Modern Farming: America’s Wisest Energy Investment

Farmer Gene

Be sure to read Stephen Budiansky’s opinion piece in the August 19th New York TimesBudiansky dispels a number of the myths associated with the “virtues” of locally-grown foods and applauds our modern American agriculture system.  Whether you prefer biotech, conventional or organic production, you can’t argue that our country serves up the safest, most abundant, affordable and efficient food supply in the world. 

Agriculture accounts for just 2 percent of our nation’s energy usage; that energy is mainly devoted to running farm machinery and manufacture fertilizer. In return for that quite modest energy investment, we have fed hundreds of millions of people, liberated tens of millions from backbreaking manual labor and spared hundreds of millions of acres for nature preserves, forests and parks that otherwise would have come under the plow. 

Don’t forget the astonishing fact that the total land area of American farms remains almost unchanged from a century ago, at a little under a billion acres, even though those farms now feed three times as many Americans and export more than 10 times as much as they did in 1910. 

The best way to make the most of these truly precious resources of land, favorable climates and human labor is to grow lettuce, oranges, wheat, peppers, bananas, whatever, in the places where they grow best and with the most efficient technologies — and then pay the relatively tiny energy cost to get them to market, as we do with every other commodity in the economy. Sometimes that means growing vegetables in your backyard. Sometimes that means buying vegetables grown in California or Costa Rica. 

Eating locally grown produce is a fine thing in many ways. But it is not an end in itself, nor is it a virtue in itself. The relative pittance of our energy budget that we spend on modern farming is one of the wisest energy investments we can make, when we honestly look at what it returns to our land, our economy, our environment and our well-being.

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