Start by Asking the Right Questions - Thinking About the Terms for the Debate on Local and Organic Food
One of the reasons discussions of whether “organic” and “local” can “feed the world” often founder so badly is the whole set of presumptions that preceed such a discussion. So let’s talk about those - James McWilliams’ book _Just Food_ and others have stirred up a good bit of controversy on this subject, and lots of people seem to know the answers. But the real problem is that most people don’t really seem to understand what the questions are.
While I may eventually write a review of _Just Food_, which is a thoughtful, if sometimes weakly argued book, I think it is more important to speak about the terms of the debate, because discussions about food tend to begin from deeply wrong premises.
Consider the common question “can we feed the world with organic agriculture?” Besides the fact that we haven’t asked what kind of organic agriculture (and people like McWilliams consistently conflate multiple kinds of agriculture, assuming that industrial organic and small scale agriculture are the same, and have the same proponents), people raising this discussion almost never actually ask “did we ever try to feed the world?” The assumption, of course, is that industrial agriculture has always been engaged in the project of “feeding the world” - Cargill, ADM and Monsanto regularly argue that these are their goals, that their research is required to bring new crops that will make it possible to feed two or three more billion people.
The problem, of course, is that there is no evidence whatsoever that industrial agriculture has ever had the objective of feeding the world. I am repeating here something Aaron and I say in much more detail in _A Nation of Farmers_ (and with full citation), but if you track the research, what you find is this. The vast majority of increases in grain yields since the beginning of the Green Revolution didn’t feed hungry people - they went to feed livestock, to make meat in the rich world, and then to ethanol - with the help of the same industrial corporations that we plan to rely upon to feed us. The same corporations that are going to “feed the world” by introducing new, drought resistant crops invested heavily in ethanol infrastructure, helping move more of the world’s grain harvest into gas tanks, rather than into people’s mouths.
At the same time that corporations were breeding herbicide resistant corn, and struggling to breed (unsuccessfully thus far) drought resistant crop varieties to respond to climate change, they were enabling climate change - encouraging the expansion of industrial agricultural plantations of palm, bananas and grain into rainforest areas that are carbon sinks, using heavy chemicals and encouraging corn-soybean rotations that strip the soil of organic matter and leave soils unable to hold carbon in large quantities, and, of course, encouraging people in the poor and rich world to turn agriculture, which could be a net carbon sink, into a root source of up to 1/4 of the world’s total emissions.
We assume that industrial agriculture is “efficient” - and in some ways, it has been efficient at reducing human involvement in the rich world, and replacing it with humans from the poor world or fossil fuels. But industrial agriculture also is deeply inefficient - that is, at the same time it works towards a stated goal - feeding people - it also operates to reduce our capacity to feed people. Imagine that, say, Microsoft were to devote nearly as much of its resources to getting people not to buy Windows as they do to selling it, and that gives you a sense of the scale of the problem. One of the most basic ways to streamline the food system would simply be to stop the “three steps forward, two steps back” system, and go for one or two steps forward at a time.
Moreover, when discussing the future, we must talk clearly and honestly about climate change. Aaron Newton and I also asked “can we feed the world” and spent several years researching the answer. Our answer is simply this - it depends on the extent and violence of climate change. More profound droughts, loss of meltwater for irrigated agriculture, which produces 30% of the world’s grains, more flooding, the permanent loss of some land to food production, higher temperatures that reduce grain yields, all of these things move us towards a food disaster. And what most commentators ignore in the discussion is this - we have pinned our hopes on GMOs - and we have no evidence (something McWilliams cheerfully ignores) that even were there no other concerns about GMOs, that we can increase yields with them. McWilliams speaks of the importance of creating drought-resistant cassava varieties for African farmers facing climate change as a good use of GMOs. The difficulty is that several studies have demonstrated that up until now, no genetically modified food (and they’ve been making them for some time now) has ever had a significant impact on yields. The fact that so far, GMOs don’t work is a fairly big elephant in the room.
And perhaps it would make sense for us to pin our hopes on that elephant if we had no other options - but what people tend to ignore is this - what’s fascinating about research on small scale intensive, low input (some organic, some not - Aaron and I are not organic purists, but we believe that given our fossil fuel predicament, the chance that we’re all going to be able to dump all the fossil fuels we want on food without causing famine by food price rises is ridiculous) agriculture that focuses on soil and sustainable systems is that they often come close to matching the yields of industrial agriculture, but fall short in the best years. What’s important to know, however is that in the worst years - the dryest and the wettest, these systems come into their own. Greater amounts of organic matter mean both more water in the soil in dry years and better drainage in wet ones. Greater diversity of crops means fewer complete losses. Right now, the only proven tool we have for responding to climate change in agriculture is small scale, low-input, diversified small farms - period. We can debate about what the best hypotheticals are, but the proof is all firmly on the side of one model.
Aaron and I spend a lot more time on this question in our book, but it is important to note that our current agricultural model does not either intend to feed the world, nor does it do so. The UN FAO reports that at this point, two *billion* people in the world live on the product of low input, small scale, non-industrial agriculture. I often hear people observe that without fossil inputs on a large scale we can feed only half a billion or a billion people - McWilliams puts this figure at 4 billion, which is at least more credible. But we are already feeding 2 billion people that way. Moreover, large scale industrial agriculture is not presently feeding the world - 85% of the world’s farms are small farms, smaller than 5 hectares. These farms produce nearly half of the world’s total grain, and much more than half (since they are usually diversified) of the world’s total food calories. Local food may not be feeding New York City and the I95 corridor, and it never will - I know of no rational thinker who believes so. But local food *is* already feeding much of the world - the majority of the world’s poor don’t eat a Caesar salad that travelled 1,500 miles - they don’t even eat rice that travelled that distance.
The correct *QUESTIONS* are not being asked. To what extent can local food *continue* to feed the world? How can we begin to grow food in a way that doesn’t undermine our capacity to feed ourselves in the future? What are the best demonstrated ways to adapt to climate change? How should add complexity to discussions of organic or local to create ways of eating that actually lead to a future where everyone gets food? How do we make the best use of our limited resources, in a world of limits? Until we ask the right questions, we will never get decent answers.