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Broken Agriculture

I didn’t mean to lead anyone down the garden path. Adding my small voice to those urging Americans replace their lawns with food plants wasn’t, in itself, a bad idea. But now that food shortages and high costs are in the headlines, too many people are getting the idea that the solution to America’s and the world’s food problems is for all of us in cities and suburbia to grow our own. It’s not.

Don’t get me wrong: Growing food just outside your front or back door is an extraordinarily good idea, and if it’s done without soil erosion or toxic chemicals, I can think of no downside. Edible landscaping can look good, and it saves money on groceries; it’s a direct provocation to the toxic lawn culture; gardening is quieter and less polluting than running a power mower or other contraption; the harvest provides a substitute for industrially grown produce raised and picked by underpaid, oversprayed workers; and tending a garden takes a lot of time, time that might otherwise be spent in a supermarket or shopping mall.

So it was in 2005 that our family volunteered our front lawn to be converted into the first in a now-expanding chain of “Edible Estates”[1], the brainchild of Los Angeles architect/artist Fritz Haeg. We already had a backyard garden, but growing food in the front yard (which, as Haeg himself points out, is a reincarnation of a very old idea) has been a wholly different, equally positive experience.

Our perennials and annuals are thriving, we’ve gotten a lot of publicity, and I’ve been talking about the project for almost three years. Yet neither of our gardens, front or back, can stand up to the looming agricultural crisis. Good food’s most well-read advocate, Michael Pollan, has written that growing a garden is worth doing even though it can make only a tiny contribution to curbing carbon-dioxide emissions.[2] He might have added that growing food is worth it even if it does very little to revive the nation’s food system.

World cropland: the pie is mostly crust

The edible-landscaping trend is catching on across the country, and with food prices rising, it has taking sadly predictable turns. A Boulder, Colo. entrepreneur, for example, has tilled up his and several of his neighbors’ yards and started an erosion-prone, for-profit vegetable-farming operation. It will supplement his income, but it won’t make a nick in the food crisis.

That’s because the mainstays of home gardening — vegetables and fruits — are not the foundation of the human diet or of world agriculture. Each of those two food types occupies only about 4 percent of global agricultural land (and a smaller percentage in this country), compared with 75 percent of world cropland devoted to grains and oilseeds. Their respective portions of the human diet are similar.

Suppose that half of the land on every one-acre-or-smaller urban/suburban home lot in the entire nation were devoted to food-growing. That would amount to a little over 5 million acres sown to food plants, covering most of the space on each lot that’s not already covered by the house, a deck, a patio, or a driveway. (And in many places it couldn’t be done without cutting down shade trees and planting on unsuitably steep slopes).

That theoretical 5 million acres of potential home cropland compares with about 7 million acres of America’s commercial cropland currently in vegetables, fruits, and nuts, and 350 to 400 million acres of total farmland. The urban and suburban area to be brought into production would not approach the number of healthy acres of native grasses and other plants that are slated to be plowed up and sickened to make way for yet more corn, wheat, soybeans, and other grains under the newly passed federal Farm Bill.

A nationwide grow-your-own wave would send good vibes through society, ripples that could be greatly amplified by community and apartment-block gardening. But front- and backyard food, even if everyone grew it, would not cover the country’s produce needs, much less displace our huge volume of fresh-food imports.

We could, instead, plant every yard to wheat, corn, or soybeans, which would account only for a little over two percent of the US land sown to those crops. Other policies, like dispensing with grain-fed meat and fuel ethanol, would free up far more grain-belt land than that.

Not even a poke in the eye

I’ve played a part in the promotion of domestic food-growing, and I now I seem to hear daily from people who believe that it’s the best alternative to industrial agriculture (as in, “I’ll show Monsanto and Wal-Mart that I don’t need their food!”). Even though most prominent home-lot food efforts, like the “100-Foot Diet Challenge”[3], also try to draw attention to bigger issues, the wider message can get lost in the excitement. Whatever its benefits, replacing your lawn with food plants will not give Big Agribusiness the big poke in the eye that it needs, nor will it save the agricultural landscapes of the nation or world.

To do that, the big-commodity market must be not just modified but overthrown. Until then, most of that two-thirds or more of the human calorie and protein intake that comes from grains and oilseeds (directly in most of the world or among Western vegetarians, largely via animal products for others in this country) will continue to be served up by a dirty, cruel, unfair, broken system.

Essential for providing vitamins, minerals, and other compounds, a highly varied diet is important, and home gardens around the world help provide such a diet. But with a world population now approaching seven billion people and most good cropland already in use, only rice, wheat, corn, beans, and other grain crops are productive and durable enough to provide the dietary foundation of calories and protein.

Grains made up about the same portion of the ancient Greek diet as they do of ours. We’ve been stuck with grains for 10,000 years, and our dependence won’t be broken any time soon.

The United States emulate Argentina and a handful of other countries and by raising cattle that are totally grass-fed instead of grain-fed and thereby consuming less corn and soybean meal. But most of the world is utterly dependent on grains. The desperate people we saw on the evening news earlier this year, filling the streets in dozens of countries, were calling for bread or rice, not cucumbers and pomegranates.

Capitalism: It doesn’t go well with food

Humanity’s attachment to cereals, grain legumes, and oilseeds has acquired a much harder edge in the industrial era, but as a base for political and economic power, the staple grains have always been unsurpassed. Because they hold calories and nutrients in a dense package that can be easily stored for long periods and transported, the more fortunate members of ancient societies could accumulate surpluses. Those surpluses are recognized by the majority of scholars as necessary to the birth of market economies, which allowed the prosperous to exercise control over society’s have-nots. Eventually, states used control over grains to exert political power over entire populations.

Few foods could have filled that role. Noting that before grain agriculture came along, ancient Egyptians might have gathered a surplus of various foods from nature, most of them highly perishable, economic historian Robert Allen once wrote, “If all a tax collector could get from foragers was a load of waterlilies that would wilt by next morning, what was the point of having them?” The Pharaohs managed to exert control over the area’s population only after people started farming wheat and barley.

The even bigger problem with grains — which are short-lived annual plants, grown largely in monoculture — is that they supplanted the diverse, perennial plant ecosystems that covered the earth before the dawn of agriculture. We’ve been living with the resulting soil erosion and water pollution ever since.[4]

Then, when grains became fully commodified a couple of centuries ago, things really started to go downhill. In discussing his new book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, Raj Patel has cited India as an example: “The social safety nets that existed in India under feudal society had been knocked away by the British. If people couldn’t afford food, they didn’t get to eat, and if they couldn’t buy food, they starved. As a result of the imposition of markets in food, 13 million people across the world died in the 19th century. They died in the golden age of liberal capitalism. Those are the origins of markets in food.”

Indeed, if capitalism were a wine, it would be a wine that doesn’t go well with any type of food.

Most food today is produced not as an end in itself but as a by-product of a global economy with the singular goal of turning maximum profit. That is a dysfunctional arrangement, as Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, the founder of ecological economics explained almost 40 years ago in his book The Entropy Law and the Economic Process: “So vital is the dependence of terrestrial life on the energy received from the sun that the cyclic rhythm in which this energy reaches each region on the earth has gradually built itself through natural selection into the reproductive pattern of almost every species, vegetal or animal … Yet the general tenor among economists has been to deny any substantial difference between the structures of agricultural and industrial productive activities.”

Industrial or commercial output can be increased by building more capacity, stepping up the consumption of inputs, taking on more workers, and pushing workers harder and for longer hours. Farming, by contrast, is inevitably bound by the calendar – by month-to-month variation in the capacity of soil and sunlight to support the growth of plants. It depends fundamentally on the productivity and the habits of non-human biological organisms over which humans can exert control only up to a point.

That clearly isn’t the ideal pattern for efficient wealth generation, so the past century has seen relentless efforts to mold agriculture into the factory model as closely as possible and, where that can’t be done, to graft more easily regimented industries — farm machinery, fertilizers, chemicals, food processing, the restaurant industry, packaging, advertising — onto an agricultural rootstock. In the US, the dollar outputs of those dependent industries are growing at two to four times the rate of agriculture’s own dollar output, putting ever-greater demands on the soil.

With a wholesale shift toward mechanization of US agriculture, 75 percent of economic output now comes from fewer than 7 percent of farms; furthermore, there has been a steep rise in the proportion of farms owned by investors living in distant cities (some of them perhaps avid urban gardeners).

Because, as Georgescu-Roegen showed, there’s a fundamental difference between the farm and the factory, the well-used term “factory farming” represents more an aspiration than an accomplished fact. Nevertheless, agribusiness’s attempts to defy natural rhythms and achieve industrial efficiency have been ecologically devastating.[5] The biofuel craze, encouraged by subsidies that continue in the new Farm Bill, compounds the problem.

“We must cultivate our garden,” and …

To repair the broken system that supplies the bulk of the nation’s diet will require Americans to step out of the garden and into the public arena. Beyond working to get a better Farm Bill passed five years from now, we have to work together to break the political choke-hold that agribusiness has on federal and state governments.

With land and wealth being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands (and with more prisoners than farmers in today’s America) we have actually reached a point at which land reform is as necessary here as it is in any nation of Latin America or Asia. Only when we get more people back on the land, working to feed people and not Monsanto, will the system have a chance to work. Most home gardeners know that the root of the problem is political, but the agricultural establishment would like nothing better than to see us spend all of our free time in our gardens and not in political dissent.

Ironically, it’s that great troublemaker Voltaire who has too often been trotted out (and too often misquoted) as an advocate of withdrawing from the tumult of society, into tending one’s own property. Voltaire was indeed a gardener, and he did end his most famous novel by having Candide, after surviving so many far-flung hazards, utter those famous words to his fellow wanderer Dr. Pangloss: “We must cultivate our garden.”

However, with the publication of Candide in 1759, Voltaire entered the most politically active part of his life, as he “went on to a series of confrontations with the consequences of human cruelty that, two hundred-odd years later, remain stirring in their courage and perseverance,” in the words of Adam Gopnik.[6]

If Voltaire could find the time for both gardening and radical political action, then all of us can do it.

STAN COX is author of Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine (Pluto Press, 2008). He can be reached: t.stan@cox.net

Notes

1. www.fritzhaeg.com/
2. New York Times, 20 April 2008
3. http://urbanhomestead.org/
4. Glover et al., Scientific American, August 2007.
5. https://www.counterpunch.org/cox12152005.html
6. Gopnik, The New Yorker, 7 March 2005

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Stan Cox (@CoxStan) is an editor at Green Social Thought, where this article first ran. He is author of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing and, with Paul Cox, of How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, From the Caribbean to Siberia

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