Remember when mom told you to eat your fruits and vegetables? Now an activist group is calling on farmers to grow more fruits and vegetables. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has released a report charging that too much farmland is being used to grow commodity crops like corn and soybeans and that the government should implement programs to foster the growing of more fruits and vegetables. “The reality of American agriculture is that we’re not growing what we should be eating,” said Kranti Mulik, senior economist with UCS. “Only about 2 percent of U.S. farmland is used to grow fruits and vegetables, while 59 percent is devoted to commodity crops. But this situation isn’t just bad for our waistlines—it’s also holding back farmers and rural economies, and hurting the quality of life in farm communities and beyond.” But like so many of these politically motivated studies, this one proposes silly solutions based on fuzzy logic and unrealistic economics.
The new report uses an economic model developed by Purdue University’s Global Trade Analysis Project to predict how U.S. farmers would respond to various shifts in eating habits. It finds that if Americans ate fruits and vegetables at USDA-recommended levels — increasing consumption by 173 percent over current levels — U.S. farmers would grow 88 percent more of these foods. Conversely, if meat and dairy consumption fell, farmers would grow less corn and other grains used as livestock feed, 8 million acres less. The underlying assumption here is that fruits and vegetables are better to eat than meat and dairy products. “Americans are eating more corn chips than carrots for a number of reasons, from taste and convenience to affordability and access,” said Mulik.
UCS blames US farm policy for this state of affairs and calls for changes in the new Farm Bill to promote locally-grown food and farmers’ markets. While more farmers markets and local food distribution are not bad, these are not capable of meeting the level of demand that would occur if we all started eating the amount of fruits and vegetables the academic nutritionists says we should. There would also not be enough farmers markets or local food producers to meet the demand. In addition, not all Americans have the basic food knowledge to buy and prepare food found at a farmers market.
The UCS’s simplistic and self-serving solution ignores a real world opportunity that would increase fruit and vegetable production, provide a great and more usable source of locally produced food, and create new employment opportunities, all while not reducing the amount of farmland used to produce corn and soybeans. The answer to the UCS dilemma lies not in the country but in the city.
In almost every urban area of the nation, there are acres and acres of abandoned buildings, rusting factories, and condemned houses. It has been estimated that almost of third of the city of Detroit consists of abandoned homes and shops. On this land could be constructed hydroponic warehouses where fruits and vegetables can be produced year round. These, in turn, can be provided to local retail food outlets. These vertical farms would provide employment opportunities for the communities in which they are located. Sounds like science fiction, but it is not.
Today, several companies are building and operating such facilities around the nation; one such facility is under construction in Indianapolis. This kind of urban agriculture has the ability to produce produce on the scale needed to meet a large increase in demand. It could provide year round fresh products, even varieties that are not native to a location: imagine — fresh locally-grown strawberries in Minneapolis all year long. Furthermore, these facilities can provide the kind of quantity and consistency that large food retailers need, thus consumers can have easy access at their local grocery store and not have to make a special trip to a farmers’ market.
The UCS report also missed the point that US commodity production does more than feed America, it also feeds and fuels an international market. The report also contained a number of untrue statements about the environmental impact of modern agriculture — but that is typical for this group.
What the new Farm Bill needs to provide is the flexibility for American agriculture to respond to market signals. If Americans suddenly start demanding more fruits and vegetables, farmers and agribusinesses will respond to that new demand. What we don’t need is big government telling us what we can eat and what we can grow. So when mom says eat your vegetables, do what she says. When the market says grow more vegetables, go for it. When Uncle Sam says grow more vegetables, be concerned.
By Gary Truitt