Corporate Industrial V Small Organic Debate

I'm sure I'm not the only one who was, in a way, surprised by Professor Currie's highly balanced explanation of the food system in class. Being SNRE, I know we've got more than our share of Michael Pollan / Food Inc. fans, myself included. Given the information in those documentaries, it's tempting to dismiss corporate industrial agriculture entirely. However, the debate rages on and there's a multi-billion dollar industry at stake. So I thought I would provide two articles by two genuinely thoughtful activists in the field, one advocating for increased industrial agriculture (Paul Collier) and one for increased organic (polyculture, local, non-corporate, low-input, etc.) agriculture (Pollan).

Pollan's article in the NY times, "Farmer in Chief", is a pretty classic example of the example of the pro-organic argument. In it (along with his other work) he argues that our current food system is polluting, greenhouse gas producing, disease-causing, worker-degrading (those who used to be called "farmers"), and to top it all off, controlled by a few large, non-benevolent corporations. All very good arguments:

  • We certainly won't be able to bring down health-care costs without changing the way we eat.
  • The extreme mechanization of the farm has replaced intelligent labor (farmers) with capital, driving small family farms out of the market. Instead, "farmers" are frequently underpaid, mistreated immigrant laborers or very poor Americans.
  • Agriculture does account for a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions, especially due to deforestation, heavy application of fertilizer, and an insane amount of livestock being fed grain in massive feedlots.
  • Speaking of feedlots, animals living in feedlots are essentially being tortured. You may not think much of "animal rights", but unless you believe animals don't have nerve endings, you can't deny they are suffering.
  • Nitrogen runoff…eutrophication…dead zones, etc.
  • Corporations like Monsanto, Tyson, Cargill, etc. control some ridiculous percentage of the food chain. These companies are out to make a profit, pure and simple, and will externalize any costs (see above) to do so.

Well, that just about wraps it up for Pollan. So what's Collier's response? In "The Politics of Hunger", he examines the system through a different lens: the lens of world hunger. According to Collier, the starving, developing world does not need the upper class in America and Europe telling them to go back to "peasant farming" (Collier's term for Pollan-style organic agriculture). He claims that peasant farming has already essentially failed in many countries in Africa. Essentially, his claim is that you can't "feed the world" with "peasant farming", and that the developing world needs to "get big", use industrial inputs and mechanize…or continue to suffer. In short:

  • Industrial inputs are necessary to produce a lot of food on a small amount of land. We need them to feed the world.
  • GM crops are necessary to produce a lot of food on a small amount of land. We need them to feed the world.
  • "Organic" is a hippie pipe dream that will never be able to feed the world. Nobody that has actually had to survive on small-scale, organic, "peasant" agriculture would choose to continue if presented with industrial capital.

As for my own opinion, you can all probably anticipate what comes next: Collier does not effectively respond to most of the major criticisms of industrial agriculture raised by Pollan, et al (noted above). Nor does he present compelling evidence to substantiate his claim that "organic" agriculture can't feed the world. Come to think of it, he doesn't present any evidence that industrial agriculture can do the job either for more than a generation or two (until soil quality and petroleum run out).

There's definitely research to be done in these areas: Can organic agriculture feed the world? Can industrial? Can any agricultural system? (Actually, better skip that last one…I'm not sure anyone would accept the results, anyway)

However, I do think it's quite telling that the one major point Collier and Pollan agree on is that corn ethanol is the greatest trick the devil ever pulled.

Check them out!

Response to Collier: The old argument that 'organic agriculture won't feed the world' has been retired. According to a review of 250+ articles from the research literature, Badgley et al. show that organic agriculture can feed the world in part by increasing the yields of 'peasant agriculture.' Current agriculture practices in much of the Global South, including Africa, are not synonymous with modern organic or ecological agriculture. Read Badgley for more details. It is also important to reference the large body of scholarship that indicates the hunger and starvation have historically, rarely been because of inadequate food supplies. There is enough food during famines, but poor people lose access to these supplies, typically because they do not possess exchange instruments to buy or barter for food. Places to start are Amartya Sen's Poverty and Famines, Fraser's article on social vulnerability in the Irish Potato Famine, and Lappe et al's World Hunger: 12 Myths.

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