Greg Roach's Berkshires Blog
Saturday, August 08, 2009
Ms. Huberdeau writes a great piece on this year's tomato blight. Usually I get a few hundred pounds of "seconds" from local farmers to make sauce, etc... This year I have only been able to purchase 12 pounds.
Two years ago, she said, the farm harvested so many tomatoes that, after giving the crop shares to their members, they were able to can 50 gallons of sauce for the Berkshire Food Project. In a recent newsletter to farm members, Zasada said the farm would be "lucky to distribute a handful of tomatoes to farm members."
This leads me to another thought about food production in the United States. I have raised the eyebrows of many a foodie when I have been confronted with the absolutism of certain food movements.

As a chef who loves cooking with and promoting local organic agriculture most people assume that I MUST believe certain things about how food must be grown and who should grow it. And, yes, I do think that low-impact, sustainable agriculture (L.I.S.A.) is the ideal, but while it works on the small scale, no one has quite figured out how to feed 6.7 BILLION people effectively exclusively using "natural" methods, not even Michael Pollan.

And Frankly, I am more interested in making sure people don't go hungry.

Sometimes, the perfect is the enemy of the good.

Currently, when it comes to feeding the masses, non-organic farming wins out. I prefer organics. I prefer local. I prefer all sorts of things that are not realistic when it comes to feeding the entirety of New York City or Beijing or Sudan.

No one is going to starve in the Berkshires or the United States because of a regional tomato blight, but around 170 years ago, many of my relatives perished in Ireland because of a single type of crop failure. And in Africa, the use of fertilizers and such is one of the main components of warding off famine, pestilence and the violence such strife brings. I hope that the best practices of responsible contemporary farming make their way into the developing world, but more importantly I hope that people get fed. I cannot rationalize letting one single person die in the developing world because of our desire to implement more genteel methods of agriculture.

Food used to take up somewhere around 40% of the typical American family's budget. These days it is more like 10%. That is both good and bad. Small farmers are grossly undercompensated and junk food based upon cheap processed sugars, fats and cereal grains make up too much of our collective diet. Chemicals and farm waste cause countless environmental issues which probably lead to latent disease in humans.

But, because of modern agriculture and the social safety net (food stamps), the idea of famine in the developed world is a distant memory. And that fact alone might be one of the greatest American achievements of the 20th century.

Can we do better with safer and more conscientious food production? Certainly.

But are we going to break out the torches and pitchforks because of a failed tomato crop? Not in 2009, and thank goodness for that because it was not always the case.
One lesson of late blight is the importance of biodiversity. Sure, most of us won't eat many local/organic tomatoes this summer, and that sucks in a "gee, I love those tomato salads" kind of way.

But on the other hand, we continue to eat a ton of bounty from local farms - greens, cabbage, beets, carrots, beans, peas, corn, etc. A farm that grows biodiverse crops can weather interruptions to any single one (or two) of its crop varieties.

Most industrial farms, though, aren't biodiverse or even close. Most grow only a few species of plants, they are monoculture all the way, and they rely on a fully functioning thousand-mile transportation system to get those species to the consumer.

It's not impossible to imagine something that interrupts that vast system -- either a particularly pernicious bug that is custom-suited to thrive in the conditions that exist on our nation's monoculture farmlands, or even a dramatic and sudden interruption of our transportation system (something I saw when living overseas -- one day, transportation function, the next day it doesn't, and it's amazing how quickly things break down after that).

Should either of those things happen, we may well be picking up our torches and pitchforks yet.
I don't disagree at all. The lack of biodiversity in 19th century Ireland is why my great-great-great-great grandfather, Garrett Roach, got on a boat to Boston.

The problems of industrial agriculture that you describe are simply a by-product of somewhat misguided attempts at efficiency. Economies of scale cause all sorts of problems when things don't go as planned. I wish that we could somehow mandate regional agri-diversity so that poor weather in California's Central Valley doesn't screw up lettuce for the entire nation, etc... I also would love to see the entire distribution system revamped for all sorts of reasons, the biggest being food safety.

However, it seems unlikely to me that even with biodiversity and best-case production scenarios, that agriculture in the northeast could support its own massive human population. We simply do not have the climate to feed 50,000,000+ people locally. Collectively we must import a sizable percentage of our food from other regions or half of us need to move south and/or west.

And, if we can de-centralize production of staples, we can hopefully avoid the pitchfork scenario.

BTW, I like the fact that I can have these dialogues without offending you. The are those among my circle of foodie friends who think I am a heretic.
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A blog of random thoughts and reactions emanating from the bank of a mountain stream in the farthest reaches of the bluest of blue states.

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