Farm & Meals File: ‘Perilous Bounty’ is a journey nicely price taking
Some books are worth more in your hand and on your shelf than electrons in your e-reader. These books and their authors are valued friends, and you return to them frequently for information, advice, and comfort.
Two downsizing measures over the past 15 years have reduced my library to a few bookshelves I need and a few bookshelves I want. The books I need contain dictionaries; The books I want are works by John McPhee, David Halberstam, Wendell Berry, David McCullough and Aldo Leopold.
These friends simply tell exciting stories and take me to places I didn’t know I wanted or had to go.
Tom Philpott’s newly published book, Perilous Bounty: The Impending Collapse of American Agriculture and How We Can Avoid It, vies for a place in this latter group.
As the title suggests, “Bounty” is a factual tour through today’s paradoxical world of Big Ag. Philpott rides the bus from California orchards to the Iowa cornfields to the corporate suites, and he’s got plenty of company along the way: hardworking farmers, disgruntled expansionists, brave Ag innovators, and some corporate CEOs.
Almost everywhere he stops, he and the experts can find composite evidence that today’s production-oriented agriculture is rapidly burning up the resources, mainly soil and water, that it needs to sustain itself and us.
The lesson at each stop is obvious: today’s cheap and bountiful food is not cheap and plentiful.
Philpott, a farmer before establishing himself as a respected journalist, highlights how recent technologies such as deep well irrigation, genetically modified seeds, and concentrated animal feeding have helped ensure food is plentiful and cheaper.
At the same time, everyone has cost far more of our natural resources and the tab for that raw material food system is already due.
For example, Philpott begins his journey in California’s near-perfect Central Valley, almost perfect in that it will grow everything from almonds to alfalfa if there is enough water. That is where the friction lies.
In a normal year, this $ 49 billion desert farming empire, 11.5 million acres in size, is a thirsty animal. In 2014, the almond trees alone used three times more water than the city of Los Angeles.
How long will this crazy inequality be tolerated? Now fold in climate change.
Water is also a central theme on Philpott’s travels through Iowa, where the development of acres of corn and soybeans is a “triumph of high technology.” But this triumph was not cheap.
If “American capitalism (California) … has essentially become a massive fruit and vegetable factory,” the author reports, the Iowa landscape is “the most impressive and brutal example I have seen of the will of humanity, landscapes new to arrange whims. “
This observation in itself almost perfectly captures the disorder most outsiders see in today’s reorganized farms and ranches: our need to rule nature has made some of us rich, but it will not feed our grandchildren.
Yet we celebrate this consumption system – and our farm programs reward it richly. It’s an accounting ploy that can’t work long before agriculture in the Midwest turns off an “ecological cliff”.
Before that happens, Philpott urges readers to advocate a more balanced approach to agriculture: fewer CAFOs and more mixed crops and ranchers; fewer monocultures and more cover crops; more local markets for food and agricultural goods and less production subsidies, which ultimately fuel mainly transnational corporations.
While none of these ideas are new – Wendell Berry’s “The Gift of the Good Land” urged all farmers 40 years ago to “Accept and Live Within” – Philpott believes there is a new urgency for change, markets and Farmers either can’t or can’t fix it.
Others, mostly outsiders, can and will, however, and when they do, bet that a copy of Perilous Bounty will be on their bookshelves.
Farm & Food File is published weekly in the US and Canada. Source material and contact information can be found at www.farmandfoodfile.com.