Grains provide more calories, or energy, per weight than lean meat. Meat protein is easily transformed into body structure—one reason why foragers tend to be taller than farmers—but turning protein into energy exacts a high metabolic cost and is inefficient. Starches and sugars, the main components of plants, are much more easily converted into calories than protein, and calories are the main limiting factor in reproduction. A shift from meat-based to carbohydrate-based calories means that given equal amounts of protein, a group getting its calories mostly from plants will reproduce much faster than one getting its calories from meat. It’s one reason farming cultures have higher birth rates than foragers.Empires of Food: Review (Weston Price Foundation)
Also, farming loosens the linkage between ecological damage and food supply. If foragers decimate the local antelope herd, it means starvation and a low birth rate for the hunters. If the hunters move or die off, the antelope herd will rebound quickly. But when a forest is cleared for crops, the loss of biodiversity translates into more food for people. Soil begins to deplete immediately but that won’t be noticed for many years. When the soil is finally ruined, which is the fate of nearly all agricultural soils, it will stunt ecological recovery for decades. But while the soil is steadily eroding, crops will support a growing village.
All these factors—storable food, surplus, calories from carbohydrates, and slow feedback from degrading ecosystems—lead inevitably to rising populations in farming cultures. It’s no coincidence, then, that farmers are also conquerors. A growing population needs more land. Depleted farmland forces a population to take over virgin soil. In comparison, forager cultures are usually very site specific: they know the habits of particular species and have a culture built around a certain place. They rarely conquer new lands, as new terrain and its different species would alter the culture’s knowledge, stories, and traditions. But expansion is built into agricultural societies. Wheat and other grains can grow almost anywhere, so farming, compared to foraging, requires less of a sense of place.
Empires of Food is a fascinating book that certainly reveals the old adage, “history repeats itself.” As we moved away from the hunter-gatherer paradigm to that of civilization, man has often been deceived by the pursuit of progress. From the Mayan, Greek, and Roman empires to our present day society, many urban cultures have mistakenly sought development through monocultures—agricultural systems that depend on limited crops like wheat, corn and soybeans. However, these restricted agricultural systems have always suffered grave consequences.Also: How We Eat, Produce Food Could Bring Down Society (NPR)
According to the authors, “These societies, these food empires, can only exist if three things happen: Farmers need to grow more food than they eat; they need a means of trading it to willing buyers; they need a way to store it so it doesn’t turn to sludge before reaching its economic apotheosis. When these three premises are met, urban life flourishes. Which is, in itself, the seed of the problem. . . When a food empire fails, mobs tear apart the marketplace, angry over the cost of bread. Governments raise armies to conquer greener, more fertile valleys. People uproot. Forest creeps back over old fences. Arable land falls into disuse, and society contracts. It happens again and again. And it’s happening now.”
Instead of trying to feed the world, let's help it feed itself (Yes! Magazine)
Sooner or later the question comes up, whether it is between two friends sharing a pot of stew made from local grassfed beef and their garden harvest, livestock farmers gathered on a pasture walk, neighbors working together to tend a flock of backyard chickens, or organic vegetable producers discussing yields at a conference.It’s Time to Rethink America’s Corn System (Scientific American)
“But can we feed the world this way?”
However, 75 or 100 years ago, such a question would never have entered into our dialogue. To ask a local farmer or homesteader how his or her production methods were going to feed the world would have been absurd. The local producer’s job was to support the family, the community, and his or her bioregion–not the world.
But following World War II, with the onset of the “Green Revolution,” feeding the world became a national mantra. It was a ubiquitous “good” that handily justified the discovery that the petro-chemicals used in warfare could find post-war applications if dumped on our food supply.
“Feeding the world” consoled farmers as they incurred mountains of debt to afford the fossil fuel-intensive machinery and expansive acreage that would enable them to crank out tons of food for which they would garner increasingly lower prices. “Feeding the world” was the elixir offered as our grandparents’ attempted to adjust their palates to a food supply that was suddenly tasteless as local food disappeared from the market. “Feeding the world” was the slogan tossed about as rural people the world over surrendered ties to the land, moved to cities, and trusted that the food system would take care of itself. “Feeding the world” was the background tune playing in the bank, on the car radio of the seed salesman, in the office of the accountant as farmers were counseled to “get big or get out,” to expand their production and change their growing practices to participate in a global food supply, rather than a regional one. “Feeding the world” was the motto that let Americans turn their heads and not notice the polluted waters, the increasing severity of floods, soil loss, or the fact that the little farm next door had suddenly disappeared.
But those petro-chemicals and farming practices that feed the world are washing away our topsoil and leaving what remains nutritionally deficient. Ironically, the goal to feed the world has led to a form of agriculture that has made it increasingly difficult for the people of the world to feed themselves. And the fact that fossil fuels are not quite as abundant as they once were, nor as cheap, means that even if we could generate yields of global proportions in perpetuity, we wouldn’t be able to deliver the goods in any cost-effective manner.
Can the local, sustainable food movement in the United States feed the world? Hell, no. Nor can the industrial agricultural paradigm. No one can feed the world. One country cannot do it, nor can any specific model of production. The earth must be allowed to reclaim its natural productivity. That’s why we need local and regional food systems, designed to work harmoniously with local ecosystems.
As a crop, corn is an amazing thing and a crucial part of the American agricultural toolbox. But the corn system, as we currently know it, is an agricultural juggernaut, consuming more land, more natural resources and more taxpayer dollars than any other farming system in modern U.S. history. As a large monoculture, it is a vulnerable house of cards, precariously perched on publicly funded subsidies. And the resulting benefits to our food system are sparse, with the majority of the harvested calories lost to ethanol or animal feedlot production. In short, our investment of natural and financial resources is not paying the best dividends to our national diet, our rural communities, our federal budget or our environment. It’s time to reimagine a system that will.
What would such a system look like?
This reimagined agricultural system would be a more diverse landscape, weaving corn together with many kinds of grains, oil crops, fruits, vegetables, grazing lands and prairies. Production practices would blend the best of conventional, conservation, biotech and organic farming. Subsidies would be aimed at rewarding farmers for producing more healthy, nutritious food while preserving rich soil, clean water and thriving landscapes for future generations. This system would feed more people, employ more farmers and be more sustainable and more resilient than anything we have today.
It is important to note that these criticisms of the larger corn system—a behemoth largely created by lobbyists, trade associations, big businesses and the government—are not aimed at farmers. Farmers are the hardest working people in America, and are pillars of their communities. It would be simply wrong to blame them for any of these issues. In this economic and political landscape, they would be crazy not to grow corn; farmers are simply delivering what markets and policies are demanding. What needs to change here is the system, not the farmers.