What is Food? - Part II

Here is how it will all turn out

You remember when answering the question: What is Fair? we discovered that location matters because you choose where you are. If you are lucky. Why you might choose a particular spot on the earth has to do with what conveniences you find there. Willie Sutton is famous for saying that he robbed banks because that is where the money is. Some years later Connie Francis had a hit song titled “Where the Boys Are.” Then, we have the late, questionably great but certainly politically incorrect before his time, comedian Sam Kinison who urged people to STOP sending food overseas to end world hunger, instead send people luggage so they could move to where the food is. My kind of logic.

That is where our story starts today. Here is my bold prediction: No matter how much you LOVE where you are, you will like it A LOT less if there is no food there. Since we have at least one generation that believes food comes from the grocery store and that crowd was raised by parents who believe all problems are solved by passing laws, a short remedial lesson on food and laws is in order.

People and Food

Plentiful data courtesy of a generous government informs us that the land in our 48 contiguous states is divided into about 3,000 counties grouped into 9 distinct classes ranging from very densely populated metropolitan areas (Class 1), of more than a million people, to completely rural areas not adjacent to a big city (Class 9), each with less than 2,500 residents. If you are planning to be hungry anytime soon, think very hard about the next sentence: The ratio, by weight, of nearby food to nearby people is very different in Class 1 than it is in Class 9. This reality is the marriage of location and logistics. It is what Sam had in mind during his appearance on television in 1985. If that math is too hard, think about it this way: In Class 9 where the food starts, weigh all the food, then weigh all the people producing the food and compare the weights. Then go to Class 1 and do the same, weigh all the food arriving but this time weighing all the locals eating the food, then compare the numbers. The word you should be looking for is “sobering.” Repeat this exercise until that is the first word that pops into your head.

Here are some fun stats you will want to use to liven up your next dinner party (where you hope to be serving, you guessed it, FOOD):

It turns out that, of the approximately 3000 counties, the number of most populous counties (432) is very close to the number (424) of least populous counties. Let’s see if we can agree on something. True or False: The average farmer can produce more food in one day than I can eat in one day? With that factoid in hand, note that these two groups of counties are home to more than half the population of the entire country. The population ratio between them is about 70 to 1. It is reasonable to assume that not all the people living out in the sticks are farmers but that all of the people in the cities are eaters. Thus, at best, there is no more than one person available in the 424 least populated counties available to feed about 70 people in the 432 most densely populated counties. Of course, it is unfair to assume everyone in the middle seven classes of counties is living in a condo and working at Starbucks. But to get some sense of scale one must start somewhere.

The US Department of Agriculture takes a census every 5 years. The last period was 2012-2017 and it showed that the acreage devoted to all food other than soybeans and alfalfa declined during that time. Our vegan friends get excited by a steady diet of only soybeans and alfalfa. The rest of us, not so much.

Land Mass and People

Spoiler Alert: Food is found at the grocery store but that is NOT where it comes from. Food comes from the ground. To create a large quantity of food you must start with a large quantity of land. There is a lot of land in the US. Some of that is devoted to cities; some to farms. Those who enjoy food with their meals may want to contemplate not only how much there is of each but how the votes are cast in each place.

According to the Census Bureau, 44 states are more than 85% rural. Of the seven remaining, counting Washington DC as a state, all are in the northeastern part of the country and very densely populated.

In those 424 least populous counties you find about 2.5 million people toiling daily to feed about 177 million people in the 432 most populous counties (which is that “about” 70 to 1 ratio. Divide 2.5 into 177 and you get just over 70. That is why we say “about”).

In USDA data, all measures of farming declined between 2012 and 2017. Change in number of farms, change in acreage farmed, irrigated land and harvested cropland all were less in 2017 than in 2012. For livestock nearly every category (milk cows, hogs, pigs, sheep and lamb) all declined. Only beef cattle increased. Perhaps worse is farmer aging. The average age in 2017 was 57; more than 1 in 3 were over 65. Today those still with us are, of course, now even older. So are his children. But they are not on the farm. There’s your problem.

Wherever the food is coming from it is coming less and less from within our borders.

GDP and Food

Sometimes money and markets operate as The Great Averaging Machine, so another metric is Gross Domestic Product. The contribution agriculture makes to GDP nationally is a frighteningly low 1.3%. Apparently, Starbucks pays more than we thought. Only 26 states have an agriculture GDP contribution of more than 1% with only one, South Dakota, exceeding 10%. Since GDP is measured in a political commodity, dollars, these data are less than pure. Not surprisingly, Washington DC has a microscopic agricultural GDP of less than half a million dollars, a negligible four ten thousandths of a percent (.0004% = .000004) of its overall GDP. Judging by their waistlines, people in DC are eating their share. One wonders what they are doing when not operating a fork.

Laws and Food

For the other 99.9996% of its GDP, the District of Columbia mostly produces laws. May we agree that laws are not very tasty? There are many lessons here. Test drive these two thought experiments.

The grim truth is that many people could become hungry very fast. Imagine a starving DC lawyer arriving in the country to find a farmer sitting on his tractor in the middle of a field of carrots (don’t like carrots? Pick your own favorite and stop nitpicking). Our hungry man approaches with a bushel basket of Trillion Dollar Bills which he has just produced in Washington DC using laws. He asks the farmer if he will exchange the contents of his basket for an equal amount of carrots. What do you think the farmer will say?

Or, how about this. Suppose we find we are short some essential commodity. Since we recently learned that the government knows what “essential” is, we can depend on our government to supply all that is essential. If we don’t have enough potatoes, someone in DC will pass a law that will make potatoes pop up out of the ground. If we are short on oranges, they pass a law that will make oranges fall off the tree into boxes which transport themselves to market.

Just in case those laws do not work, we might consider…

Food and Distance

Using USDA data and GPS we can identify those areas in which growing is growing. That means we can see where farm output has risen over the 5 years for which we have data. It makes sense to concentrate on those locations if for no other reason than it provides hope that farmers are happy farming there and will continue.

Presently, when you need food you drive to the nearest store, walk up and down the aisles and return home in an hour or so with what you want. Simple. But there are people who want to DeFund the society that has for a long time delivered that prosperity to all of us. So, what’s a Mother to do? A long day of campaigning to destroy our system tends to build up an appetite. Eventually, your average North American Utopian starts looking around for dinner. The pile of ashes where the local grocery store once was is no longer helpful.

Below you have a chance to experience living in a defunded world. Click the boxes to make your shopping list from USDA data. Then push a button to see where you need to go to fill your pantry. Only a handful of alternatives are provided, some are fairly broad (“Vegetables”), some more specific (“Potatoes”). Keep in mind that if you visit a hog farmer you do not leave with a pork chop. Likewise, going to a wheat farm does not result in a loaf of bread in your bag. Plan on more trips for yeast, salt, sugar and butter. This involves more driving and you will need to add some labor. But that is another story.

One of the shopping categories is what we might call a placeholder. Cotton is not a food. It serves as a proxy for all the non-food items one buys in a grocery store, only some of which grow on farms.

So, picture yourself leaving the apocalypse behind in the city and driving out to the country to do your shopping. Enter your home county and state, make your shopping list by checking the boxes, click on the “Generate the Shopping Route” button. Do not expect a text from GrubHub. What you have instead is your post-defunding destiny mapped out for you. Depending on your browser and internet connection this could take some time. Be patient. You may need to refresh your browser between input changes. This will be a good exercise for you as you need to develop A LOT of patience for the world as you apparently want it. By defunding society you are eliminating the incentives for people to bring you food and requiring substitution of  your own homemade logistics. The rendering below is part of that.

Food and Voting

As you are driving along, thinking about how much you miss the old system, you may begin to appreciate the Electoral College. Maybe the Founders knew what would happen as population grew and crowded close together over time. Maybe those Rubes in the backwater are as smart as the Founders. Maybe they know that passing laws that lead to less food is not good for society and voted to stop it in 2016 before it was too late.

Aggregate the votes cast (just over 21 million or about 16%) in the 2016 Presidential election in the NE part of the US. These states ALL voted as if they like laws more than food. Of the 424 least populous counties in the US, exactly two are located in these eleven states (they are both in Vermont and have a total population of 35,000). Thus, we may assume that very little food for the approximately 51 million residents in those eleven states is being produced by people living nearby. Just under 20% of all votes cast nationwide for more laws in 2016 were cast in those eleven states. They think they know something about growing food you don’t. Really? Hard to imagine.

“Yes, but...”

OK, I can hear the whining now. You are saying you would never go to all that trouble. I did not say foraging would be fun. Talk to your friends who want to DeFund society. You can carpool. We were once hunter-gatherers and with the help of DeFund Now! we can be again.

There is always opportunity to complain about how numbers are presented. Let me save you some time. Yes, by focusing on the smallest and largest classes of county population, I ignore a very large portion in the middle. One can learn a lot by studying extreme values because these values have an outsized influence on the average (not the median). Another obvious criticism is that food is shipped from all over the planet to other places all the time. True. These are called supply chains and the logistics of that process recently encountered some serious shocks. Empty store shelves are usually artifacts of banana republics, but we recently learned how fragile our supply chain for toilet paper might be. That, despite the fact that 95% of the toilet paper used in this country is manufactured domestically.

My GPS is a bit on the rough side, using the center of the county where you live and the center of the county where the food grows. Finding the actual farm you want will add to the driving. Deal with it. Your forebearers had to throw spears at running animals. Some of our neighbors want to return us to that time.

Note that in some cases you will need to travel across state lines. This will be harder if the country divides into two or more separate countries after/because of how separate regions view defunding. Want more laws? In the future you may need your passport to buy rutabagas. That will slow you down.

The belief that “it could never happen here” has not worn well historically in other places (must I list them for you?). But if denial is your preference, so be it. Just think hard about what it means to cast votes for more laws and less farmers. Today’s pestilence is man-made in the form of opportunistic politicians clueless about incentives and supply chain economics. Exercise caution when voting for laws to make food pop up out of the ground. You may not get the outcome you expect.

We can afford being a Nation of Laws because - so far - we have land with a lot of food.

Part III illustrates how to run that movie backward...