Americans spend less of their household budget on food than do citizens of any other country. Should we spend more, to reduce long-term impacts to the planet? How do we decide what products are “greenest,” anyway? In this installment of 89.1 WEMU’s The Green Room, Barbara Lucas explores two perspectives regarding the sustainability of foods grown right here in Michigan.
Barbara Lucas: Michigan grows about 160,000 acres of sugar beets. How do sugar beet farmers feel about the environmental sustainability of their methods?
Charlie Bauer: This is where I live.
Bauer: We’ll swing the door shut. I’ll get it. Tractor door slams.
BL: I’ve joined grower Charlie Bauer way up high in the cab of his enormous tractor, which he uses to farm thousands of acres near Frankenmuth.
BL: He presses a button and its wing-like arms unfold.
Bauer: I’ll fold it out here and hopefully I won't hit your car. This is 120 feet wide.
BL: Michigan’s beet sugar industry has followed the national trend of bigger, more mechanized farms.
Bauer: It’s really pretty amazing, this machine with the electronics and everything…
BL: For Bauer, growing large has allowed him efficiencies of scale that he says both keep prices low and reduce negative environmental impacts.
Bauer: … it has auto boom control on it so I can’t even spray outside of the field—shuts off automatically. And it's regulated so you don't over apply or under apply. Instead of mixing and handling that stuff, I put pure chemicals in five different tanks here. This one here does the Roundup.
BL: Like all the sugar beet farmers in Michigan, Bauer grows only genetically-modified beets. He says no trace of the genetically-modified protein is left in the sugar after processing. He uses GM beets because they’re resistant to Glyphosate, the pesticide in Round-up.
Bauer: I think environmentally it's nothing but a positive.
BL: Bauer says Roundup is so effective, he sprays less chemical than he used to, and goes across the fields less often.
Bauer: So every time you go across them you are burning fuel and burning resources. And the Roundup is much safer chemicals than what we were using before.
BL: We discuss a study linking the crash of the Monarch butterflies to the decrease in milkweed due to the spread of GM crops. Bauer says milkweed should be allowed to grow in roadside ditches, but not in farm fields.
Bauer: You can’t afford to grow weeds in a crop row. So you get rid of the weeds, whatever you have to do.
BL: When asked about the dreaded “resistance” that weeds can develop to Round-up, Bauer says it hasn’t reached their area, partly because they rotate crops and vary the chemicals applied.
Bauer: The benefit for us is that these other areas that have resistance—we learn from that.
BL: Bauer feels that killing weeds with pesticides—instead of cultivating with a tractor—is an environmental plus.
Bauer: Because every time you till the soil it releases carbon into the air.
BL: What about hoeing by hand, like in the old days? Bauer says hoeing beets manually is back-breaking labor, and at hundreds or thousands of acres, the sugar beet fields these days are just too large.
Bauer: We haven't had migrant labor for, well, since we’ve had Roundup-Ready technology, eight or nine years maybe.
BL: Beet sugar growers in Michigan’s thumb follow one model of sustainability. At the Washtenaw Food Hub, a few miles north of Ann Arbor, I learn about a different model.
Richard Andres: This sound is the sound of a freezer full of frozen local vegetables, grown in the season and frozen.
BL: That’s Richard Andres, owner of Tantre Organic Farm in Chelsea, and a founder of the Washtenaw Food Hub. He’s speaking of the business called “Locavorious.”
Andres: She hires people to chop vegetables by hand. She used to haul them to a place in Canton but she was too small. That’s what this site is for, it’s for processing local foods, and it operates as a community kitchen for small businesses to accelerate their businesses.
BL: “The Brinery” is another popular company that processes food raised with minimal chemicals in the Hub’s shared facilities.
Andres: We can go in the kitchen here and look at the kitchen. You can hear another compressor turning on.
BL: We tour two rooms chock full of shining, commercial-grade appliances. (Door opens to the outside.) He also shows me row upon row of solar panels which power 100% of the operations here. Andres is a man on a mission. He’s mortgaged Tantre Farm to help pay for the Hub. It’s a risk. Why does he do it?
Andres: We’ve got to feed ourselves and we all have to get on this question and ask how do we do that’s not going to be completely reliant on the diminishing nonrenewable resources.
BL: I point out that some of the products sold here are a lot more expensive than comparable products produced by highly mechanized, pesticide-reliant farms. Andres says that truly sustainably-raised food isn’t cheap.
Andres: Many of the costs of farming are externalized in the form of pollution and greenhouse gases that are not taken into account in terms of the true cost of the food. Food may be cheap but it is because we can pollute and because we have very cheap resources at the moment.
BL: Andres advocates a return to small, human-scale farms.
Andres: …and getting people back on the land, in a healthy way. People need exercise and they need meaning in their life. I think working by hand creates a lot of meaning.
BL: He says he appreciates efficient farm practices and low prices, but he’d like to see more concern for health—of both people and the land.
Andres: It’s like, OK, let’s look at something else, let’s look at some other principles here, and some other values here.
BL: But are people willing to pay for these other values?
Andres: Ann Arbor is a special place and I think people love farmers, they love farms. They love to be part of a greater narrative.
BL: Andres is hoping this narrative spreads.
Andres: I think it's a model for the whole state in a lot of ways.
BL: I’m reminded of the phrase: “Ann Arbor, 25 square miles surrounded by reality.” Will this model of sustainability be embraced by mainstream American shoppers?
Andres: Right now food is linked to the economy, everything is linked to the economy.
BL: Currently the U.S. economy is working well for sugar growers like Charlie Bauer.
Charlie Bauer: Our sugar goes into baby formula, it goes into cake mixes, sugar is in 70% of all the food that's consumed. It’s a necessary commodity. That's why we have a sugar program in the Farm Bill, because we have a need for a stable supply. Every developed country in the world has a sugar program to ensure they have sugar for their people.
BL: The Washtenaw Food Hub has received some government help too, both state and federal grants to get things started. But ongoing, even with nearly free energy from the sun, a lot of human labor goes into their products, and that’s expensive. While prices are black and white, what qualifies as “truly green,” and what values people will pay for, remains to be seen.