We Need More Farmers

These days, the average bite of food you eat has traveled 2,000 miles to reach your lips.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: How does farming need to change? 

Bill McKibbon: Right now the agriculture that we depend on in this country is very heavily fossil fuel based. Soil is a kind of matrix for holding plants upright so you can pour oil over them to make them grow. The average bite of food you eat has traveled 2,000 miles to reach your lips. It’s marinated in crude oil by the time it gets there. The incredibly intense energy use of agriculture is an astonishing problem. It generates lots and lots and lots of our greenhouse gasses and it depends on a supply of petroleum that is quickly running short. So we need something different and the outlines of that something different are pretty clear I think. We need to replace some of that fossil fuel with human labor and energy on farms. At the moment, one percent of Americans farm. There are half as many farmers as prisoners in this country. We’re never going to go back to 50 percent of Americans on the farm, but we’re going to have to head a little bit in that direction because we need more hands at work growing our food and substituting for some of that endless fossil fuel. And it turns out there are lots of people who want to do that kind of work. And as we see demand grow—farmers markets have been the fastest growing part of the food economy for 10 years now—as we see that growth taking place we get more and more and more farmers coming forward to meet it, which is very, very nice to see. It will help immensely if we put a price on carbon at the congressional level, at the global level. The day that that happens the logic of the farmers market will be immediately apparent, not just to people who want good food, but to people who will quickly understand what an insane subsidy we’ve been giving in the form of cheap fossil fuel to big industrial agriculture. 

Question: What responsibility do wealthy countries have to developing nations? 

Bill McKibbon: The gap between rich and poor in this world has always been a sin, but now it is a wicked practical impediment to getting done that which we need to do. If you live in China where there are still 600 million people living in pretty bitter rural poverty the world looks a lot different to you than if you live in an American suburb. The easiest way to pull those Chinese or rural Indians or Africans or South Americans out of that poverty would be to burn the cheap coal that is widely available in most of those places. That’s how we did it in this country over the last 200 years. That’s what fueled our prosperity. It’s a cruel thing to say to people in those parts of the world. Look, you can’t do this because the atmosphere is already filled by us. So in moral terms and in practical terms we have very strong incentive to not only cut our own emissions to give other people some room, but also to transfer some wealth in the form of technology mostly north to south to allow those societies to skip over as much of the fossil fuel stage as they can and go straight into the kind of world of renewable power. That’s only just and it’s only smart. 

Recorded on April 13, 2010