...for all its flaws, the food system we have now manages to more or less feed most of the earth's population. If we didn't have vast factory farms, if we didn't have superefficient agriculture, then we'd starve. ...There are still 800 million hungry people to feed. ...We're in a box.
Or are we? This is a key point: we assume, because it makes a certain kind of intuitive sense, that industrialized farming is the most productive farming. I mean, if I sit on my porch whittling toothpicks with my Swiss Army knife, I can produce a hundred in a day. If I install a toothpick-whittling machine, I can produce a thousand in an hour. By analogy, a vast Midwestern field filled with high-tech equipment ought to produce more food than someone with a hoe in a small garden. As it turns out, however, this simply isn't true. If all you are worried about is the greatest yield per acre, then smaller farms produce more food. Which, if you think about it some more, makes sense. If you are one guy on a tractor responsible for thousands of acres, then you grow your corn and that's all you can do: one pass after another with the gargantuan machines across your sea of crop. But if you're working on ten acres, then you have time to really know the land, and to make it work harder. You can intercrop all kinds of plants: their roots go to different depths, or they thrive in each other's shade, or they make use of different nutrients in the soil....Does this sound like hippie nonsense? According to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture, smaller farms produce far more food per acre, whether you measure in tons, calories, or dollars. They use land, water, and oil much more efficiently; if they have animals, the manure is a gift, not a threat to public health. ...
....But if this is true, why don't we have more small farms? Why the relentless consolidation? There are many reasons, including the way farm subsidies have been structured, the big guys' easier access to bank loans, and the convenience for politically connected food processors of dealing with a few big operations. But the basic reason is this: we have substituted oil for people. The small farm grows more food per acre, but only because it uses more people per acre -- low-input farming in Great Britian employs twice as many people per acre, according to a 2005 study. Since World War I, it has been cheaper to use oil than to use people. Cheap oil has meant synthetic fertilizer, big tractors, and everything else we associate with modern agriculture. You get more food per acre with small farms; more food per dollar with big ones.
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