Thursday, March 5, 2009

Yeah, what about poop miles?

An excellent article in Mother Jones by Paul Roberts catalogs the difficulties currently facing the sustainable agriculture movement. It's a hard article to summarize because it hits on so many different concepts(so go read it!), but I think it really does a great job of highlighting some issues that most people who care about things like organic farming and/or local foods never really consider.

First up, organic farming(i.e. the problem with poop miles):
The only reason industrial organic agriculture can get away with replenishing its soils with manure or by planting nitrogen-fixing cover crops is that the industry is so tiny—making up less than 3 percent of the US food supply (and just 5.3 percent even in gung-ho green cultures like Austria's). If we wanted to rid the world of synthetic fertilizer use—and assuming dietary habits remain constant—the extra land we'd need for cover crops or forage (to feed the animals to make the manure) would more than double, possibly triple, the current area of farmland, according to Vaclav Smil, an environmental scientist at the University of Manitoba. Such an expansion, Smil notes, "would require complete elimination of all tropical rainforests, conversion of a large part of tropical and subtropical grasslands to cropland, and the return of a substantial share of the labor force to field farming—making this clearly only a theoretical notion."

And then, local foods:
The reality of 21st-century America is that food demand is centered in cities, while most arable land is in rural areas. What open land remains around cities is so expensive that it either is out of reach for farmers or requires that farmers focus on high-end, high-margin products with little utility as mainstream foods. Thus, although there is great potential to increase urban agriculture (as we'll see in a minute), urbanites will always depend on rural areas for some of their food—especially given that by 2050, 70 percent of the world's population is expected to live in or near cities.

Conversely, rural areas with good farm potential will always be able to outproduce local or even regional demand, and will remain dependent on other markets. "One farmer in Oregon with a few hundred acres can grow more pears than the entire state of Oregon eats," says Scott Exo, executive director of the Portland-based Food Alliance and an expert in the business challenges of sustainability. "Attention to the geographical origins of food is great, but you have to understand its economic limits."

Now, I support organic farming practices and I love my local farmers... I read my Pollan, and think there is a tremendous need in this country for a food culture that doesn't revolve around convenience foods. However, at the same time, I realize that my ability and desire to shop at Whole Foods, Savenor's, and farmer's markets puts me in a place that is pretty far outside the norm.... and to expect American food culture to mimic my tastes is ludicrous. People like Pollan and Alice Waters argue that we should be paying a lot more for food. Probably we should be. But even if you stipulate that, and figure out how to make it happen, all we're talking about is Americans.

What about those billions living on a dollar a day or less? I guess they can save up for your organic heirloom tomato? I'm all for getting junk food out of kids diets, but any kind of food policy needs to consider scalability... and needs to think about the realities of 6.7 billion people. The particular focus on a return to the agrarian lifestyle of our forefathers seems to me to be the most destructive in this regard.

Some compromises will need to made... as we all can't Go John GaltAppleseed.