From Nick Trachet of the Brussel Nieuws
The county of Flanders was in the Ancien Régime known as Butter Country. The peasants made and sold butter and lived on butter milk. Why? Because the butter was needed by the weavers who greased their weaving threads with it against wear! Enormous amounts of butter were used this way.
Remember Europe had a shortage of oils and fats before the colonial/petrol era.
And olive oil was the best lubricant for water mills and other machinery as well as being used for lighting. And tallow (beef or mutton fat) was used in the same way. And fats were also necessary to make soap and as ointments.
In Europe, the oil shortage began to ease with the import of tropical oils (palm oil, for example) when Europe acquired tropical colonies in the nineteenth century. In the US, whaling produced oil. And then of course, as Nick says, with the petroleum industry, oils became abundant.
But the basic point holds. Lots of things that we eat have other uses. Grains and roots, for example, are used to make starch, millions of tons of it going to the paper industry. And here’s a nifty list of the food and non food uses of soy from Iowa State University.
So when thinking about the much-maligned commodity crops, it’s worth remembering that (even leaving biofuels aside), they are important economic resources. Or put another way, farming has traditionally provided fuel (wood, dung, furze), fiber (linen, cotton, wool, feathers), building materials (wood, straw, wattle), as well as glue, bristles, starch, leather for everything from clothing and saddles to buckets and chairs, lubricants and a host of other stuff that supports human society.
In fact, if anyone wants a challenge it would be interesting to try to chart the relative value of food and non-food uses of farm products over time. How did the exploitation of first coal, and then oil affect this ratio?
So I think it’s important, as the butter example reminds us, not to reduce farming to the production of healthy leafy greens, meat, milk and other foods that first come to mind when we hear the word “farm.”
And this is one reason why I am a tad uneasy about the many calls to re-describe the Farm Bill as the Food Bill.