Food Issues Book Club - Agricultural Solutions for Agricultural Problems and Stupidity in Concentration from Bringing It to the Table

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Bringing It to the Table: Agricultural Solutions for Agricultural Problems, 1978 AND Stupidity in Concentration, 2002

Editor's note: I've decided to discuss these two essays together, because I find it interesting to compare the two writings on the same subject - the industrialization of farming - separated by over twenty years.  Enjoy.

Summary: Agricultural Solutions for Agricultural Problems, 1978

The industrial revolution reshaped our language, replacing natural metaphors for machine-based ideas.  Along with this change in language, our values changed: efficiency is now prized above any other virtue.  It is the most profitable.

With regard to agriculture, ideas have shifted away from animal husbandry and caring for the land, toward seeing the farm as a factory with inputs and products.  These food factories do indeed seem the heighth of efficiency.  Taking a wider view, however, they are deeply problematic on numerous ecological and social levels.  The supposed efficiency also ignores the vast food distribution chain these factories require.  "All the producers are at once in competition with each other and dependent on each other, and all are dependent on the petroleum industry."

Industrial agriculture is a failure in two main ways.  First, it considers only production.  When only maximum output is considered, sustainability falls by the wayside.  Second, it is exceedingly wasteful; waste both requires never-ending inputs and inevitably leads to exhaustion and contamination.

Chemical fertilizers are allowing us to disguise lack of sustainability, for now.  The industry's dependence on these petroleum-based chemicals is one of its greatest weaknesses.  It is also weakened in that it can be disrupted by an issue occurring anywhere along the distribution chain.  Yet another weakness is that the vast majority of the population has no means by which to supply its own food: should that supply chain be disrupted, food stores would be depleted within days.  In other parts of the world where more traditional farming is still used, more people know how to grow food and more food can be grown per acre.

We have assumed, foolishly, that we can achieve the same results through technological advancement.  This belief is self-serving and absurd.  "How can this agriculture be industrialized without destroying its intensive methods, and thus reducing its productivity for acre?  How can the so-called pedestrian tasks be taken over by machines without displacing people, increasing unemployment, degrading the quality of land maintenance, increasing urban slums and other blights?"  The "pedestrian" tasks of farming, once considered noble, are seen as lowly and inefficient in the industrialized world.

To solve the four main problems of agriculture, they must be approached agriculturally.
  • On the issue of scale, farms should be small enough to be tended by a single grower or family in ecologically sustainable ways.
  • Balance, which is related to scale, is found in the proper ratio of plants to animals.  When in balance a farm provides its own fertility and production is stable.
  • Diversity - having as many different plant and animal types as possible for the land - provides natural resistance to crop and flock failure.  Diversity of types and locations of farms also strengthens our food infrastructure.
  • Finally, the issue of quality can be measured as health: that of the farm, the food it produces, and the community it feeds.  Proper scale, balance, and diversity leads to quality.
"[A] good farmer is a craftsman of the highest order, a kind of artist.  It is the good work of good farmers - nothing else - that ensures a sufficiency of food over the long term."

Summary: Stupidity in Concentration, 2002

Factory farming strives to process the largest number of animals as is "efficient," despite widespread acknowledgement of its cruelty.  Animal factories concentrate not only the animals themselves but also the waste they produce, the pathogens they carry, the growing of the grains on which they feed, and the labor required to tend them.

Government has spurred on this concentration when it should have impeded it.  "This is the result of a political brain disease that causes people in power to think that anything that makes more money or 'creates jobs' is good.  The government has fallen under the spell of short-term economics, wherein much money is made now but at the expense of the future.  Conversely, long-term economics strive for sustainability.  Animal factories are, on every front, unsustainable.  A long-term economic outlook from the government would be more beneficial to society.

Factory farms increase and concentrate the ecological risks of food production.  They poison soil, water, and air alike.  They also force farmers to the lowest level of operation and income, siphoning profits to the controlling corporations.  These corporations in turn behave as terrible neighbors while consistently asking for increase government favor.  "It is clear that the advocates of factory farming are not advocates of farming.  They do not speak for farmers.  What they support is state-sponsored colonialism - government of, by, and for the corporations."

Sustainable agriculture, by definition, should be able to continue indefinitely without significantly diminishing the environment in which it is performed.  Industrial agriculture is not at all sustainable.  it is toxic to environments and wasteful of natural resources.  It also isn't economically sustainable.  "It ought to be obvious that agriculture cannot be made sustainable by a dwindling population of economically depressed farmers and a growing population of migrant workers."  Farmers have been rendered an expendable resource by the industrial agriculture corporations.

Corporate interests claim that "great rewards" may be realized from industrial agriculture.  Those rewards, though, are never endowed upon the farmers or their communities or their land - only upon the corporations themselves.

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