Columnist, Food

At Good Fortune Farm in Brandywine, Md., Mike Klein harvests vegetables intended for his CSA clients. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Never have I met with a holiday season where peace on Earth looked like a longer shot.

In hopes of taking one source of conflict off the table, I’d like to iron out one little misunderstanding. Although I’d like to tell you it’s about Russian hacking, or presidential conflicts of interest, it isn’t. It’s about vegetables. A prosaic subject, I know, but it’s at the heart of some acrimony in the debate about how to “fix” a “broken” food system.

Although the system’s flaws — including fertilizer runoff that creates toxic algae blooms, vast tracts of single crops that crowd out biodiversity, substandard conditions for farmworkers and livestock, the inability of farmers to make a living — are very real and very important, one vision of a solution misses the mark.

That vision is the opposite of the big, conventional, commodity-crop agriculture that is the status quo and, in the main, the source of the problems. The vision is one of a network of small (or smaller) farms that are diverse, local, organic or organic-ish, alternative, urban, indoor or some mix of those things. One thing most of them have in common, though, is that they don’t grow corn, or soy, or wheat. They grow vegetables. Not exclusively, of course. There are legumes and even grains in the mix as well, but vegetables are the most common focus.

And that’s great! Small farms serving local communities with CSAs are a terrific way to introduce cooks to kohlrabi, kids to chickens, and everyone to the idea that food has to come from somewhere. Growing basil and lettuce in shipping containers or warehouses near urban areas is an excellent way to bring some fresh greens to cities. Farmers markets can be a community focal point as well as a source for delicious tomatoes in August. They’re all good, for many reasons, but none will make much of a dent in any of the serious problems with our food supply, or help with the challenge of feeding the billions, yet unborn, we’ll be sharing the planet with come 2050.

If we’re going to feed them and us, responsibly and healthfully, vegetables are not the answer.

There’s a simple reason, and it’s math: Even if we were to vastly increase our vegetable eating, as just about everyone tells us to do, vegetable acreage is a blip on the agricultural landscape.

Right now, Americans average just over one vegetable serving per day, about 400 servings per year, an amount that has remained consistently and dismally low for a long time. Let’s triple it! That means 800 more vegetable servings per capita, per year. An acre of spinach yields about 100,000 two-cup servings. To cover every American’s increase, we’d need 2.4 million additional acres. Factor in waste, call it 4 million. Add one more daily serving, call it 5 million.

To put that in perspective, our current system has 14 million acres of “specialty crops,” the USDA’s name for fruits and vegetables (and such miscellaneous products as Christmas trees and maple syrup). Vegetables account for 4 million of those acres, which means that our new diet regimen would require us to about double what we’re farming now.

A farmer plants corn in a field in Princeton, Ill. Together, corn, soy and wheat occupy about 230 million acres in the United States. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

Double! That’s a lot. Seems that way, anyhow, until you widen the lens. Corn, soy and wheat together occupy about 230 million acres in the United States, and there’s another 100 million for other commodity crops. Those 2 to 5 million additional acres we need for our massive shift to vegetables? That’s a measly 1 percent of our total acreage; if you want to fix agriculture, it’s the other 99 percent that need your attention.

If that sounds counterintuitive, think about it another way. We all need to eat about 2,000 calories each day (give or take), and if we were to follow the government’s MyPlate recommendations for vegetable consumption, that comes to only 12 percent of our caloric needs (give or take).

Although vegetables are a small slice of our agriculture and our calories, it’s easy to see how the vegetable-farm solution gets traction. Go into a grocery store, and the products with the shortest distance between us and the farm are in the produce section. They’re a tangible, edible link between us and the people we think of when we think “farmer.” The commodity crops — the corn and the soy, but also the oats and the barley and the lentils — don’t represent the farmer most of us meet at the farmers market, the one running the farm of our imagination. But it is those crops that will feed us.

They feed us now. According the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, about 60 percent of the world’s calories come from just three crops: corn, wheat and rice. (The corn is field corn, which is different from the familiar sweet corn.) Those, and a few others — sorghum, millet and soy, for example — are the staple crops around the world. One of the reasons they became staples is that you can grow a lot of them on a small plot. Another is that they store well.

Here in the United States, the conversation about commodity crops has been shaped by two ancillary issues: subsidies and the uses those crops are put to. Although subsidies certainly played a role in shaping our food system (and I think we need to change to a crop-neutral system, which I will keep harping on until somebody takes up the rallying cry), commodity-based agriculture is what feeds people around the world because of those crops’ inherent qualities. And, although commodities, particularly corn and soy, get a bad name because we eat them as components of processed foods (vegetable oil and high-fructose corn syrup, for example) and meat, the crops themselves are perfectly healthful and nutritious.

There are two reasons we shouldn’t shift away from a system where most calories come from staples and few from vegetables, even if we could: Vegetables are too expensive, and they require too much land.

Growing vegetables isn’t cheap: One study showed the cost of growing broccoli is 50 times what it is to grow corn, based on the amount of expense per calories delivered. (Shullye Serhiy/istockphoto)

First, the money. For last month’s column on whether nutritious food is more expensive than junky food, I looked at the costs involved in growing broccoli and corn. One estimate from the University of California at Davis estimates the costs of growing broccoli at about $5,000 per acre, whereas corn is about $700. Factor in that corn delivers 15 million calories per acre to broccoli’s 2-ish million, and the cost to grow broccoli (25 cents per 100 calories) is 50 times larger than corn (half a cent per hundred calories). And that’s just the difference on the farm. After harvest, that broccoli needs to be refrigerated and transported to where it’s going before it spoils. Broccoli has nutrients that corn doesn’t, of course, so it’s a good thing that we eat some. But an all-vegetable, or mostly vegetable, diet is prohibitively expensive for most people.

The land issue is directly related. When you can grow many more calories per acre, you need fewer acres. The closer we get to maxing out our farmland, the more important that calculation becomes. (Other things become important, too, like the amount of grain we feed to livestock and convert to biofuels.)

The vegetable misunderstanding is important because the emphasis on those small, alternative farms as a significant part of the “fix” for agriculture lets defenders of the status quo dismiss critics as starry-eyed romantics who don’t understand farming, and thus downplay important criticism.

A prairie strip of wildflowers and other plants separates sections of soybeans on a farm in Iowa. (Andrew Dickinson/For The Washington Post)

The inescapable reality is that the inherent costs involved in growing, storing and shipping vegetables often make them a luxury food. The backbone of a diet good for both people and planet is whole grains and legumes: oats, barley, wheat, corn, beans, peanuts, lentils. The fix for what ails ag is to grow those foods better.

There are efforts afoot to do just that. One, spearheaded by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), is the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, a coalition of ag-related companies committed to protecting water and air, enhancing soil and maintaining yields. It’s a strange-bedfellows consortium of companies that critics have cited as being part of the problem (Monsanto, Cargill, PepsiCo) and organizations with the mission of environmental protection (the EDF, the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy).

Its goals may seem modest to the burn-it-down ethos that aims to upend food as we know it and rebuild it healthfully and sustainably, but I think small steps, and then more small steps, on tens or even hundreds of millions of acres is how that job has to get done.

Now that we’ve got that all cleared up, on to Russian hacking!

Just kidding.

My best for the holiday season, and better prospects for peace on Earth in 2017.