I’ve come across the question of whether small-scale, organic agriculture can feed the world several times in the last month. The argument goes that we need GMOs and/or large-scale corporate agriculture in order to feed the world’s 7 billion people. Certainly, our growing population presents a number of environmental and social issues aside from the simple measure of how to feed everyone: for example, supplying fresh-water and implications for the planets environmental health. I offer here some thoughts on this topic, not definitive answers, and only musings that are related to our experiences at Deck Family Farm.
False comparisons: Better information and networks of small-farmers have led to increases in production using new techniques and tools. For example, high intensity grazing systems have largely been enabled through the development of better electric fencing and poly-wire that can easily be moved and can easily contain many thousands of cattle per acre and practical to move on a daily basis. Based on communication from members of a local grazing group to which we belong, ranchers have seen at least a 50% increase in available forage by practicing management intensive grazing. Are we taking into account advances in small-scale agriculture while we go on comparing food production to advances in large-scale agriculture?
The network effect: Agriculture benefits hugely from not only government subsidies but from networks of growers working together. Current distribution networks are geared for shipping food long distances, with produce from Chile and meat from New Zealand appearing in grocery stores where local producers could be selling, and many times when a local option is in season. In fact, local producers, by definition, do not have the luxury of shipping long distances. Based on our own farm’s current distribution model, I see a big drawback in the inefficiencies of distribution and concur with critics that “local food” in current practice has a bigger carbon footprint than corporate agriculture. However, we haven’t even begun to give local food a chance, as of latest counts direct to consumer sales of agricultural products is still less than 1% of overall food produced – we need to build networks in order to achieve the same efficiencies that large-scale agriculture has gained.
Local economies: On our own farm, we hire alot of help to work with animals, market product and distribute directly to our customers. We also work extensively with interns, training the next generation in practical farming aspects on a human scale. We do this so we can live a meaningful life, have a hand in food production, and attempt to restore balance to a system in favor of people over corporations. When we look at local producers selling locally, we see a positive economic impact through the local multiplier effect. Currently, America only spends 6% of its income on food, lower than any other country in the world. Is it no wonder that rural America suffers economically while cities become more and more crowded?
Eating the whole animal: Our customers typically only consume white muscle from a chicken and typically do not show an interest in the heads, feet, liver, heart, gizzard, bones or blood from the chicken. My off the cuff guess is that these foods easily represent at least 30% of the nutrients of the overall consumable portion of the chicken. If everyone made use of a whole chicken (or beef, pig, sheep) we would be able to produce much more edible food without changing a thing with our current production practices.
Waste in the system: Grade 1 food selection practices, at least in the United States are overly picky, resulting in grains, fruits, and vegetables being tossed to the compost heap in alarming amounts. Our experiment in growing flax 2 years ago resulting in a nearly 50% loss in the final product due to cleaning and re-cleaning to achieve perfection. Is that necessary? Simply relaxing some of the USDA grading requirements by fractions of a percent for weed seeds would create a dramatic increase in consumable food.
Teasing out the answers to the question of whether many small-scale family farms can feed the world is complex and crosses many disciplines: environment, economics, politics, social welfare, and health. Solving our resources challenge on the planet does not mean we need to blindly accept GMO, massive industrial farms, and sacrificing animal welfare. Rather, we can look to some of the simple solutions we discussed here, such as utilizing the whole chicken and supporting local farmers while building local economies. On the regional level we can support building food distribution networks that look for trading opportunities between counties and states instead of countries and continents. On a national level we can look at where we spend money on farm subsidies and crafting laws that are more favorable to smaller growers.