Can You Feed Yourself? How?

At a University of Minnesota Student Energy Club meeting with guest Nate Hagens in December 2015, a student noted that in his native India solar energy is more widely recognized as the way we heat water and grow food. Hagens responded by saying that the United States will not be resilient if we lose 24/7 access to our electrical switches and natural gas pipelines, and we’ve largely forgotten that food does not simply come from a store.

The point was made that India has a much higher per capita number of farmers than the United States. So… I did some digging to follow the storyline of how we feed ourselves and the state of U.S. farming today.


A Quick Global Look

According to one source, India in 2014 had 262 million people working on farms. Of course, the challenge is that the burgeoning population has limited space on which to farm. The future in farming will require innovations such as vertical farming, green roofs, hydroponics.

vertical farming

They are able to self-produce a well-rounded diet: India is the world’s largest producers of fresh fruit, and second largest producers of rice, wheat, sugar cane, lentils, potatoes, various vegetables. Third largest producers of eggs, oranges, coconuts, tomatoes, peas and beans.

However, India has a high rate of suicide among farmers — 11 percent. And, per a Wikipedia entry about India agriculture: “Irrigation systems are inadequate, leading to crop failures in some parts of the country because of lack of water. In other areas regional floods, poor seed quality and inefficient farming practices, lack of cold storage and harvest spoilage cause over 30% of farmer’s produce going to waste.”

China has 300 million farmers, producing 20% of the country’s food. About 75% of China’s cultivated area is used for food crops. Rice is the most prevalent, using 25% of the cultivated area. Because of its wide reach of geography, China can produce a variety of grains — wheat, corn and white potatoes in the north, oat in the outskirts, sweet potatoes in south — and various fruits and vegetables.

Transportation is a major issue. “Up to 25% of fruits and vegetables rot before being sold, compared to around 5% in a typical developed country.”

Earning a living through farming is especially difficult when there are not efficiency middlemen transporting goods to buyers before the food spoils, while also dealing with climate issues ranging from monsoon rains to droughts.


U.S. Farming

America knows how to package and ship food products once created. There are approximately 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the United States, according to estimates by the American Trucking Association — more than those employed in U.S. farming.

Census data offered via Wikipedia show that 82 percent of animal feed, cereal grains and forage products are shipped by truck; and more than 92 percent of prepared foods, including dairy products and prepared fruit, vegetable, and nut products, are moved by truck in 2007. More than 80 percent of all communities in the U.S. rely exclusively on trucks to deliver all of their fuel, clothing, medicine, and other consumer goods.

In 2012, 3.2 million U.S. farmers operated 2.1 million farms. (India and China have ten times that amount of farmers.) We are massive corn producers. Fresh cow’s milk, wheat, soybeans, sugar beets, potatoes — those we know to grow.

In fact, according to some, the average American largely consumes grain, corn syrup and sugar as staple foods. Said one person on a Quora forum: “You could run blind-folded through a grocery store and dump random items off the shelf (including meats) to fill a cart and well over 90% of them will have corn or a corn-based product in the ingredients list. Nearly all of our livestock? Corn-fed. The vast majority of sweeteners used in everything from tomato sauce to granola bars are HFCS [high-fructose corn syrup] based.”

According to an e-How summary of data:

  • The two greatest sources of calories in the American diet are grain-based desserts and bread — 6.30 ounces in average American diet per day.
  • Americans ate 171 pounds of meat per person in 2011.
  • Americans consume nearly 100 pounds of sweeteners per person per year — roughly 25 pounds of corn sweetener per person per year in carbonated beverages alone.
  • Tomato sauces are a common staple of processed food.
  • Americans eat about 143 pounds of potatoes per capita per year, making it the country’s favorite vegetable — 28% at home as potato chips; 59% away as french fries.

As we face droughts and crop disease and extreme heat and overwhelming downpours and increased health hazards from transportation and manufacturing, the deeper philosophical question is – how do we want to feed ourselves?

pollutantsourcesMPCA2013source: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

The solution that seems to be winning is to create more genetically modified food by commercial farms that lends to processed foods that we have the infrastructure to ship without spoilage.

Minneapolis, however, is in a robust agricultural market — the Midwest has 50 percent of our country’s farmers — and a growing number are organic. Will they thrive? Will they be strong enough to endure droughts and downpours and disease? Can we count on our growing number of farmer’s markets to keep us healthy? Is permaculture going to sustain us through the winter months?

Where will the food come from to feed our families in 20, 40, years?


Historical Look: The New York Times (1988)

“An estimated 240,000 people left the land last year, dropping the nation’s farm population to its lowest level since before the Civil War. Officials said an average of 4,986,000 people lived on farms in 1987, or 2 percent of the United States population of 243.4 million.”

Year Population # farmers % population
1790 3,929,214 90% were farmers
1840 17,069,453 9,012,000 69% were farmers
1860 31,443,321 15,141,000 58% using 199 avg. acres
1880 50,155,783 22,981,000 49%; avg. acres 134 (start moving to Great Plains)
1920 105,710,620 31,614,269 27%; avg. acres 148
1950 151,132,000 25,058,000 12.2%; avg. acres 216; irrigated acres 25K
1980 227,020,000 6,051,000 3.4%; avg. acres 426; irrigated acres 50K
1990 261,423,000 2,987,552 2.6%; avg. acres 461; irrigated acres 50K

Source: Agriculture in the Classroom textbook


Join the Conversation

Is our resiliency going to come from scientifically producing stronger food for more people? Or, building a society that can rely on community for food? We know we are healthier with organic food — are we more resilient that way?

We obviously need to continue seeking that happy medium as a community — we have an increasing number of people to feed, yet we also are adding dangerous toxins to our diet in the process.

We have great community food shelves in the Twin Cities, yet I’ve also heard about the unfortunate spoilage of fresh produce that ends up going to waste for lack of distribution channels.

This is an ongoing discussion in our local area. Feel free to use the Comments section below to communicate about this issue.


Related Resources

  • Why eating local is important
  • FDA finally testing Monsanto’s glyphosate in food — The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will begin testing food for glyphosate, the world’s most commonly used pesticide, according to Civil Eats. This marks the first time that a U.S. agency will routinely test for glyphosate residue in food. It comes after the Government Accountability Office released a report condemning the FDA for failing even to disclose its failure to test for glyphosate in its annual pesticide residue report.
  • Toxins in Iowa crops — Crop scientists have genetically engineered soy to survive blasts of Roundup so farmers can spray this chemical near crops to get rid of weeds. But some so-called “super weeds” resistant to Roundup have developed.  In turn, some farmers use yet more Roundup to try to kill those hardy weeds. This leads to more Roundup chemicals being found on soybeans and ultimately in the food supply…. A study led by German researchers found high concentrations of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, in the urine of dairy cows and humans.  This study, published last January in the journal Environmental & Analytical Toxicology, concluded that “the presence of glyphosate residues in both humans and animals could haul the entire population towards numerous health hazards.”
  • Bus Converted Into Mobile Food Market Brings Fresh Produce to Low-Income Communities (Toronto)
  • How to use milk jugs as indoor greenhouses
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