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Monday, November 23, 2009


This is very big. After six months and more of blogging, I am now able to post my very first guest blog post, responding to my comments about Whole Foods, organic foods, and such. I invite everyone to respond, and get a debate going. Here it is, written by Professor Ann Davis:

Let me begin first by a declaration of blogo-fidelity. This is the one and only blog in which I participate, ineluctably drawn in by my respect and admiration for Professor Robert Paul Wolff, who was my undergraduate philosophy professor at Columbia (Barnard College) in the fall of 1966.

I have just returned from a pre-Thanksgiving dinner with my children and son-in-law, who all live in Cambridge, Mass. One of them is a vegetarian, two of them are kosher, and all three are attracted to the notion of “ethical kashrut,” which is concerned with impact on labor and the environment, as well as the particulars of ritual slaughter.

My son is particularly aware of the importance of treating other people with respect, instead of resorting to cheap shots and put-downs, when in intense debate about important issues.

I approach the food issue within the context of environmental impact. I am convinced of the seriousness of global warming as an immediate threat to conditions of survival on the planet earth, for plants, animals, and humans. The ability of the human race to produce food is under threat, I am persuaded, by disruption of rainfall, unpredictable global temperatures, and sea level rise.

The food system in the US is a contributor to global warming, with CO2 emissions from synthetic fertilizer production, livestock waste, and long-distance food transportation. The food system in the US is organized by industrial principles of maximizing output per worker, or labor productivity. To achieve ever-increasing advances in labor productivity, there has been increasing use of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides, mechanization, refrigeration, long-distance transportation. The use of science has also enabled the redesign of food along industrial principles, combining ingredients to produce taste, calories, and shelf-life, from whole produce. Branding of food has enabled firms to raise prices for products produced with basic ingredients which are inexpensive to produce, by means of advertising and packaging.

These steps increase profitability, at the expense of environmental degradation and declining human health. Factory farms produce waste collected in open pools, run-off from fertilizers, leading to eutrophication of ponds, rivers, and “dead zones” in coastal waters. Food growers in the Mid-West drain aquifers of finite water supplies, and in California rely on transporting water over ever-increasing distances. The availability of cheap calories has helped create an epidemic of obesity and diabetes.

These points are not original with me. There is increasing attention to these issues by writers like Michael Pollan, films like “Food, Inc.,” and even general audience magazines like Time (see cover story, “The Real Cost of Cheap Food” by Bryan Walsh, August 31, 2009, Vol. 174, No. 8, 30-37). Historians like Steven Stoll, in Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth Century America (2002), document the shift in farmers’ ethic from protecting the soil to increasing productivity by all means.

I see an echo of concerns from the 1970s, the “back to the land” movement, the “small is beautiful” ethic of E.F.Schumacher, and the “diet for a small planet” by Frances Moore Lappe. Today there are also the more recent contribution of Alice Waters, with her concerns for education and nutrition for school children, and the “slow food movement,” to increase appreciation for good food and the accompanying sociability. There are green roofs, vertical farms in skyscrapers, and urban farmers in the empty lots of devastated cities like Detroit.

There are other models of farming, such as small, diverse farms which rotate crops, use small herds of poultry and livestock to fertilize fields, and use labor-intensive no-till methods to retain moisture and reduce pesticide use. These methods may increase labor input, and so increase direct cost, but reduce the short and long term environmental damage. Networks of local farms provide fresh produce to densely populated urban areas, and Community Supported Agriculture, or CSAs, provide a more direct connection and communication between “farm and fork.”

A preference for small family farms can be viewed as naïve nostalgia among those who never endured the boredom and back-breaking labor required. On the other hand, small diverse farms can be like railroads, the nineteenth century technology which is appropriate for the twenty-first century.

The increasing direct cost of such methods can be offset by government subsidies (or switching subsidies from monoculture and large, vertically integrated corporate farms), and increasing consumer awareness and demand. Increasing regulation regarding farm methods, or a carbon tax, could raise the cost of production for all producers, making small scale farming more competitive. Progressive policies, like taxes on higher incomes or luxuries, can compensate lower income residents for the overall increasing expense of food.

These policy alternatives are understood and endorsed by my undergraduate economics students in Environmental Economics.

The typical resistance is from farm belt states and large agri-business corporations. But this is true of many progressive policies.

As I see it, there is no reasonable alternative. Our so-called “cheap” food is not really cheap. Read about it in Time magazine.


NotHobbes said...

Just one small point to raise(for now at least)
If your small farm agricultural policy became more widespread, wouldn`t this in turn lead to heavier volumes of large vehicles on the roads?
Surely, a large corporate owned farm would not require so many vehicles to transfer produce as would numerous family run farms?
Admittedly, those vehicles would have lower M.A.M(Maximum Authorised Mass) and therefore lower CO2 emissions, but if their volume on our roads increased three fold or more then that`s taking an enormous step backwards environmentally?
In the words of Peter Abelard "I don`t know".
Just a thought that`s all

Ann said...

The idea of local farms or regional farm networks is to reduce transportation to market, and therefore reduce CO2 emissions. As you point out, this depends on the felicitous location of small farms near major cities. In fact this is often the case because of historical relationships of urban areas to the "hinterland."

NotHobbes said...

Thank you.
Another thought:How do you think the giant supermarket chains would react to regional farming networks?

Ann said...

Some supermarket chains have incorporated local sources, such as Hanafords. The major opponents would be large meat and poultry processors, like Perdue and Tyson, ADM and Cargill, and food processing giants. But there is some accommodation to "organic," even at Wal-Mart.

NotHobbes said...

Please forgive this celtic ignoramus, I have no idea who Hannafords are.
Walmart, now there`s an entirely different story. However, you`re saying they have "some accommodation" does not herald the new Potosi to me.
What level of involvement do they actually have in organic produce?
Once again, I do not know.

Ann said...

Hannaford's is a grocery retailer in Northeastern US. Please do not take these comments as a complete solution to our environmental and/or nutrition problems. It is a possible direction, which seems to have gained some attention and momentum, and is worthy of consideration, in my view. There is much skepticism about both Wal-Mart and the label "organic," to be sure.

Ann said...

As one example, our friends who are long-time members of the Maine Organic Farmers Association have received state support to provide fresh vegetables to the elderly. In addition, many CSAs also share produce with local food banks. Fresh vegetables do not have to be reserved entirely for the elite.

NotHobbes said...

"Fresh vegetables do not have to be reserved entirely for the elite"
It`s interesting that you say that as I firmly believe that a lot of the "organic" produce on offer has no greater nutritional value than fruit and vegetables being sold at bargain stores(Which incidentally, are the fastest growing retail sector in the U.K by some considerable measure)
My beliefs were reinforced when I read the following government agency statements(Source: Food Standards Agency, UK))
"It is true that some scientific papers reach this conclusion. However, others find no difference. As in any field of science, to reach a robust conclusion it is necessary to evaluate the weight of evidence across a range of published papers. Care should be taken over reliance on single papers.
The Agency maintains a close watch on scientific papers that evaluate organic food and will continue to assess new research as it is published" and "Both organic and conventional food have to meet the same legal food safety requirements" Also "Consumers may choose to buy organic fruit, vegetables and meat because they believe them to be more nutritious than other food. However, the balance of current scientific evidence does not support this view"

In the UK, there exists a ridiculous view that quality is only obtained through cost, a laughable form of retail snobbery which sees folk buying at one particular store as they`re convinced the goods on offer are superior by virtue of nothing more than their higher price. It`s my guess that the majority of them are woefully ignorant in that they neither enquire as to sourcing of goods or whether such goods are exclusively available within certain stores.
An example: I spent a few years working as harvest coordinator for the many fish farms on the western coast of Scotland. The largest-and obviously most lucrative-of these farms is situated at Loch Etive. This farm supplies fish to a number of stores including the retail snobs "Mecca" of Marks and Spencers. They also supply the very same "organically reared" fish to the bargain store Aldi. Both supermarkets purchase the fish at roughly the same price. However, "Mecca" sell at £7:50 per kilo while Aldi at £5:90
Of those two, Aldi pay staff higher salaries(at shop floor level) and use significantly less plastic packaging which will no doubt one day join the cesspools floating around the worlds oceans.

Please don`t get me wrong, I`m not entirely against organic production(In fact, I would like to see more of it purely for the environmental benefits) but I can`t see any dramatic changes in food production whilst a combination of consumer ignorance and retailers unashamed greed persists. The former inspiring the latter to some degree.
Maybe this depression(It is a depression right? Not just a blip-recession) is the very tonic, the prompting, that so many of us need to extract our heads from our rectums?
I don`t know, just giving my opinions

Ann said...

It is difficult to have a perfect system of control of food production, short of returning to the land (as my friends in Maine did in the 1970s). Corporations may "green wash" labels and government agencies regulate regulate ineffectively. I may personally prefer such "reverse proletarianization," but it is contrary to the trends toward massive urbanization throughout the world at present.
I would be interested in your experiences in fish farming, regarding the quality of the fish and the impact on the environment.
Perhaps you could provide the next "guest blog." :-)

NotHobbes said...

My experiences in fish farming best be left in my memories. Seeing friends led off to the gaol in chains is not something I could live with
Blissfully unaware is no defence under Scots Law ;-)