The Price of Convenience
There are many ways in America today to prepare a meal. For most, a meal results after a trip to a local chain grocery store where staples or prepared, frozen meals are purchased and then cooked at home into what passes for dinner. Some view dinner or another meal as a quick trip through the drive thru at the neighborhood McDonalds. For very few Americans, a meal results after a trip to the local farmer’s market or their own backyard garden patch to see what nature has provided on that particular day. Of the above three groups, it is a safe bet that the later is the preferable method to procure food for both individual and environmental health. In fact, the last methodology is still the favored form of food preparation for much of the world and was the one incorporated by most Americans until World War II heralded in the industrial food era.
The modern food industry has certainly made food convenient. In our hurried, hard-working, productive society, food preparation time is a luxury many believe they cannot afford, but convenience does come at a price. The basic laws of physics dictate there is no proverbial free lunch, and the energy Americans personally save in food preparation must be spent somewhere else in the system to make convenience foods possible. Every step of modern convenience has an energetic, nutritional and environmental cost, and that cost is usually paid with fossil fuels and public health.
According to Michael Pollan, our food system consumes more fossil fuels than any other sector of the economy with the exception of automobiles, a whopping 19 percent. When combined with the way food is grown, cattle is raised, etc., our eating habits are contributing as much as 37% to the total greenhouse gasses produced in the United States. The energy input of putting the crop in the ground is only the tip of the iceberg. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are made from fossil fuels. We burn even more fossil fuels transporting food from one side of the world to the other, and then, in order to make foods even more convenient, more energy is expended to manufacture and assemble the final packaged product that appears in our neighborhood grocer’s freezer case. Our new mechanized food industry is so energetically costly that it would surprise most people to know that for every calorie of food created, ten calories of fossil fuel are consumed. In 1940, 2.3 calories of food were created for every single calorie of fossil fuel burned. Our food supply is now so intimately tied with our energy supply, we may find ourselves simultaneously experiencing a food crisis alongside the predicted energy crisis if something doesn’t occur soon to change the way we grow, distribute and prepare food.
In her book Stolen Harvest, Vandana Shiva notes that for every 100 energetic outputs of traditional organic farming, 5 inputs were necessary; therefore, five yields 100, which is a net profit of 95. In industrial agriculture 300 inputs in terms of fossil fuels and other resources yields the same 100 outputs. In this case, there is a net loss of 200 outputs for each 100 yielded. This formula will quickly bankrupt the world if the foolishness of the bad math of modern industrialized agriculture is not soon reversed .
Proponents of modern agricultural techniques proclaim that only through the use of modern technologies such as generous applications of chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers and use of genetically modified crops (GMOs), will we be able to meet the needs of the world’s growing population for food. However, scientific realities on the ground do not bear this out. In fact, in study after study, it has been found that organic and traditional agriculture is comparable with and often exceeds productivity of conventional (i.e. chemical) agriculture, particularly when integrated systems such as permaculture, crop rotations, use of leguminous cover crops and regular applications of manure from livestock are incorporated.
When one factors in all of the other variables that go into modern ‘conventional’ agriculture, it is an extremely inefficient way to grow food for the world. Most of the calculations for productivity only measure the outputs of a given crop; however, this form of measurement is flawed. It would be the same as running a business and only looking at the gross profits and ignoring all of the costs of production and operation. From a purely financial standpoint, we know that modern agriculture in the United States is inefficient. The industrialization of agriculture has led to the financial ruin of the traditional American small farm, and the modern industry is heavily subsidized by the taxpayer. Without ongoing subsidy, the industry as it exists today would perish.
Regardless of the inefficiency of the economics of modern agriculture, the entire system is flawed in terms of productivity. Organic farming has relatively few inputs, i.e. seed, water, manure, labor to put the crop in the field and sunshine. Before industrialization, each of these inputs was ‘free’ to the farmer. He traded seed with his neighbors and saved some stock from each year’s harvest for the following year. Manure was provided by the livestock he raised along with his crops. His livestock also pulled a plow and provided some of the labor, with additional labor being provided by the farmer’s family and community. Water and sunshine were provided by nature.
The modern farmer must buy his seed every year from one of the agro industrial giants, usually Monsanto, as most modern hybrid crops do not breed true from seed, so the farmer must buy new seed each year. Furthermore, even if saving seed were a viable occupation, it is now illegal to do so. Monsanto and friends in the agro industry have legal control of the seed supply in the form of patents. Even if the farmer could save his seed and replant it, he is sued for doing so, often to the point of financial ruin.
If grown according to the manufacturer’s instructions, which includes liberal dosing of the site prior to planting with Roundup (an herbicide also manufactured by Monsanto), pesticides and applications of fertilizers, the technologically-advanced hybrid or GMO crop will grow and produce well; however, if the farmer wants to grow his hybrid crop the old fashioned way (i.e. with sun, manure and water) it will most likely fail. It seems the new ‘superior’ crops need a lot of extra help in the form of Monsanto chemicals in order to produce their promised yields. The chemicals necessary to bring the crop in are not cheap. Many a farmer has gone bankrupt after mortgaging his farm to pay up front for seed and chemicals only to have his crop fail due to a hail storm or drought.
Just as our bodies are comprised of the building blocks from the food we eat, a plant’s biomass is derived from the nutrients it harvests from the soil. Rather than nitrogen, carbon, phosphorus and sulfur from organic natural sources such as rain and recycled biomass, our plants are now literally growing on crude oil.
Growing one’s own food or buying locally produced food at a farmer’s market will not only make one healthier, it will significantly improve the health of our communities and the planet. Spending a beautiful day outside in the fresh air at a market or in one’s backyard can potentially reduce our national consumption of fossil fuels by almost 20% and connect us with our communities and our food. Given the options, why would anybody want to spend their time breathing in exhaust fumes at a drive through?
Michael Polan, Farmer in Chief, from the New York Times Magazine, October 12, 2008.
Shiva, V. Stolen Harvest
Zundel and Kilcher, Issues Paper: Organic Agriculture and Food Availability. Research Institute for Organic Agriculture.