I gazed from the deck of my friend’s new townhouse onto the emerald fairway below and mused about the probability of hackers like me hooking a ball onto his patio.
He and his wife had sold their previous home during the high tide of the California housing market fever and were delighted to have scored such a bargain of space and location here in McHenry County, Illinois, 60 miles northwest of Chicago. Once an unimaginable distance for suburban living when I grew up here 30 years ago, the area is becoming a bedroom community for the nation's fourth-largest city.
Looking across the fairway and contemplating the distance to Chicago, a recurring theme crossed my mind: our farmland is a dwindling natural resource. My visit coincided with the gas price surge after Hurricane Katrina, and it occurred to me then that there are parallels between the petroleum crisis and the domestic food supply.
"Archeologists often warn us that civilizations expire when agricultural systems fail."
Like oilfields, farmland supplies energy, converting solar energy to food energy for our personal combustion. Additionally, the domestic sources of both types of energy are finite, although the current overabundance of food in this country has us thinking otherwise.
Yet, I can remember when cheap gasoline and the supremacy of muscle cars made the specter of tight oil reserves seem as remote a probability as the White Sox winning a World Series (we’re still waiting for the Cubs!).
The abundant availability of fertile land and the soaring productivity of American farmers led this nation to world agricultural domination. We became more empowered with each increase of bushels-per-acre and milk-output-per-cow. Ninety-nine percent of our population, from accountants to zoologists, work at a career other than harvesting food.
This liberates our civilization society to pursue advances in science, the arts, technical skills, enterprise, and manufacturing that were unparalleled in human history. Additionally, according to the USDA-Economic Research Service, we spend about 10 percent of our disposable income on food, and only 19 cents of each food dollar ends up in farmers' pockets.
How do we respond to this empowerment? As with other energy resources, we squander it.
Considering the projections of obesity and resulting health effects in our society, U.S. food energy extravagance rivals that of oil. At least a quarter of the food grown in this country is wasted, much of it lost from extreme weather conditions, transportation and processing. Consumers also contribute, by discarding nearly 15 percent of food after purchasing.
As an example, let me relate my epiphany on how Americans don’t know how cheaply they eat. During the Beanie Baby hysteria, I was in line at a McDonald’s drive-through with my daughter (contributing to our own high-caloric intake while burning gasoline in my mini-van). While she anxiously awaited the new installment for her collection, a hand reached out of the SUV in front of us and snatched four kid’s meals (the limit) from the drive-through window attendant’s grasp. The driver drove to the back of the restaurant, got out, plucked the wrapped toys from each bag and threw the meals into a dumpster.
Disturbing enough on moral grounds, our societal gluttony may no longer be economically sustainable as U.S. agriculture becomes more strained to produce an adequate food supply.
World population continues to skyrocket. Many farms use nitrogen fertilizers to maintain soil fertility, the source of which is natural gas, and we know where those prices are heading. Rising costs of labor, machinery and transportation will continue to increase the cost of production. However, the most disturbing trend was exemplified by standing on my friend’s deck, occupying space over what had once been some of the most fertile soil on the planet.
According to the USDA’s National Resources Inventory, we are losing prime farmland at an alarming rate to development, equal in acreage to the entire state of Delaware every year. Moreover, the loss is accelerating;, the current loss is 50 percent higher than during the last decade. Most of our fruits and vegetables are grown near urban areas. Add to this formula our country’s reliance on food grown in arid climates, limited by shrinking water resources, and our ability to sustain a self-sufficient food supply becomes tenuous.
Our agricultural policies must be redirected towards the natural and economic reality of supply and demand, particularly more judicious land development. Visionaries have established funds and trusts to purchase development rights from farms to preserve land use for agriculture in perpetuity. Sadly, like many other programs under scrutiny during tight budgets, funds can’t keep abreast of rapid growth and booming land prices in many communities. Political influence from developers, lack of long-term planning from local governments and a population that craves sprawling space have contributed to farmland preservation as a low priority on our collective agenda.
We will likely expend more of our income on food, more so if a greater proportion of our supply originates from foreign sources in an increasingly populous world market. History has taught us that the existence of food ‘haves and have-nots’ is destabilizing politically and economically. Archeologists often warn us that civilizations expire when agricultural systems fail.
Each acre of farmland is an energy source; the more we lose, the tighter our energy supply becomes. It is possible that, for our national and economic security, we will develop alternative fuel sources for autos and homes. Biological constraints make evolving a food alternative highly unlikely.
Famine isn’t imminent, but for those of us who live in rural areas under increasing development pressure, as I do in Michigan, more involvement with land-use policy and advocacy groups may be time consuming, but beneficial.