Fighting Over the Farm

The old North American farm is experiencing a revival – yuppies swapping the comforts of city life for overalls and buckets of manure, municipal bylaw officials  debating the merits of backyard chicken coops, the explosion of farmer’s markets, community gardens, high-end restaurants specializing in local food, and home-delivery services of fresh produce from nearby farms.  And this movement is getting a push by many –  from Michelle Obama’s garden on the back White House lawn to the authors of the 100-mile diet plan.  Their message is the same – we need to end our dependence on a corn-based junk food diet.  And it can be done, they say, by getting to know your local farmer better which in turn will help you to make wiser choices about what you put into your mouth (and at the same time support the local economy and save the environment).  It all sounds good to me.  Buy local.

But now, as Macleans magazine reports, enter two Canadian academics with a controversial new book in which they argue that far from making our communities healthier and more self-sufficient – the championing of the local food movement will raise food prices, cause hunger, and lead to more incidents of food poisoning.  The two professors state that much of the gains the world has made in food supply and security over the past fifty years has come in changing our agricultural system from the small family farm to the giant conglomerate kind with emphasis on specialized production (which food activists despise).  To this husband-and-wife team, corporations that control huge swaths of the North American food supply – the McDonald’s and Walmarts of the world –  have made food cheaper and safer, cutting the rate of the outbreak of food-borne illnesses by a hundred-fold over the past century.  Food activists, they contend, would rather turn back the clock on these modern developments, close the door to trade, and return to a world where families toiled the land, pesticide-and fertilizer-free, then squeaked by on what they could earn from selling their goods at the local farmer’s market.  The authors then present facts to demonstrate how far they believe we’ve come agriculturally – today it takes less than 1/10th of an acre to feed a single person for an entire year, the earth’s population has passed seven billion but the world’s people going hungry has decreased from 40% to 15%, the cost of food has dropped from 23% of a family’s income in 1930 to 9% in 2011, if the same technology used to raise cattle in 1955 was used to raise cattle now we’d need 165 million more acres, and on they go.  These purveyors of the 10,000-mile diet plan end with this – “If it were only an educational movement, we wouldn’t have any problem with the local food philosophy, but increasingly it’s becoming a way of sticking it to the man.”

And my opinion as the pastor of a church in the middle of an agricultural county?  Well, I was informed by one of our farmers of an even bigger problem –  disappearing farmland.  And my research verifies their concern.  In the last 25 years, 45 million acres of farmland in North America has been lost to urban development.  That’s over one acre per minute. If this keeps up, soon there won’t be enough good soil for anyone to fight over!