Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Meeting Halfway between Locavore and Global

Continuing my exploration of organic, non-industrial vs. industrial, large-scale agriculture in terms of ability to feed the world, I came across a surprising assertion in a report I'm reading (The Future of Farming and Food, issued by the UK government). This report commits to the same values I discussed last time: right to food, sustainability, nutrition, global footprint and contribution to climate change, so I'm definitely intrigued (but not finished, it's long). The surprising assertion is that while they don't seem particularly in favor of big, industrial agriculture, they emphatically denounce national self-sufficiency as a viable agricultural system and advocate instead for a global food supply system, albeit with some radical changes. Global food distribution is usually associated with industrial agriculture.

Self-sufficiency of supply refers to the ability of the population of each country in the world to feed itself with produce grown within that country. This idea is definitely in vogue at the moment, and for good reasons.
• A country that feeds itself will be insulated from changes in global food prices. A recent story on NPR discusses various reasons for why food prices fluctuate less in some countries than others, greater self-sufficiency being one reason.
• Fossil fuels used for long haul transport of food would be reduced, although whether this would result in an overall reduction in fossil fuel is debatable because other uses, such as heating greenhouses to grow produce in a cold climate, could offset the savings gained from eating food grown nearby.
• Finally a country that is self-sufficient would not have to hand over much control of their food system to global multi-nationals, who don't have much stake in local well-being. For instance, in an area with farms that grow a variety of foodstuffs, selling (and buying) food locally would be one option for that area, whereas if all or most farms in a given area grew a single commodity, such as coffee, the community does not have any option but to buy food from an external source with a large enough infrastructure to procure, transport and sell that food across great distances, most likely a large corporation.

So why would this report argue against national self-sufficiency? Well, frankly, I don't know yet because I'm only reading the executive summary, which presents the conclusions but not the data to explain how these were reached. In a few hundred pages, I should have a better idea! But I would guess it is attributed mainly to the fact that many countries simply don't have a viable climate for supporting their population year round. I don't know that this is true, but if I examine my own situation in Colorado, I can certainly see that it would be a challenge...

While Colorado supports a huge agricultural sector, local food still isn't available during the winter, which by most standards, isn't a particularly hard one. I've gone to great lengths to store fall vegetables and fruits and can usually make it until about December without buying much from the supermarket. But in the months from January through to about April, the cupboards would be completely bare if I didn't buy produce from California. Obviously I could go further with preservation techniques like canning and freezing, but given that I already go to great lengths and spend a huge portion of my paycheck on groceries, I just don't see how asking each and every person to do this is fair or realistic. Carry that idea further to places with an even longer winter, and one has to wonder if people in those regions could survive on locally grown produce.

Despite the difficulties of eating locally (which is basically the same thing as self-sufficiency), I still don't believe that a global food system is the answer. This report proposes that in order for it to work, there must be drastic changes made, such as creating truly free trade by reducing subsidies in richer countries, or by some mechanism to stabilize prices of commodities.

Even if that happened, this still leaves every country completely dependant on global food policy, which seems like a precarious situation for small countries in particular, given that individually they will never be able to exert much influence on policy at a global level.

What about something halfway in between? For instance, each country focuses some percentage of resources on a commonly consumed staple in that country, e.g. rice or corn. The government could put national policies in place (e.g. tariffs on imports) that would push its farmers to grow and sell nationally the designated amount, say 50%, of the countries needs for this staple. The rest of the land could be used for any other purpose, such as commodity crops like coffee, or more diverse product like fruits and vegetables, or further growth of the staple for export. If global food prices increase, the country would have a buffer that could be used for softening the blow of the increase.

Perhaps strong national policies that mandate a minimum level of self-sufficiency and are tailored to each country's climate and culinary traditions would provide enough of a safety net to allow the remainder of the agricultural economy to be left to gravitate naturally towards the system that fits best, whether global or local in nature.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Questioning Organic?

A few weeks ago, I read an interesting blog post from Mark Bittman in the New York Times' Opinionator blog about agricultural sustainability and scalability and whether small-scale, organic and other non-conventional agricultural methods can feed the world in the long term. His review of reports and articles on both sides of the debate shows that there are some major organizations, such as the UN Human Rights Council, coming around to the organic side. However there are other respected sources, particularly The Economist in a special issue devoted to the topic, that still see this type of agriculture as a privilege of affluent westerners.

The arguments opposing organic are so common that they seem to be often taken as truth - that organic farming may be nice to the earth, but it isn't realistic because it neither scales nor is affordable to most. While I wouldn't normally quote blog responses, I think that one particular response to the post is a concise and articulate summary of this view. Quigly states, in a comment recommended by almost 200 readers:

"As a farmer, I find it unfortunate how inaccurate this article is. There are a number of organic farms in the area and they are consistently the least productive and most resource intensive production system… Until we have an honest scientific discussion on actual production costs and yields of various systems of production, people are going to continue to be misled into believing they are saving the world through organic agriculture. "

In following the many debates related to food and sustainability, I always find myself feeling the same way when I encounter these arguments…Angry and full of doubt. My instincts tell me to support CSAs, organic farming, to boycott GMOs and other forms of food produced or influenced by large corporations. But as an American that has access to incredible local, organic food, and the means to afford its higher cost, I grudgingly admit that I don't really believe that it is realistic for most people.

This is the core of my internal conflict - I can't accept a food system completely controlled by corporations and scientists, using massive quantities of chemicals and fossil fuels, with little regard for sustainability, in which we still have widespread world poverty. So while I firmly stand on the side of organic and local agriculture, I also can't ignore its shortcomings.

Then I had an epiphany - perhaps my anger arises because the question is really hard to answer and there is no right or wrong side, and that if I have doubts it is exactly because I have been trying to stay unequivocally on one side and blind myself to opposing points of view.

Wait, wait, wait, what question? I get so emotional that I often forget. The real question is whether our current food system satisfies the basic needs of the world, and if not, what improvements, such as organic farming, can we make? In trying to answer this question, the goal should not to be to win an emotional debate, but rather to open-mindedly seek the best answer to this complex problem. This can be done by first, deciding what those basic needs are - the values a good food system should support - and then critiquing each strategy (organic, conventional, GMO, CSA) for how well it supports and balances these values.

The basic values upon which we should build a food system (summarized from The Food System: A Guide) are:

sustainable, secure, safe, sufficient, nutritious, and equitable

I imagine that the pioneers of organic farming were trying to form a more sustainable, safe and nutritious system, but the weak points that are obviously still being debated by the critics are its security, sufficiency and equitability. And I now feel that debating these points honestly is exactly the right thing to do because getting the complete picture of the strengths and weakness of all possible agricultural models will help get us to the best possible system.