27 May 2006

Urban farming

I have been reading Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma, a lucid account of the path that food takes to arrive in our stomachs. The book is filled with facts and observations put together in a way that are at once fascinating and repulsive - reading this book might cause you to hesitate before putting a steak on the grill this weekend. Of course, that is the point, to get you to think about your food and where it comes from.

One observation which struck me as remarkable was the degree to which our food supply has become urbanized. No, we are not growing our food in the sprawling metropolises in which the majority of North Americans now live. Rather, we have turned the rural landscape into cities.

We are probably all aware that farming is no longer the pastoral occupation that it was before industrialization ushered in the 'green revolution'. What Michael Pollan alerts us to is the fact that most farms these days are really just monocultures of densely packed corn. In the 1920's, an acre of corn yielded 20 bushels of corn. With the introduction of hybrid corn in the 30's, the yield went up to 75 bushels per acre. Add modern fertilizer to the mix and you get a whopping 180 bushels of corn out of an acre of farmland. What you can see in this green revolution is the transformation from pastoral to urban: an acre of land whose population density has risen 9 fold in 90 years, spurred on by advances in technology.

The metropolitan analogy does not end there, but continues when one considers the feedlots in which cattle stand crowded shoulder to shoulder, their legs mired in a foot or more of manure. Just as with humans in cities, they are no longer threatened by natural predators but by the scourges of metropolitan life, the richness of their diets and the stress of crowded conditions.

It was probably not intentional, but it is now a fact of life: we humans have urbanized the farm.


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