So my younger brother, a Political Science major, is real big on starting debates about everything (maybe not generally, but at least “real big” compared to the rest of my very confrontation-averse family). He’s also of the uber-conservative Republican persuasion, and as such he’s not real big on hippie-dippie stuff like organic food and alternative energy. Now, I mentioned that my family avoids confrontation, and I am probably the most extreme of the lot. I hate disagreements. It’s very, very hard to get me to argue about anything unless I feel incredibly strongly about it, and also feel like the discussion is likely to accomplish some change in the other person’s opinion. Furthermore, I’m not very good at arguments (lack of practice, I’m sure); or more accurately, I’m not very good at conveying my point of view. Communication is not my strong suit – feel free to make some engineer jokes, here.
That said, my brother recently managed to find a topic that I am (apparently) absolutely willing to argue about: sustainable agriculture. We had an email exchange on the topic, and I actually enjoyed it; imagine that! I don’t think he enjoyed it quite as much as I did. In fact, this debate was what convinced me to start a blog, because as long as I can write about it instead of talking about it, I can just go on and on about stuff like this for ages. I figured that I might as well find an interested audience for these sorts of rants, rather than forcing them on my largely uninterested IRL friends and family.
I thought I’d include our conversation here, since I spent so much time finding sources and such It’s split into
two three parts, because as I said, I can go on and on. And I did.
Me (to several family members):
Excellent essay on food production / ethics, love it. Reached the end and felt like sending it to everybody I knew; y’all will have to do lol ;)
My Brother, hereafter “Broseph”:
“Those using noble-sounding rhetoric are seldom judged by the consequences of their ideas.” -Thomas Sowell
Berry’s ideas are fine for the individual. They spell disaster for a society, however, esp. for the unprivileged.
Also, producers are not quite as manipulative as they are made out to be. You cannot succeed in business if there is no market for your product. People have not been brainwashed to purchase food from agribusiness–they purchase it because they prefer it to other possible alternatives.
My Mother (a.k.a. The Reason I Am Kind Of A Hippie):
People purchase that food because it is what is available at the local grocery stores (convenient). What used to be at the local grocery stores was grown more locally and less processed, etc. They also purchase all the prepared meals (chicken nuggets, etc) because it is convenient. Just like the author was saying. Some people today are lazy (and uneducated) about their food choices. Plus, with both parents working or single parenting, no one feels like they have time to cook from scratch. It would be great to start educating children in the schools about how to grow and prepare more natural, nutritious food.
But, even so, some people might make better choices if better things were available to them at their local grocery stores. Like in [My Hometown], Tom Thumb has started carrying way more Organic stuff because people in [My Hometown] are more educated about things and have requested that– and have enough money to purchase it. They had survey cards when they started remodeling a few years ago where they asked shoppers what they wanted them to carry and what changes they could make (and they occasionally still ask). Whole Foods only goes into affluent neighborhoods for a reason.
Still, lots of “underprivileged” people garden and grow their own vegetables and are healthier for it. They can even use city land (community gardens) in some cities if they don’t have land of their own. [My Hometown]‘s Community garden encourages giving the produce to charity because our residents are well off enough to do that, but [Nearby Big City] has some community gardens that are available for people to cultivate for their own use.
When I was reading the first part of this I was picturing the people in WALL-E sitting in the chairs and being fed and entertained. About right.
Dad and I are in the process of making a vegetable bed in the backyard — yea!
It does seem idealistic, Broseph. But the point is for individuals to at least try to make a little difference by making educated choices. If enough people did that, maybe there would be some good changes.
Economies of scale = lower prices. Lower prices = more purchasing power, esp. for people at the bottom with limited resources. I’m not saying we should *not offer* organic foods if they are competitive, but we should *definitely, definitely* NOT penalize agribusinesses–which help the poor–to advance some ill-thought organic crusade, which would be regressive. We have practically eliminated hunger in this country. You can thank industrial-scale ag for that.
Me, beginning to make this into A Whole Big Thing:
Industrial-scale ag is not sustainable in the long-term though; it’s killing the soil. The current system of planting repetitive monocultures constantly depletes the same nutrients from the soil, without ever truly replacing them. Chemical fertilizers only concern themselves with the three basic chemicals that plants need to survive… but in this form they have a super short half life, plus all the micronutrients that should be in our soil are never replenished. This isn’t just a theory either; industrially-grown vegetables and fruits have been shown to have fewer nutrients than the same plants grown in healthier soil.
And monocultures mean less genetic variety, which leaves acres upon acres of crop susceptible to diseases. Surely you don’t support giant international monopolies… Monsanto, anyone? Because that’s what has boosted them to their current domination of the market: they’ve engineered disease-resistant strains that will only work with their fertilizer and their pesticides. The problem is, with companies like that controlling intellectual rights to every major crop nowadays, the conventional farmers are at the bottom of the bottom. The system barely allows them to make enough money to survive, while those at the top are thriving. They have to buy new seeds every year rather than saving part of their yield (which they can do if they grow heirloom varieties), they have to buy the fertilizer and pesticide that works with the new version of the seed, and they have to accept next to nothing for their crop once it’s harvested. Cheap produce may benefit many poor people, but it’s devastating the poor people who grow it.
Plus, the patent-protected varieties may not be heirloom, but they can cross-pollinate with other varieties of the same species, and transfer the engineered genes to the offspring. Monsanto has a track record of pursuing legal action against small farmers whose crops have been tainted with the genes. Not only do those farmers have an infestation of plants that they don’t want and can’t get rid of without buying Monsanto’s herbicide, but they end up bankrupt from legal fees.
These are just the American farmers, who have options when their farms go under. Did you hear about all the Indian farmers that are committing suicide when their GM crops fail? 250,000 in the past 50 years. Sure, that wasn’t Monsanto’s intention. And those farmers probably should have done more research on the amount of water needed to grow cotton in their area. But suicide is the last recourse of the hopeless, and nothing destroys hope more than complete dependence on someone else for your livelihood. That’s what the current system is: farmers as helpless pawns of the market. The current organic model isn’t perfect either, but at least it puts some power in the hands of the farmer and allows them to make a profit. If done intelligently, it can potentially improve the soil over time, rather than steadily depleting it.
I don’t think we need to make produce cheaply available by slashing its cost at the producer; that won’t work for much longer. Maybe we need to do it by encouraging more young people to become farmers and educating them about how to do it more responsibly. Maybe instead of allowing cities to sprawl so much, we should just prioritize farmland more. Maybe instead of heavily subsidizing industrial crops like wheat and soy and corn that are processed into oblivion and tossed into every boxed food in the store, we should start subsidizing independent farmers that grow nutrient-dense produce like broccoli and beans and tomatoes so that those foods become affordable for low-income families. I don’t know the ins and outs of what would make that possible, but I feel like it can’t be impossible, and it would be healthier on so many levels.
But whatever, I mostly liked what he said about being more connected with the origin of our food. I think that’s a major problem for Americans and would promote health more than all the Play 60′s and My Plates combined. Encouraging community gardens doesn’t require changing the whole agricultural system, and it would be a step in the right direction. I personally think they need to start putting gardens in elementary schools, especially in low-income areas, and teaching kids where food comes from. At the very least, more people can grow a little herb garden on their windowsill. :)
Broseph, who has now become offended:
The only people who support monopolies (which can only stay monopolies through government rent-seeking) are statists and the owners of monopolies, so no, I do not support “international monopolies,” although I do support agribusiness in theory (not necessarily all in practice–you’d have to work in their PR department to claim that).
Industrial-scale ag will not ‘kill the soil’ in the long-term, because farming practices are not static over time. In a free market, people innovate past problems, and landholders will do whatever is necessary to ensure that their soil is fertile enough to produce crops, or else they will have to buy new land or go under (property rights ensure some level of sustainability). You’re thinking way too far inside the box on this one.
As for GM crops, you fail to mention strains like the recently-discovered variant of golden rice that will multiply rice production by a factor of three. These aren’t sinister products–that strain will save innumerable lives in SE Asia and around the world.
Monsanto’s questionable business practices aside (no one likes the fact that corporations exploit the legal systems of undeveloped countries, but it happens), the scaling up of agriculture is a net positive. It goes back to the principle of “creative destruction.” Small farmers will undoubtedly lose jobs, but the net benefit to society and the poor will be calculated in what is saved–lives and billions of dollars in purchasing power.
Let’s consider the share of income households from different countries spend on food: U.S. is lowest because of large-scale ag (strong currency and higher incomes play a role as well, but that should only further convince you of the importance of the free market, which has enabled those factors). Or let’s consider the last time in U.S. history when most food was produced by small farmers.
“Encouraging more young people to become farmers” will increase the share of income Americans (and people worldwide–we are a net exporter of food) pay for food. That’s just a fact.
We agree on eliminating ag subsidies, though! Those have got to go (although my opposition exists for different reasons…).
This post is shared in Fight Back Friday at Food Renegade! Head on over for more countercultural food talk!