Saturday, March 07, 2009

The future of food

There's a good article in the recent Mother Jones about the problems of producing enough food for the world in the ways currently in vogue as "sustainable." The author, Paul Roberts, argues that the organic- and local-food movement is promoting a model of farming that is very difficult to scale up to the size needed to feed the earth's growing population. That part of the article is certainly very useful and informative, but what I really like came near the end.

Food activists have pushed consumer education and activism as a means to convince food producers and marketers that more sustainable food can be profitable. But the changes needed to the food supply are huge, and unlikely to be realized through consumer choice alone. What we need to do is change the rules of the market through new laws and government programs. It's a good example of the limits of pocket-book activism. Regardless of how many choices we have in the market, real change demands political action.


christian_left said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
christian_left said...

[Note: I decided to delete my original comment on this post, which was based on my immediate reaction and was perhaps more critical and negative than it needed to be. So I am softening my critique (just a little bit) and reposting…]

I must respectfully disagree with your claim that this is a "good article." Rather, it is a weird mishmash combining many good insights with some problematic claims and distorted framing. The author seems in thrall to high technology and not thoroughly acquainted with food scholarship and analysis. It also lacks a coherent and consistent analysis of the structure of the food system, which leads him to make generalizations about "organic" production that lump together big industrial organics with small-scale organic producers (who are much less likely to rely on long-distance inputs, by the way). As for specific puzzling points, such as his vague allegation that eating locally might use more energy (which is contradicted by the Carnegie Mellon study the author himself mentions) the comments section on the MJ website provides many good refutations and alternative points of view, but let me just point out that the push to relax (i.e. weaken) organic standards at the national level has mostly been led by the same big industrial food producers who have used the existing organic regulations to engage in production practices that are only marginally better than conventional. Yes, we need some middle ground to encourage less environmentally damaging practices by conventional farmers--Practical Farmers of Iowa, discussed in the work of rural sociologist Michael Bell provides a good examples of this--and I am a big fan of the strategy of urging people to reduce rather than totally eliminate meat consumption. But we must be careful about framing the issue as “organic and local won’t work,” which is not at all what is suggested by the available evidence, including some of the sources cited by the author.

Let me just give one example of the author’s confused analysis. On the first page, he puts forward an important critique (much better analyzed by social scientists such as Julie Guthmann) of how oversimplification in organic standards can lead to production that meets the letter but not the spirit of sustainable agriculture. As he says: “This tendency to replace complexity with checklists is the hallmark of the alternative food sector.” But which “alternative food sector” is he talking about? Is it one thing? Ironically, it is the scaled-up producers, which some have called “industrial organics,” that most exemplify this problem. It is those he might disparage as the smaller-scale “purists” who are resisting this degradation in the meaning of “organic.” They are pushing either for tougher (not weaker) standards, or, in other cases, for a shift towards “beyond organic” in which formal certification is eschewed in favor of direct local relationships between farmers and eaters. You can call for scaling up and denigrate the purists all you want, but if you don’t analyze the structural divisions within the “alternative food sector”--or worse, if you implicitly indict the small-scale, local food crowd for the problems created by industrial organics--you are never going to get to the bottom what is happening today.

All that said, I agree with the poster's overall claim the individual consumer choice model of change will be insufficient and we must push for larger policy changes. If that is what you take away from this article, then great. I just don't think this particular author has done a very good job of laying out what those changes should be. (Michael Pollan's New York Times piece last fall, “Farmer in Chief,” was far better, in my view.) And, further, it seems to me that the author is more interested in promoting high technology research than he is in confronting the real structural barriers to a more sustainable food system. Reading more on the sociology of knowledge in food and agriculture would likely make him much less sanguine about his recommended solutions and much more positive about the idea (he admires a Japanese example but strangely dismisses its generalization) of farmers learning how to manage the land in a sophisticated way through experience. Real alternatives are being developed through research, but most of it follows a far different, more participatory and interactive model with sustainable farmer networks than the top-down model that the author seems to be advocating. His demands to shift incentives and regulations are welcome (and strangely, given the way he framed his overall analysis, he even endorses government purchasing of local and organic food!), but he tends to focus too many of his concrete suggestions on the realm of high-tech research.

Okay, maybe I'm over-reacting to this article, but I think that its good points are needlessly obscured by the murky ones and the strange framing, such as the old canard that "organic agriculture cannot feed the world." (And just why is he so dismissive of the idea that more people will have to be involved in food production?) And, yes, I agree that reducing (conventional) meat consumption can have a far greater impact than just about anything else--in fact, I have been putting a lot of work into this very issue right now in my local area--but it is important to qualify this claim by pointing to the benefits of intensive rotational grazing on pastures as an alternative. Even the Carnegie Mellon study, which is one of the better ones out there, admits that it does not account for this. Yet it is exactly the local, small-scale folks that the author seems to dismiss as na├»ve purists who are pioneering these ideas. (Interestingly, it is many of the small-scale organic folks who have been calling the food movement to go “beyond organic,” a quite different response than an obsession with big technology, scaling up, and watering down the organic regulations.) Sure, they cannot feed New York City with as much meat as people there are accustomed to eating, but then again neither can the current food system relying on massive fossil fuel inputs and government subsidies over the long run. Yet with reduced yet higher quality (local, pasture/grass-fed) meat consumption, mostly local plant consumption, and limited long-distance fair trade in things like bananas and coffee, we can achieve a more sustainable food system. We will also have to roll back some of the damage done by decades of attempts to enmesh Third World peasants in a distorted global food trade based on export cropping and Western expertise in place of their own more sustainable local subsistence production. We need policies that move in the direction of greater local self-reliance in both the rich and poor countries, not depending on top-down, sometimes even wildly fantastic high-tech schemes (I must say that whole “vertical farm” idea seems far-fetched to me, but I promise to read more about it) and continuing reliance on a massive global food trade that has been distorted beyond all recognition to serve the interests of agribusiness.