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!

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