Friday, February 22, 2008

How agrarian ag might work...

If you read my book review from last night, you might find this counterpoint interesting. By linking two seemingly unrelated events - $100 oil and Castro stepping down - one can construct a scenario that would make a return to agrarian farming a dominant part of our industry.
19 February 2008 was an historic day. For the first time in history, the price of oil at the close of the U.S. markets sat above $100. Ok, it was by only a penny, but that penny was probably the most significant penny anyone's see in years. And when you consider that in 2006 the U.S. consumed just over 20 million barrels of oil everyday, those pennies start to add up pretty quickly. The other major news event of the day was of course the announcement by Fidel Castro that he will step down from his top position in Cuba after nearly 50 years. The announcement received wide attention, but after years of frail health the news was not as surprising as it would have been not so long ago. Two events, forecasted for years, finally came to fruition. At first blush, the two seem utterly distinct, totally separate and unrelated events. It is true there is no causal relationship (unless someone knows something I don't), but there is a more subtle, deeper connection between the two.

For years I've listened to scientists and economists, one after another, pronounce that nothing can, nothing will be done to move our society past its addition to oil until said oil reached $100 a barrel. Well, that day has arrived. I'm just wondering what it will mean? Should I start preparing my landlady's roof for solar panels? Can I expect a new, faster, more efficient mass transit system to shuttle me around Philadelphia, to my family back in Latrobe, or to meetings and conferences around the country? Does this mean we Americans will have to finally face the fact that our current consumption habits are simply unsustainable, and that these higher costs will finally force us to reconsider our lifestyles? Is the new post-petroleum age upon us? [More]
Analyzing what happened to Cuban food production after the fall of the Soviet Union provides at least some insights into conditions that might force a rethinking of our industrial ag sector.
The American model of agriculture is pretty much what people mean when they talk about the Green Revolution: high-yielding crop varieties, planted in large monocultures, bathed in the nurturing flow of petrochemicals, often supported by government subsidy, designed to offer low-priced food in sufficient quantity to feed billions. Despite its friendly moniker, many environmentalists and development activists around the planet have grown to despair about everything the Green Revolution stands for. Like Pretty, they propose a lowercase greener counterrevolution: endlessly diverse, employing the insights of ecology instead of the brute force of chemistry, designed to feed people but also keep them on the land. And they have some allies even in the rich countries—that's who fills the stalls at the farmers' markets blooming across North America.

But those farmers' markets are still a minuscule leaf on the giant stalk of corporate agribusiness, and it's not clear that, for all the paeans to the savor of a local tomato, they'll ever amount to much more. Such efforts are easily co-opted—when organic produce started to take off, for instance, industrial growers soon took over much of the business, planting endless monoculture rows of organic lettuce that in every respect, save the lack of pesticides, mirrored all the flaws of conventional agriculture. (By some calculations, the average bite of organic food at your supermarket has traveled even farther than the 1,500-mile journey taken by the average bite of conventional produce.) That is to say, in a world where we're eager for the lowest possible price, it's extremely difficult to do anything unconventional on a scale large enough to matter.

And it might be just as hard in Cuba were Cuba free. I mean, would Salcines be able to pay sixty-four people to man his farm or would he have to replace most of them with chemicals? If he didn't, would his customers pay higher prices for his produce or would they prefer lower-cost lettuce arriving from California's Imperial Valley? Would he be able to hold on to his land or would there be some more profitable use for it? For that matter, would many people want to work on his farm if they had a real range of options? In a free political system, would the power of, say, pesticide suppliers endanger the government subsidy for producing predatory insects in local labs? Would Cuba not, in a matter of several growing seasons, look a lot like the rest of the world? Does an organopónico depend on a fixed ballot?

There's clearly something inherently destructive about an authoritarian society—it's soul-destroying, if nothing else. Although many of the Cubans I met were in some sense proud of having stood up to the Yanquis for four decades, Cuba was not an overwhelmingly happy place. Weary, I'd say. Waiting for a more normal place in the world. And poor, much too poor. Is it also possible, though, that there's something inherently destructive about a globalized free-market society—that the eternal race for efficiency, when raised to a planetary scale, damages the environment, and perhaps the community, and perhaps even the taste of a carrot? Is it possible that markets, at least for food, may work better when they're smaller and more isolated? The next few decades may be about answering that question. It's already been engaged in Europe, where people are really debating subsidies for small farmers, and whether or not they want the next, genetically modified, stage of the Green Revolution, and how much it's worth paying for Slow Food. It's been engaged in parts of the Third World, where in India peasants threw out the country's most aggressive free-marketeers in the last election, sensing that the shape of their lives was under assault. Not everyone is happy with the set of possibilities that the multinational corporate world provides. People are beginning to feel around for other choices. The world isn't going to look like Cuba—Cuba won't look like Cuba once Cubans have some say in the matter. But it may not necessarily look like Nebraska either. [More of an excellent article about Cuban agriculture]
Could such a combination of factors arise here? It is less unthinkable that it used to be. But the absolute drop-off in oil experienced by Cubans is unlikely to occur in the US. But even if it is more gradual, the agrarian portion of US ag could become the hot growing portion, capturing more and more market share.

Another reason to be glad I'm getting older - those types of changes are not that easy. And I think we'll need some younger minds and bodies to make such a shift.

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