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
I have just returned from a pre-Thanksgiving dinner with my children and son-in-law, who all live in
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
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
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
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.