Wednesday, July 04, 2007

How did I miss this?...

Earlier this month, Ronald Bailey, writing in Reason, took on food-faddists brilliantly.
Reading Kingsolver, one could also conclude that pesticides were created by giant chemical companies whose sole aim was to cause cancer. But even the American Cancer Society agrees that there is "no evidence that residues of pesticides and herbicides at the low doses found in foods increase the risk of cancer." Studies also show that eliminating pesticides could cut corn yields by 30 percent, rice by 57 percent, soybeans by 37 percent, and wheat by 24 percent. Again, that would mean that a lot more of nature would have to be plowed up to maintain the food supply at current levels.

Family farms are not declining because of some conspiracy by industrial ag giants. Actually, what happened is that farmers became so productive that we needed fewer of them. In 1950, 15 percent of Americans lived on farms. Today only 1 percent of us live on farms. The meantime, the output of staples like wheat and corn nearly tripled, while vegetables nearly quadrupled. And the amount of land devoted to crops fell slightly. This dramatically increased agricultural productivity liberated many like me from farm labor so that we could do other work.
He also raises another point that I believe is crucial to maintaining a civil debate on food-growing.
I have nothing against farmers markets. In fact, I take it that the country is becoming so wealthy that people can now make a decent living from labor-intensive activities like organic farming. But this kind of farming is essentially an artisanal activity much like basket weaving, potting, and wood working. My wife and I go every week to the local farmers market off Water Street in Charlottesville, VA, or if we're out of town, we go to the one at Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. I am very glad that people want to spend their lives raising tasty Mortgage Lifter tomatoes and Albemarle Pippin apples. And I am also very glad that I don't have to.
The growing recognition of market-defined sectors in agriculture allows producers and consumers alike to not criticize apples for being unlike oranges. The agrarian sector described above serves the market that demands products and process. Farmers like me - whom I label "industrial" - grow products using the most effective methods I can while meeting all safety and responsibility rules mandated.

There is no need for friction between these sectors. Agrarians cannot begin to supply my customers and vice-versa. The specialization trajectories we are tracking allows all of us to deliver to the market values we are good at supplying. I bring large amounts of energy from the fields to be converted into food via animals or fuel via ethanol. Agrarians bring pedigreed foodstuffs, raised in ways some consumers appreciate and pay for.

Neither of us has to be wrong. And the market for land will allocate that fundamental resource efficiently if we let it. So let "foodists"pursue their passion and discover why we grow stuff the way we do. Indeed, they may find ways we can add value to our industrial output, or more likely, find that industrial techniques can be adopted even for process-sensitive products.

Regardless, the future for both sectors is promising. Internecine squabbling only wastes time and effort better spent satisfying our customers.


Anonymous said...

The food alarmists will aleays see something wrong with food and fibre which is not produced 'organically'. They fail however to admit that they are trusting the government that these perfect products are in-fact as perfect as they perceive them to be. Organic producers still use pesticides that are harmful to organisms such as bees and then do they really know that the item they are paying twice the value for IS ORGANIC? I don't think certification means all it is supposed to!

Anonymous said...

IS anything really organic? In the Midwest soils are not "naturally" rich in Phosphorus. Most the P came from large holes in the ground in Central Florida called Phosphate mines owned by Cargill, etc. Since the 1940s mciwest farms have received generous applications of P via fertilizer and manure enriched with mined P indirectly. My neighbor grows vegetables on soils testing so high in residual P from manure and past fertilzer applications that he will never need additional P in his lifetime to maintain yield. I mined one turkey farm field for 15 years and it still does not need additional P today. Organic is hogwash when it comes to residual fertility. I would bet there is not an acre in the US that has not received P that came from a Phosphate mine in Florida in the last 50 years. So what do you think?

John Phipps said...


I find many of the organic rules to be strangely inconsistent, but defend their right to offer a process (like free-range) along with a product (egg). It is not for me to decide how people should value emotional content.

What I oppose is making unverifiable claims to health or safety.

Regardless, organic production is self-limiting and non-scalable. My example is if we all did shop at farmer's markets, where would we park?

There will doubtless be more posts on this but if you click on the labels at the bottom you can see more of my comments on the organic industry.