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Thursday, July 25, 2013

The downside of industrialized farming

Malthus and his followers could not have imagined that modern agriculture could feed most of the planet's 7 billion people. (I say "most" because there is still hunger -- not just in third-world countries, but in neighborhoods of Raleigh and other mostly affluent cities. That's a topic for another day.) The combination of technology and industrial methods have yielded such a bounty.

But there are disadvantages:

  • Most of our food comes from far away. Shipping is expensive, particularly for products that contain a lot of water, such as meat and dairy and most fruits.
  • Fertilizers, antibiotics, and pesticides must be used intensively to generate high yields; preservatives are often needed to sustain the food during transport. Sometimes residues of agrichemicals remain on or in the food. Even when that's not the case, agrichemicals or animal waste often pollute groundwater at the farm sites. If you live in eastern North Carolina, you know about the environmental impact of hog farms.
  • Some of our food is genetically modified to generate high yields. I'm not taking a stand on GM, but many people worry about it.
  • Some of our food does not actually taste good. Plants have been bred to optimize uniformity for transport and resistance to damage during transport, and some food is harvested when unripe because of the unavoidable delay in bringing it to distant markets. Tomatoes bought at the grocery come to mind, unless you spend a lot more money for elite tomatoes. People who travel to Europe often marvel at how much better tasting the food there is. The explanation isn't merely preparation; it's the inputs.
  • As small farms have been pushed out by industrial farms, the rural economy in many areas has collapsed.
  • Single-crop farming on a massive scale requires a large transient workforce. Our society has met that need by exploiting Latinos in a shameful manner.
Beyond these concerns, I'll raise another: industrialized farming tends to be geographically concentrated. Disruptions to those locales can have major impacts throughout the nation. If south Florida is hit by a hurricane, we don't get even the bad-tasting tomatoes. If eastern North Carolina is hit by a hurricane, don't count on availability of sweet potatoes anywhere because a handful of counties produce half the nation's harvest. The Jordan Aquifer underneath Iowa and the Ogallala Aquifer are being depleted by grain farmers. If the valleys in central California are damaged by earthquakes, many kinds of vegetables, fruits, and nuts will become difficult to obtain. In short, our supply chain is not robust.

I'm not being alarmist; it's clear that geographical diversity in the form of more local farming would reduce our vulnerability to disruption of the supply chain. It would also address, in part, some of the other problems I listed above. To the extent that national and state agricultural policies have influenced the trend toward industrialized farming, such policies should be reversed to encourage local farming. And if you say it will cost us more, I am prone to disagree.

Obtaining a change in policy, however, requires overcoming objections from ConAgra, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, and other companies who enjoy the status quo. Do we have the collective will?