City Region Food Systems - Part IIIB - Scale and Production Strategy

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This post is written by FCRN member professor Michael W. Hamm: C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture - Michigan State University and Director of the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems. Mike is also a Visiting Fellow of Mansfield College and the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford. 

This is the third and last blog-post in his series discussing city region food systems. The series has been exploring the value of city-region food systems, obstacles to their development, and possible ways forward.  Part I conceptualised the issues and Part II discussed who the farmer of the future will be and how the United States might be fed in 2050. This last, Part III on scale and production strategy has been split into two so make sure you have read Part IIIA to get the full picture.

This is the second of a two-part blog looking at scale and production strategy.  In the first I critiqued the notion that large scale, conventional agriculture produced largely in concentrated areas is the only way to feed the U.S. and the world.  In this piece I critique the notion that smaller scale and alternative production strategies can feed the U.S. population and also consider a middle path of scale and production diversity.  I invite your comments, suggestions, and criticisms.

My analysis of this derives from my thinking over the last twenty years as well as engagement in a broad range of food system localization efforts. In the food movement world I have found it easy to use platitude-as-solution – local food is more nutritious, local food is more environmentally sustainable, eat fewer food miles and be sustainable, etc. – because it sounds logical and taps into our desire for a bit more control in a globalized and often depersonalized world.  A world in which we seek community but in which it often feels more difficult to grasp.  However, seemingly simple answers for the messy question of food resiliency might not stand up to analysis.  My most common response to student questions around issues of sustainability is ‘it depends …’ There have been a lot of books, movies, blogs, meetings, and editorials purporting to have the ‘right take’ on what is needed for all of us to eat a healthy diet produced sustainably.  Many of these narratives in part focus on farm scale – with one side in the ‘small and organic is beautiful camp’ and one side in the previously discussed ‘large and conventional farms should and will supply the food’ camp. I’m going to suggest a third camp later in this essay –scale and production diversity.

Let me start with my general point of view.  I think many of those in both the ‘small and organic is beautiful’ and the ‘large and conventional farms should supply the food’ sides are unnecessarily strident and unrealistic in their thinking.  A range of production scales as well as production strategies may be the most logical path to improve our resilience and sustainability going forward.  Those with the most power to effect change have turned a semi-blind eye to the negative issues embedded in our food system.  We are dependent on a range of external inputs to maintain the high per acre productivity currently enjoyed in U.S. agriculture – what Rist and colleagues describe as coerced resilience.  We have externalized the ill effects of maximizing crop and animal productivity – whether it’s the dead zones globally and in the Gulf of Mexico, ground water pollution, or human tissue chemical load.  We have been able to ignore farming’s internalized ill effects – such as loss of top-soil or pest pressure - through continued inputs of nutrients and pesticides.  While farmers and their support infrastructure (public and private sector researchers, input distributors, etc.) have made important progress in reducing these ill effects through the evolution of such approaches as lower-toxicity pesticides, fertilizer and pesticide application timing, integrated pest management approaches, conservation programs and precision agriculture, we continue to experience these ill effects – the distance we have traveled in recent decades is not nearly far enough.

Photo from: Dr. Jason Rowntree, Michigan State University Dept. Animal SciencesSome in the United States appear interested in returning to the Jeffersonian notion of a nation of agriculturalists engaged in the production of food – without asking if that is really desirable or suggesting a workable pathway to get there.  A workable strategy has not been suggested whereby 335 million Americans in 2020 or about 400 million Americans in 2050 will be able to sit down three times a day to a healthy, fulfilling meal and source it locally from small and medium-scale farms (for example within 100 miles).    

Strategies such as the 100-mile diet may work for a few but is not possible at this point for every region’s population for reasons personal, systemic, and in the context of the average dietary preferences. Population centers have historically developed around agricultural areas but, beginning early in the 20th century, have become increasingly decoupled from that narrative as technology has filled the void and allowed us to easily import distant resources and export food over vast distances.  Places like the Northeastern United States have a large population (56 million in 2014) relative to the quantity of adjacent farmland (20 million acres with 75% in New York and Pennsylvania).  The Southwestern United States has a burgeoning population (45 million in 2010 - projected to be 73 million in 2050) – and little water.  A recent paper demonstrates that about 90% of the U.S. population could be fed from within 100 miles based strictly on a land base analysis.  However, it does not account for climatic, fresh water, or population changes over the next twenty to thirty years.   

03pigs.jpgI think it is useful to examine notions of scale in the context of our current dietary patterns and ask questions.  If people maintain the same dietary patterns what is the possibility of them eating food produced with alternative production strategies?  If there was a change in dietary patterns would the potential change?  What is the potential for that food coming from nearby sources?  A graduate student working with me several years ago examined the notion of everyone eating their meat via pasture-based farms similar in production size to that highlighted in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (part II – Pastoral Grass).  Daimon’s research demonstrated that to feed a population of 10 million (approximate Michigan, U.S. population) consuming the typical Midwesterner amount of beef, chicken and eggs would require about 7,500 farms that slaughter 400 cattle and 30,000 chickens per year while producing 900,000 eggs.  In Michigan there are about 324,000 hectares of pasture – a fraction of the 2.4 million hectares needed for this level of production/consumption. In Michigan there are currently about 3.2 million hectares of corn, wheat and soybeans – so a move in this direction would require 75% of the total row crop land currently in Michigan (and this doesn’t account for dairy production).   

To feed 335 million Americans it would require about 251,000 of these farms on 109 million hectares of land.  To put this in perspective- in 2012 there were 128 million hectares of harvested cropland in the United States.  In 2012 there were 913,000 farms with calves and cattle but only about 80,000 with 200 or more head.  There were 42,000 farms with broilers.  Thus to meet current demand with integrated, pasture-based farms of this type would require a massive increase in farms raising these animals (hence, a very large increase in the number of people with the skills to produce at this scale and diversity) and utilization of virtually all of the current harvest cropland.  In addition, few of the existing farms were finishing their cattle on pasture and few were raising the broilers in pastured chicken tractors.  There is plenty of data to indicate that we should reduce (but not necessarily eliminate) our meat consumption both for personal health and environmental sustainability.  Reducing consumer demand to 25% or 10% of current levels would still mean a large increase in farms managing the number of required broiler chickens (for example).  Much more could be said on the topic of animal production, animal welfare, and dietary needs vs wants.  The primary purpose here is to illustrate the difficulty of extrapolating feeding a large population with methods used to feed a small population.   

A movement in this direction will require a suite of activities across society (for e.g. see my second post in this series) as well as a large number of people interested in developing their careers in this direction – I’m pretty sure the numbers are not there.  This isn’t meant to imply there aren’t thousands of young people beginning to farm as I talked about previously.  Raising animals takes a different type of dedication compared to raising plants.  I would like to see greater farm numbers moving in this general direction to present a greater level of production diversity - and there are a number of impediments to accomplishing it.

T04table.pnghinking comparably for fruits and vegetables is, if anything, more sobering.  First, very few farms will produce a wide diversity of vegetables AND tree fruits AND berry fruits and do it well.  The level of detailed knowledge necessary to produce this wide a variety of crops is just too much for nearly all of us. Some farmers do and my hat is off to them. Most farms interested in commercial-scale production will be a bit more specialized than that (if you can call a vegetable farm producing 20-40 different crops specialized). For the sake of putting numbers to the problem, let’s say two people can manage 0.8 hectare (2 acres) of mixed vegetables with low mechanization (another issue- see below).   In theory, they could grow all of the vegetables or fruit for about 44 households (average U.S. household size is 2.6 people). As can be seen in Table 1, relative to the current number of fruit and/or vegetable farms in the U.S. (194,000) – it would take a very large expansion in farms.

Over time assume all of these farms became more efficient, developed a stable pool of labor, and were able to increase their degree of mechanization to the point where they average 8 hectares (20 acres) in production.

It would still take a large number of farms relative to those currently producing. Note that they would also have to be sited appropriately in different parts of the country.  If U.S. consumers move to a healthier diet and eat 50% more fruits and vegetables this number balloons.  I have not seen anywhere the notion that we, as a country, can add over a million net new fruit and vegetable farmers to the landscape by 2050.  I have not seen anyone conceiving of this type of growth in human capital producing food that would sustain a population – as opposed to providing a small percentage of produce for a limited number of people for a few months per year.

In my opinion the idea that the U.S. can be fed exclusively with this scale of farms is an unsupportable notion.  Further, those advocating fully indoor production have focused on closed loop systems without accounting for the environmental cost of eliminating the sun as a photosynthesis source.

Thus, on the ‘small and organic is beautiful’ side of the analysis I don’t believe the numbers are there to conceive of a city region food system that only has as its base small and medium scale production.  This doesn’t mean they aren’t critical.  In a previous blog I discussed the farmers of tomorrow – this small scale is a critical starting point for most new farmers and provides a vehicle for revitalization, new ideas, and business development.  As I explored in part A of this blog I also don’t think the notion that an acceptance of only large scale is tenable, justified, or useful.    

Does this point to a scale and production diversity strategy for city regions? Does this point to a middle way forward with respect to scale and systems of production?  What might be a strategy for hedging our bets about future uncertainty – embracing opportunities now that also provides more options in an uncertain future?  A way forward might be to ask ourselves - what would increase resiliency?  What would help us in our ability to meet these challenges and adapt while maintaining the same basic core function of providing a healthy diet for all Americans (and global citizens) and allow for sustainable exports?  For a human-ecological system to be resilient in part means that at all levels of organization we preserve and enhance the natural resource base.

Neither small nor big is beautiful in and of themselves.  Nor is either necessarily anathema.  At the city region level this means enhancing the capacity for production and supply chain development that is both independent of and interlaced with national and global supply chains.  It means ensuring that those providing our food have the means to do this as efficiently as possible at a variety of scales while minimizing the environmental impacts and maximizing the social good.  At the city region, national and global levels this means minimizing the externalities (e.g. GHG release, soil loss, nutrient flows off-farm, etc.) and enhancing the social benefit to the broadest range of people – especially workers across the food chain with respect to livelihoods and those residents food insecure with respect to accessing a daily healthy diet.

In essence what I argue is that neither a heavily consolidated food system nor a heavily decentralized, small scale food system provides a platform for simultaneously ensuring a healthy food supply for all Americans now and into the future as well as insuring a more positive environmental footprint for the food system as a whole.  Rather, at this point in time, a path forward, I would argue, are regionalized food systems focused on city regions that celebrate and enable a range of production scales and a diversity of production practices.  These are food systems embedded in a region (locale) with a large amount of the region’s food supply coming from internal production and connected to food sourced from a range of more distant places.  A food system that optimizes the production, consumption and supply chain infrastructure of food within a defined city region while integrating with the national and global supply of food in a manner that provides a healthy sustainably-produced diet to all a city region’s inhabitants.  Finally, it means enabling farms and farmers from a wide range of backgrounds while ensuring all city region residents have a right to a daily, healthy diet.