One of my core beliefs is the importance of acting as a conscious consumer. It’s dictated everything from my fashion choices to my diet, and it’s something I’m always working to improve.
As such, I’m a strong believer in supporting small, local farms. I believe they are better for the environment, better for the farmers, and they produce healthier, tastier food. Not like some of those industrial farms who exploit their workers, abuse their animals, and pollute our planet.
In the battle of small, local farms vs. large agribusiness, I assumed the former were the victor- case closed. But you know what they say about assumptions…
A shocking conversation with my respected colleague, Tom Blake, shattered everything I knew to be true. Always playing the devil’s advocate, he argued that large farms could actually be better for the planet and its people. I thought it was just him, but a little research proved I was wrong again.
So who’s right- Tom, or me?
As it turns out, maybe neither of us are right. It’s a complicated issue, with a lot of factors that sometimes seem to contradict one another. The best I can do is lay out the information I have, and let you draw your own conclusions:
1. Small farms that grow multiple crops are less efficient than large ones
A soybean farm in Lost River, Indiana, USA. | Flickr: Cindy Cornett Seigle
There are a few reasons for this. For one, large farms can afford fancy machinery. They also tend to engage in monocropping- growing the same crop year after year- which is, well, more efficient for a lack of a better word.
2. Large farms make food more affordable
Because industrial farms are larger and more efficient, they are able to sell their food for less. This is great news for people with less disposable income. Actually, it’s great news for everyone. But some industrial farms find other ways to keep their prices low that aren’t so good…
3. Large farms have a bad rep for exploiting their workers in order to turn a profit
In Central America, for instance, some industrial farms have come under fire for their low pay, long hours, and just plain inhumane working conditions. Affordable food is great, but not when it comes at the cost of workers’ rights.
That said, not all industrial farms fall under this category. In fact there are many that treat their workers exceptionally well- it all depends on the farm, and the regulations that are in place.
4. Small farms benefit their communities
Farmers Market in Santa Barbara, CA. | Flickr: Terry Straehley
Tamar Haspel of the Washington Post explains that these types of farms are valuable because they contribute to a sense of community, “keep spaces open”, and they remind people that “food doesn’t just appear”.
I’ll never forget the first time I went apple picking in the fall. Picking the apples directly from the trees made me appreciate and savor the fruit so much more- a completely different experience from mindlessly selecting apples at the supermarket. And who doesn’t love strolling through the farmers market?
5. Large farms that use lots of chemicals have damaged the environment
Haspel writes that “according to the EPA, agriculture is the biggest source of pollution of lakes and rivers, and the recent shutdown of Toledo, Ohio’s, water supply because of toxins produced by bacteria is Exhibit A for agriculture’s environmental impact.”
Basically, because large farms tend to grow fewer varieties of crops than smaller ones, they must rely on chemical fertilizers and pesticides to restore the soil. But that’s not to say that all large ones pollute and all small farms don’t- we’re talking generally here.
6. Shipping food internationally is bad for environment (duh)
Pretty sure this one is self-explanatory. It’s a safe bet that buying local is the “greener” choice simply because it had to travel less far to get to you. (This is more of an international issue than a domestic one.)
7. BUT food that is shipped from other countries tends to be cheaper than food produced in the US, for example
A coffee farm worker in Cauca, southwestern Colombia. | Flickr: Neil Palmer/ CIAT
There are different reasons for this. For one, farm workers in developing countries are paid less (not necessarily because they are being exploited; the cost of living is lower too). Also, a lot of us have grown accustomed to eating our favorite foods year-round, even when they don’t naturally grow year-round or grow in the region where we live. This means that crop x might be cheaper to grow abroad, in a region that’s better suited for it.
8. We rely on large farms to produce the food that goes to to countries in need since they are the most efficient and the most affordable
Now let me be clear: I’m not suggesting this is a reason to support large agribusiness over local farms. After all, the majority of these farms are not in business to support food aid. I’m just pointing out that they provide a needed service that small local farms in developed countries can not.
So where does that leave us in the battle of small, local farms vs. large agribusiness? Haspel sums it up rather nicely:
“Small farms are inefficient but are more likely to grow healthful foods and might be more environmentally friendly, while large farms are sometimes environmentally unfriendly but raise large amounts of food efficiently and affordably.”
She argues that both farms have a place in our society, they just need to work on a little self-improvement. Small farms can work towards becoming more efficient, and large farms must do everything they can to limit their pollution. I would also add that all farms must commit themselves to treating their workers right.
As for the conscious consumer, I’ll just say this: I still stand by my belief that supporting small, local farms is best- when possible. Realistically, it’s not affordable for everyone- and no one should feel bad if they can’t make that choice. All we can do is make the best choice available to us.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments.