The campaigns to eat local produce and “grow your own,” and the drive to generate clean energy and get off of foreign oil are both worthy of praise and support.

It’s time to get back to the real produce world

Larry Waterfield

Unfortunately they are both fraught with limitations and real world drawbacks.

It’s easy to oversell and politicize these goals, particularly among urban folks who are cut off from the food supply and energy production.

They never lack abundant food and the lights always go on and the iPhone battery is always charged.

Yet getting food and energy to people is no simple task. Changing the system is also not simple, particularly if you ignore basic economic laws to do so.

Members of my family in the Midwest have been strip coal miners, electric power plant workers, growers, truckers and employees of food processors. One uncle was killed when the power plant he worked in exploded. My dad worked for years to keep food-hauling refrigerated trucks running.

Other family members farmed, and some of them brought to life that old joke: “How do you make a million dollars in farming? Start with 2 million dollars.”

Most got out of farming, or lease out the land.

Idealist’s view

Yet along with this real world lives a parallel fantasy world where alternative energy springs to life, urban farms grow our produce, everything is wonderfully sustainable, and price is no impediment.
The mayor of hard-hit Detroit says his city will become the urban farming center of America. The city is tearing down hundreds of derelict houses that attract criminals, and vacant lots will be used to grow produce.

That’s laudable, but in a nation with vast land and water resources, that is a farming powerhouse, it makes little sense to rely on “urban gardening” for a major source of food. It may give people a sense of control over their lives and provide work.

Still, as someone has said, the most expensive tomato you will ever eat is the one you grow yourself.

First lady Michelle Obama plants a kitchen garden at the White House to promote locally grown and healthy produce. Again, that’s good, particularly if it promotes eating more produce, regardless of its source.

First lady Eleanor Roosevelt did the same thing back in World War II. She planted a “victory garden.”
Americans planted 20 million of these victory gardens and they supplied a huge amount of fresh produce.

At that time the whole country was mobilized and there weren’t enough resources to sustain normal food production. That’s certainly not the case today.

The situation in Great Britain was far more instructive. In World War II the Germans blockaded the British isles with submarines. The British needed to import enough food to feed half their population, 25 million people out of 50 million.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in a famous speech, cautioned his nation that they would “fight on the beaches and in the streets” if invaded. But in a not-quoted part of the speech he said they might wind up “subjugated and starving.” Now that’s a real crisis. (You can listen to the speech online. Google “Winston Churchill speeches.”)

To counter that crisis the British brought several million acres of marginal land into crops, mostly potatoes and wheat. Women were recruited into a Women’s Land Army to grow food. Later, women were drafted into work and defense.

Even this massive effort could not do the job. One-fourth of the population still relied on food imports. Food rationing lasted even when the war ended. Thousands of sailors and merchant marines gave their lives to keep the shipping lanes open.


A lot of the grow-your-own rhetoric implies that the American food supply is controlled by “corporate farms.”

Well, yes and no. Many farms are incorporated, but are really small businesses — not giant corporations. They use chemicals, yes, within strict guidelines to kill bugs and diseases.  But calling these farms “corporate chemical farms” seems intellectually dishonest without further explanation.

In the area of energy independence there is also a political and philosophical dimension that impedes real progress.

A recent article in an American Automobile Association regional magazine calls ethanol a “scam.”

Scam? Get into a casual conversation with city folks and they may say, “ethanol — that’s taking food out of people’s mouths.” Or they say, “ethanol is not energy-efficient.”

Tell that to the Brazilians.

This ethanol hostility is why we won’t solve the energy problem. It’s representative of what happens with all the alternative energy schemes. It’s attacked because it is not perfect.

When oil prices decline, investment in alternatives dries up. Myths sprout up: People will starve if we use ethanol. (We grow vast amounts of corn, and beyond that other feedstocks, such as grasses or even algae, are in development.)

It does no good to argue, “Let’s send our money to the Midwest instead of the Middle East.”

“Ethanol works — the first cars ran on alcohol, a century ago.”

“Ethanol is here and ready — we’ve got it now.”

Those who hold a utopian worldview, where everything must be perfect, don’t allow real solutions. Farming must be small, local and input-free. Energy must have zero impact and be a “free lunch.”

That eliminates ethanol, nuclear, hydroelectric. Even wind and solar have their critics. (Don’t put a wind farm in my backyard.)

If food was rationed and the lights wouldn’t go on, then we would find solutions. Barring real crises, we’ll just muddle along, blissfully ignoring the real world.


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