and seasonal crops again.” “The data, however, says otherwise. To be clear, we have nothing against local and seasonal food, including organic and artisanal varieties that come with a heftier price tag. And we both support the idea of urban farming projects, in which city-dwellers grow vegetables in communal lots. All of this enriches our lives by fostering a feeling of connection with nature and with the food coming out of the ground.” “But there is an inconvenient truth that proponents of local and self-sufficient farming tend to ignore: We can’t feed 10 billion people this way without destroying the planet.”

“Organic farming, in particular, represents a form of luxury consumption for well-off westerners who can afford it. If you start crunching the numbers, you’ll find that it is significantly less efficient than conventional farming (by about 20-30 percent), as is local and small-scale farming in general. This inefficiency is not just a question of price and profits; it also means more environmental degradation, more carbon emissions, and more waste per unit of food produced.”

The authors cite a recent study published in Nature that calculated an estimate of only 11-28% of the global population that would be able to get their staple crops (wheat, rice, corn, sorghum) from a source within 100 km (62 miles) of their location. Thus, the remaining population would need to get their food crops from a longer distance away; for half of the world’s population, this distance would typically be more than 1000 km (621 miles). This is because not every region has the appropriate soil and climate for growing the food needed by its populace. Thus, buying local only works if the buyer happens to live in a region with fertile soils and temperate climate suitable for growing the desired food crops.

The authors present a case for shipping food across the planet as being more efficient because the contribution of food transport contributes a surprisingly low 10% of the carbon emissions related to the production, packaging, and distribution of food. Thus, buying local reduces the 10%, but this is more than offset by the other components involved in food production and distribution. This is because farming locally often means farming on less suitable soils that lead to greater use of fertilizer, water, land, and pesticides than if the same food was produced on more productive land and transported to its point of use. In the ideal global agricultural system, producers would grow the food/crops that are best suited to their environment and then trade what they produce with producers of other commodities in other parts of the world.  Sadly, world politics and trade barriers will likely prevent “the ideal global agricultural system”. Thus, there will always be “a feast and famine” reality when it comes to food distribution/availability.

The authors state that agricultural intensification is actually beneficial for nature and biodiversity because growing food more efficiently on land that can be intensely managed reduces the destruction and fragmentation of species habitats. In other words, by growing food more efficiently (more food from less land), more land remains in its natural state or is returned to nature. They cite results from a study reported in Nature that showed that by intensifying production on the most fertile land, 50% of existing farmland could be given back to nature. They conclude that the best approach is to use intensive production techniques on the most productive land in order to minimize agriculture’s footprint and spare more land for nature.

There is no doubt that increased intensification of agricultural production has attained a bad reputation within and among certain groups that are not associated with agriculture. However, it is common knowledge that production problems are more likely to occur on marginal lands where farmers are often unable to restore nutrients to the soil after crop harvest, or where adverse climate and/or drought conditions prevail and lead to continued sub-par yields. And there is nothing wrong with cheap food that has resulted from intense agricultural production. In fact, the less money people spend on food, the more that is available for other things considered necessary to move a society forward. In the authors’ words, “...the notion that cheapness is bad in and of itself reflects an elitist reflex that is offensive to the global majority that feeds itself on a constrained budget. Telling less well-off folks that they should just buy more expensive food is the policy equivalent of telling the sans-culottes to eat cake instead of bread.”

The authors’ case for intensification of agricultural production “is not a plea for business as usual”. They point out there is room for progress with the adoption of: 1) new gene-editing techniques that can improve pest resistance in crops; 2) precision agriculture to lower overall fertilizer use; 3) new cropping practices and natural predators to control pests; and 4) strict zoning policies that are enforced to protect the most productive agricultural land (click here for an article on this website that addresses this need in the U.S.).

I encourage you to read this Quillette article and access the linked articles the authors provide to support their statements. Their presentation and conclusions are based on results that are reported in reputable science journals and publications. Thus, the objectivity of their presentation carries more weight (or certainly should) than those that merely express opinions to support a view or cause of a person or group. Sadly, articles such as this one that is based on sound science too often take a back seat to those in the latter group.

Click here and here for articles on this website that contain content that addresses some of the issues covered in the above Quillette article.

Composed by Larry G. Heatherly, July 2020,