There seems to be a constant question of whether we should be using production agriculture commodities for food or fuel. To me, there’s a very simple answer, and it goes back to a story from my childhood: The “Little House” series of books, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s experiences growing up in a pioneer family. In particular I want to focus on a book in the series titled “The Long Winter”. What can a book set in De Smet, South Dakota in during the winter of 1880-1881 tell us about the very modern topic of food vs. fuel? Plenty it seems to me.
The key event I want to focus on is this. The storyline of this book in the series is a most sever winter the pioneer family (and entire town) experienced. Sever enough the trains, which the town had grown dependent on for supplies, couldn’t reach the settlement for many, many months. Laura’s family made an important decision, they choose to twist the hay that had been meant for the family cow into small tight bundles and burn it for heat, because there was no trains to deliver coal. The next summer, there was no milk, butter, or any other dairy products. They had used the feed that was intended for the cow, in order to have heat.
The key point I think is that the Ingalls family made a choice, due to the importance of heat to sustain life during a long, cold winter, in this case it probably wasn’t much of a choice and more a necessity. So lets fast forward this thought process to 2012. There’s a lot of arguments against using agriculture ground to produce fuel. Many of them are sensationalist and without merit. Growing fuel is not causing an increase in starving people nor is it responsible for the myriad of other accusations that get thrown at it.
But we have choices with the products we grow, we can and do use them for multiple purposes. If it’s the best option, we may use them for fuel, doing so means they won’t be used for other things. To put it in simple terms, I do believe we live in a world that is constrained by natural resources, agriculture is doing everything it can to alleviate those constraints. Yet, sometimes we have to make decisions, most/all of us cannot visualize a choice of burning our ag production for heat and having to eat rice and beans for the next twelve months, but in small, individual ways collectively as a society we make those choices every day.
If you read my blog much, you’ll know I’m a strong proponent of the free market system, and it’s ability to allocate scarce resources appropriately. Well, that’s really what happened with the Ingalls family, they took the resources they had, they made decisions on how to best use them. Seems simple does it? I think it really is that basic: forget the rhetoric, the concern, just simply let the market dictate how our ag production gets used. I’m pretty certain that method will provide the greatest amount of benefit to the greatest number of people.