Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Seven industrial agriculture myths

Phil Loring started writing articles on this theme for me in the Republic, but he hasn't finished the series yet. Now I find myself studying this same topic in my Comparative Farming and Sustainable Food Systems class. The myths are those described in Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture. They include:
1) Industrial agriculture will feed the world.
2) Industrial food is safe, healthy, and nutritious.
3) Industrial food is cheap.
4) Industrial agriculture is efficient.
5) Industrial agriculture offers more food choices to consumers.
6) Industrial agriculture benefits the environment and wildlife.
7) Biotechnology will solve all the problems of industrial agriculture.
The section on these myths in Fatal Harvest has been reprinted on Alternet; I've linked to them above, but here's the short rebuttal:
  • Myth number one is a classic case of misdirection: it implies (as typically presented) that somehow the problem of hunger is one of a failure to produce enough food, and the answer is that industrial agriculture is the only means whereby we can produce sufficient food to feed all 7 billion of us (or the anticipated 9 billion by 2050). Actually, people go hungry because of politics, economic shenanigans, poverty, and landlessness. Industrial agriculture actually increases the incidence of hunger by raising the cost of farming (by a huge factor), by forcing farmers off their land, by focusing on high-profit export crops rather than food crops for local consumption. The World Bank and other international financial institutions have promoted policies that have supported industrial export agriculture, for example, and have caused hunger through free-market and globalization policies.
  • Myth number two was thoroughly debunked for me by Food, Inc., although the movie didn't go into why this folderol is accepted. Part of the reason, as pointed out by the authors of Fatal Harvest, is that industrial food is very very consistent: it looks clean and wholesome. But looks can be deceiving: from the poisonous chemicals it's grown and treated with (as pointed out by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring) to the concentrated, empty junk of modern processed food (as described in Super Size Me by Morgan Spurlock, and many other authors since), industrial food is really, really bad for you.
  • Myth number three is something you can believe only if you ignore the staggering health, environmental, and human costs of industrial agriculture—a technique commonly known as "externalizing costs," and an everyday part of our modern economic thinking. It is, of course, insane to think that actual costs (not those that are mere ticks or sheafs of the paper/exchange medium) can simply be shunted aside and not counted. They show up, somewhere. It is monumentally selfish and dangerous to all of us for a few business owners to shove those costs upon us for their short-term gain. Industrial agriculture is very, very expensive, and that pleasantly consistent-looking food costs us a bundle, even if we don't pay it at the cash register. We pay for it at the doctor's, in the price of gas, in our taxes, in the length (or shortness) of our lives, in the moral cost of cruelty to animals and extinction of species and varieties, in the human cost of culture destruction, etc. Farming the old-fashioned way is a labor-intensive business, and industrial agriculture, being far more mechanized, thrust a whole lot of people out of work.
  • Myth number four is partly a product of myth number three: industrial agriculture looks efficient if you don't have to count all the costs (such as destroyed, contaminated, eroded, lost topsoil, for example), and if you don't count the fact that agriculture is supposed to produce food, rather than a commodity. Industrial agriculture is very good at producing huge amounts of commodities on large amounts of land. It isn't very good at producing a lot of food per acre, though. Gardens, and small, diversified farms, are much more productive per acre. Even Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations simply outsource their land and other input needs to external sources. It really isn't a very efficient or good use of resources. (See this PDF report by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production.)
  • Steve Hannaford, in his book Market Domination! the impact of industry consolidation on competition, innovation, and consumer choice, thoroughly explores the phenomenon of pseudo-variety, and exploded myth number five in an article he wrote for the Republic about the problem, using beer as an example. Minor variations in content and major variations in packaging do not food differences make. Another particular problem is the disappearance of heirloom varieties of food plants. Food that can handle the conditions or requirements imposed by the industrial food system (such as long shipping distances, rough handling, uniformity of appearance and flavor, resistance to pesticides, fast growth, precisely timed harvest, etc.) loses the myriad choices that varieties adapted to a wide range of needs and microclimates offer. All those small, comparatively skinny chickens, for example, that lay small but tasty eggs and have small breasts and grow sort of slowly, but have a penchant for insect pests and chickweed. Soft-skinned tomatoes that bloom and ripen throughout the summer and have peculiar shapes and interesting stripes and spots. And so on. This variation is not adapted for industrial conditions, and so isn't sought. As smaller, diversified farms are forced out of business through land acquisition, fewer crops are grown, and more of only a few varieties. This has lead to disaster in the past and very likely will again if we keep to our present myopic course.
  • Myth number six is a mix of chutzpah and nonsense. I was boggled when I heard this particular one, but a major part of this claim is that industrial agriculture is supposed to be more productive per acre than other forms of agriculture (such as organic or sustainable agriculture). I looked into this, however (some months ago, actually, before I took the class), and industrial agriculture is NOT more productive. Gardening and diversified farming are, in fact, far more productive of food. According to a new study by Jules Pretty, et al. in Environmental Science and Technology, "crop yields on farms in developing countries that used sustainable agriculture rose nearly 80% in four years." That alone doesn't refute the idea that industrial agriculture is more productive. An excellent and well-sourced article in Grist magazine reveals the truth: industrial agriculture requires massive inputs that degrade agricultural, environmental, and human systems in order to get high productivity for a limited number of foods. Industrial agriculture is comparatively sterile, and uses resources up, rather than building them up. It most decidedly does NOT benefit the environment.
  • Myth number seven, that biotechnology will be, essentially, a panacea, really depends on how it is used and if its use doesn't simply cause more problems than it solves. Biotechnology as applied to food is typically used to a) patent varieties, b) create pesticide, herbicide, or disease resistance, c) create greater productivity in crops, or d) create genetic and cosmetic uniformity and/or predictability (in other words, to reduce biodiversity). Sometimes it adds nutritional value (as in "golden rice"). It creates industrial foods, crops or varieties that are adapted to industrial needs. The Biotechnology Industry Organization, or BIO, has a Frequently Asked Questions page on agricultural biotechnology that provides quite the interesting contrast to the concerns I keep finding about biotech crops. While BIO answers concerns in a very even-handed tone, it does not address the basic assumptions about how agriculture should be conducted, and the philosophic underpinnings that differentiate agroecological principles from industrial ones. The site reiterates some of the basic assumptions about what the problems of agriculture are (such as, people are hungry because not enough food is grown, and biotech will help grow more food), rather than looking honestly at the results of our current agricultural system (such as inequitable distribution of food, hunger caused by poverty, farmers unable to grow food because they've been forced off their land by economic or political causes) and asking if they are really what we want or need—and then determining if biotechnology can address those needs. Another site, AgBioWorld, is even less connected to what the issues are, and is a good example of completely missing the point. This site does a lot of answering the more emotion-laden worries, the pig-in-a-poke or straw man arguments, rather than providing answers to genuine, fact-based concerns. Skipping through a plethora of articles and scholarly pieces on biotech, I did find one that talks about the issue of patent law and policy and their effect on how well (or if) biotechnology is used to benefit, say, poor small-scale farmers. It's an 87-page PDF, but talks about the unintended consequences of US patent law and policy on, among other things, researchers "applying biotechnology to the solution of developing-country food security problems."
In a blog post I found on www.brighthub.com, a few more "advantages" were listed:
  • longer food shelf-life or availability (also known as the Twinkie phenomenon or the winter tomato)
  • less constraint in number of croppings per year (again, not counting the true cost of using up the soil, water, etc.)
  • greater availability of human labor (read: more unemployment)
  • faster time to market (and what does it mean if the market is halfway around the world as opposed to down the road?)
Sustainable Table has a long list of concerns that deal in large measure with profound
philosophical and quality of life issues that are only partly addressed by the agricultural industry. It seems almost that holders of these two viewpoints are talking past each other rather than to each other.

Cross-posted at SNRAS Science & News.

Earlier posts in this series:

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