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Ezra Klein on Industrial Ag: Asking the Wrong Questions

Paula Crossfield

 by Civil Eats

On Monday, domestic policy wonk Ezra Klein published a short piece over at his Washington Post
blog entitled “Industrial Farms are the Future,” in which he challenged
the idea that the local food movement is doing anything but informing
the big players in their marketing strategy. Further, he wondered aloud
whether there was ever a major industry that “went from small,
decentralized production methods to large, scaled industrial
production–and then back again.”

Tom Philpott over at Grist took down the evidence Klein quotes in the piece, and which inspired its title. Klein bit back,
addressing the issue again and pointing to the growth of industrial
agriculture in China, India, and particularly Brazil as a case in point
about the inevitability of growth in agriculture. I thought I would
attempt to challenge Klein’s assumptions once again.

Klein’s question about whether any industry has decentralized
historically is, at least in the case of farming, a bit silly. Due to
increasing climate uncertainty, and waning water and energy resources,
the question is not whether industrial agriculture will decentralize,
but when and how.

Any farmer will tell you that the weather is her biggest concern, and
increasing uncertainty will push farmers by force to diversify instead
of putting all their eggs in one basket–that is, unless the government
keeps giving incentives in the form of crop insurance for farming
monocultures. (As the Farm Bill debate heats up, cutting or changing
crop insurance is on the table. But more likely direct payments–what
farmers get whether they work the land or not–and conservation programs
will be considered for cuts.) Instead, it might be rising oil prices and
the changing availability of water, which scientists agree is on the
horizon, that could overstep the ability for government intervention,
and deliver a death blow to the industrial promise to feed the world.

Furthermore, farming is a unique “industry,” in that what it produces
is perishable–and therefore time is of the essence, favoring a local
system. Sure we’ve come up with methods of pre-picking fruits and using
chemicals to ripen them off the vine, found profits even when jets and
trucks are employed to bring these foods to the plate, and have
convinced the consumer to except flabby tasting food. But these could be
hurdles that get harder to leap.

Efficiency is the keystone in the pro-industrial argument, and yet
industrial farms produce a sea of poorly-regulated manure, food that is
then excessively processed and packaged, and encourage higher meat
consumption by making it cheap. Klein’s argument that big farms can be
more sustainable–pointing to the case of Brazil, which I will get to in a
moment–ignores the fact that its model is inherently unsustainable.

Meanwhile, research suggests that organic yields are higher over
time, and that industrial yields plateau and even peter out. In
addition, organic production does things like protect soil micro-organisms
that are necessary to get nutrients to plants and protect them from
disease–considerations the industrial model doesn’t usually take into
account.

So what of Brazil, the case Klein points to, from the Economist:

For them, sustainability is the greatest virtue and is
best achieved by encouraging small farms and organic practices. They
frown on monocultures and chemical fertilisers. They like agricultural
research but loathe genetically modified (GM) plants. They think it is
more important for food to be sold on local than on international
markets. Brazil’s farms are sustainable, too, thanks to abundant land
and water. But they are many times the size even of American ones.
Farmers buy inputs and sell crops on a scale that makes sense only if
there are world markets for them. And they depend critically on new
technology.

Despite the contradiction here–like the fact that it states that the
country “loathes” GM seed, and yet has the second-largest land mass
planted in them (after the U.S.), and that the country supports small
farms, and yet most are many times the size as those in America, and
that farmers are buying inputs on a huge scale yet shun chemical
fertilizers–Brazil is doing things differently and I’m sure the U.S.
could learn something from their model. The article goes on to explain
that between 1996 and 2006, the total value of Brazil’s crops increased
365 percent without subsidies. With a wealth of land and water
resources, and value placed on agricultural research–notably in breeding
grasses, cattle and their own GM soy, and using lime and lab-produced
micro-organisms, making fertile previously unproductive soil–we are only
seeing the beginning of Brazil’s industrial prowess.

However, the article paints a rosy picture of industrial farming, and
fails to mention any of the environmental impacts this kind of
high-intensity production is having. As one commenter notes, “The
Cerrado – Brazilian Savanah [sic]- is the second largest area of
Biodiversity in Brazil. Second only to the Amazon. Hence, large areas
are being destroyed in order to produce commodities.” Another commenter
alighted on the fact that a higher rate of insects in the tropics and
vast monocultures would require higher rates of pesticide use and,
“Thus, the critical headwaters of Brazil’s two major rivers become
heavily freighted with toxic agricultural chemicals, with “externalized”
consequences for river ecology and downstream users.”

On a recent trip there, I saw that on the consumer side, Brazil is
also implementing some of the most forward thinking policies to end
hunger–including universal school feeding and subsidized restaurants,
both of which favor local buying, as well as urban agriculture programs,
added markets for local farmers, and even writing into the Brazilian
constitution last February that food is a right of citizenship. Further,
Brazil has already achieved a Millennium Development Goal to halve
hunger ahead of the 2015 deadline. But these actions were taken out of
necessity, because when food is placed into a market context it fails to
feed everybody equitably.

So are industrial agriculture and organic agriculture just producing different products, and some people will always be “dumb
enough to buy organic food (According to the House Agriculture
Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-MN)? Big Ag would have us believe
that there is room in the market for everyone. But without the
government propping it up with subsidies, the industrial behemoth would
not survive. Without abundant energy and water resources, industrial
agriculture would be paralyzed.

In fact, it seems the future lies in hybridized farms–diverse
production and multi-tasking farmers employing direct-to-consumer sales,
eco-tourism, education programs, and even off-farm income to make their
work viable.


© 2014 Civil Eats

Paula Crossfield

Paula Crossfield is the managing editor of Civil Eats. She is also a regular contributor to the Huffington Post's Green Page and is a contributing producer at The Leonard Lopate Show on New York Public Radio where she focuses on food issues. She is currently tending a vegetable garden on her roof in the Lower East Side. You can follow her on Twitter.

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