I've been reading Mother Jones this week and am currently in the middle of an article about sustainable agriculture. It's pretty clear that despite all the hype about eating healthy, being locavores, and shopping at the farmer's market to help reduce the carbon footprint of your food, it's not a viable plan for the entire globe.
The article makes a number of interesting points, but one happened to stand out, probably because it's the one thing we keep hearing can't be addressed during the current economic crisis: national health care. Turns out farming is yet another area where the lack of a national health care system has become an uncounted cost to society as a whole.
One of the things everyone seems to deplore about modern industrial farming is monocropping, the specialization in just one area: thousands of acres of wheat, for example, or hundreds of acres of nothing but carrots. There's a lot of lamenting the loss of the family farm, the postcard places where the farmer would raise various row crops, set up a stand by the side of the road, and everything looked like a Norman Rockwell painting. What rarely gets asked is why farmers monocrop.
One answer, of course, is economies of scale. That one is fairly obvious.
What isn't quite as obvious is that it is a rare farmer today who works only one job:
one reason farmers prefer labor-saving monoculture is that it frees them to take an off-farm job, which for many is the only way to get health insurance. Thus, the simplest way to encourage sustainable farming might be offering a subsidy for affordable health care.
We've known for years that one reason U.S. auto companies have trouble competing with non-U.S. firms is the cost of health benefits to employees. Now it turns out it's an issue in farming, too. Yet we keep hearing that with the economy in the toilet the nation "can't afford" to address health care now. When are the experts inside the Beltway going to figure out that until we do address health care costs, we won't be able to fix anything else?