Thursday, November 20, 2014

Totalitarian logic in food systems

Following up on Bittman's piece I discussed in my last post, I want to call out something that you see a lot in reporting (especially "science" reporting) about feeding the world. You'll often see a headline like "Can organic agriculture feed the world?" Or local agriculture, or non-GM agriculture, or peasant agriculture, or sustainable agriculture, or vegetarian diets, or whatever more or less progressive philosophy that contradicts the prevailing status quo. Such articles range from partisan hackjobs penned or commissioned by big ag companies whose business model relies on current models of conventional agriculture, to fairly rigorous metastudies that are making an honest effort to answer what they see as relevant questions.
 
What almost all such articles have in common is that they are framing the question in a totalizing, even totalitarian, fashion. That is to say that they are implicitly or explicitly putting on trial the absolute validity of certain ways of organizing farms and the food system in general. They are asking if, over the entire diversity of biomes and human societies, the model in question (organic agriculture, local food systems, etc.) can be universally applied and found to outperform prevailing practice. At first glance, this seems fair if we're talking about feeding the entire world.

But the fact is that the entire world isn't fed just one way, nor will it ever be. Would you ask, "Can fishing feed the world?" Of course not--wild-caught fish are just one part of the world's total food supply. Some communities are very dependent on fishing for their food and livelihoods, but not all are, and no one would propose that any community (much less the entire world) subsist on fish alone. It would not only be unhealthy for the people, but physically impossible. There just isn't enough fish to feed us all, all the time. But does this mean that fishing is invalid? That it is not worthwhile to pursue as a part of current and future food systems? Of course not. You would never even think to pose the question in a serious study. The same can be said of mechanized agriculture (which obviously can't work everywhere in the world, for instance in mountainous areas), or tropical crops like cassava (which can't be grown in temperate zones), or even farming in general (which you just can't do in the unirrigated Sahara desert). Why don't we see articles about "Can mechanized agriculture feed the world?" or "Can cassava feed the world?" or "Is farming feasible on all land types and climates in the entire world?" Because we implicitly realize that tractors, or tropical crops, or even farming itself don't need to work everywhere, but rather just in the few or many places where they can be a viable option.

So why do we see so much written about about "Can organic agriculture feed the world?", usually explored in such a way as to provide an all-or-nothing absolute adoption or total dismissal of the practice? I would guess that part of the totalitizing nature of the question is a reaction to some organic agriculture advocates' tendency to speak in just such terms of a blanket acceptance or rejection of one farming paradigm or another. But I think this way of framing questions about novel, progressive farming methods and ways of organizing the food system is more due to powerful status quo interests' desire to discredit anything that might weaken their way of conceiving the world and running their business. For companies who sell synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, machinery, and even improved seed, the capital-intensive, industrial model of agriculture is their lifeblood. The same applies to the farmers who practice this model, the researchers who explore it, the trade groups that promote it. All these actors not only depend on this model for their income, but even for the meaning in their lives, almost like a religion. As long as this model is held up as the gold standard, as the desireable, modern, absolute best way of doing this, both their profits and their worldview will hold firm. But if other ways of farming and running a food system are explored and validated and even found to be often preferable to the status quo, it shakes the foundation of the current winners, both in economic and in moral terms. This being the case, it behooves such status quo interests to demonstrate the supposed inferiority of any other approach to farming by pointing out that said approach (like any approach) cannot be universally and seamlessly applied across the globe.

But as with my exploration of some studies comparing organic and conventional dairying, framing the debate in this way is not objective or honest. First off, the framing of "status quo vs. contender farming systems" questions almost always extends inaccurate assumptions that all the worst parts of the current system will hold constant in the comparison system. For instance, right now the world wastes somewhere from 30-40% of all food produced. There are complex reasons behind this, but quite a few are due to some inherent qualities of the mass-produced industrial agriculture model. By producing a lot of each thing in one place, then transporting it far away from there, the current food system has lots of waste built into it. So if you were comparing local food systems to the current system, you would have to factor in not just the logistical problems that surely arise in a local food system, but also the effective productivity gains you'd get from reducing waste. On the other hand, in many parts of the world today food waste occurs precisely in local food systems that have poor roads, refrigeration infrastructure, storage facilities, and income stability. Is this a condemnation of local food systems? No, it is a condemnation of any food system operating under poor technical and socioeconomic conditions. The point here is that, if we are going to do some all-or-nothing comparison contest between different food or farming systems, we should neither assume that current shortcomings of one system will extend to the other, nor on the other hand that the current shortcomings in one context are inherently linked to the broader type of food or farming system prevalent in that context. In this example, not all local food systems suffer from the shortcomings of an underdeveloped country (though many such countries employ local food systems), nor would all the inherent shortcomings of a non-local food system (excessive production, long transport time, etc.) be carried over to its contending local food system.

Most of all though, if we are asking in this way if organic agriculture, or peasant agriculture, or any other type of agriculture can feed the world, it is important to remember that the current status quo fails this test too. Somewhere from 10 to 20% of the world's population is food insecure right now, depending on how you cut it. So it is unfair to judge one model of farming, or one particular technology, in opposition to the status quo, on whether the new approach can totally eliminate hunger. Even the control treatment of business as usual isn't accomplishing that job!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Feeding 9 billion

Here is a very well-reasoned op-ed from Mark Bittman (whom I have sometimes considered to be a bit pat and trite) about the real roots of malnutrition. He rails against the incessant refrain we hear in the ag development world, that chorus of "By 2050, we will need to feed nine billion people...", which is usually followed by whatever pet technology/approach/innovation/fascist regime the particular presenter is trying to promote or justify. Discourses that focus on huge numbers like 9 billion people, or however many trillions of calories they will need frame the discussion about hunger in terms of sheer magnitude, and naturally draw our attention to the yield improvement imperative. Increasing yields is an imperative, for the simple reason that there are ever-more people demanding ever-more resource-intensive diets. But Bittman is right that simply increasing total food production in the world will not eliminate hunger or malnutrition; hungry people are hungry not because there just isn't enough food to go around, but because they do not have the resources (money or land or ag inputs) to access the cornucopia of food that does exist. To say it in a more radical way, hunger exists because the current model of society in most places denies food to certain people, deeming it more sensible or desireable to throw food away or feed it to pigs than to give these people access to it.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Food in the news

Quite a few longer-format news sources have covered food lately.  There's been National Geographic with its series on feeding the world all this year, and recently a [rather weak] Time magazine that had home cooking as its cover story.  Now I see that the NYT magazine devoted an issue to food.  From that issue, I only got to see this photo essay on what kids eat for breakfast in different parts of the world.  I am proud of my sons for their relatively grown-up eating habits.  They aren't quite as adventurous as the Japanese girl eating pickled fish and fermented sludge for breakfast, but we don't do a whole lot of processed starches or sugars.  Certainly none of the squeeze-suck organic astronaut mush that is the latest craze among a particular demographic of well-to-do parents, which reminds my wife of low-grade jam sold in the same type of plastic envelope in Colombia.  Our breakfast routine is ever-changing, but usually involves some bread, eggs mixed with rice and/or vegetables, apples and grapes, orange juice, and a homemade but admittedly sweet hot chocolate.  Sort of a middle ground between the European diets shown in the essay with lots of jam and animal products, and the more starchy, fiber-y breakfasts from other parts of the world.  Which about describes Colombia culturally.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Work ethic in the US ghetto

This essay by a former Baltimore drug-dealer discusses the relentless work ethic of the black poor living in our country's ghettos.  He describes a childhood spent around people working multiple jobs, both formal and informal, paid and unpaid, legal and sometimes illegal, to get by and often to look out for the rest of the community, too. 

His description squares with my observations living and working in different poor black neighborhoods in Chicago.  I was often surprised at seeing this constant, tireless activity, in part because it was so different from the more leisurely pace of street life in other neighborhoods I'd known, and also because it goes so counter to the popular image of the supposed laziness of the marginalized urban poor.  I see a similar resourcefulness and a high regard for work among many of the poor in developing countries.  In the US and abroad, the poor are innate hustlers, creative entrepreneurs, and committed laborers, not necessarily because their character is better than other people's, but because circumstances demand they be so in order to take care of themselves and of the people they care about. 

Quite frankly, today's economy in the US and the world at large is such that we would all do well to learn from the hustling poor.  Steady jobs are hard to come by, and often you need to work side gigs even if you are lucky enough to have a decent job.  The secure, assured prosperity of the 20th-century US middle class is firmly a thing of the past, if it ever really did exist that much to begin with.  Today, we've all got to be hustlers, working hard, keeping an eye out for opportunity, and perhaps even skirting what society considers respectable.  The inner-city has a lot to teach us about the 21st century, if we'd just pay attention.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

More grain, less destruction

This is a new research article about agricultural yield potential in China based on a wide, very rigorous range of data.  Essentially it says that by using a judicious mix of modern inputs and locally-adapted agronomic management practices, China's current farmland could produce enough rice, wheat, and corn to meet its projected 2030 food needs.  The article argues that, even in an intensive, high-yielding agricultural setting like China, farmers are currently far short of obtaining the maximum yields possible from their local growing conditions.  Agronomic research is rightly criticized for naively assuming that the high yields obtained under ideal research site conditions could be fully replicated in real farmers' fields.  The lack of similarity between research field conditions and farmer conditions is always a danger with any ag research, but what fascinates me about this article is the sheer number of sites and years the researchers looked at.  The widely varying conditions of their experimental sites, and their explicit consideration of four different types of management regime, make their conclusions much more robust.  If they're right, it looks like the future may be a little less grim than it could have been.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Fair free trade?

Here is an article about the creation of free-trade zones by Nicaragua's left-wing, anti-neoliberal government.  I think the article does a good job in a limited space of exploring the conundrums and trade-offs faced by any small, poor country trying to balance the opportunities for economic growth offered by the global economy, with the necessity of ensuring social justice for the poor.  Some may see Nicaragua's policies as a sell-out, but I am intrigued by the possibility of harnessing the obvious power of free trade while insisting on certain basic protections and dignity for workers.  And NIcaragua's tripartite collaboration between government, businesses, and labor reminds me of the similar agreements that fueled the USA's unprecedented, well-distributed prosperity in the post-War years.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Jihad as new international anti-establishment cause?

Here is an article that posits that young Western men who go to join the ranks of ISIS are perhaps following the same impulse that led an earlier generation of Westerners to join international leftist movements.  It follows the same line of thought I've begun to trace out, linking the fall of global socialist revolutionary movements to the rise of political Islamist terror.  The author of the article summarizes some of the reasons and passions that may at least in part explain the seeming need for certain young men to join such radical anti-establishment movements:  "abject suffering in the world or examples of injustice... [also the] impulse for escape, radical purity and justice of an often disfigured sort".  The author ventures that a "radical ideological [sic] of opposition" responds to or arises from some profound, inherent human trait.  This might be true--I for one have often felt disgust at the state of the world, and dreamed of acting decisively to fight against injustice.  Though I don't know if the ideology of opposition, which seems to be a natural part of any human, must always be radical or violent.  I myself have an almost innate drive to oppose, probably because I agree with the author of the article that it is not a viable situation to have just one dominant, unopposed ideology driving the world.  But at the same time, I personally have come to appreciate the importance of a steady, concerted, uncompromising, but nonviolent fight against injustice. 

Somehow, though I can't sympathize with their means or even agree with much of their philosophy, I can better understand the international Leftist terrorists of the past than I can understand or relate to ISIS and their ilk.  International Marxist groups were fighting for something that was at least in theory inclusive and constructive.  The cause of fundamentalist political Islam is inherently exclusionary, and often destructive.  That said, let's be clear about the similarities.  Groups like the PLO or Bader-Meinhof explicitly advocated on behalf of the disenfranchised; ISIS doesn't explicitly seem to do that, but effectively they are feeding into feelings of disenfranchisement and an urge to resist the hegemon.  At the same time, while ISIS seems to glory in barbarity, Leftist groups often were wantonly destructive of human life, regardless of their humanist rhetoric.  So in terms of both their effective constituencies and their immoral, violent methods, 1970s international leftist terror and 2010s international jihadist terror don't seem that far apart.  But still, to me there is a difference between a group that sees its end-game as the betterment of humanity's lot (even if they are often incoherent in pursuing that goal), and a group that has no such long-term aspirations, and seeks only to utterly destroy those it regards as "other" (which ends up being most of humanity).  There is a difference between strident militancy in favor of a viewpoint, and total destruction of any opposing viewpoints and their bearers.

My cousin sent me this article precisely when I happen to be in El Salvador for work.  It's a very interesting country, and I've enjoyed getting to know it a bit these past few days.  But what strikes me as an odd coincidence is that in this country, and in many other places in Latin America, the apparent drive toward radicalism, the drive for puritanical solutions to injustice, seems not to be at play right now.  It can be argued that Latin America is the part of the world where violent ideological struggle has had its most prolonged, savage, and ecstatic expression, even long after the Cold War had supposedly ended.  But in El Salvador, site of massacres and torture and disappearances and radical puritanism for the better part of two decades, right now social injustice is being addressed (with varying degrees of success) through the mainstream state bureaucracy.  The party in power right now is the former left-wing guerrilla movement, now looking more like a mainstream social democrat party than fiery radicals.

Of course El Salvador is still home to bitter political discourse and differing opinions on how to address society's problems.  But I think that here, as in Colombia and the Southern Cone and Nicaragua and surely other places, the leftist voice is becoming a staid part of the establishment, and there is not much of a popular support base anymore for the ferocity and savagery that have so long defined the region--people are sick of it. 

The scars and the new wounds of violence still plague us, but it is a different violence from the puritan political terror of years past.  In fact, in some ways today's violence is more fearsome, since it has no cause to advance, no collective it pretends to represent and advocate for.  There's no reasoning with a criminal commercial gang, at least not in the same way as with a right- or left-wing armed movement. 

Admittedly my musing on the end of political, militarized radicalism in Latin America has its limits; the Latin American insurgent Left never attracted non-Latin recruits the way that ISIS does today, or even the way that the PLO or Bader-Meinhoff-type groups did back in the day.  And leftist guerrilla groups in Latin America were never as wantonly violent as ISIS or the PLO in its 1970s heyday.  Statistically, most of the bloody massacres and the torture in Latin American history have come from right-aligned governments or shady paramilitary operators, and even the criminal groups plaguing the region today often have their roots in these right-wing berserkers.

But the example of Latin America should at least give pause to those who think that a cause or an ideology can die so rapidly or so completely.  Hopefully this is a good thing, because it means that any valid aspects of yesterday's radical ideology might be rescued to inform today's debates, or even to replace or override the more destructive ideologies that might have arisen since.  For much of the 90s and 2000s many people thought that socialism in its many guises had definitively lost the war of ideas, that the loud, oblivious chant of neoliberalism had won the day.  But look at the political map of Latin America today, and you will see that leftist ideas and even the actual people leading leftist movements twenty years ago or more, are very relevant to daily life and the political discourse.  I don't know what this says about al Qaeda (another ideology we'd thought had been consigned to the dustbin), or ISIS, or Baathism, or Pan-Arabism, or any other political line of thinking in the Middle East.  But if the author of the article I cited is correct, there will always be people looking to fundamentally oppose the uglier aspects of the current status quo.  Let's hope that they can find an ideological framework that isn't even uglier than the status quo it pretends to oppose.