Yet Another (Boring) Plea For Clear Thinking About Food

As you may have noticed, posts have been few/far between because I'm immersed in writing the new book (and my poor brain has balked at being spread so thin). But I can't let this go past unnoticed. "This" being a post over at Sam Fromartz's ChewsWise blog. (*1)

Although the blog is Fromartz's,  this particular blog entry was written by Lisa M. Hamilton, who is the author of Deeply Rooted.

A bit of background: The midwest has had an exceptionally wet October. Here in Iowa, October was one of the wettest months on record. This is bad news for farmers because they can't harvest crops in wet weather. When the weather stays wet and the crops stay in the ground, they run the risk of losing those crops.

According to Hamilton, the problem is not the weather, but that modern farming

relies on a precise set of conditions: cheap fuel, ample water, stable climate . . .

The implication is that, bare minimum, this "unstable" weather has caused the system to go haywire.

Really? Weather is by nature (no pun intended) unstable and generally cyclical. Has this been a wet fall? Yep. Has it happened before? Yep. Is there a chance that soon we'll have a too-dry summer, which will also wreak havoc in the fields? Yep.

Because that's what weather does. That's what weather always does: it runs in cycles. I can rattle off examples of disastrous crop years past, when farmers scrambled to figure out how to cope with too much rain, too little rain, rain at the wrong time.

Moreover, she shows a short-sighted knowledge of the history of crop breeding. She writes that

Rather than focus solely on yield or specific items such as drought-tolerance or herbicide resistance, we need varieties that can flex along with whatever conditions they encounter.

I don't think Hamilton understands that for the past two centuries, American farmers have bred corn and wheat varieties for climate, soil, terrain, and just about anything else you can think of that might affect it, including drought and excessive moisture.

Yes, you read that correctly: several centuries.

American farmers today use herbicides and pesticides and  various patented seeds. But those tools are just contemporary examples of the long, long  history of crop experimentation and manipulation. For two centuries, farmers have designed crops that will "flex with whatever conditions they encounter" --- precisely because they encountered different sets of conditions.

Of course crop breeding isn't perfect, and farmers have no choice but to aim at averages: What is the climate in, say, South Carolina, usually like? What kinds of wheat will grow in Kansas? In general, what kind of climate can we expect in Iowa? How can I make a variety of corn or wheat that will grow well in most years?

Farmers can't, however, manage  cycles of weather that happen, well, cyclically. No, I'm not saying there's not a climate crisis. I'm saying, based on fifty-plus years of living in the midwest, that weather follows clear and regular cycles. Farmers know that. They expect it. They plan accordingly. But they can't nail the mark every time. They can't adjust corn varieties fast enough to adjust to short-term weather patterns or even odd patterns like the one we're experiencing this year. Nor, obviously, can they know when the cycle will shift, at least not with any great precision.

Put another way, I suspect many people will blame this result's of this year's (likely) bad harvest on "corporate" and "industrial" farming --- and they'll do so because they haven't taken the time to look at the long view of the big picture of farming's history.

I reiterate what I've said here before: I'm not anti-good food. I'm not pro-"Corporate Farming." I am, however, a supporter of clear thinking, reason, and knowledge. And I tend to be a Ranty McPanty when it comes to ill-informed "information." Hamilton's essay, which is otherwise well-written, is yet another example of gross generalization and hasty thinking that marks so much of what's being tossed around these days in the name of  the "food crisis."


*1: Sam is the author of  Organic, Inc., a superb book that has not gotten the attention it deserves, especially not from the "locavore/profood" community.