Thursday, March 19, 2009

How Will We Produce Our Food Tomorrow?

I've been reading Paul Robert's recent book, The End of Food. It's a relief to find someone writing about food production who is not just intelligent and informed, but balanced.1

One answer for how our food will be produced in the future is reflected in the agribusiness model - a model that promotes intensive, industrial ranching and farming, i.e. the status quo, at least in the US.

Another answer is reflected in the organic, sustainable, eat-local model - a model that's attractive on the micro scale, but one I've begun to see as idealistic and unattainable, raising more questions than it answers.2

Roberts presents these sides and lays groundwork for a system that uses the best from both, a system that remains efficient and profitable but still sustainable.

Here's a taste of his writing. It's an article he wrote for Mother Jones a few weeks ago. (It's provoking some passionate comments.)

Spoiled: Organic And Local Is So 2008
1 If I have any criticism, it's Roberts' decision not to address the biotech controversies, even if it was to say that the issues surrounding GMOs were beyond the scope of his book. I just reached Part III. He addresses it.

2 For an organic model to serve as the foundation for future food production, it must be, by definition, sustainable. Roberts: "truly sustainable food must be not just ecologically benign, but also nutritious, produced without injustice, and affordable."

Some of my questions:
  • How can you call your output "organic" when soils are fertilized by manure, urine, and animal byproducts produced off-site, often on intensively-run livestock, poultry, and fish operations, and carted in? (Is anyone factoring in these "poop miles?")
  • As more crops are converted to organic, using natural in lieu of synthetic fertilizer, where will that extra manure come from? Where will the extra food and cropland come from to feed the extra animals to make the extra manure to fertilize the new organic crops?
  • How can you call your output "organic" when it's flown in from halfway across the world? (Organic raspberries from China?)
  • How can you call your output "organic" or "local" when it's being harvested by non-local, under-compensated, migrant workers?
  • Where is the truly local food system in the US? - A system that shuns not just food imports, but food exports too (and the revenue they provide)? Local food producers don't seek markets for wheat, corn, pears, or eggs beyond a few local miles, no matter how much surplus they produce. Thus a local food system does away with monoculture quantity production. All processing and distribution is also done locally. In theory, a local food system is self-contained, e.g. it would not use imported seed, fertilizers, water, or fuel. The local food movement has much to recommend it, but I'm having difficulty envisioning local food systems feeding 300,000,000 US residents.


Jen said...

I'm currently reading this book... it's amazing, isn't it?

Bix said...

I'm really enjoying it.

I started to write a comment about a part I'm reading now, about water, but it got long so I posted it instead.

Tessa said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Bix said...

Thank you Tessa, or is it Ruth, or is is Point Marketing, or ? Nice sentiment.

ilikethis said...

This is an 'organic, sustainable, eat-local model' -