It amazes me how little Americans know about where their food comes from or what role farming plays in today’s society. It’s mostly like due to the fact that less than 2% of the population is involved with producing food. Due to the rise in population and decrease in farm numbers, one farmer is feeding 155 people annually, and that number is only likely to increase as fewer people find farming a “less than glamorous” career.
Thanks to the American Farm Bureau Federation’s “Food & Farm Facts” and a little of my own conventional wisdom, I hope to shed some light on our most important industry.
The First Farms
Have you ever wondered where we would be without agriculture? Some 10,000 years ago, some of our ancestors thought cultivating their own food sounded like a pretty good idea. For the pre-history folks who were not lucky enough to live in the earth’s more tropical zones, the act of following the food supply was a tough life. So by the way of luck and some ingenuity, people found they could grow food from seeds and contain animals for year-round meals. This new ability allowed humans to become more settled in one area, thus civilizations were born. Religion aside, the world’s first disputes were most likely over land rights. Those with the land had the food. And good, bad or indifferent, our agriculture system evolved to contribute to the populations we have today.
Imagine if we continued to hunt and gather our food. No computers, no vehicles, no high-heel shoes… I have a feeling that population would also most likely be under control; there would be a constant struggle for hunting rights.
I also don’t want to imagine having an all-local food supply. Weather, pests, and disease have wreaked havoc on farming across the globe throughout the ages (List_of_famines). Millions upon millions of people have perished due to their food being wiped out.
Food and Farms Today
Here are a few facts about the world’s food and farms:
American’s spend the least of their disposable income on food, only 10%. The Chinese spend 32% and people in Pakistan spend 50%. An article in my local paper referenced a food shortage in many nations, and people in some under-developed countries spend up to 70% on food.
Contrary to what some want you to believe, 82% of U.S. agricultural products (food, feed, fiber, and fuel) are produced on farms owned by individuals, family partnerships and family corporations. 98% of the farms are owned by those groups. Only 2% are owned by non-family corporations. Many family farms get labeled as “corporate” or factory farms just because they were able to evolve and survive the changing economy.
The average farmer continues to age. In 2007, the average farmer was 57 years old. Fewer people are choosing a career in farming. But there are many jobs in the agricultural industry. Producing, processing, selling and trading the nation’s food and fiber employs more than 21 million Americans—15% of the total U.S. workforce. Think it’s not a high-tech career? Today’s farmers are using GPS units, biotechnology, infrared spectronomy to monitor chlorophyll levels, and the computer programs that help them make sense of it all.
Of total farm receipts, 56% come from crops (grains, hay & silage, oilseeds, vegetables and fruits), and livestock accounts for 44%.
Farmers are conservationists every day; they protect our air, soil, water and animal habitats. For instance, modern farming practices such as conservation tillage have reduced soil erosion by more than 40 percent since 1982. Modern advances also allow us to produce more food on less land. New land (forests and grasslands) does not have to be cleared thus preventing the escape of greenhouse gases.
The biggest argument I have heard over the food system is that the government gives the agriculture sector too much assistance, thus our easy-to-come-by food supply is making us fat. Of the USDA’s total 2008 budget, only 13% went to farm programs. The balance was for food assistance and nutrition programs (such as WIC), food safety, marketing and inspection, research and education, forest service, foreign ag service, rural development, etc. Of total federal spending, agriculture receives about 3%. Nearly 20% is spent on national defense, and more than 33% is spent on Social Security and Medicare.
As an American, I feel good about my tax dollars going to agriculture and farmers. I like having the ability to easily feed my family. Think about the alternative.
It scares me that a lot of Americans take our valuable food system for granted. It’s easy for those of us who can afford food to pop into the grocery store and fill our bellies with our hearts’ desires. Trade, farm programs and modern conveniences have helped shape that. I remember the stories I heard from my grandfather about life in the not-so-distant past. You slaughtered your own animals, you milked your own cows, you canned your own vegetables (lots of things were pickled to control bacteria) and you dug out sausages from a barrel full of lard. I am so thankful to live today in this country with our farmers feeding me. I hope you are, too!
One more thing – I found this wonderful video from BASF. It helped me understand how farmers are feeding "One Hungry Planet." Enjoy.