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Food for Thought

Food for Thought

– by Jim Matson, 1000 Friends Board Member

  • In just one lifetime, world population has nearly quadrupled. All of us want to eat well.
  • If current consumption trends continue, the world will need 50-100% more food by the time today’s children reach middle age. That will put more pressure on land and water resources.
  • great blue heronWisconsin alone consumes 30 million lbs. of food every day.
  • U.S. cities have just one week’s supply of food on hand at any given time.
  • The U.S. imports roughly 20% of its food, and exports 20% of what it produces.
  • Our food system, like our financial system, is heavily exposed to a volatile world market.
  • In 1918, horses and mules ate 25% of all U.S. crop production. Since then, fossil fuel and technology have replaced animal and human labor.
  • An industrialized food system is feeding more people at lower cost. The average U.S. household now spends about 10% of its annual budget on food, compared to 40% in 1900.
  • Abundance can lead to waste. According to USDA, the U.S. currently wastes a third of its total food supply (retail and households). When we waste food, we waste energy, land and water.
  • Each year, the U.S. landfills enough food to feed Wisconsin for 5 years (food weight equivalent).
  • From 1970 to 2000, U.S. per capita calorie consumption increased by 25%.
  • Since 1992, the U.S. obesity rate has tripled. The average supermarket has 42,000 distinct items.
  • 70% of U.S. processed foods contain ingredients from GMO crops (corn & soybeans are 90% GMO).
  • Agriculture now uses 40% of the world’s land area, compared to just 7% in 1700.
  • Yet, because of population growth, the world has only half as much farmland per capita as it did in 1960. “New” agricultural land (e.g., converted rainforest and dry grassland) will come at great environmental cost. Much existing cropland is being eroded and degraded.
  • Since the 1970’s, non-farm development has consumed enough U.S. farmland to cover Wisconsin, and enough Wisconsin farmland to cover Dane County.
  • The U.S. has already lost 30% of its native topsoil to erosion. Eroded soil carries algae-producing phosphorus and other pollutants to lakes and streams.
  • Wisconsin’s soil erosion rate has increased by over 25% since 1992 (per USDA).
  • Heavier storms and more intensive row cropping are increasing erosion risks. Urban sprawl is reducing water infiltration, and increasing storm water discharge and flooding risks.
  • The U.S., with 5% of the world’s population, consumes nearly 20% of the world’s energy.
  • The U.S. food system (farm through home kitchen) accounts for roughly 16% of U.S. energy use, and 22% of U.S. greenhouse gas production (carbon dioxide, methane from livestock, and nitrous oxide from fertilizer).
  • Food-related household uses (kitchen appliances, grocery runs, etc.) are the biggest energy users in the food system. Food processing is next. Retail, storage, farming & transport are down the list.
  • It takes about 7 Calories (kcal.) of fossil fuel to produce, process, transport, store and prepare each food Calorie (kcal.) that you consume.
  • Roughly a third of all people in the world today are alive because of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Without it, world food production and population would crash.
  • U.S. farmers apply 5 times more nitrogen fertilizer than they did in 1960.
  • From 2004 to 2013, Wisconsin farmers more than doubled their nitrogen fertilizer applications (not counting manure or treated municipal bio-solids).
  • At least 20% of the nitrogen applied to corn, on Wisconsin silt-loam soils, leaches to groundwater as nitrate.
  • In much of southern Wisconsin, 20-30% of private wells exceed health standards for nitrate.
  • Nitrogen and phosphorus runoff – mainly from the Upper Midwest farms – is blamed for a “dead zone,” now the size of New Jersey, in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Wisconsin imports about half a million tons of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer each year.
  • Large companies dominate the U.S. agriculture and food system. Production is concentrated and geographically specialized. Food travels long distances. Farmers lack bargaining power.
  • Just 2% of U.S. farm operators now account for well over half of all farm product sales.
  • Just 13% of Wisconsin farm operators account for 76% of Wisconsin farm revenue, and operate 43% of the state’s farmland.
  • Half of all U.S. farmers who sell less than $350,000 annually are operating at a loss.
  • Direct farm-to-consumer sales (e.g., farmers markets) provide < ½ of 1% of U.S. farm income.
  • Most farm household income now comes from non-farm sources. Just 34% of farmers consider farming to be their primary occupation.
  • Farm households now comprise less than 8% of Wisconsin’s rural population.
  • Wisconsin has 9,000 dairy farms today, compared to 140,000 in 1950.
  • Absentee owners now hold 34% of WI farmland. The average WI farmer is nearly 60 years old.
  • Western WI leads the nation in farm bankruptcies.
  • U.S. farmers are producing more food on less land, but there are hidden environmental costs.
  • The U.S. produces 5 times more corn than it did in 1950, on roughly the same acreage. Fertilizer, pesticides, patented GMO seeds, mechanization and large-scale monoculture play big roles.
  • Corn is the biggest cash crop in the U.S. The U.S. accounts for 40% of world output.
  • 50-60% of the U.S. corn crop goes to feed livestock.
  • Over 30% of the total U.S. corn crop (40% of domestic use) goes to feed U.S. cars (ethanol).
  • Only 10% of the U.S. corn crop goes directly for human food (mostly refined oils and sweeteners).
  • Only about ½ of 1% of all U.S. corn is “sweet corn” for direct human consumption.
  • When the world corn price hit a record high in 2012 (a drought year), U.S. farmers shifted many more acres into corn, and plowed up over 5 million conservation acres. U.S. corn production jumped by 30% (compared to 2012), and prices received by farmers fell 50%.
  • Corn can be highly susceptible to soil erosion and nutrient runoff.
  • Last year, Wisconsin produced a record 30 billion lbs. of milk – 25% more than we did just 10 years ago. Dairy growth is concentrated (esp. near northeast WI cheese processing hubs).
  • 90% of Wisconsin’s milk goes for cheese (mainly for pizza), and 90% of that cheese is consumed outside the state.
  • Surging milk production has boosted our cheese industry, but driven down farm prices.
  • Just 3% of Wisconsin dairy farms (CAFOs) now produce nearly 40% of Wisconsin’s milk.
  • The average Wisconsin dairy farm now has over 125 cows, compared to 15 in 1950. Wisconsin’s largest dairy farm now has over 8,000 cows.
  • Wisconsin has 93% fewer dairy farms than in 1950, but we produce 80% more milk.
  • Milk production per cow has tripled since 1950, and is likely to go higher.
  • Wisconsin still has 5 times more dairy farms than California. But California (where the average farm has well over 1,000 cows) produces 50% more milk.
  • More milk means more manure. Wisconsin now produces about 66 billion lbs. of dairy manure each year – about 2.2 lbs. for every lb. of milk.
  • A 1,000 cow dairy farm produces as much fecal waste as a city of 25-30 thousand people (think Neenah, Stevens Point, Superior, Sun Prairie or West Bend).
  • A 1,000 cow dairy farm needs about 10 million gallons of manure storage capacity, and hauls about 12 million gallons of manure a year (circumstances vary).
  • A 1,000 cow dairy farm needs about 2,000 acres for manure disposal (circumstances vary).
  • It is very costly to haul manure more than 5 miles, so manure is often over-applied close to home.
  • Next to imported commercial fertilizer, manure is the leading source of nitrogen and phosphorus applied to Wisconsin farms. But manure runoff can contaminate drinking wells, lakes & streams.

For background information and citations, see “Food, Land and Water: Can Wisconsin Find Its Way?” at https://wisconsinlandwater.org/programs/food-land-water-resources.

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