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Industrial farms, cont'd

Over at Grist, Tom Philpott takes me to task for a tossed-off post the other day about industrial farms. He's right that I shouldn't have endorsed Jay Rayner's post, which wasn't particularly tightly argued. But I was using it to look at something different than Rayner's argument: Whether industrial farms are "good" or "bad," I've seen very little evidence that makes me believe we're going to move away from them. As I asked in the post, is there any example of a sector de-industrializing? I couldn't come up with one, and nor did many present themselves in the comments. Someone mentioned blogging, but I think the Washington Post headline atop this post shows how that's going.

Moreover, as China and India modernize their agricultural sectors, they're going to start to look a lot more like our biggest industrial farms -- but probably with worse environmental and labor standards. You've seen some of this in Brazil, which has become one of the world's major grain producers, but has done so by creating and supporting massive producers who rely heavily on genetically modified crops, cutting-edge technology and massive economies of scale.

Which is all to say that I'm increasingly less convinced that small and big are, in the overall scheme of things, terribly useful dividing lines for the future of agriculture. Whether one could hypothetically imagine feeding the world using decentralized production methods, I don't see much reason to believe it will happen. At the same time, small farms can be run wastefully and large farms can be run sustainably.

When I say that the food movement is sending important signals to America's agribusiness giants, I mean it -- forcing them to innovate in organics and compete with Stonyfield and think about the success of farmers markets are types of pressure that could lead to really important transformations in how they do their business. And those are transformations that might then be copied by large producers in other countries. That's why I think the most important role of the food movement is potentially changing the behavior of players like Nestle and ConAgra, and creating some large companies that demonstrate how a different ethos of food production can be brought to industrial scale.

Also, as Philpott says, I wrote a regular column on food policy for a period, but then I realized I didn't have the time to report on the topic in the way it deserved, so I backed out of it. I'm not trying to be an expert food pundit. I'm just, like other people, interested in the policy questions sitting on my plate.

By Ezra Klein  |  September 15, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
Categories:  Food  
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Comments

I've never really heard or seen a good analysis of how we're supposed to feed 6 billion (or 9 billion in 2050) with no industrial farming techniques. I believe there was a Mother Jones article that confronted this impossibility over the summer, and was much better reasoned than Rayner's piece. Perhaps that would be a better jumping off point for this discussion?

I love me some farmer's markets and try to eat local as much as I can, but thinking that local organic farms are a viable alternative to industrial farming depends on some pretty magical thinking.

Posted by: JWHamner | September 15, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

"The food movement is sending important signals to America's agribusiness giants, I mean it -- forcing them to innovate in organics and compete with Stonyfield and think about the success of farmers markets are types of pressure that could lead to really important transformations in how they do their business."

I agree. I see it as being a part of the preventative health care movement as well.

Posted by: ania8 | September 15, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

--" I think the most important role of the food movement is potentially changing the behavior of players like Nestle and ConAgra"--

You couldn't just mind your own business, and buy food stuffs that suit your own values, Klein? You have to worry about "changing the behavior" of those operating outside your delicate sensibilities.

Oh, that's right. If you minded your own business, the WaPo might not have a slot for you in its industrial propaganda machine, and you'd have to try to make an honest living.

Posted by: msoja | September 15, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

Things which are "de-industrializing" (or at least decentralizing):

1) electrical power generation in Germany
2) the "record" business
3) actually, pretty much anything using computers

You don't notice when something "de-industrializes", you say "Cool, now I can do it myself".

Posted by: GBMcM | September 15, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

How to feed everyone: http://bit.ly/ceFiiK

I know it takes some intestinal fortitude to stand up against the masses, so I don't expect a Democrat to even mention this option.

Posted by: AZProgressive | September 15, 2010 4:10 PM | Report abuse

"but probably with worse environmental and labor standards. You've seen some of this in Brazil, which has become one of the world's major grain producers, but has done so by creating and supporting massive producers who rely heavily on genetically modified crops, cutting-edge technology and massive economies of scale."

Look who is weakly argued here- how are GMOs, cutting-edge technology, and massive economies of scale "worse environmental and labor standards"? They're not!

Shoddy work.

Posted by: staticvars | September 15, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

How dare farms use technology and ingenuity to improve output and feed what not too long ago were dirt poor countries living at the subsistence level! Ezra, this is elitist nonsense even by your standards.

Posted by: theo2709 | September 15, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse

Funny that msoja above would accuse Ezra of not making an honest living, when he's one of the few bloggers or journalists I know of who consistently revises and corrects his own opinions, taking into account feedback he gets from others and facts as they evolve. There's a word for that: honest.

Posted by: andrewbaron78 | September 15, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

Correction from my earlier post, it was Spring 2009:

http://motherjones.com/environment/2009/02/spoiled-organic-and-local-so-2008

And to be fair and balanced, here is Grist's response:

http://www.grist.org/article/Spoiled-indeed/

Posted by: JWHamner | September 15, 2010 6:37 PM | Report abuse

Why can't we just consider ourselves fortunate to be the beneficiaries of the best of both worlds? Cheap, abundant produce, available year round, 24/7, in rather dazzling variety at your local supermarket. And boutique foods, grown locally in tune with local weather and soil, picked at just the right time for mind blowing flavor available at farmer's markets or in your own back yard.

Posted by: bgmma50 | September 15, 2010 9:59 PM | Report abuse

There's a very very good response to this at Civil Eats, here: http://civileats.com/2010/09/16/ezra-klein-on-industrial-ag-asking-the-wrong-questions/.

In a world where there are as many people are overweight or obese as there are people who are starving, I'd say we're not having a problem feeding the world, we're having a problem with the greed of those with means.

Posted by: kat747 | September 17, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

I will add, Mr. Klein, this post at Civil Eats is dated one day after your post here. If this writer could produce a well-researched piece in 24 hours, why would you - a Washington Post writer - not put as much into your post. Moreover, why was your initial "tossed off" post such a shallow "tweet" of a post when this issue is clearly important and complex?

Posted by: kat747 | September 17, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

It's not technology so to speak that is at issue. Technology can be bad and good. It's results that matter. As long as society and governments emphasize cheap food over healthy food and allow private profits to rise by socializing environmental, labor, health and other costs, the worst forms of industrial farming will continue to flourish. Use policy to fix the incentives -- mainly force producers to pay the full costs of their products -- and other production systems thought to be more sustainable will compete more fairly and grow more prominent.

Posted by: jimovate | September 17, 2010 2:45 PM | Report abuse

Book publishing--food for the mind--is definitely de-industrializing. The days are numbered for large industrial-style book publishers. With diminishing need to produce, warehouse and distribute their paper-based products, they will necessarily deflate. New technology is deflating this industry, similar to the way old technology inflated it. Ken Auletta wrote about this subject last April in The New Yorker:

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/04/26/100426fa_fact_auletta

So who can say there aren't new technologies in our future that won't one day also deflate Big-Ag?

Posted by: dougwill | September 18, 2010 2:18 PM | Report abuse

More on new technologies: think about how many advances we take for granted today in communications, electronics, transportation, medicine and yes, agriculture that would have been considered impossible 100 years ago.

Today we're working to create machines that replicate photosynthesis as an alternative method for fuel and energy production. What if a machine could replicate food? We already have low-cost machines that "print" 3-D objects in a variety of materials. Suppose those materials are organic and the object is a tomato or a potato or any other agricultural commodity, and the "copy" is visually and nutritionally the equivalent of the old-fashioned kind of agricultural commodities that are currently grown and nurtured in slow and tedious mass ag systems? These current systems may produce relatively abundant and cheap food in the present day (if you ignore the externalities, as some commenters have pointed out), but new technology based on replication could eventually replace many of our existing agricultural systems regardless of how big and efficient they are, just as digital publishing is replacing and "de-industrializing" the equivalent paper-based versions of publication.

Imo, not only is such a revolution in food production possible, but it is also the most likely outcome of progress on this technological front, and it will take far less than 100 yrs for these kinds of innovation to bear fruit...

Posted by: dougwill | September 18, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

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