How Industrial Ag Is Like Boston (But Should Be More Like Salt Lake City)

>> Friday, June 12, 2009

In a way, industrial agriculture reminds me of cities on the East Coast. They started out with a little settlement here, a little settlement there, a little settlement farther on. After awhile, they built roads connecting the settlements. Sometimes the roads took a detour around some farmer's cow pasture. Sometimes they jaunted off toward the mill or the river. Sometimes they looped around to gather together a bunch of outlying settlements. Often the roads intersected at a central point and spiraled outward like a great interconnecting spiderweb.

If you look at an aerial view of an Eastern city like Boston, Philadelphia, DC, even New York, it's a big jumbly mess of roads and neighborhoods - arguably a beautiful mess full of character, but a mess nonetheless. The streets are narrow, bursting with congestion, and inevitably you will get lost your first time there.

Contrast that with a Western city like Salt Lake City, Denver, or Milwaukee. These were planned cities. They started with a few blocks in a grid pattern, and as more people came, more blocks were added. The streets are wide, the addresses directional, and the traffic flows with greater ease.

Industrial agriculture reminds me of an Eastern city because it has sprung up in a jumbly mess, reacting to specific, immediate needs without anticipating the future.

Without pretending to be an expert on the subject, here is a brief history of what I know about industrial agriculture:

How Industrial Ag Is Like Boston

Before industrialization, agriculture depended on the whims of Mother Nature and the labor-intensive work of farmers. In the latter half of the 19th Century, scientists discovered that certain chemicals aided plant growth when added to the soil and that certain other chemicals wiped out pests and weeds. Many of these same chemicals were used in munitions manufacturing during World War II, and after the war, chemical companies turned their research from weapons to chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides.

Use of fertilizers and pesticides freed farmers from the necessity of crop rotation and diversity, and they began specializing in only a handful of crops - particularly corn and soy - encouraged and subsidized by the federal government. Innovations in antibiotics and vaccines also allowed farmers to take animals off the land and cramp them indoors, and cheap oil coupled with improved shipping methods enabled farmers to ship their crops over vast distances. In a short time, farms transformed from diverse microcosms to vast monocultures.

As agriculture became more efficient and mechanized, fewer people were needed to maintain it. In the past 100 years, the number of farmers in the U.S. has dropped from two out of every five Americans to two out of a hundred. As small farms disappeared, large farms gobbled up their land so that now most of American agriculture is concentrated in the hands of a very few.

The goals of industrial agriculture were to increase efficiency and productivity while decreasing costs, and with these goals, industrial ag has been extremely successful. Despite the ever-growing world population, food for most people is prevalent and cheap.

But consider the unintended consequences: Loss of biodiversity. Degradation of topsoil. Pollution of land, air, and water. Confinement of animals. Massive farms controlled by only a few.

How Industrial Ag Could Be More Like Salt Lake City

I think it's time to take a step back and ask ourselves, "Is this what we want our city to look like?"

It might be too late for Boston, but in the case of agriculture, I think we still have time to redesign the city. Do we want a jumbly mess with no eye to the future, or do we want an agricultural system with a plan - one that shows concern for its impact and seeks for sustainability? Is cheap food worth the price we are paying?

Industrialization has swept us along so speedily toward comfort and ease that we haven't taken the time to plan. But the path we are on cannot hold up long term. We need to pause, reconsider, and redesign, until we have created a system that will carry us far into the future.

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