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Industrial farms are the future


Jay Rayner offers some real talk on food production:

If we are to survive the coming food security storm, we will have to embrace unashamedly industrial methods of farming. We need to abandon the mythologies around agriculture, which take the wholesome marketing of high-end food brands at face value – farmer in smock, ear of corn, happy pig – and recognise that farming really is an industry, much like car manufacturing or steel forging, one which always works better on a mass scale, but which can still be managed sustainably.

Despite the dreams of many foodies, I can't think of a major industry that went from small, decentralized production methods to large, scaled industrial production -- and then back again. Are there any examples I'm missing? Maybe so. But for now, I think of the preference for farmers markets and small producers as being mainly important in sending certain signals about production methods and branding preferences to Big Ag than in actually creating some sort of viable alternative.

Photo credit: AP Photo/The Republic, Joel Philippsen.

By Ezra Klein  |  September 13, 2010; 4:13 PM ET
Categories:  Food  
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Get the cow crap out of my spinach and keep it out!

Posted by: will12 | September 13, 2010 4:49 PM | Report abuse

um, political commentary? or is the absorption of small de-centralized bloggers into the masthead of large, older industrial publishing conglomerates a sign of inevitible triumph of economies of scale?

Posted by: ribber | September 13, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

To will12, the problem isn't cow crap. Manure, afterall, is the organic way to fertilize crops. The problem is potent e. coli that is the result of how we raise cattle in industrial settings (overuse of antibiotics, acidic stomach conditions, mismanagement of waste, etc.).

I highly recommend the book "Just Food" by James E. McWilliams. It's a little abrasive to foodies at first but it makes a lot of really great points on the direction that food production should take to really be more sustainable.

Posted by: megankeenan | September 13, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

I think you're right on with the reasons behind the mass support for farmer's markets and coops and friendly farm stands. It is the only real alternative to large-scale, unsafe, and unsustainable industry farming in our country.

If we can get the government to stop funding subsidies for crops that are increasingly dominant (genetically and per acre wise) and increasingly intrusive in our food (corn syrup? soy powder?), imagine what the farming industry might have to do in order to please the people and stay profitable. Maybe that's something you can answer sometime when you're bored, Ezra-- why the heck do we keep paying people to produce corn when it's doing very little for the global food supply?!

And also, will12, cow "crap" would generally be fantastic for your spinach. It's only when cows eat chicken feces from chickens that ate cow by-products and cow feces, do we get a problem. Think about it. Disgusting. Vegetarian option tonight for me, thanks.

Posted by: christinemccorkle | September 13, 2010 5:18 PM | Report abuse

If we didn't waste 80-90% of the calories (and protein, etc.) of our soybean and other crops feeding them first to animals, we wouldn't have any food shortage problem -- just a distribution problem.

Sources here:

Posted by: AZProgressive | September 13, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse

Kind of a confusing post. Rayner gives examples of a few problems in the British food system that are almost directly traceable to the modern industrial food system, takes a few requisite cheap shots at unnamed "foodies", then ends by saying that people should embrace the industrial food system that created the very problems he lists. Ezra then links to this article, I guess implying that the examples are in some way applicable to the US ag system, which in fact is vastly bigger and (I assume) more complex.

As for the question, I can't think of any examples of industry that's gone from small to big and back to small, but that doesn't mean the current industrial food system in the US, or anywhere else, is sustainable. Local food movements are about a lot more than their new batch of critics assume, and it would be nice to see some more consistent posts on food sustainability issues.

Posted by: andrewbaron78 | September 13, 2010 5:38 PM | Report abuse

So what about farm subsidies? New Zealand went free enterprise and its farm sector is doing quite well.

Posted by: Garak | September 13, 2010 5:39 PM | Report abuse

A puzzling and extremely poorly argued post by Rayner, for the reasons pointed out by andrewbaron78 above. To this I would add that he doesn't even mention the environmental costs of large-scale industrial production, or really any of the serious critiques made by proponents of smallholder agriculture.

Posted by: tediouspedant | September 13, 2010 5:57 PM | Report abuse

City people...

Some points to consider:

The agriculture industry is heavily subsidized. "Subsidized to do what?" you might ask yourself.

Before we can really address "sustainability", we really ought to talk about subsidies.

And what food security storm?

Food quality regulation = inspection. Inspection = inspectors. Are they were the food production is, or is food production where the inspectors are?

There is also a transportation component. Trains vs. barges vs. tractor-trailer rigs.

Has farm consolidation resulted in lower food prices for consumers? No. Higher gross production? No. Better land husbandry? No. (Can you say "selenium"?) Higher prices for producers? No. Or has lower prices for producers simply produced consolidation? Duh.

Has banking consolidation solved the credit access and finance security storm?

And yes, Ezra, beer. Maybe coffee.

Posted by: pmcgann | September 13, 2010 6:02 PM | Report abuse

Ranyer halfway avoids his only decent point, which is that food is too cheap, *if* your desire is to have a self-sufficient state in terms of food production. Otherwise it's just scare-mongering and foodie-bashing.

Posted by: emcclanahan | September 13, 2010 6:32 PM | Report abuse

Of course! Beer! Pmcgann gives us a great example of an industry that started out small, then got really big and really, really awful (Coors or nothing, etc.), and has in recent years gone radically back to small, and very very good. It raises another point that defenders of industrialized agriculture often overlook: industrial food is to food what Budweiser is to beer. Sure, it's edible. But it's all the same pale yellow color and it sucks.

Ezra or Rayner could, I suppose, respond that beer in itself is not a major industry. Or that microbrews still don't account for a majority of sales in the beer industry. But there's no reason why similar trends couldn't happen with food on a larger scale, and there's decent evidence that, at least in some places, it is.

Posted by: andrewbaron78 | September 13, 2010 6:41 PM | Report abuse

How about jeans? When I was a boy there were just a few makers of jeans, Levi, Lees, Sears and Monkey Wards. Now it seems there's a profusion of brands and identities. Whether there's more manufacturers than in 1950 I'm not sure, but it's likely.

Posted by: bharshaw | September 13, 2010 6:58 PM | Report abuse

You're confusing two issues. One, there's the question of the most efficient or cost-effective way to produce food. This seems to be Big Ag, and yes, it responds to market signals. Two, there's the best way to meet a desire for tasty food, which (in my experience and many others') comes from fresh ingredients. To review: one, industrial food production. Two, good food. Different issues. A third issue is environmental sustainability, but nobody is talking about that.

When one stops conflating scalability with quality, the issue makes a lot more sense, and analogs in other markets can readily be found. Take entertainment. Large-scale production, i.e. a few massive TV networks (or a few massive record labels), resulted in everyone "eating" a lot of "crap." Now that anyone can produce content and distribute it via the Internet, yes, there's still a lot of "crap" and yes, it responds to market signals, but No, it's not the only source of content. People instead look for quality and they find it where they may. Quite a few are also happy eating crap.

Posted by: johnnynyquist | September 13, 2010 7:39 PM | Report abuse

Although it's not exactly the same as agriculture, the US steel industry went from small to big and back to small in the twentieth century. After the so-called steel crisis of the 1980s killed the huge integrated mills, the industry has been revived around mini-mills that create specialized products for specific markets. Christopher Hall's _Steel Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of the U.S. Steel Industry_ describes the process.

Posted by: jtm961 | September 13, 2010 8:22 PM | Report abuse

Energy production might go small if we migrate to smart metering the way Google has been pushing. Even though it is much more efficient to run a large power plant, a lot of energy is wasted on a small scale. Methane is released into the atmosphere by farms, sunlight is turned into heat on roofs.

If we migrate to smart grids people will be able to install solar panels on their roofs and run their meter backwards during the day. Farms can sequester methane and burn it in small generators to feed the power back into the grid.

Because methane is a stronger greenhouse gas than CO2, it is better to burn it than release it into the atmosphere.

Posted by: zosima | September 13, 2010 10:13 PM | Report abuse

There's no matching Big Ag for the efficient and cost effective production of row crops like corn and wheat. Anybody who imagines that the billions who populate this earth can be fed by the small farmer is looney tunes.

And I happen to like my baby spinach year round, thank you very much. It won't grow in Texas in the summer. I'll bet that people who live in the northern part of the US like their orange juice, but they're out of luck if they depend on their local farmer to grow it for them.

Sheesh. Some of you people are truly clueless.

Posted by: bgmma50 | September 13, 2010 11:02 PM | Report abuse

I shop a local roadside produce stand, and grow my own herbs, peppers, heirloom tomatoes, and a few fruits. I do it for my own pleasure and convenience, but at the same time am quite thankful for the abundance of produce available to me 24/7 at my local supermarket.

Posted by: bgmma50 | September 13, 2010 11:06 PM | Report abuse

Industrial decentralization has been the dominant trend for the past thirty years, since the Japanese developed cheap scalable CNC tools. Mass-production firms have outsource a growing share of total production to the craft periphery: job-shops and flexible manufacturing networks with general-purpose CNC tools, frequently switching between short production runs on a just-in-time basis. The new generation of garage-scaled CNC tools has taken things a couple orders of magnitude further: open source hardware hackers can make homebrew 3-axis cutting tables, milling machines, and 3-D printers for one or two thousand bucks, and a garage with $10k worth of homebrew CNC tools can do what used to require a million dollar factory.

It's essentially reversing the original shift --from affordable, general-purpose artisan tools to expensive machinery -- that brought about the predominance of the factory system and wage labor.

See A HREF="">The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto"

And look at what the desktop revolution's already done to music, desktop publishing and software. Will Rogers used to say freedom of the press is fine, if you can afford to buy a printing press. Well, thanks to the desktop revolution the cost of a printing press has fallen to under $1000. A few thousand bucks worth of equipment and software can do the work previously requring a million-dollar sound studio.

As for agriculture, most of the propaganda for the superior efficiency of large-scale industrial farming is just buncombe. Most people like Rayner and the late Normal Borlaug who trash-talk organic farming don't know what they're talking about:
"The Green Revolution Saved Lives? A Poison Meme That Just Won't Die
"The So-Called Green Revolution"

John Jeavons, using intensive raised-bed cultivation, green manuring with leguminous cover crops, closed-loop composting, etc., can feed one person on only 4000 sq. ft. That's a tenth of an acre.

Posted by: freemarketanticapitalist | September 14, 2010 12:40 AM | Report abuse

"Anybody who imagines that the billions who populate this earth can be fed by the small farmer is looney tunes."

I think nobody imagines a small farmer feeding billions.. sounds like a loaves and fishes story to me.. but I think a lot of people imagine billions of small farmers feeding billions. Which is the point.

It would also be nice to have something to fall back to when non-ag jobs don't come back.

Posted by: johnnynyquist | September 14, 2010 3:21 AM | Report abuse

As a gardener in a rural, agriculture and timber based economy...allow me to offer some suggestions. If you liked the egg recall, you'll love Big Industrial Farms.

Practice growing/raising the produce/protein you can. That protects you in the best way possible from mass food recalls, the overuse of chemicals, the problems with shipping and storage that can spoil it, and the insecurity of the financial interface with our food supply.

It's time to fragment our sources to a broader-based production, not put all our "eggs" in big baskets, totally out of local control.

Posted by: BluePelican | September 14, 2010 8:11 AM | Report abuse

Not unprecedented: when the USSR collapsed, Cuba lost its substantial Soviet subsidies. They had to replace up to 40% of their calories through small-scale, organic and urban farming.

Posted by: dukejcb | September 14, 2010 9:33 AM | Report abuse

You make a point. But not one that is totally backed up by research. Check out the IAASTD report - a strong endorsement from international panel of academics for a small scale agricultural model that increases yields. Plus I'm not sure you can make parallels from agriculture to other sectors - it's just too different. Witness Bill Clinton's remarks about agricultural liberalisation and Haiti made this April.

Posted by: eliotwhittington | September 14, 2010 9:50 AM | Report abuse

Sustainable CAFO? Ain't gonna happen. I'll continue to support small, local farms and grow my own, thank you.

Posted by: purpleartichokes | September 14, 2010 2:51 PM | Report abuse

unbelievably intellectually stunted suggestion of what local farmer's actually do. you should not be allowed to dine at any restaurants in the DC area (assuming thats where you live) who are increasingly turning to local and/or sustainably grown produce.

Posted by: kewe | September 15, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

Industrial farms? NO WAY!

Consider the current salmonella-tainted egg recall: 380 MILLION EGGS, DISTRIBUTED UNDER 10 DIFFERENT BRANDS IN 17 DIFFERENT STATES, ALL FROM A SINGLE PRODUCER -- Iowa-based Wright County Farms. At least 2000 people became ill.

For more on corporate corruption and the stranglehold on farmers and the food industry, see the documentary film, “Food, Inc.”. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. The film is enlightening, and important. More information here:

For information about chemicals in many products, including foods, see the Environmental Working Group’s website: Researchers at the Environmental Working Group are dedicated to exposing threats to your health and the environment, and to finding solutions.

Another resource is The Center for Food Safety:

Posted by: 4progress | September 15, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

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