We tend to outsource unpleasant tasks. From the home– where maids clean the bathroom (ok, so actually I just want a housekeeper), the cat food comes pre-butchered and packages (as does the wild salmon), and the trash sort of mysteriously disappears on Thursdays — to the more ethereal arenas of natural resources, our consumption rests heavily on the shoulders of others and exploitation of natural resources. Recently, I’ve been inadvertently contemplating energy production and soil degradation at the same time. The similarities are surprising, and food production is deeply tied to both issues. It’s exceedingly depressing what outsourcing our needs does to rural communities and the environment.

Mining has set my hackles bristling for years: rich Cape Codders and Conneticutites object to the view being obscured by a few windmills, while rural Americans with lower SES (SES = socioeconomic status; basically $$$, race, and education) literally die for the coal feeding their electric lines and the oil running their SUVs. Academia talks about the global “North” and “South” while it’s rare to see much discussion in these rarefied halls of the actual domestic rural/urban divide. The American “North” and “South” is not just about accents and grits. Rural Montana and West Virginia are in similar straits: dependent on extraction industries (free pollution! anybody want some toxic mine slurry in your backyard?), high unemployment, low income, and hello oxycodone. Right, let’s talk shareholder price of BP while oilmen die in the Gulf and dolphins abort, and then we’ll cut SNAP benefits while miners die as Massey Energy flaunts regulations the regulators won’t enforce. Then, we’ll have some slurry ponds collapse, and a few billion barrels of oil float into the prime fishing areas of the Gulf. Goodbye, happy ecosystems, drinking water, clean land, and safe fishing…

While we’re busy extracting aged carbon, we’re losing our more recently developed carbon aka topsoil in the Midwest and not even officially noticing. As Ben suggested in response to a previous post, the Midwest is suited to industrial production of grains. Deep topsoil, generous water tables, great weather, plenty of midsize farmers… wait. Or none of the above. It’s well-known that the Ogallala Aquifer is depleted, and falling by the day. That deep topsoil is eroding. As weather becomes more severe due to global warming, the potential for greater storms, droughts, and flooding only increase the risk of erosion. Environmental Working Group produced a somewhat dramatic short about the problem. Basically, our most precious resource (from which all life and FOOD springs) is washing away at a rate higher than it can be replaced. Even worse, it becomes a pollutant when it washes away, leading to dead zones in water bodies. Our national demand for more more more combined with the unwillingness to promote conservation techniques with more than a nominal thumbs up worth of funding pushes for production and disincentivizes basic practices like proper buffer strips. Funding conservation practices is like funding your 401K (or even stashing your gold under the mattress): investing in your future dinner plate. Literally. Good food comes from good, healthy soil. Conservation funding has a track record of being extremely effective at promoting good practices. Our national and personal interests depend on dirt– don’t let the next Farm Bill or round of budget cuts interfere with your potential to eat. Enforcement is also helpful, but how about some funding for enforcement?

Simply outsourcing our grain production and abusing the water and soil resources in the Midwest is as irresponsible as insisting that Northern views are more important than Southern lives and drinking water. The Northeast may have a higher concentration of people, and less room/less ideal resources for certain items, but we need to be responsible consumers and utilize our available resources. Fair trade cranberries and pecans are grown domestically; how about fair trade oats, tomatoes, and navy beans? And, by the way, how awful is it that our food system is so inequitable within the US that it requires us to use fair trade domestically?

OK. I think I’ve made my point: time to stop outsourcing our needs while we have alternatives. What you can do today:

  • Eat buckwheat, potatoes from Maine, and fairly grown produce.
  • Eat less meat (or be vegetarian). And dairy. Try Meatless Monday.
  • Support renewable energy in our own backyards and conserve energy.
  • Start or join advocacy efforts around the next farm bill, particularly supporting conservation funding.
  • Think about your food, and how it was grown, picked, and transported.
  • Let us know what you do. From simply buying fair trade chocolate, to writing your senators and representatives, there are many small steps that any one of us can take. Eventually, we’ll create change.