Are vegetables the answer? What was the question?

In my last post, I referred to a “thought-provoking article” by Tamar Haspel in the Washington Post: We need to feed a growing planet. Vegetables aren’t the answer.  The article pointed out that vegetables occupy only a tiny part of our farmland, so doubling or tripling vegetable production wouldn’t have much effect on agriculture’s contribution to pollution problems. The article also notes that vegetables typically supply a negligible fraction of our protein and calories.  Grain crops are easier to store and ship than most vegetables, but would a major increase in the vegetable fraction of our diets necessarily require more land, as the article claims?

My brother, Tom, is an organic farmer growing wonderful vegetables and fruits near Corvallis, Oregon.  He had some insightful comments on the Washington Post article, which I post below, with permission.

The Washington Post article while making some good observations is fairly silly for stating that increasing vegetable production/consumption can not fix our broken food system because vegetable acreage is a small fraction of total agriculture.  No single answer can fix our broken food system.  However, low per capita vegetable consumption is clearly one major problem with our food system.  There are many people in the world who do not eat enough calories, but in the American food system, a majority are malnourished while consuming more calories than they need.  There is widespread consensus  that rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes,  among other diseases would be reduced if people ate more vegetables and fruit.  Therefore part of the fix is to grow and consume more vegetables and fruit in this country.

I agree that many consumers have a distorted picture of what agriculture looks like in this country.  Many people think the farmers market farmers are the face of agriculture.  Much of that is because small direct market producers promote what they do, while the gigantic producers hide what they do.  Many states have passed Ag Gag laws making it a crime to photograph large animal operations.  The charming California Dairy Council adds on TV show happy cows on beautiful pastures, but most dairy production now is from operations with thousands of cows inside buildings with the feed trucked in.  Similar situations exist with poultry, pork, and beef production, driven by financial considerations, not environmental ones.

I also agree that because commodities occupy so many more acres than specialty crops, improving how they are produced is a major part of fixing our broken food system.  That doesn’t mean that vegetables are not part of the answer.  While spinach is not competitive calorie/acre wise with corn, vegetables like cabbage, potatoes, onions, carrots, and sweetpotatoes can produce a lot of calories/acre.  In 1997 average Oregon potato yields were 53,500#/acre and cost $.05/# to produce.  One pound of potatoes provides 318 calories (Composition Of Foods USDA Agriculture handbook No. 8 published in 1950. ) so 6.3# would provide 2000calories.  To get a years worth of calories from potatoes would require average yields from .04acres so more than 20 people could get a years worth of calories from 1 acre of potatoes.  Good onion yield in Oregon runs about 50,000#/acre with 193 calories/#  so so an acre of onions may only provide enough calories for 13 people for a year.

Obviously a diet of just onions, or just potatoes, or just corn, would be less desirable than having some of each.  Fortunately some climates and soils are well suited to producing wheat, some are suited to oats, some to potatoes, some to carrots.  Diverse production and a diverse diet are more resilient, and better for the planet and population.

I agree that grains and legumes form the backbone of  of an ideal diet, but to call vegetables or fruit a luxury food is ridiculous.  Raspberries and salad mix may be luxuries, but not basic produce.  According to a big mac costs from $3-$5.00 depending on where you live, and has 550 calories. According to my local Safeway add, you could buy 550 calories worth of potatoes for $1.02, 550 calories or oranges for $4.83, or 550 calories worth of pears for $3.47.  No price was listed for cabbage or carrots, but likely one could get 5 servings per day of those vegetables for less than the cost of one big mac.

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