Sunday, March 25, 2012

Three Tough Questions, Part 2: Is It Viable?

A hoop-house at Laughing Dog Farm, Gill, MA, in late March
When you talk about food relocalization with farmers and others who embrace the industrial capitalist logic of maximizing efficiency in farming, you tend to hear one phrase over and over again:  "You can't feed the world that way."  The immediate snappy answer, of course, is, "We're not trying to feed the world--we're trying to figure out how to feed individual regions, as used to happen before the food supply became so industrialized, commoditized, and globalized."  But even if you accept (as I do) that this is a crucial task, the question is still one that should be pondered.  Can we go back to feeding the world on a region-by-region basis?  More specifically, can we do it here in New England?

That's the question posed in the two videos embedded at the end of this post. The speakers are friends and colleagues:  farmer and Brandeis University environmental historian Brian Donahue and John Piotti, executive director of the Maine Farmland Trust. Drawing on ideas and calculations that Donahue, in particular, has been developing over many years, the two presentations walk through what it would take for the region to become largely self-sufficient once again in food production.  They conclude that it's probably viable, but it requires (among other things) that those who are intently focused on the local broaden their vision to the larger regional scale.  Thinking on that scale, they point out various conditions that would need to be met:
  • Six or seven million acres of farmland would need to be devoted to food production.  This is comparable to what existed in the region just before the watershed moment of World War II, when fossil fuels really became the bedrock of an increasingly industrialized agriculture.
  • Population (currently just over 14 million people) would need to continue to grow fairly slowly, to around 17 million people 50 years from now.  Out of this 15 million, there would need to be 50-100,000 people farming, not really that much of an increase from the 30,000 who are doing it now.
  • We would need to eat in healthier ways--more fruits and vegetables, less red meat, more fish, lower calories overall (you know--the way we already know we should be eating!).
  • More concerted efforts would need to be made to protect farmland and to make it affordable and possible for farmers to cultivate it.
  • New England farmers would have to develop modes of pasturing animals without just stripping forest cover and depleting upland soils, as was done during the sheep and dairy booms of the 19th and 20th centuries.  
  • They would also have to continue developing smart ways of extending the growing season (for example, via hoop-houses, which are proliferating virally around the New England landscape at present).
  • The region would have to import at least some of its grain.  Donahue points out that western farms can produce and ship feed grain, in particular, much more efficiently than our smaller farms, so why not let them do it? 
Under these conditions, Donahue and Piotti believe that New England could make itself 80% food self-sufficient in the next half-century (during which they also expect that energy prices will continue to rise, making all of these changes more economically feasible and urgent).

This scenario raises many questions, which both speakers acknowledge.  What would create the political will to get us there, particularly in terms of protecting and giving farmers access to those additional millions of acres of farmland?  How do we get more people to internalize all the "externalities" that go into producing food (land costs, subsidies of various kinds, and so on)?  How can we guarantee equitable access to this good healthy food when it's going to continue to be more expensive to produce than the commodified versions we find in supermarkets and big box stores? 

What I like about these two talks is not just that they're up front about these questions and generally hopeful that we're already on the way toward addressing and answering them.  More interesting to me is the really ecumenical and non-ideological vision that both Donahue and Piotti hold for the future of New England farming, and the flexible, thoughtful way they're drawing on history.  Donahue's emphasis on thinking regionally rather than just locally echoes the ideas of his fellow historian James McWilliams, who has argued in A Revolution in Eating:  How the Quest for Food Shaped America (Columbia University Press, 2007) that even in the colonial era, Americans were always linked in to regional, inter-regional, and global networks of trade. 

On a similar note, Piotti tells his listeners, "You shouldn't think of the commodity track as what's old and what's past, and the local agriculture track as what's hot and hip and new and the future."  Rather, he sees both tracks as "mutually reinforcing," with commodity farms making grain prices affordable for small mixed farms and many possible hybridized models that combine old and new, mechanized and muscle-powered, local, regional, and even global networks.  This is a way to use historical knowledge and models without fetishizing them or seeing them as sharply distinct from industrial methods or larger-scale markets, as both hard-core locavores and the living-history/farm museum approach tend to do. It took more than a century to create that sharp distinction in most Americans' minds, and erasing it again may also take some time--but smart thinkers like these two can help us to get there faster!  (If you have 20 minutes to spare, I urge you to spend it on one of these two talks.)

Brian Donahue, "Can we grow more food in New England?" from John Gerber on Vimeo (March 2011)

John Piotti, "Can New England Feed Itself?" from TEDxHarvardLaw (December 2011)

No comments:

Post a Comment