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.
September 15, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
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