One of the myths most frequently repeated in defense of big agriculture, when people promote food sovereignty as an alternative, is that it simply isn’t sustainable for the volume of people living on Earth. The implication is that while it is nice for people to eat local when and where they can, it’s not realistic for everyone, and big agriculture is needed to fill in the gaps and make sure everyone gets fed; this, surely, is a noble pursuit, and saying otherwise is to suggest that you think people should starve. Given the number of people worldwide experiencing some level of food insecurity, feeding people is a proposition to be taken very seriously, particularly as the population grows and puts increasing pressure on suppliers to meet its needs.
The vision of people going hungry because of some selfish and idealistic hippies who are so obsessed with local food that they refuse to think about the safety of the food supply comes to mind, and it can be difficult to counter this argument. Local foodsheds, we are informed, are simply too small to accommodate the needs of all the people living in them, and this is a particular issue with megacities with millions of residents, which can’t realistically be supported on the surrounding land. Consequently, big agriculture has to stay, and grow as time goes on to feed growing numbers of people.
Yet, some more careful analysis puts the lie to some of these claims, especially if expectations about food are adjusted.
I happen to live in an area where very high expectations about food availability are routinely met. The grocery store stocks copious amounts of fresh produce and fruit year round. Off the top of my head, I’d say that onions, tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes, lemons, limes, oranges, apples, mangoes, avocados, carrots, cilantro, ginger, kiwis, hot peppers, bell peppers, eggplants, garlic, squash, grapefruit, green onions, mushrooms, basil, lemongrass, peas, bok choi, broccoli, radishes, cauliflower, and melons are routinely available, usually in several varieties. I am forgetting a number of things on this list, I should note, because it primarily includes things I buy often and expect to find; I never ask myself if Harvest will have any bell peppers.
Even in the depths of winter. We’re acculturated to having a huge assortment of produce available all the time, regardless of the season and the weather conditions. This is not actually the case in other regions of the United States; when I was living in Vermont I was shocked that avocados weren’t always available, and when they were, they were extremely expensive. I benefit from living near a center of major agricultural production, and living in an area where enough wealthy people live to support a steady market for imported food—because the tags on most of this produce indicate that it comes from Chile, Argentina, Mexico, in some cases New Zealand. This is far from a local foodshed, yet our local foodshed is producing a lot of food.
In February, for example, we were harvesting large numbers of leafy greens at the Food Forest, along with lettuce from the hoop houses. Herbs produce year round when well cared for. Were we committed to using a local foodshed, we’ve have food sources from the Anderson Valley to use as well as those on the coast, making it possible to access crops like corn which don’t grow well along the coast. One could, in fact, eat locally, and eat well, especially with the benefit of preserved foods from the more productive summer months when lots of food is readily available—so much, in fact, that some of it can go to waste simply because it’s not possible to eat it all.
It’s possible to produce extremely high volumes of food in small spaces; biointensive methods take more work, but actually produce more food, and the food tends to be of better quality. It requires more staff members, which directly contributes to job creation and the development of skilled trade. Workers on a biointensive farm can harvest steadily for a constant stream of fresh local produce that can be distributed through farm shares, markets, or wholesale distributors working with grocery stores. A linkage of small farms across a region can actually collectively meet the needs of residents, establishing food sovereignty, especially if residents are willing to adjust their expectations, which, yes, means farewell to frequent cheap avocados for me.
Industrial agriculture is tremendously resource intensive and wasteful. Cities could be sustained more efficiently on biointensive techniques; and many are close enough to rural areas to form a reasonably local foodshed for their residents, especially if they promote smart and sound development. City residents complain about being disconnected from their food and start backyard and porch gardens, which can be great, but basing ideas about food sovereignty on these gardens is not so great. You can’t feed a city from the decks of residents with the space, time, and energy to grow food on their decks, but you can feed a city with a ring of biointensive farms that supplies residents with food.
Fundamental assumptions about big agriculture are often wrong, and are often based on knowledge that agricultural companies want to promote, like the idea that it’s not possible to produce enough food using environmentally-friendly farming methods. Or that the shortage of food in the world is a problem linked to farm production, rather than to resource distribution; the United States is not the only nation sitting on large stockpiles of food that rot before they reach anyone, because of inefficiency and outright hostility in the food distribution system, and this is a bigger problem than per acre yields of wheat.