2006/05/29

The New Yorker wants to give up on food politics

The New Yorker has a decent article on the organic food industry, reviewing a couple new books (including Michael Pollan's, the guy who wrote that New York Times Magazine feature I criticized for a remarkably weak argument against vegetarianism. As we discussed in the comments, even tho Pollan is a human supremacist he's also an environmentalist and pro-organic). These books look closely at the organic industry and call into question how promising it is as a force for change when it has openly embraced market logic, pursues an agriculture model of monoculture and long-distance, energy-intensive transport to market, and features a questionable commitment to the principles it loudly proclaims in its marketing. I especially liked this:
[Pollan bought] an "organic" chicken whose "free-range" label was authorized by U.S.D.A. statutes, but which actually shared a shed with twenty thousand other genetically identical birds. Two small doors in the shed opened onto a patch of grass, but they remained shut until the birds were five or six weeks old, and two weeks later Pollan’s "free range" chicken was a $2.99-a-pound package in his local Whole Foods.
Yet after examining all the problems with the organic industry in a spirit sympathetic to sustainable environmentalism, the writer unexpectedly turns on us. He writes:
Pollan seems aware of the contradictions entailed in trying to eat in this rigorously ethical spirit, but he doesn’t give much space to the most urgent moral problem with the organic ideal: how to feed the world’s population. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a serious scare about an imminent Malthusian crisis: the world’s rapidly expanding population was coming up against the limits of agricultural productivity. The Haber-Bosch process [manufacturing synthetic fertilizers] averted disaster, and was largely responsible for a fourfold increase in the world’s food supply during the twentieth century. Earl Butz, Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, was despised by organic farmers, but he might not have been wrong when he said, in 1971, that if America returned to organic methods "someone must decide which fifty million of our people will starve!" According to a more recent estimate, if synthetic fertilizers suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth, about two billion people would perish.
As usual, this argument is made without considering the incredibly inefficient uses of grain caused by meat eating. Depending on the animal and the livestock farming methods, eating animals uses 7-10 times more grain than feeding people directly. 70-80 percent of corn, the biggest grain crop in the USA, is used to feed animals. So ending meat consumption, or even significantly reducing it, would free up a huge amount of cropland that could be used for organic farming, which is less efficient in the short term but far more sustainable in the long term.

Of course in many ways the American agriculture system is unique in the world (tho, disastrously, market penetration and increased meat eating are leading many countries to adopt it). So the contradiction between feeding everyone and the urgent need for sustainable agriculture isn't quite as easily solved globally as it could be in the American case. The author of this article seems to think that we should simply give up, especially in light of the fact that "[t]o insist that we are consuming not just salad but a vision of society isn’t wrong, but it’s biting off more than most people are able and willing to chew."

Yet simply because markets and dysfunctional politics insulate people from the destructive consequences of their eating doesn't mean we should quit trying to change things. Two key reforms in addition to reducing meat consumption are needed. First, prices need to reflect the ecological damage caused by different kinds of consumption so that people can start making choices that are socially and environmentally rational. This would handily fix the problem of people not caring about the consequences of their eating. Of course markets are incapable of delivering such prices, so a new system of taxes and regulations on energy, petrochemicals, monoculture cropping, and meat production is needed as we move towards an economy like parecon that is friendly to this kind of cost accounting.

Second, I think the left needs to start thinking seriously about population control. I have a lot of bad associations with population control, like the coercive policies of China and many other countries or the tendency of advocates from the rich countries to blame the world's problems on population increase in poor countries when high levels of consumption in the rich countries are actually more destructive. Yet I think there's potential in a progressive approach to population control, as shown in the Indian province of Kerala, by emphasizing women's empowerment and economic equality. This is something we need to think about if we want to achieve global equality by increasing the material standard of living of poor people rather than dramatically lowering it for rich people.

2 comments:

Patrick said...

All good points. A quick response to just one small part of your post: instead of thinking in terms of population reduction, we could simply pursue a broad program of education and empowerment for women. There's a lot of data suggesting that this organically leads to population reduction, and it's a much more positive program to articulate and enact (at least under the current terms of discourse, in which "population reduction" can be construed as "anti-freedom" etc.).

Chris said...

i wrote a response and then i realized it was almost exactly what patrick wrote. so word.

is there a reason to keep the concept of "population control?" i don't think it's a good idea to encourage people to think of that kind of social control (control over reproductive habits, etc.) as positive, even though i know you're not suggesting that. but i worry that the association will always be there with those words.