Why Our Food System May Suffer the Same Fate as Our Financial System

Editor's Note: Lisa M. Hamilton is the author of the new book Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness. You can read an excerpt of it here.

This spring, local foods advocates have reason to be hopeful. In 2009, there will be more farmers markets than ever, nearly 5,000 nationwide. And in backyards everywhere are some real green shoots, with 43 million Americans planting gardens this year.

But look beyond the local, and so far 2009 has been disastrous for agriculture. Drought, freeze and rain in the Plains all but ruined this year's winter wheat. In North Dakota, our top producer of spring wheat, much of the state's farmland has been sitting unusable, still waterlogged from the March/April floods. And in much of the Corn Belt, seemingly endless rain delayed planting for more than a month. As of mid-May, only 20 percent of corn in Illinois had been sown -- in a normal year they would have been 92 percent complete.

The danger is that crops planted late almost always suffer in yield and/or quality. In most cases, that beats not planting at all, although this year many farmers won't even have that choice. The USDA has predicted that in North Dakota alone, up to 3 million acres -- 15 percent of the state's farmland -- may go unplanted because of flooding.

There may still be light at the end of the tunnel. Many farmers will switch from wheat or corn to soybeans, which can be sown later and for which there is a global shortage (at least for now). Others have simply planted their intended crops late in hopes that somehow, for the rest of the year, the weather will be perfect. And perhaps it will be. But the fact that we must cross our fingers at all signals that our food system isn't as durable as we believe. Already analysts are warning, for this and other reasons, of a renewed global food crisis later this year.

The root cause is not unlike what has happened with so many investment portfolios of late. By consolidating, centralizing and homogenizing our food system, we've put all our proverbial eggs in one basket. Sure, there are a hell of a lot of eggs in that basket, but when something goes wrong with it -- too much rain, too little -- we have no safety net.

As investment advisers will tell you, at least part of the solution is to diversify. By this I don't mean more farmers markets and gardens, but rather the renovation of the large-scale grain farming that provides most of our calories. To become more resilient, that system needs greater diversity at every level.

To begin with, the system needs genetic and biological diversity, which grant crops the latitude to perform well, not just in an optimal environment but in a range of conditions. As it is now, grains are planted in monocultures of DNA, often millions of acres with a single genetic code. When disaster strikes, all suffer.

The system also needs geographic diversity, meaning grain crops grown in various parts of the country, not just in the "belts" where they are now concentrated. That way, when North Dakota floods and drought hits Kansas, national wheat losses could be buffered by production in places like New Mexico, Vermont and Oregon.

Finally, the system needs a more diverse marketplace. A central reason why this spring's weather has had such impact is that farmers have so little flexibility. The commodity market, encouraged by subsidies, dictates that farmers from Ohio to Nebraska have essentially three choices of what to grow: corn, soybeans and wheat. It's not because that's what people want to eat -- most of the corn and soybeans aren't even consumed directly; they feed livestock. Instead, it's because this three-legged system is the best fit for the industrial principles that guide our food system.

But what if, to change this, we consumers brought that farmers market attitude -- that active approach to food choices -- to the rest of our shopping? What if we created a significant market for alternatives: Buckwheat, lentils, chickpeas, oats. Regionally grown wheat. Grass-fed meats, raised on grain acreage converted to perennial pasture. This diversified agricultural economy could do much to release farmers from the limitations of the corn-soy-wheat triumvirate.

If that all sounds like too radical a departure, consider where we may be in a decade or two. As climate change brings more erratic weather, and the cheap energy and fresh water that subsidize our current system run out -- as that industrial-ag portfolio ceases to pay reliable dividends -- this more diversified approach may in fact be one of the few practical options we have. Invest now, and we might just build a safety net in time for when we really need one.

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