Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Out of the industrial closet...

Slowly, it seems, more farmers are getting comfortable with their true identities as industrial producersHiding behind an agrarian "cover" has become increasingly unmanageable in this age of unavoidable transparency.

Critics of “industrial farming” spend most of their time concerned with the processes by which food is raised. This is because the results of organic production are so, well, troublesome. With the subtraction of every “unnatural” additive, molds, fungus, and bugs increase. Since it is difficult to sell a religion with so many readily quantifiable bad results, the trusty family farmer has to be thrown into the breach, saving the whole organic movement by his saintly presence, chewing on his straw, plodding along, at one with his environment, his community, his neighborhood. Except that some of the largest farms in the country are organic—and are giant organizations dependent upon lots of hired stoop labor doing the most backbreaking of tasks in order to save the sensitive conscience of my fellow passenger the merest whiff of pesticide contamination. They do not spend much time talking about that at the Whole Foods store.
The most delicious irony is this: the parts of farming that are the most “industrial” are the most likely to be owned by the kind of family farmers that elicit such a positive response from the consumer. Corn farms are almost all owned and managed by small family farmers. But corn farmers salivate at the thought of one more biotech breakthrough, use vast amounts of energy to increase production, and raise large quantities of an indistinguishable commodity to sell to huge corporations that turn that corn into thousands of industrial products.
Most livestock is produced by family farms, and even the poultry industry, with its contracts and vertical integration, relies on family farms to contract for the production of the birds. Despite the obvious change in scale over time, family farms, like ours, still meet around the kitchen table, send their kids to the same small schools, sit in the same church pew, and belong to the same civic organizations our parents and grandparents did. We may be industrial by some definition, but not our own. Reality is messier than it appears in the book my tormentor was reading, and farming more complicated than a simple morality play. [More]

Because the change in our operations occurred over a lifetime, many of us still don't appreciate how sterile, artificial, and frankly "industrial" our farms appear to non-farm visitors.  We've all seen the vague disappointment in strangers' eyes when they look for something more picturesque than big machines, big bins and big sheds.

At the same time, agrarian enthusiasts are slowly beginning to do the math.  And that business model has its own problems.

Think about it. When most of us imagine what a sustainable food economy might look like, chances are we picture a variation on something that already exists—such as organic farming, or a network of local farms and farmers markets, or urban pea patches—only on a much larger scale. The future of food, in other words, will be built from ideas and models that are familiar, relatively simple, and easily distilled into a buying decision: Look for the right label, and you're done.
But that's not the reality. Many of the familiar models don't work well on the scale required to feed billions of people. Or they focus too narrowly on one issue (salad greens that are organic but picked by exploited workers). Or they work only in limited circumstances. (A $4 heirloom tomato is hardly going to save the world.)
Such problems aren't exactly news. Organizations such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (which despite its namesake is a real leader in food reform) have long insisted that truly sustainable food must be not just ecologically benign, but also nutritious, produced without injustice, and affordable. And yet, because concepts like local or organic dominate the alternative food sector, there is little room left for alternative models, such as Fred Fleming's, that might begin to bridge the gap between where our food system is today and where it needs to be.
And how big is that gap? Using the definition of sustainability above, about 2 percent of the food purchased in the United States qualifies. Put another way, we're going to need not only new methods for producing food, but a whole new set of assumptions about what sustainability really means. [More]

Indeed even farmers markets have been invaded by commercial sentiments threatening to swing them completely over into "eatertainment".

Here's the underlying problem: In 1994, there were 1,755 farmers markets in the United States; by 2008, there were 4,685. In the big scheme of things, this is terrific news; it means Americans are learning to feed themselves properly. But not all parts of the country have seen commensurate explosions in the number of small-scale local organic farmers. And the driving force in opening a farmers market is less often the organic revolution than it is economic revitalization, maybe a local chamber of commerce hoping to tempt people back to Main Street on weekends. When either is true, that chamber of commerce might take the path of least resistance and give the market contract to one of many farmers market associations populated by commercial growers, who then dominate the booth space. Nothing wrong on the face of this, except that, lured by funky folding tables in a parking lot, the consumer ends up going out of his way to buy produce he could get, probably cheaper, at any supermarket. (In Oakland, some small farmers quit a market when they discovered other produce vendors doing just that.) Many market managers have their hearts in the right place, and do want to support local, sustainable agriculture. Perhaps they also know that without some cute local farmers, the market ain't gonna fly. But what if you're managing one of these markets, and the chamber complains that you're not bringing enough people downtown? Well, hey, okay, maybe it's time to bring in more entertainment—street performers, guys who can tie balloons into poodles. Maybe you reach out to some restaurants, too, asking them to set up burrito booths. They aren't required to use produce from local farmers—but you can charge them a lot more for a booth, which helps the bottom line. And now Saturday mornings are really jamming, crowds are gathering for the coffee and the banjo player, and some of your core vendors guess accurately that a lot of these folks are more interested in scented candles than in cauliflower. So they gradually switch their product mix, and that, in turn, encourages still more scented-candle buyers. [More]

We have arrived at our present food system by focusing on what customers want. It is not perfect, but it does offer immense efficiencies. Many of the criticisms of our food industry - especially as it impacts our health - may be valid.

But devising another system to get the job done will not be so easy.

Reality eventually overcomes all attempts at distortion. I don't think arguing about hyphenated-agriculture is necessary to defend our own work. The market is sorting this argument out.

[Thanks, Steve]

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