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World hunger and the locavores
March 4, 2010 7:21 AM   Subscribe

How Locavores Could Save the World (All Things Considered)
The latest yuppie craze could do more than just cut emissions -- it might also help feed the poor: "Monocultures are naturally prone to disastrous outbreaks of disease, which can wipe out an entire crop... people think of the locavores as solving a luxury problem of how to eat healthier and more delicious food in rich countries, and they're not asking whether they have anything to teach with respect to big questions like world hunger. That might be changing." (previously)
posted by kliuless (86 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Why do poor countries need to be "taught" and "saved" by the rich countries? Oh, yeah, I nearly forgot that whole thing about colonial emperialists wiping out their traditional subsistance agriculture in favor of cash crops.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:25 AM on March 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


"Locavores?"

I'm against eating crazy people.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:28 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Er, do they mention the whole "it's chaper to buy American rice then grow your own" thing at all?
posted by The Whelk at 7:28 AM on March 4, 2010


Giving a 20 minute "parable" about foie gras is not the best way to show that you're not "solving a luxury problem"
posted by delmoi at 7:32 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


From the "rich countries" link, it would seem "rich countries" are in fact studying whether or not they have anything to teach:

Patricia Allen, of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California-Santa Cruz, has pondered this problem extensively. She shows that when efforts to attain community food security (for the poor) are entrusted to local food suppliers, the results are not always the strengthening of community bonds, but rather their fraying. Allen bravely questions the entire premise that communities “will make better decisions about food systems,” noting how it all depends on the shaky premise that there’s “fluid cooperation among groups with quite different interests.

Think about it: if there’s one thing you do not see at the farmers’ market, it’s socio-economic diversity (although there is evidence that markets are becoming more ethnically diverse). Localizing the food supply, in other words, automatically means that a small group of people will have exclusive influence over what the rest of the community has access to. Such power can alienate and even anger “the community.” “[T]he presumption that everyone can participate is a magician’s illusion,” writes Allen.

What often follows, as a result, are local food systems in which a self-elected cohort of decision makers promotes a subjective vision of what a healthy, virtuous, and environmentally sound diet should look like. The rest just get what they’re given, stay away, or resist in ways that undermine the process of community development. Again, Allen says, “The evidence is that localism is anything but liberatory for those traditionally marginalized.” Culinary localism can thus backfire on the full community it’s supposed to improve.


So maybe these "localvores" should keep their ideas local.
posted by three blind mice at 7:36 AM on March 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


FOOD FIGHT
posted by The Whelk at 7:39 AM on March 4, 2010


Local eating isn't a health thing. I could get organic peaches or whatever shipped from the Moon, if they grew them there. It's an energy thing. Transportation costs money.

As for healthy eating being a luxury problem: I suggest you take a look an income vs obesity graph some time. Unless even the poorest Americans qualify as living in "luxury" which is arguable.
posted by DU at 7:46 AM on March 4, 2010


I sort of see locavores as early adopters. Yes, the food they wish to consume is more expensive and less accessible - now. But the more common it becomes and the more demand there is on local farms to provide for local consumers, the greater the possibility that supply goes up and prices go down. Government subsidies would help.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 7:46 AM on March 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


The fundemental premise of the article "But in fact, the costs of the modern agriculture industry are far greater, and more insidious, than the costs of returning to a more localized model of farming would be. " is incorrect.

Localized food, like organic food, is a luxury. It is not as long term sustainable as scaled farming operations that greatly lower the cost of food in terms of dollars, land usage, and water usage. Small organic farms use twice the water and have half the crop density. There is no difference between the factory farmed carrot from 1,000 miles away and the carrot lovingly raised in your neighborhood, other that how you _feel_ about the carrot.

There is reality behind the term 'economies of scale'. Scientific management of agriculture is the only realistic path to feeding the world now and in the future. To feed the people of Earth we need to increase the amount of food we can grow while reducing the space, water, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer necessary to grow our food.

Unfortunately localized food does not solve these problems. Again, it's a luxury for people with disposable income. Look I like shopping at my local farmer's market and buying stuff there, but I don't kid myself that I'm saving the world.

With a significant percentage of people in the world not having enough to eat, we need to think more scientifically and less emotionally about how we grow our food. You may not like that capitalism is involved in our agriculture, but it is the reality we live in.
posted by Argyle at 7:47 AM on March 4, 2010 [7 favorites]


Ugh, what the hell?

He spends 20 minutes talking about this ultradelux foie gras farm and then at the end says:
We need now to adopt a new conception of agriculture. Really new. One in which we stop treating the planet as if it were some kind of business in liquidation. And stop degrading resources under the guise of cheap food. We can start by looking to farmers like Eduardo. Farmers that rely on nature for solutions, for answers, rather than imposing solutions on nature.
Now really. The farm sounds very nice. But do you really think that the way he's producing this stuff would be efficient enough to feed everyone in the world? Obviously not. The fact that someone can have a farm like that, and make foie gras like that is nice, I guess, for the few rich people who could afford it. But there's no evidence given that those methods are scalable enough to feed six billion people. In fact, I'm sure they're not.
As for healthy eating being a luxury problem: I suggest you take a look an income vs obesity graph some time. Unless even the poorest Americans qualify as living in "luxury" which is arguable.
It's a luxury problem because only rich people can even afford to buy these expensive organic, local food items. In fact, one of the reasons that poor people tend to be fat is because healthy food is so much more expensive per calorie then fatty junk food.
posted by delmoi at 7:54 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I could be wrong, but I don't think the area where I live can support enough agriculture to even come close to meeting the caloric needs of the area's population, at least not without cutting down a lot of trees. I suspect that is true for much of the world.

I also bet that globalized agriculture does a pretty good job of smoothing out natural effects that otherwise would have caused mass starvation in past centuries.
posted by ghharr at 7:56 AM on March 4, 2010


Scientific management of agriculture is the only realistic path to feeding the world now and in the future. To feed the people of Earth we need to increase the amount of food we can grow while reducing the space, water, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer necessary to grow our food.

No, this is wrong. There is enough food to feed the people of the world. International and local politics and deterrents to distribution are what hinders the eradication of hunger, not the production of more food.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 7:56 AM on March 4, 2010 [8 favorites]


Localized food, like organic food, is a luxury. It is not as long term sustainable as scaled farming operations that greatly lower the cost of food in terms of dollars, land usage, and water usage. Small organic farms use twice the water and have half the crop density. There is no difference between the factory farmed carrot from 1,000 miles away and the carrot lovingly raised in your neighborhood, other that how you _feel_ about the carrot.

I'm not sure about that. When my mom and sister moved to the east coast from Iowa, one of the things they said was that the quality of food in restaurants was way lower on account of not having much fresh fruits and vegetables. It was certainly uprising to me, but obviously a carot, lettuce, etc are going to taste better if they are fresher.

But the idea that they are going to be healthier, or that it's possible to feed everyone that way is just silly.
posted by delmoi at 7:58 AM on March 4, 2010


It's a luxury problem because only rich people can even afford to buy these expensive organic, local food items.

The solution is luxury but the problem is just the opposite.

That said, the solution isn't luxury either. I had a minute garden last year and grew more food than I could eat. Cost me about $3. Not to mention the fact that until very recently almost all communities had local farms with milk, eggs, meat and vegetables. The only reason it's expensive now is because it is scarce.
posted by DU at 7:58 AM on March 4, 2010


I sort of question the idea that this kind of eating is always necessary more expensive. We go to a farmers market in San Francisco every Sunday - not the yuppie farmers market in the Ferry Building, but what I call the "real" farmers market: the one in UN Plaza, attended by its share of yuppies, but also plenty of immigrants and welfare recipients. We spend around $40 for basically everything we'll eat over the next week - sometimes every two weeks.

Not everything at this market is certified organic, and in a lot of cases, that's because some of these operations can't afford to spend money on that certification. But what's much better than that certification is the ability to, you know, actually talk to farmers. You can ask them questions about where and how things are grown, and get a much better idea of what you're eating than you'd get from some kind of certification. In a way, I feel like the stereotype that locally grown food is too expensive is the result of people who choose to pay more money, people who see the pricetag as a feature.
posted by roll truck roll at 8:04 AM on March 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure your average community would accept a local farm now what with the smell and all. Many people prefer not to be reminded of the production aspects of their pre-portioned, plastic-wrapped groceries.
posted by Go Banana at 8:07 AM on March 4, 2010


This is the latest yuppie craze? Come on, there must have been something else in the last three years or so. To the New York Times Style section!
posted by condour75 at 8:08 AM on March 4, 2010


You may not like that capitalism is involved in our agriculture, but it is the reality we live in.

Capitalism?
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 8:10 AM on March 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


Local eating isn't a health thing. I could get organic peaches or whatever shipped from the Moon, if they grew them there. It's an energy thing. Transportation costs money.

There's a bit of "health thing" going on in there as well, though -- the peach picked in the farm the next town over only sits around a couple hours before you buy it, which means that it will stay fresher in your house longer, and will taste better, which means you're more likely to eat it. Plus -- and I'm talking out my butt a bit here, I'll admit -- I have a hunch the nutritive value of produce starts to deteriorate a bit the longer you let it sit around after picking and before eating.

Compare that with the peach you ship in from "the moon" -- which gets picked and then sits on transport for a few days before it gets to a store where you can buy it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:12 AM on March 4, 2010


I had a minute garden last year and grew more food than I could eat.

More then you could eat or more then you were willing to eat?

I mean, a potato has 149 calories and weighs 185 grams. So 2000 calories for the day would take 2.4kg of potatoes. It would take 3.2kg and I would assume you'd get similar results with other fruits and vegetables.

You'd need almost a ton of potatoes, and more then a ton of apples to feed a person for a year. And of course you'd need beans and stuff for protein.

So, I find the idea that you were able to grow more food then you could eat not to be very credible.
posted by delmoi at 8:14 AM on March 4, 2010


Why do poor countries need to be "taught" and "saved" by the rich countries?

I don't know about now (although some quick searching makes it seem as if the policy hasn't changed), but back when my friends were doing the Peace Corps thing, they were being trained to teach the locals to grow cash crops. The ones who bought into the idea were often quite frustrated that the many of the locals resisted the idea of selling their produce and spending the money, instead of trading it for favors from their neighbors.

Many of the governments of poorer countries prefer that their people produce cash crops which are them subject not only to the stresses and dangers of the agricultural process, but also those of international finance. Why? Because the elites who run the government want more international cash flow for their own benefit, even if it means the run of the mill citizens have to buy food from outside the country, food whose price can fluctuate in response to situations that the buyers are completely unable to control.

Helping local farmers develop solutions to local food supply problems before they start looking for external profits seems to me to be a better idea than teaching them to grow a monoculture that they can sell for money to buy someone else's monoculture, no matter what the theory of relative advantage says.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 8:25 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


But the idea that they are going to be healthier, or that it's possible to feed everyone that way is just silly.

Why?

I'm honestly curious. It seems like a lot of assertions are based on common sense or ADM commercials sponsoring all the Sunday morning political talk shows or back-of-the-envelope definitions of efficiency, but I'm not finding them convincing. There's quite a bit of research out there indicating that the conventional wisdom that industrial agribusiness is the only way to feed the world may not be correct.
posted by jhandey at 8:34 AM on March 4, 2010


Why?

Did you watch the video, or read the transcript? It actually has nothing to do with "feeding the word", he's just talking about some farm that makes expensive foie gras.
posted by delmoi at 8:37 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Did you watch the video, or read the transcript? It actually has nothing to do with "feeding the word", he's just talking about some farm that makes expensive foie gras.

Did you read any of the other sixteen links in the submission before the fois gras one - the first one from Foreign Policy, for one?

That one TED video doesn't invalidate the entire locavore movement.
posted by jhandey at 8:44 AM on March 4, 2010


It's almost like when all the culture-war bullshit is stripped from the issue, things like "sustainability" and "biodiversity" are actually positive!
posted by threeants at 8:49 AM on March 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


Did you watch the video, or read the transcript? It actually has nothing to do with "feeding the word", he's just talking about some farm that makes expensive foie gras.

He's asking about why it's not possible to feed people sustainably, organically, and locally. I'd like to know as well. The "efficiency" of factory farms is obscured due to agricultural subsidies and cheap energy, both of which won't necessarily be there in the future.

Turns out factories (food or other kinds) aren't all that efficient for many reasons, chief among them that they have a high initial cost and upkeep cost and are not flexible (they produce a specialty product under ideal circumstances that aren't necessarily sustainable circumstances). Factories also rely on extreme specialization, and when circumstances aren't ideal and those employed by said factories are let go they tend to have a hard time getting back into the job market because they don't have relevant skills (not very insulated from the grumblings of the global economy).
posted by symbollocks at 8:54 AM on March 4, 2010


Also: Why do we have to have large farms with a few specialized employees when we could have lots of farms with generalized employees? Organic agriculture is indeed more labor intense than conventional agriculture which means they require more workers. But what's wrong with employing more people in the production of food? More people could be fed that way and more people could be employed.

The above proposed arrangement seems far more efficient than trying to farm with as few people as possible, what are the people who need that food going to do? Work at McDonalds? Be unemployed? I'd rather work on a farm, personally.
posted by symbollocks at 9:00 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


The idea that "we need factory farming to feed the poor" as an argument against local agriculture seems totally disingenuous to me. The massive mounds of factory farmed food we consume in the developed world are not getting shipped to the developing world. The main food exported from the US, not coincidentally, is heavily government-subsidized: corn. And it's not going to the proverbial starving families in Africa, it's going to Japan and Mexico. Enough food is produced to feed everyone in the world almost twice over. Factory farming is not science-as-charity, it is cost-cutting.

Also, globalization doesn't mean stuff can magically disappear from one place and reappear in another. Food rots. Factory farming screws up arable land. Local agriculture is important and will always be important, especially in the developing world. Emphasizing sustainability is right on the money. Trying to score rustic down home bonus points by hating on the bourgeoise is missing the point.
posted by avianism at 9:02 AM on March 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


There is no difference between the factory farmed carrot from 1,000 miles away and the carrot lovingly raised in your neighborhood, other that how you _feel_ about the carrot.

Bullshit. Taste both and tell me that again.
posted by mollymayhem at 9:13 AM on March 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


This Forbes article, while oversimplifying the argument, nevertheless introduces the basic critique of locavorianism as laid out by its best-known academic critic, James E. McWilliams, author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong And How We Can Eat Truly Responsibly. McWilliams' book irritated a lot of people, because it violates a lot of foodie shibboleths by pointing out that much of the rationale behind locavorianism doesn't hold up to much economic scrutiny. I don't agree with some of McWilliams' arguments, but it's worth taking at least the cursory pass at some of his ideas to weigh the real plusses and minuses of locavorianism.
posted by briank at 9:17 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


> There is no difference between the factory farmed carrot from 1,000 miles away and the carrot lovingly raised in your neighborhood, other that how you _feel_ about the carrot.

Bullshit. Taste both and tell me that again.


Amen. I've become a sort of low-key locavore over the past few years, but while I appreciate the fact that it's got some economic and environmental impact, the one and only reason I started doing it was "holy shit, have you tasted these beets????"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:21 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


The latest yuppie craze

I hate that. The "yuppie craze" is how people have fed themselves for 10s of thousands of years, and how a large percentage of the world continues to do so. Victory gardens during WWII. Back-yard gardeners in Kansas. &c. why the stupid divisive politics?
posted by stbalbach at 9:21 AM on March 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


To be fair, I've had some pretty darn good store-bought carrots and some crappy home-growns too.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:24 AM on March 4, 2010


Growing up, my family was poor. We were living off one inconsistent salary. But we had time and we had land. Not much, but enough. An intelligently planned garden provided us most of our food for the year. We had chickens for eggs and a high density, three season garden. Using the Three Sisters meant not having to use petrochemical fertilizers. Growing our own food wasn't glamorous, but it was sustainable. Kale, squash, beans and corn grow just about any where and have just about everything you need nutrition wise. We supplemented with green chile from a farm, and we traded for goat's cheese.

This isn't a solution for the cities where people live in high rises. But places where houses sit on a 1/4 acre can be producing a hell of a lot of food rather than lawns. Dismissing the locavore movement as being a luxury symbol is disingenuous. Relocalizing food makes good sense. Will it solve all of our problems? Certainly not. But it can be an important piece of the puzzle. Forget the third world. America has plenty of food insecurity that could be solved by community gardening. Will there be a learning curve? Definitely. We've lost a lot of the generational knowledge about how to grow things to live. As we have more people with more time than money, it makes plenty of good sense to relearn those skills. If the upper class is willing supplement this learning process by paying more for local food - good on them!
posted by stoneweaver at 9:27 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I agree with you at least fundamentally, avianism, but might disagree on some of the specifics. The shift that Jimmy Havok is talking about above, moving from thinking of a farm as a non-commercial, family thing to thinking of it as a business, is actually (I think) necessary for any kind of long-term development.

I recently met several people doing this work right now, many of them from within their own communities. There are all kinds of different models -- for example, some people advocate a split where half of a farm's output goes to the family and friends and the other half goes on the market. Some of this might smash our image of the idyllic, non-commercial family farmer, but the economic development does a lot more for them than that image does - increased access to information, education, clean water, etc.

This shift toward commercial farming is happening whether anyone likes it or not. Some people are trying to make sure family farms still exist on the other side of the shift.
posted by roll truck roll at 9:29 AM on March 4, 2010


The Garden
posted by Pollomacho at 9:33 AM on March 4, 2010


One of the really noticeable characteristics of ghetto areas in NYC (and presumably other cities) is a lack of real food availability. Wherever people are poor the grocery stores are few & far between, and the stores that are there stock very little produce, opting instead for lots of cans and crappy fake-food and cigarettes and candy and beer. No whole foods for you!

One of the cooler things I've seen recently was a farmer's market in a poor neighborhood, which each week gets mobbed by little old ladies buying leafy greens and beets, with food stamps. As a result the markets are way more diverse there in what kind of fruits & vegs that they offer. Whereas the farmer's markets in some of the posher areas tend to be all apples and pies and super-expensive cheese. But the folks in non-yuppie neighborhoods are really desperate for some real vegetables, because there's nowhere else to get them. Locavore isn't always the issue, sometimes people want to be able to eat real food instead of trash. And the big chain stores aren't meeting the need.
posted by Erroneous at 9:49 AM on March 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Heh. You know, Rosseau actually pointed this out in the Social Contract. When your country expands to the point that goods necessary for survival are imported from afar, your country is fucked. Probs why Poland is doing ok.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:56 AM on March 4, 2010


moving from thinking of a farm as a non-commercial, family thing to thinking of it as a business, is actually (I think) necessary for any kind of long-term development.

Yeah, I'm okay with that. I'm even okay with factory farming in the abstract if it's done with an eye toward sustainability. But this, from Argyle's post above, is what I am objecting to:

With a significant percentage of people in the world not having enough to eat, we need to think more scientifically and less emotionally about how we grow our food. You may not like that capitalism is involved in our agriculture, but it is the reality we live in.

This is insane. If we are producing enough food to feed everybody in the world and people are still starving, we do not need to "think more scientifically and less emotionally" (as though those two ways of thinking were somehow necessarily acting in opposition to one another) about "how we grow our food." No, it doesn't actually matter at all to the world's poor how "we" grow "our" food, fellow privileged person. What matters is can we get the abundance of food we are already producing to the people who really need it. I.e. not us.

"Thinking scientifically" is conflated with "capitalism is awesome" so as to give the impression that cutting developed-world costs to raise developed-world profits is somehow going to help poor starving people. I think this is wrong.
posted by avianism at 9:59 AM on March 4, 2010 [6 favorites]


One of the cooler things I've seen recently was a farmer's market in a poor neighborhood, which each week gets mobbed by little old ladies buying leafy greens and beets, with food stamps. As a result the markets are way more diverse there in what kind of fruits & vegs that they offer. Whereas the farmer's markets in some of the posher areas tend to be all apples and pies and super-expensive cheese.

Hmm. Are you saying this is the case now? Or year-round? Because I wouldn't say my neighborhood (Clinton Hill, BK) is "poor", and could be considered "posh" by lots of standards. However, we have a pretty wide selection at our market for most of the year.

On the other hand, though, things are spare now -- mostly the apple stand, cheese, some potatoes, etc. -- but that's more a function of "it's winter, so nothing is growing" than "we're posh".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:01 AM on March 4, 2010


The "yuppie craze" is how people have fed themselves for 10s of thousands of years

Well, ten thousand anyway. Agriculture is a relatively new thing.
posted by electroboy at 10:13 AM on March 4, 2010


But what's wrong with employing more people in the production of food? More people could be fed that way and more people could be employed.

But what are you willing to pay them for their labor?

What's weird to me about this whole argument is that it's not as if ConAgra or Carhart sprang fully formed from the ground. There used to be a time when there was lots of small-scale semi-subsistence farming going on and organic too; before industrialized fertilizer was common. Where did all these farms go? Why did they dissappear? Why do you think that wouldn't happen again.

And then there is the issue of the agricultural economy. Small-scale agriculture and agriculture in general is labor intensive. Why did all those agricultural laborers flee the countryside to work in the dark satanic mills? Why are they doing this now in China?

The whole discussion is often completely ahistorical, utopian. And then there's a certain romantic attachment to the past, "steampunk" on the farm without much awareness that the Victorian era had some serious social and economic problems; situations we might not want to recreate...
posted by ennui.bz at 10:24 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


By the same token ennui.bz, why then did they flood the Americas in pursuit of plots of land to farm during the same era?

Perhaps they were escaping the landowner's control and not the land.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:33 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Did you read any of the other sixteen links in the submission before the fois gras one - the first one from Foreign Policy, for one?

Sixteen links? No. I didn't read all of them, but that link seemed to be the 'focus' of the FPP, after all it seemed to be the one that said "that might be changing", as if to say the stuff in that link would be what quelled the criticisms in the other links.

But anyway, you asked me 'why' I thought the method presented in that video wouldn't work, so I asked if you watched it.
posted by delmoi at 10:35 AM on March 4, 2010


Not everything at this market is certified organic, and in a lot of cases, that's because some of these operations can't afford to spend money on that certification.

And the label doesn't really tell you everything you need to know, either. The CSA that my fiancée and I were in last summer was from a farm that wasn't certified organic, either because they didn't feel like subjecting themselves to the weird, vaguely-arbitrary standards behind the certification process (which itself doesn't tell you anything about the kind of food you're getting--Michael Pollan has spent quite some time dissecting the difference between 'organic' as it's used in US branding and 'organic' in the sense that you conventionally use the word) or because they couldn't be arsed--if you wanted to see how they were running the farm, come down and meet the cows producing the fertilizer!

Certification's expensive, and doesn't imply anything about locality or the ethos of the people running the farm. And I will never again eat a leaf of spinach that isn't locally grown, because goddamn.
posted by Mayor West at 10:39 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


By the same token ennui.bz, why then did they flood the Americas in pursuit of plots of land to farm during the same era?

Because they were literally giving away free land.
posted by electroboy at 10:42 AM on March 4, 2010


Because they were literally giving away free land.

Yeah, free land in Oklahoma, woo hoo (sorry Oklahomans)!

Seriously, it was terribly difficult work eeking out a living busting sod on the plains, yet tens of thousands of immigrants poured into America to snatch up a plot. I'm not buying the theory that farming was just too hard for people.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:47 AM on March 4, 2010


What's weird to me about this whole argument is that it's not as if ConAgra or Carhart sprang fully formed from the ground. There used to be a time when there was lots of small-scale semi-subsistence farming going on and organic too; before industrialized fertilizer was common. Where did all these farms go? Why did they dissappear?

You know, there is an actual answer to these questions. Get big or get out.

The whole discussion is often completely ahistorical

Agreed! It's like people don't take into consideration the fact that agricultural policies are almost universally shaped by government action rather than market forces.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 10:48 AM on March 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


One of the really noticeable characteristics of ghetto areas in NYC (and presumably other cities) is a lack of real food availability.

Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market (owned by UK chain Tesco's) has instituted a strategy of opening supermarkets in underserved communities. It makes sense, people have to buy food wherever they live, and if you can provide them a better variety and price than the alternatives, you're likely to succeed. Right now they're working the West Coast, but if they do well we can expect the strategy to spread.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 11:06 AM on March 4, 2010


But what are you willing to pay them for their labor?

Well, to start off they wouldn't need to be worried about being paid very much because they have base self-sufficiency. They would have somewhere to live. They would have stuff to eat. They would have a job to do. A farm would need inputs of tools, a few repairs that might not be possible/economical on premises, and fertilizer (though a lot of this could be accomplished through composting their own waste). They would trade with (the few?) people who had non-food producing jobs to get the things they need and things they wanted.

Right now there aren't a lot of people doing this (so those doing it are able to charge a premium for their efforts), but if we get to the point where a lot of (maybe even most) people had some hand in producing their own food (like pre-industrial revolution times) food would be more affordable. Extra food sitting around rotting isn't worth much to those growing it which would be incentive enough to get what they can on the open market for it.

Obviously not exactly how it would work, and pretty darn ideal. But that's the basics. An economy centered around providing food stability is good at providing stability in other areas (economic/job stability, technological stability, population stability, energy stability).

Personally, I don't see us getting to this ideal world very easily. We're stuck between a rock and a hard place (peak oil and climate change) and there's not much we can do except brace ourselves (prepare as much as possible) for the very hard changes to come.

Why did all those agricultural laborers flee the countryside to work in the dark satanic mills? Why are they doing this now in China?

Government sponsored economic incentive? Well, it plays some role. But mostly it's the same reason people work at mcdonalds here: there's no easy alternative. Most people wouldn't even dream of farming because the contemporary mindset of todays culture is so removed from economic reality. They would have no idea how to even get started, much less have the capital to start.

It's an easy decision to quit the farm your ancestors have maintained for a long time. It's not an easy decision to reverse several generations later... but worth trying: grow a garden, and pass what you learn down to your children (they will thank you).
posted by symbollocks at 11:20 AM on March 4, 2010


First off, I have to agree with everyone saying that maybe the posterchild for this particular topic should not be a guy with an "organic" and "sustainable" foie gras farm.


Local eating isn't a health thing. I could get organic peaches or whatever shipped from the Moon, if they grew them there. It's an energy thing. Transportation costs money.
posted by DU

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There's a bit of "health thing" going on in there as well, though -- the peach picked in the farm the next town over only sits around a couple hours before you buy it, which means that it will stay fresher in your house longer, and will taste better, which means you're more likely to eat it. Plus -- and I'm talking out my butt a bit here, I'll admit -- I have a hunch the nutritive value of produce starts to deteriorate a bit the longer you let it sit around after picking and before eating.

Compare that with the peach you ship in from "the moon" -- which gets picked and then sits on transport for a few days before it gets to a store where you can buy it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos


The problem here is in fact with transport, Not just with the energy that it takes to transport said peach, but the fact that if the large scale industrial farm is growing it on the moon, that means that the peach has to be altered in some way to make the journey and still be good enough for you to buy it. They have to make their money back for growing and transportation. They do this by altering the peach, either through GMO or other means to still look like a peach at the market. It won't taste like a good peach though, because chances are it's under-ripe.
My problem with this is that if you're growing your own food the payoff for all that work plowing, tilling, planting, fertilizing and harvesting is that you get to eat. If someone else is doing it--very far away--they need to cover that cost, plus transportation, plus the salary of the salesmen, accountants, marketing department and all the incidentals back at the office. So they will do whatever they need to to make that product look like what you think it should look like if it were grown on a farm.

Also: Why do we have to have large farms with a few specialized employees when we could have lots of farms with generalized employees? Organic agriculture is indeed more labor intense than conventional agriculture which means they require more workers. But what's wrong with employing more people in the production of food? More people could be fed that way and more people could be employed.

Because at some point (most likely in the early twentieth century) people who owned farms that they subsisted on started telling their kids to go out and get jobs or go to college--anything but work on the farm. It's not an easy life. This probably paired well with the urban/suburbanization of America to pretty much kill off all the independently owned farms, even the ones that just the families used. End result: a bunch of people with graduate degrees shopping at farmer's markets in Brooklyn and lamenting the fact that there aren't enough small, organic farms anymore.

There is no difference between the factory farmed carrot from 1,000 miles away and the carrot lovingly raised in your neighborhood, other that how you _feel_ about the carrot.

I don't normally speak so boldly to someone I don't know, but as a professional chef who has focused on working closely with local farmers and serving their food in my restaurants for almost ten years . . . this is complete bullshit.

Yeah, free land in Oklahoma, woo hoo (sorry Oklahomans)!

Seriously, it was terribly difficult work eeking out a living busting sod on the plains, yet tens of thousands of immigrants poured into America to snatch up a plot. I'm not buying the theory that farming was just too hard for people.
posted by Pollomacho


There's a couple of problems here. Farming was too hard for people, once they were offered the alternative of working for a wage and merely buying the things they needed. Spending your paycheck on food someone else grows is infinitely easier than growing it yourself. Why else would we have switched systems like that?

Also, the land wasn't free. It was seized from the Five Civilized Tribes after they had been relocated to it forcibly from their ancestral homes. A large portion of it (7,000,000 acres) was--hard to believe--actually purchased from the Cherokee, albeit at roughly a dollar an acre.

The model that I have worked in, and think is a great one: I worked on a couple of organic local farms and they paid me a (very small) salary, but gave me a place to live, as well as free food. You didn't need to be an experienced farmer or anything, they taught you the basics of it and you worked a season and then went your own way. I don't see why we couldn't use this model for larger scale organic farms, to at least get them staffed.
The bottom line on this whole deal is that if anyone at all grows any amount of the food they consume, it will be vastly cheaper for them than buying it.
posted by kaiseki at 2:05 PM on March 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


Well, to start off they wouldn't need to be worried about being paid very much because they have base self-sufficiency. They would have somewhere to live. They would have stuff to eat. They would have a job to do.

Ah, back to the feudal system. I'm sure lots of people will sign up for that! Great plan!
posted by delmoi at 2:13 PM on March 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Argyle: Scientific and mass-scale food production is not incompatible with organic and local production. They are not opposed. In fact the best organic practices are far beyond conventional ones, in terms of efficiency, reduced inputs, and productivity, because they have to be. Organic is not a step backward to "old fashioned" farming (or, I should say, it shouldn't be). It's a step forward, using a much lighter touch and manipulating the processes of nature, instead of hammering at them with the blunt tools of petroleum, pesticide, and anhydrous ammonia. Organic is not unscientific or anti-scientific. Organic is not magical. It is processes and techniques, tested rigorously for effectiveness, the same as conventional farming. It simply takes as ground conditions that certain common industrial farming tools and practices are long-term harmful, and seeks to move around them.

Your argument is a well-formulated version of the Standard Argument against organic, which always takes the worst productivity numbers and implicitly casts organic as "the way farming used to be done." In some ways it resembles that, but in most ways it does not. It is, frankly, either dishonest or ignorant to assert that it does. And it continues to drive me nuts that this is the main argument deployed in attempt to "debunk" organic farming, and people continue to believe it.

Organic is not unscientific or old-fashioned, period. Toss that straw man out and let's get on with a more meaningful conversation.
posted by rusty at 2:31 PM on March 4, 2010 [7 favorites]


I don't see why we couldn't use this model for larger scale organic farms, to at least get them staffed.

Because this is seriously short of a living wage, and probably short of a legal wage. It's a great way for middle-class hippy kids to have a meaningful "reconnect with the land" interlude; it's a crappy way for people to actually make a living.

Well, to start off they wouldn't need to be worried about being paid very much because they have base self-sufficiency. They would have somewhere to live. They would have stuff to eat. They would have a job to do. A farm would need inputs of tools, a few repairs that might not be possible/economical on premises, and fertilizer (though a lot of this could be accomplished through composting their own waste). They would trade with (the few?) people who had non-food producing jobs to get the things they need and things they wanted.

I think you need to spend more time around subsistence farmers. Dirt farming is seriously backbreaking work. Take fertilizer out of the equation (trust me, you need a lot more than you can get out of a composting toilet), and you have a recipe for ye olde style rural poverty. Look at old photos from before WWII, or from many contemporary poor countries. Life on a farm that is too small to make a profit is a tough, tough life.
posted by Forktine at 2:46 PM on March 4, 2010


Also, aren't our massive factory farms simply producing corn corn corn? What does that do to feed the starving? From my limited understanding, we mainly use the corn to plump up our first world meat and to make sugar (HFCS) to add to our processed foods. This is not real food helping real starving people. I mean, I grew up in Iowa, a state where you can grow almost anything in your own backyard, easily, and whatever you plant turns out huge and delicious. And we are wasting all that rich topsoil on corn corn corn.
posted by Malla at 3:14 PM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I love reading what city kids think about agriculture. I guess management runs in the blood. While organic farming has a positive side, it's just one technique amongst a variety of others, some more suited to certain applications and some worse. Like tools: a screwdriver is no good for chopping down trees. There's lots that agricultural science can learn from organic farming techniques, which explores ways of making better quality food rather than more efficiently produced and transportable food, the traditional agricultural science concerns. But fantasies about the whole world turning to organic farming as the solution to all the world's problems are the equivalent of trying to cut down a tree with a screwdriver. It's just not an efficient enough method to feed much more than half the world's population on it's own.

To pretend that manipulating food prices isn't a profitable business would be disingenuous. Increasing food prices by retarding production benefits middle-class interests at the expense of the poor. It's nothing more than class politics; lining your pockets while telling everyone you're 'saving the world'. The people who want to 'revolutionise' the system are the people who will most benefit. Students of history have a name for such middle-class revolutions.

There are other methods of food production that produce better quality crops with fewer resources, like hydroponics, which uses no pesticides and little water and can be conducted anywhere that is convenient. But I guess it doesn't fit the fantasies of the typical agrarian fetishist. But you see hydroponic crops creeping in there, more and more (perhaps particularly in Australia, where water is at a premium).

Myself, I think the only solution to world hunger is going to be some combination of existing technologies, and some new ones that don't exist yet, used appropriately. That's what we should be focussing on doing, discovering new techniques and using them appropriately. Returning to the Dark Ages is not a solution, unless you're prepared to let a lot of people die. And there's no shortage of comfortably well-off people willing to advocate just that.
posted by chrisgregory at 3:28 PM on March 4, 2010 [3 favorites]



The Backyard Homestead.
AMAZING how-to book. You would not believe what you can grow and raise on a quarter acre. Also, as a way to live on next to nothing while growing your own food and raising your own meat: Possum Living. And for the more ambitious: Five Acres and Independence.

Eating locally can be done economically, in cities, and is not just for trendy yuppies.
Local gardens changing the diets of inner-city Atlantans. Also feeding the homeless in Atlanta.

Here's a great site for finding local CSAs (around the country), farmer's markets (ditto), and purchasing heirloom seeds (if you want to start your own).

Family farms, like this one, are fired up angry about the ways in which our national policies continue to make it hard to impossible for small farms to operate. The National Animal Identification System has been one of the more controversial proposals because it mostly benefits large farms that export livestock overseas, among other reasons.

Once when some friends were out of town, I was left in charge of their backyard garden: vegetables, a few fruit trees, and a chicken coop. They didn't get into the more complicated stuff like keeping bee hives or raising rabbits for meat, but that garden still produced plenty of food to feed a family of four. And the tending was minimal. After the initial planting...it was just a matter of a watering, lightly, every morning. Gathering the eggs. Spreading feed for the chickens. And that was it.

If our social norm was to plant our backyards full of food rather than keeping a lawn, not only would our food bills go down, but we would be eating more healthily too (not to mention getting that light exercise from squatting to pick that zillionth zucchini your plant won't stop producing).

For places where yard space is next to nonexistent, community gardens provide the same service. This is not about huge plots, but being smart about your small plots. It is about helping individuals' do for themselves, especially when they live in communities where grocery stores are next to non-existent. The Obama Administration is trying to encourage grocery stores to build in these "food deserts," but what if individuals could grow a little of their own food too? It's been done before.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 3:42 PM on March 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


[Organic farming] not an efficient enough method to feed much more than half the world's population on it's own.

I just don't believe that. Too many real-world examples show it can be done on a large scale sustainably and in a very dense footprint.

Returning to the Dark Ages is not a solution

Organic farming is often some of the most advanced farming there is.. why play the fear card? Not all technology is good, and rejecting some technology doesn't mean we are regressing. DDT was once thought a good thing too.
posted by stbalbach at 3:55 PM on March 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


The other elephant in the room is here is carbon emissions. Travel is cheap, and low, compared to what greenhouses, fertilisers, etc produce.

For example, If you're in the UK, lamb shipped from New Zealand has a lower carbon footprint than the lamb from down the road (and that's peer-reviewed stuff, too, it's pretty solid).

I'm not against eating locally by any means, but there are a host of complex issues involved here, and they often tend to get swamped in a mixture of magical thinking about the inherent goodness of "natural" food, white guilt, and unstated paternalism.

The idea that "there's just enough food in the world, if only we got it to starving people" is really naive and ignorant about the global supply chains involved, and also the economies dependent on export food. It's easy to blame it on the market - and the market is hardly perfect - but fundamentally: it doesn't matter how much food you produce if no one can afford to buy it. This is not an issue about the west lowering costs or foisting over-priced goods on the third world - we can largely afford food even if the price doubles or triples. Farmers and other people in Punjab, Ethiopia etc are not so lucky.

Eating locally is not always the best option (just as eating non-locally isn't) - for example here in Australia you can buy locally grown rice, rice that is draining our largest river system and killing it astonishingly quickly because we don't actually have enough water to sustainable farm the rice where we are growing it.

These are just a few examples why generalisations make for pretty poor policy. It's very complex.
posted by smoke at 3:59 PM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


If only I had a match I could light all these straw men on fire and my, what a bonfire we'd have!
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 4:12 PM on March 4, 2010


Direct link to the Atlantic article about Wal-mart's local food program.

From the article:
"The program, which Walmart calls Heritage Agriculture, will encourage farms within a day’s drive of one of its warehouses to grow crops that now take days to arrive in trucks from states like Florida and California. In many cases the crops once flourished in the places where Walmart is encouraging their revival, but vanished because of Big Agriculture competition."
posted by whimsicalnymph at 4:12 PM on March 4, 2010


There's lots that agricultural science can learn from organic farming techniques, which explores ways of making better quality food rather than more efficiently produced and transportable food, the traditional agricultural science concerns.

Look! There it is again! When you're watching for it, you start to notice that this is actually the only argument deployed against organic, and it's repeated over and over and over...
posted by rusty at 4:12 PM on March 4, 2010


Rusty,

My point is not that organic farming is unscientific. It is quite scientific. If fact the majority of USDA certified organic farming is done by the same factory farming firms that run other large farms that don't certify as organic.

My point is that organic farming, as it is done today, simply doesn't produce enough food for the costs when compared to farming utilizing genetically modified seeds, petroleum based fertilizers and other 'bad' methods that the locavore and organic advocates tend to reject.

Moving forward using all effective methods traditional and 'organic' is our best bet for creating a sustainable food supply. Declaring locavoreism as 'the cure' is wrong.

To those that say we produce enough food to feed the world and blame greed/politics, you miss the point. To properly feed people in Africa and Asia that are underfeed, it is best to increase the effectiveness of farming in those areas with effective & efficient tools. Organic farming does not do that. The fears and hysteria over GMO foods directly leads to people starving to death. Much of the American excess of food is GMO. Unfortunately, many countries in Africa and Asia reject this food because of the political influence of European countries who ban GMO foods and actively work to stop 3rd world countries from consuming or using them.

To the advocates of the flavorful local carrots,

You may be right that an educated chef can tell the difference. But much like fine wines, the average person cannot tell any difference the produce from the supermarket or the farmer's market. I guarantee you that the factory farm grown Honeycrisp apple will beat the local grown heritage apple in a taste test with the vast majority of people. Again, this points to my suggestion that locavoreism is a luxury for educated palates, and not a cure for food production needs and major agricultural issues like fertilization and insect control.

Personally, I like growing vegetables in my small backyard. I enjoy my mini batch of red potatoes and my wife's tomatoes, but I don't think it's a realistic solution to real problems. It's a fun hobby for people like me, living in a first world country with disposable income, not a panacea.
posted by Argyle at 4:16 PM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I agree that a blend of solutions is ultimately needed. In very marginal farming areas, it makes sense to leverage the crap out of whatever technologies you have. However, the US has millions upon millions of acres of the best farmland in the world, covered with an unbelievably stupid monoculture of factory-farmed GMO industrial feedstock corn that not only fails to feed the world, but mainly serves to make the US one of the most obese and unhealthy nations on earth.

So while we're all shading our eyes and peering off at Africa on the distant horizon, we might be missing the stupendous disaster and waste that is going on underneath our feet right here. Agonize about the struggles of "feeding the world" after we've converted just a smidge of our wasted farmland to growing food again, is all I'm saying.
posted by rusty at 5:54 PM on March 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Organic is not unscientific or old-fashioned, period. Toss that straw man out and let's get on with a more meaningful conversation.

Not everyone who claims not to understand your point is being disingenuous. Some of us really don't understand.

I've been told this stuff about how organic farming is so much better than historical farming a few times, and I've looked around for a better description of what these advanced technologies are that organic uses, but everywhere I look, I get the same answers: "Organic farming is not a return to the 19th-century. Organic farming uses very sophisticated science. Organic farming means using nature instead of 'chemicals'." So, fine, OK, I get that message, but can someone please give us a little more info than that? How exactly is it different from 19th-century methods? I mean, I assume they use modern tractors. Anything else?

Another big question I have is how do you deal with localized environmental problems, like hurricanes or droughts? Granted, your plants may be much more drought-resistant than wheat, but I would still think that a world entirely without large-scale distribution (which not everyone, but at least some folks here seem to be advocating) would have some nasty problems with regional starvation on occasion.

Finally, despite all the talk about how broader forces are skewing costs in big business's favor and the truth is out there and whatnot, it seems damn counterintuitive to me that factories and mass-production are less efficient than small-scale cooperatives. Could I believe that factories are worse for the environment? Yes. Worse for workers? Yes. Worse for biodiversity? Yes. Worse for political influence? Yes. But less efficient? C'monnnnn... now you're pulling my leg.

The reason I point that out is that a loss in efficiency seems unlikely to just have no effect on anything. I've come to learn that if someone claims you're going to get a free lunch in this world, they're generally either naive or manipulating you. Now I could be wrong, easily, about any of this. But I'm skeptical that this switch can be made without adding any additional costs to our world or increasing our total per-capita resource consumption.

I'm sympathetic to people who say we should eat less, and especially less (or no) meat, to reduce the load on the environment. I'm even more sympathetic to well-enforced, draconian environmental regulations on industrial farms. But until I see rock-solid research really showing it from several different angles, I just think I'm going to have a hard time believing that eating local is helping anything.

Sorry, I don't know why all my posts end up so long these days. I guess I'm just feeling pressured lately.
posted by Xezlec at 8:17 PM on March 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Organic is not unscientific or anti-scientific. Organic is not magical.

Agreed. Biodynamic agriculture, on the other hand, is a load of horseshit. Pure, uncomposted horseshit.
posted by electroboy at 6:10 AM on March 5, 2010


I'm skeptical that this switch can be made without adding any additional costs to our world or increasing our total per-capita resource consumption.

what 'costs' would you put on loss of biodiversity and sustainability, i.e. how would you measure efficiency and over what time period? i dunno, but i would argue that there are hidden costs (negative externalities that have been largely ignored or pushed off) and that they're worth at least considering...
posted by kliuless at 7:49 AM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Here's a pretty good summary of the efficiency issue. Basically because organic uses less manufactured fertilizer and pesticide, it's more energy efficient than conventional. It also says that organic is more profitable, despite higher labor costs, but that's predicated on the cost to the consumer being higher.

I'm thinking the "efficiency" argument is sort of muddled up with imprecise terms and not specifying whether you're talking about energy efficiency or return on investment.
posted by electroboy at 8:07 AM on March 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Xezlec: Wikipedia would be a good place to start. Armed with some of the terminology, I imagine you can find out a lot more on your own.
posted by rusty at 8:52 AM on March 5, 2010


Because this is seriously short of a living wage, and probably short of a legal wage. It's a great way for middle-class hippy kids to have a meaningful "reconnect with the land" interlude; it's a crappy way for people to actually make a living.

Don't know many of the immigrants that actually work on the existing factory farms, do you?
I've got news for you, the money I was paid, supplemented with the free food was WAY more than any of my friends who came here to work on large scale farms in California were paid.
posted by kaiseki at 11:09 AM on March 5, 2010


I'm not sure what that's supposed to prove.
posted by electroboy at 11:21 AM on March 5, 2010


Interesting post. I just happened to have been at the Just Food CSA in NYC Conference last weekend, so a lot of these issues are still fresh on my mind. And one of the major issues being discussed by all the people (farmers and consumers) involved in the local and biodynamic food movements is the scalability of this as a model for feeding an increasingly large and global population. Some numbers that got thrown around: according to a report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the world's food production will have to increase by 70% by 2050 in order to feed the anticipated 2.3 billion additional people; meanwhile, 90% of the world's arable land is already being used for farming, so there's a definite need for increased yields and improved distribution. You throw climate change and water supply shortages into the mix, and the challenges start to look daunting indeed.

Many people (as in this FPP) are making the case that eating a diverse diet of locally-farmed food (mostly vegetables) is better, and less risky, purely from a resource-management perspective. Simply put, it's more energy-efficient to farm things the way they're "supposed to be" farmed, meaning crop rotation (and much less corn for animal feed), soil management, integrated pest management, and timely harvesting, which requires local distribution. But that's vastly oversimplifying the situation. If you look at even a basic question like "Can New York State feed itself?" you'll find there's been a wealth of research on carrying capacity, foodsheds, and the effect of diet (see these papers, e.g.), but no clear answers. The best estimates I've heard are that even with the most optimistic models of production and consumption, the farms of New York State simply can't provide enough food to meet the needs of its 20 million residents. And that's in a largely agricultural state. What's the rest of the country supposed to do? And how do you fend off the forces of real-estate development from driving land values so high that small-scale farming just isn't practical? (A common motto around this community: "Cement is the last crop.") My point is that even measuring these things is difficult, and that reasoning from the abstract isn't likely to work; it would be like trying to deduce the weather forecast from a vague understanding of fluid dynamics. I think the chapter of The Omnivore's Dilemma about the biodynamic farm did a pretty lucid job of exploring how complicated this whole thing is--if you're raising grass-fed cows on grass that's supplied by the water runoff from a nearby mountain, do you count the mountain as part of the farm? What even is your "crop" when you treat the farm as a whole? Etc.

What seems to be more and more clear, however, is that the traditional (meaning post-Industrial Revolution) approaches to increasing food production, i.e., throwing more and more petroleum at the problem, are not going to work in the long-term. And that's really what it comes down to, for me. Petroleum-based fertilizers and factory farming can boost yields in the short term, but they're not addressing (and in many ways are exacerbating) the problems that create scarcity and waste in the first place. For example (paraphrasing Michael Pollan again), nature created a cycle--cows eat grass, produce manure, fertilize grass, repeat--and industrialized farming took that solution and created two problems: Petroleum-based fertilizer makes corn to feed the cows, but where do we get the petroleum? And the cows produce waste that's toxic to the land and unfit for fertilization; what do we do with it? But even he concedes that the fundamental issue may be the sustainable carrying capacity of the world, as in lots of people are going to die before we get this under control. Should we just accept that as inevitable, a la Malthus? Personally, I'm not ready for that just yet. Maybe technology can get us out of this mess, but first we have to take an honest look at what problems we're even trying to solve and who stands to gain by disregarding alternate solutions.

And I know that it's easy to dismiss these concerns as mere faddishness, and there's definitely an element in the emerging upper-class concern for the environment generally that smacks of holier-than-thou hipsterism (a quote from the New Yorker article about breastfeeding: "A brief history of food: when the rich eat white bread and buy formula, the poor eat brown bread and breast-feed; then they trade places"). But there's also a lot more than that, I think. There seems to be a growing genuine awareness among people of all classes and backgrounds that we need to rethink the ways we treat the land and the ways we get our food, and that these issues have real environmental, socioeconomic, and even spiritual dimensions. The Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, for example, is framing food-production issues in terms of systemic racial discrimination in the food production industry, and movements like Hazon and Magen Tzedek are attempting to bring the language and accumulated wisdom of (in this case, Jewish) religious practice to the conversation.

A (probably silly) comparison to the Lord of the Rings: both the good guys (Hobbits and elves) and the bad guys (Saruman and orcs) bend nature to their will, but the good guys do it in a sustainable partnership with the land--tending gardens, fashioning bows, building their buildings around living trees, etc.--where the bad guys do it by consuming the land--burning the trees to fuel their industrial machinery and genetic experiments. So in the face of uncertainty, I agree with Tolkien, I guess, that we should be more like the elves and less like the orcs. Even if that's just a narrative, I find it as compelling as any of the other narratives that frame my life decisions.
posted by albrecht at 11:29 AM on March 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


Xezlec: Wikipedia would be a good place to start. Armed with some of the terminology, I imagine you can find out a lot more on your own.

That was what I tried before. Anyway, Wikipedia seems to just say, as far as I can tell, that the "technology" they use consists mainly of planting certain sets of plants instead of just one crop at a time. Odd use of the word, if that's right. And apparently I was wrong about them using tractors (again, that's assuming I'm reading that right).

One of the other things that bugs me is the whole emotional/spiritual element that gets pulled into all this, as albrecht mentions (and demonstrates occurring in his own thoughts in his final paragraph). For example, why do people prefer selective breeding over genetic engineering? Just because it's slower? Is that all it is, a mechanism of handicapping human progress so that it happens at a rate people are more comfortable with? I don't think so. My guess is that it has more to do with rejecting technology and reconnecting with a romanticized past, and that that's really the feeling that motivates much of this stuff.

I think we all "consume the land", and some people choose to call that a "partnership" when it comes in a form that looks pretty to them. We also reshape it the way we want it. To me, that's just existing. If you really don't want to affect nature, don't live. Just by living, you're competing with other life forms for available resources. The difference between building a home around a tree (crushing the grass that once lived there) and doing the same but also getting rid of the tree is only one of degree. Making the arrowheads for their arrows probably involves burning something too. And it's not surprising that you'd find Tolkien's narrative compelling -- he's a writer. That's his job. And he has the artistic freedom to romanticize whatever he wants to romanticize. He's not constrained by reality and practicality, only by aesthetics. We aren't so fortunate.

OK, if organic farming really is better, then so be it. I don't understand, but things are what they are. But just trusting our intuition as shaped by the artists who author our culture, watching movies and identifying with whatever activities occur while the soft, homey music plays can't possibly have been the right way to come to that conclusion.
posted by Xezlec at 9:33 PM on March 5, 2010


Anyway, Wikipedia seems to just say, as far as I can tell, that the "technology" they use consists mainly of planting certain sets of plants instead of just one crop at a time.

Or maybe if you read all the way to the end of the first sentence, you'd see that organic farming also involves "green manure, compost, biological pest control, and mechanical cultivation to maintain soil productivity and control pests." Each one of those has a separate article that I'm sure you could read if you took the time. But even the example you chose, which could either refer to crop rotation or polyculture more generally, is an active area of ongoing research. For example, let's say we all agree that growing just one crop is bad for whatever reasons, so we should grow more than one. Which ones? Where and in what sequence? How does that affect our soil and pest management? I'm not sure how you got from rusty's comment that organic farming has to involve "technology" in the sense of, like, DVD players, but the point is that there are people studying these things. These questions have real scientific answers, and we're able to perform experiments and reach conclusions (see any of these case studies, for example, or look at the research page of any university department of agroecology, like this one at UC Davis) . It's not so easy as saying "let's give up on modern farming and return to some romanticized past." But that's the strawman that people trying to defend the status quo usually bring out.

(To your question about genetic modification vs. selective breeding, I sympathize somewhat with what you're saying, but I think there are real reasons to be concerned about GMOs, mostly in how they're labelled and treated as intellectual property--see this page for an overview. Also, the "science" there isn't really all that scientific. See the page about the gene gun; they basically just load it up with genetic material and fire it randomly into a plant, with the hope that the gene they want to be expressed will be. Selective breeding, at least, has the advantage of being more controllable.)

The ultimate motivation for exploring these practices, though, has to be a different way of thinking about resources, costs, and our relationship to food and to the earth (you could call this falls under the "science" of economics if you want). And that's all I was trying to say before. If you want to have an argument about whether factory farming or organic farming is more "efficient," you've got to be able to pin down what you mean by efficiency. Number of calories produced per unit cost? What kind of calories? And how do you measure costs? In number of acres (including the land needed for water production and pest control or not)? Dollars (including subsidies or not)? Do you include the external costs of water and soil pollution? Transportation? Climate change? My point is just that even measuring these things is hard and maybe impossible. If anything, I think the idea that you can somehow throw all these variables into a formula and compute some objective answer about which practice is "better" is a naive romanticizing of the complexity of the issues. At some level, all decisions are guided by what you dismiss as "aesthetics" but which I would call "ethics."
posted by albrecht at 9:47 AM on March 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Or maybe if you read all the way to the end of the first sentence...

I read the whole article, and I did look at the articles for the things you mention. The "Green Manure" page said it meant planting different kinds of plants (and plowing them under). Compost is not a new idea, so I skipped that. The "Biological Pest Control" page said it meant planting different kinds of plants, and manipulating insects and stuff, and the way those insects were manipulated appeared to be primarily about planting different kinds of plants (that, and turning pots upside-down). I thought organic-farm people were against the introduction of non-native critters, so I assumed the section of that page on direct introduction of natural enemies didn't apply here. "Mechanical cultivation" doesn't mean anything to me, except in the sense that all cultivation is mechanical.

It's not so easy as saying "let's give up on modern farming and return to some romanticized past."

I wasn't saying it was easy. I was saying that seems to be the underlying feeling or aesthetic that fuels the movement, and that concerns me.

If anything, I think the idea that you can somehow throw all these variables into a formula and compute some objective answer about which practice is "better" is a naive romanticizing of the complexity of the issues. At some level, all decisions are guided by what you dismiss as "aesthetics" but which I would call "ethics."

So if I'm reading you right, you're saying that the issues surrounding what kind of farming is better are too complex to be analyzed rationally, and it's naive to try. Instead, we should trust our feelings to tell us which one is better. The fact that those feelings depend entirely on our art and culture and how they choose to portray things shouldn't bother us any, because that's how we learn "ethics." Is that right? What gives those artists that authority though? Why do you trust them so much?
posted by Xezlec at 10:42 AM on March 6, 2010


The "Green Manure" page said it meant planting different kinds of plants (and plowing them under)

Right, well all of agriculture ultimately falls under the heading of planting things and then tending or harvesting them. The question is which things, when, and how, and this is where all the science of agroecology comes into play. You're right that composting is not a new idea, as a whole (in fact, it's a very old idea, which should leave you to wonder why it was abandoned so easily) but that doesn't mean there's not active research into the particulars of composting. There are plenty of open questions around what exactly are the best ways to manage soil fertility and resources. Bear in mind that the alternative, by and large, is just to use more and more petrochemicals. And my point earlier is that those work only a short-term strategy, and they optimize costs if you compute costs in the most immediate and myopic way.

I wasn't saying it was easy. I was saying that seems to be the underlying feeling or aesthetic that fuels the movement, and that concerns me.

No, I was saying that your dismissal of organic farming as some kind of romantic Luddite pursuit for dilettantes was too easy. Maybe a better word is "reductive." I don't know where you get your sense of what "seems to be the underlying feeling or aesthetic that fuels the movement," but I hope after reading around a little you'll realize that there's a lot more to it than that. Smart, serious, logical, intellectual people are out there thinking about these things, and they're motivated by larger concerns than what's currently fashionable.

So if I'm reading you right, you're saying that the issues surrounding what kind of farming is better are too complex to be analyzed rationally, and it's naive to try. Instead, we should trust our feelings to tell us which one is better.

My argument is just that rationality only takes you so far, given that we're always working with incomplete information. I'm absolutely not saying that we should just "trust our feelings." Rather, I think, as in all things, our decisions and policies have to be guided by a combination of logic and ethics--that is, try as much as possible to reason things out logically (see my previous comment about the ongoing research of organic farming) but accept that some amount of what we do is based on faith, intuition, emotion, accumulated wisdom, etc. And, yes, I think parables and metaphors are an important part of the way we organize and make sense of these impulses. It sounds like you're interpreting my Tolkien reference before to mean that I just believe whatever I read in stories, but that's not true at all. I just find it to be a compelling narrative, which resonates with some part of my worldview. If your question is where does ethics come from, I'm afraid I'll have to get back to you on that one. But my point is just that ethical and spiritual language can be a useful part of the conversation. Another way to look at it is that ethics gives us a vocabulary of ideas, which we can use when deciding what things we should or shouldn't do.

To take a simplified example: Let's say a strong person is trying to decide whether to steal from someone weaker. He could try to analyze the question within a strictly rational framework: weighing the potential benefit (utility derived from acquiring the extra wealth) against the possible costs (resistance from the weaker person, getting caught by the police, possible retaliation, etc.), or he could frame the decision in ethical terms: Stealing is wrong, violates a basic principle of treating other people as you'd want to be treated. Now, you can argue that those ethical principles themselves are derived from some kind of evolved rational cost-benefit analysis and that we've simply internalized that analysis and distilled it down to a series of shortcuts, but that doesn't make the argument any less useful or any less true. We need those shortcuts precisely because the cost-benefit calculus is ultimately beyond our ability to comprehend in the moment. Thinking that we've got a complete understanding of all the consequences of our actions is the height of arrogance. Another way to think about ethics here is that it's a system of thought designed to emphasize the long-term over the short-term, but that's not to say it should replace rationality. A better description, I think, is that it augments rationality, by giving us a baseline from which to make judgments when our rational thinking fails us, as it often does in the long view. If we only accepted rational decision-making as valid, we would always be biased towards maximizing short-term gain, because our predictive capabilities break down the further into the future we try to look.

And I feel like this is especially relevant to the question of farming, because it really intersects with a lot of complex systems--climate, ecology, nutrition, evolution--that we frankly don't understand all that well, as a species. Part of the reason, in fact, that we don't understand them is that we've lost a lot of the accumulated knowledge that we once had because it seemed so much easier to use oil as a solution to all of life's problems. Only now are people coming around to the understanding that the practices of factory farming are a quick fix and not a sustainable strategy. But what remains to be seen is what alternatives will emerge to take their place.
posted by albrecht at 4:05 PM on March 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


Well put, albrecht.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 4:10 PM on March 6, 2010


No, I was saying that your dismissal of organic farming as some kind of romantic Luddite pursuit for dilettantes was too easy. Maybe a better word is "reductive." I don't know where you get your sense of what "seems to be the underlying feeling or aesthetic that fuels the movement," but I hope after reading around a little you'll realize that there's a lot more to it than that. Smart, serious, logical, intellectual people are out there thinking about these things, and they're motivated by larger concerns than what's currently fashionable.

You're reading me all wrong. I didn't dismiss it, I acknowledged that I guess it's for real and I just don't understand it well enough, and instead just said that I guess it was the feelings behind it that bothered me. I am not saying there aren't smart people behind it. Most of the people who favor it are smarter and more eloquent and more well-versed in everything than I am. You're a perfect example of this. I am under no delusions that I'm capable of winning an argument against you. But when I ask people why they buy or support organic, these ideas keep popping up that have something to do with some hard-to-describe feeling of rightness about an older way of doing things. Your Tolkien comment seemed to confirm this, as did your statements about how hard it is to determine rationally which is better.

Let me try to put it another way. You make these points about how this feeling of rightness that I'm talking about is part of a system of ethics that presumably picks solutions that have more in common with older ideas that are less risky in the long term. You also point out that reasoning can't see very far into the future and therefore makes bad long-term choices. The obvious result of these two statements seems to be that all technological progress is bad. It is all based on reasoning that can't see far into the future and deliberately departs from older, and therefore more "ethically justifiable" activities. Imagine saying these same things about social progress, though. Most people won't assume that the same arguments apply there, but why not?
posted by Xezlec at 5:17 PM on March 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


You know what? Don't worry about replying to that. I think I've realized the psychological hangup that was making this bother me. It shouldn't bother me if doing the right thing requires adopting an attitude that tends to reject technology, and it doesn't anymore now that I've figured out what was really bothering me.

Not going to say what it is though. ;)
posted by Xezlec at 7:45 PM on March 6, 2010


Sweet, I win the thread! Seriously, though, it's good that you're trying to keep people honest, me included. If you're serious about learning more about farming, really the best thing for you to do, though, is talk to a farmer. It wasn't until I joined a CSA and started hearing about all the issues my farmers were dealing with from week to week that I really started to grasp how difficult and impressive a job it is. But by all means, keep challenging people to reexamine the choices they make! While you're at it, challenge the people you know who don't buy local/organic to explain why they think that's OK.

I don't follow your argument about technological progress. I don't think anything I've said adds up to a rejection of all technology on ethical grounds. To the contrary, most great technological progress seems to me to have been fueled by ethical/aesthetic concerns, rather than some strict decision calculus about the benefits it would achieve. I mean, no one could have imagined when the first computers were created what effects they would ultimately have on the lives of billions of people; it just seemed like a good idea at the time. My argument was never that all new things are bad, just that not all consequences are able to be foreseen and quantified. Ethical arguments have brought us essentially all social progress, too, since you mentioned it. From a strict cost-benefit point of view, we should still have children working in factories and slavery, among other things. As much as I also like to make fun of people doing trendy things, I can't hate people too much who are motivated out of compassion and concern for the welfare of the planet.

Anyway, your last post was pretty cryptic, so I'll leave it there. Feel free to MeMail me if you want to discuss these things further or if you want some recommendations on places to look for more information. I highly recommend The Omnivore's Dilemma as a starting point, at least. Here's a quote from the introduction that I particularly like:
'Eating is an agricultural act,' as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world--and what is to become of it. To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction.
posted by albrecht at 11:25 PM on March 6, 2010


Late response that probably no one will ever see, but about genetic engineering specifically: I may be in a minority here, but I don't see anything inherently wrong with it. It is different than breeding, but not so far different that I think it needs to be rejected outright.

I do object to what has been done, so far, with GMO plants. The great majority of them have been designed to resist Roundup, so that spraying with Roundup is easier. I don't see that as a big win for anyone but Monsanto. There could, and hopefully will, be amazing things done with genetic engineering in the future. Imagine drought-tolerant grains, for planting in more marginal farmlands. Rice that requires dramatically less water. The possibilities are endless. But so far, it's mainly being used to encourage herbicide sales and force farmers to buy new seed every year through patent protection.

Essentially, genetic engineering of crops needs to be done for the public interest and in the public domain. As long as we entrust it to corporations for private profit, I think we'll continue to be disappointed with the results and see the kind of protest and rejection that has dogged it until now.
posted by rusty at 8:57 AM on March 8, 2010


DIY-Biotech (opensource GMO?) - "I am generally your basic libertarian. Let people do what they want to do - but I think I draw the line here. Access to equipment, materials, etc. ought to require some sort of license and some awareness training. Call me old-fashioned, but just as we don't let kids randomly experiment with uranium, maybe we should think about how we go about playing God. Don't get me wrong, I want people experimenting and pushing the edges. I just want someone supervising the sandbox."
posted by kliuless at 9:11 AM on March 8, 2010


You're right that composting is not a new idea, as a whole (in fact, it's a very old idea, which should leave you to wonder why it was abandoned so easily)

It's no wonder. The short term results from application of chemical fertilizers is astounding. Like drug addiction, once you start seeing the negative, long term results you are hooked into providing your nutrient sucking crops the artificial nutrition they demand (not to mention water), continuosly overstretching your soil more and more and more.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:23 AM on March 8, 2010


kliuless: By "public domain" I mean more "by university research programs and released or commercialized without patent encumbrance," not "done by garage gene hackers." In case that was a reply to me.
posted by rusty at 10:35 AM on March 8, 2010


I think what we're going to see is more scientific evaluation of organic techniques in terms of sustainability. For example, it's perfectly possible to farm in a way that's technically organic, but still produces nutrient runoff. Or that there's some organic pesticides that are just as nasty as any of the petro derived ones.

Organic farmers can certainly take advantage of some of the innovations pioneered by conventional farmers and conventional farmers would probably be wise to adopt some organic practices.
posted by electroboy at 1:26 PM on March 8, 2010


Through the power of the "my comments" tab, one can see and respond even to late comments!

Essentially, genetic engineering of crops needs to be done for the public interest and in the public domain.

I think the coolest thing I've seen in this vein is golden rice. Despite being developed (and being an incredible scientific achievement: en entire synthesis pathway was genetically architected), it was not adopted due to environmentalist protests. The complaints I heard were that it could encourage reduced biodiversity because farmers would prefer it, or draw attention away from broader malnutrition issues. Given that people's corneas sloughing off due to vitamin A deficiency is apparently a common occurrence in some areas, I hope some compromise can be found to get around those objections.
posted by Xezlec at 7:57 PM on March 10, 2010


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