Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Problem Is Not In Our Fields

Food Inc., a new movie..

"In the meat aisle, there are no bones anymore ..."

I have to say that I am NOT scared of my supermarket aisles, nor am I particularly outraged about how food is made or sold in America.

As with so many other things, I vote with my feet and my wallet every time I go out or make a purchase. And guess what? That works!

YES, let us educate more about healthy food.

YES, let's get a better, smarter and more independent Food and Drug Administration.

But should I really be terrified about what is offered up at the supermarket or outraged that grocery stores and restaurants continue to sell us what so many of us seem to want to buy (including packaged meat devoid of bones)?

Not me!

As for the notion that America is going to be saved by switching to organic farms and growing heirloom tomatoes and summer squash, I'm not buying it.

Don't get me wrong: I love organic farms, and I am strongly in favor of more fruits and veggies, and I applaud the growing market for grass-fed beef and free-range chickens.

I am all for treating farm animals better. I want the chickens and pigs to have more room.

I salute everyone who has a backyard vegetable garden and a couple of laying hens.

But let's get real: Most Americans live in cities and suburbs and they are not going to be able to grow all their vegetables and raise all of their meat.

Nor do we necessarily want them to.

Is a back yard farmer throwing Miracle Grow fertilizer and spraying potent insecticides, fungicides and herbicides down the storm sewer "good for the environment"? I doubt it.

And if all those backyard crops are lost to stem rot, blight, cut worm, drought, aphids, and squirrels, is that "good for the environment" too, even after you have figured in the cost of mulch, treated city water, and pressure-treated landscaping timbers? I doubt it.

And then there is the little question of physical labor.

If we get rid of all our corn and soy bean fields, and replace them with locally-grown truck gardens, who is going to pick the lettuce, cabbage, string beans, onions, tomatoes, pumpkins, and zucchini?

A "hobby garden" is a fine thing, but you cannot feed New York, Dallas, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Boston, and Las Vegas on hobby gardens or hobby farms. You need massive plots and you need a heck of a lot of them.

We no longer live in an era of schooners and candles, and with a population of 310 million people in the U.S., and over 6.5 billion around the globe, we cannot afford to farm like we do.

You say you want the world to go organic and embrace a "small is beautiful" agricultural ethos?

Fine, but if so then you better stop talking about food and start talking about family planning.

You see, adding one more human to the population of the world does more damage to the planet than any benefit ever conferred by eating local, eating organic, embracing a vegetarian diet, and reusing, recycling, and doing without.

In a world of 6.5 billion people sex may not be a sin, but adding more children is clearly a violence against nature. Bill McKibben suggests "Maybe One." I suggest maybe none ... not that you are asking, and not that anyone is going to listen. Yes, I do understand that population growth is an "inconvenient truth."

So let's go back to food -- a much safer and easier topic for most people to discuss.

If you have food crops that cannot be mechanized (and many crops cannot), then you need a massive labor force that will show up on call and without fail to work in the heat and bugs for 12 hour-days, and for as many days as it takes to bring in the crops.

And then, when the crops are in, you need those people to disappear until they are needed again at a moment's notice (i.e. during that magical three-day window when your fruits and vegetables are ready for harvest at maximum value).

How do you do that? Is there a solution to America's food problems?

I think there is.....

What if we all ate more fruits and
vegetables, but instead of importing people to grow hand-picked fruits and vegetables, we imported fruits and vegetables grown in countries where there were lots of unemployed hands ready and eager to pick them?

Instead of sending foreign aide to Latin America, Africa, and Asia, how about if we imported more hand-picked food crops from those countries?

To balance out the trade, we might export machine-harvested crops (like corn and soy) and manufactured goods and foods (like dry wall and Coca cola).

But wait, you say: that's what we're doing right now!

You're right! And you know what? It's not such a bad thing.

So what if there is no longer "a season" in America's supermarkets? Why is it such a bad thing that folks can get lemons, oranges, melons and mangoes in winter?

And why don't we stop blaming America's farmers and supermarkets for the fact that so many of us are fat and stupid?

Each of us controls
what we buy for food, and what we put in our own mouth.

It's time we stopped infantalizing ourselves and took responsibility for what we eat and how we look.

The problem with the American diet is not in our fields, it's between our ears; the same place it has always been.

You want to look better and live longer? Here's a little secret: eat less and exercise more.

Treat potato chips, pretzels, ice cream, cookies, candy, soft drinks and pastries like a member of Alcoholics Anonymous treats beer, wine and vodka -- complete abstinence.

Don't start and then try to control it. Don't start at all.

Throw away all of your big plates and deep bowls, and your portion size will inevitably shrink, and in all likelihood your waistline will too.

Never drive through a fast-food line again.

Drink more water and try to fast one day a week (tell yourself it's a spiritual thing).

And you know what will happen if you do that? You will lose weight and feel better.

And if enough people do that, the folks who run the grocery stores will put in smaller snack aisles, and smaller soft drink aisles, and bigger and more lavish fruit, vegetable, and whole meat displays.

In short, if we lead with our feet and wallets, America's grocery stores and restaurants will follow.

"Vote with your fork."

It really is that simple -- and it really is that hard.


Matt Mullenix said...


Thy terrible keystroke doth pierce me! Sayes't thou cares't not whence our nourishment comes? Believes't thou in the goodly hand of the Market to sustain fair trade; to keep just value; to maketh every board groan beneath its wealth of ripe fruits, all and always in season?

Wherefore Eden should shun glorious sunlight, given us freely, and tradeth for ill-got fossil power and crude manures artificial?

Wherefore money maketh seasons south move north,
and hellish fuels bring its bounty forth?

John Milton

PBurns said...

I eat local if I can. But mostly no one around here can eat local because we don't have the labor to pick crops, and so we don't grow crops that can't be harvested.

Some beef and most chicken, apples and sweet corn are local. Everything else mostly comes from a long way off.

Of course, local is not local a lot of the time. Think about something as simple as a strawberry. How can we consider strawberries to be a "locally grown" vegetable when the labor to harvest them was imported from 1,000 miles away?

If the trade off is imported fuel and ferilizer vs. imported labor, imported fuel and fertilizer is actually a better environmental trade off for the U.S. than the long-term cost of migrant-worker driven population growth.

Of course, the best trade off would be a mechanical strawberry picker, but no one has come up with one yet (and Lord knows they have tried!). On the upside, we have machined most wine grapes now, and the result is that we have a LOT more wine vineyards in the U.S. now than we did 25 years ago. If we can machine-harvest and plant a crop, we will have that crop in the U.S. If it cannot be done by machine, it is a crop that needs to go overseas where the labor market gives them a competitive advantage. That's what's happening, and I would argue that it's actually both good economics and good environmentalism.


Matt Mullenix said...

Patrick does it follow that everything not cheap or easy to produce with machines and local labor should be outsourced?

If that's good economics for agricultural products, why not for manufacturing, banking, marketing, tech services or else? I think that's precisely the status quo you're defending, yet isn't that just a race to the bottom?

Doesn't that leave us progressively more dependent on and vulnerable to global changes beyond our control?

I don't mean to be rhetorical. The situation truly alarms me. A viable and self-sufficient local economy (call it national, but I'm thinking smaller!) is the root of independence, a nurturer of individual freedom and a buffer to all sorts of tyranny.

I realize all that sounds very "tinfoil hat." But I think it's still OK to expect these ideals to remain worthwhile American objectives. We certainly preach independence and freedom to others; some call it our most important export!

The President was just in Africa supporting the notion of "food security" for that continent as a buffer against social unrest, terrorism, poverty and latter-day colonialism. He was talking about independence in a very real-world and practical application.

And the President is right about all the benefits of self-sufficiency to a local people. Naturally, I think we ought to do whatever we can to bring this about everywhere, America included.

Food security (like regime change!) begins at home! :-)

PBurns said...

Ah, you are asking GOOD questions Matt. Seriously smart ones.

And the answer, I think, is that "it depends."

One side says "accept no goods or people," or very limited numbers of either.

Another side, says "open all borders for goods AND people" which really is (I agree with you) a race to the economic basement.

In between is the real game where it will really be played.

When thinking about production, I think there are three things to consider: 1) the cost of tooling (or retooling); 2) the finite nature of the resource, and; 3) the degree to which we can be held captive by a single-source producer.

Food and energy are two good cases in point.

The cost (in time and money) of taking a field out of corn or soy and putting it into an edible food crop (potatoes, pumpkins, beets, green beans, etc.) is very low. We could convert the nation's fields to pretty much anything essential in very short order. In addition, it's pretty hard for any one country to "corner the market" on edible foods, and quite impossible when the US has so much arable land. So, to put a point on it, I do not think we can ever be "held hostage" on food, especially when so much of our ESSENTIAL food is made of machined crops (corn, soy, wheat, beets, potatoes, cabbage, carrots). I can live without strawberries, bannanas and Kiwi fruit forever, and so can everyone else I am pretty sure. In food there is a BIG difference between a "nicety" and a necessity. We grow (and export vast quantities) of our true food necessities.

What about oil?

We very clearly can be held hostage on oil, but the solution here is not to produce more oil at home, but to: 1) Find new sources of renewable or very long term energy, and to; 2) Import.



You see, once all the oil is pumped out of Texas, Oklahoma, California and Alaska, it is gone forever. Once oil is pumped out of the ground and used, we cannot tap it at a time of TRUE crisis, if that era ever comes.

Rising oil prices are NOT a crisis. Rising prices are the way the market suggests we: 1) become more efficient, and, 2) find an alternative energy source.

Rising prices are GOOD, and importing oil in the interim is good policy for security reasons because it means we keep our real oil security underground in "God's Safety Deposit Box."

What about manufactured stuff like shirts, TVs, toasters, toys, furniture, computers, refrigerators?

This is where the war between goods and people is REALLY being fought.

One side wants to import 17th Century people (i.e. immigrants from poor countries) to make goods in a 20th Century manner (i.e. human assembly lines) while charging 21st Century prices.

Another side wants to import goods from 17th Century countries (i.e. China, Vietnam, El Salvador) made in 18th Century factories (i.e. sweat shops and factories without OSHA or EPA), while charging 20th Century prices (the low prices found at WalMart and Target).

But is either option really sustainable?

I do not think so.

Both options are transitive, and the transition (the place we need to get to) is to high-paid, highly automated production facilities where very good stuff is made in America by Americans.

Here's the catch: The work in these factories cannot be low value added -- it has to be HIGH value added stuff, where every worker is making $350 a day in salary and benefits, because they are booking a $1,000 a day (or more) for the company in added profits.

You cannot add a $1,000 a day in value for your boss by turning screws or hand assembling radios or cars. You need more factory automation.


Matt Mullenix said...


Hi Patrick,

I guess after reading most of the Wendell Berry catalog, my 21th century brain may be stuck somewhere around 1926. (My dad would say 1826; or perhaps given the falconry and coursing, it's 1268!)

But I'm not at all convinced that changing our current system of mechanized agriculture would be cheap or easy, even relative to other sectors of the economy.

To switch (actually to return) our agriculture to a focus on local and diversified food production--in this context, to thwart our hostage by foreign providers--we would need (A) many more people ready to farm, (B) something like government land reform to re-apportion the vast corporate farm holdings that have been buying out individual owners steadily since WWII.

Pai said...

A website that I heard about recently is GoodGuide, which lists facts about various products (like where their meat was raised, etc) that can help people make ethical decisions about the things they buy.

I haven't looked into it that thoroughly yet, but I appreciate their concept.

PBurns said...

Matt, I think you are mixing two unrelated problems together.

One question deals with national agricultural self-sufficiency (growing our own food), and the other deals with returning to some 19th Century form of pastoral production (non-industrial agriculture). I would argue they have nothing to do with each other, other than if you go to 19th Century agricultural production we WILL starve as a nation. But why do we need to go to 19th Century production? To support Wendell Berry's unsupportable romantic philosophy?

Let's deal with these issues in turn. The first issue is agricultural independence. We already have that. We grow enough corn, soy, potatoes, beets, wheat, barley, apples, carrots, etc. to feed this nation AND run all our tractors, threshers, etc. We do not need artificial fertilizers to get the yields we have today -- it's simply cheaper and easier than growing cover crops, plowing them under, and putting in the kind of "night soil" recycling (sewage treatment plant sludge) that they use on my organic farms.

So YES, we can grow anything and everything we need to in this country to be self-sustaining agriculturally, and converstion can be done very quickly and easily. No conversion at all is needed to run a tractor or harvester on biodiesel.

-- more to come >>>


PBurns said...

... continuation from above >>
_ _ __ _

I love reading Wendell Berry, and I love his values, but as far as agricultural policy or economics, it is largely nonsense. Berry lives in Ketucky and works 125 acres with horses, and horses alone (no engines at all). Great. In my area, land is a million dollars an acre, and I don't have 125 million dollars. Even in rural Virginia, land is $3,000 to $10,000 an acre, so Berry's little farm would cost me somewhere between $375,000 and $1,240,000 for the land alone (no house). Berry is about 75 years old now. Question: who is going to hitch his horses when he is 80? Berry's father did not make his livlihood growing vegetables -- he made it growing tobacco. Is that sustainable agriculture? Cancer and addiction are not too poetic, are they? And you know what the biggest cash crop in Kentucky is today? Marijuana! This is not Victory Garden country -- this is moonshine and coal, blue grass (a pasture means the land cannot grow corn), welfare, sustenance logging (very ugly and not very poetic), and methamphetamine labs.

As I said earlier, we no longer live in an era of schooners and candles, and the reason we had to get rid of the horses (and invent the car) was that we had no place to pasture them because there were too many humans in America and in the world. And guess what? We STILL don't have the room to pasture all those horses of Wendell Berry's.

Yes, if you have the cash to own 10 acres or 200 you can grow a lot of your own food. But Berry is not skinning his dead horses to tan the leather for the hitches on his next horses, is he? He is not making his own steel, spinning his own wool, growing cotton and weaving it and sewing it into his own shirts and suits. He is not making his own soap, or making the paper he hand-presses into his own books? You see, he is PART of the industrial complex, every bit as much as a Manhattan subway rider. The fact that he has checked out of "modern" agriculture is simply a philosophical affectation, much as Thoreau moving five miles outside of town to live in a small cabin. We salute Thoreau for his philosophy, but this man was no Jim Bridger making everything on the fly and carrying it on his back. Thoreau was as hooked into Concord as he wanted to be. He was, in fact, not much more than an aescetic con man selling romantic philosophy. I love reading Thoreau, but I will admit in a heart beat that the man was a fraud as far as being some sort of "do it on my own" kind of back woods guy. He wasn't.

Which is OK. We are all connected on this planet. Like ant, apes and wolves, we are social predators and harvesters and we thrive best when we are interconnected. I do not object when people tell me they are self-made people. I can see that their father bought them their education, they pump gas from a station, and they did not make the clothese on their back. If they want to believe they are self-made I will agree if not believe.

>> more to come


PBurns said...

... final bit from above >>>

So, to get back to the question of the economy of the future, the good news here (and there is good news) is that we have TONS of energy (we always have had), in the form of solarpower, geo-cooling and heating power, tidal power, bio-gas fuels (ethanol and biodiesel), nuclear, stream and river power, wind power, coal, natural gas, methanol, methane hydrides, etc. There is no shortage of energy -- only a bit of confusion as we decide which one is best for economics and sustainability. We are transitioning from oil to whatever, as we once transitioned from coal and wood to oil. There will be some bumps and burps, but we are getting there very fast, I think.

As for fertlizer, there is no shortage of fertilizer: we get most of it from the air (nitrogen fertilizer plants can be put anywhere). We only use petroleum fertilizers because they are so cheap, and fertilizer is an easy byproduct of oil production. Once oil is gone, we will still have ferilizer so long as we have air.

I am no polyanna, as you know. I believe the growth of human population is going to continue to HAMMER wild places and wild life. That is why I want everyone to get vasectomies and tubal ligations. But do I fear for humans? Sadly, no. We will continue to breed like rats. And so long as we do, the rest of the world will continue to die like flies. The problem is people: there are too damn many of us!


Matt Mullenix said...

But I didn't even get to publish my Part 2! :-)

Seriously, can we take this over to Q where we can discuss it without sending notes through keyholes?

PBurns said...

Absolutely. Move away! I am getting sucked in by the surf at the moment (why does Congress take any action without my approval), but I should figure it out in a few hours ;) Only a 1,200 page bill, after all!


alex brooks said...

Your diatribe against Kentucky shows your ignorance of the people and place you speak of. At best your words and thoughts are lazy, at worst bigoted.

Wendell Berry's horses are a red herring. They have little to do with his life style. You accuse him of living a life of affectations - you've obviously never met the man and I challenge you to accuse him to his face. He refutes your accusations by living the life he preaches, as do other small farmers in Kentucky who are providing us with healthy, delicious, local food. The proof is in their work and lives and the food I eat every day. I spend more for my food, sure, but that provides the farmers with a reasonable lifestyle and it provides me with a higher quality of life.

What exactly makes your state/town/home/lifestyle superior to mine? On what do you base your judgments?

Please don't blithely denigrate a whole state to make your fatuous rhetorical point. It's easy to insult people on the internet. The real enemy here is ignorance, and this film attempts to educate a population that's been convinced that industrial agriculture is a panacea.

PBurns said...

Alex Brooks, you are a fool. My family is from Pineville, KY, descended from Dr. Thomas Walker who discovered the Cumberland Gap (father wrote a book about it), and my family just donated a square mile of land to the state to help preserve old growth forest in KY. So yes, I have done my homework on the state, and I might know a little about it!

The fact that Wendell Berry farms his land with horses IS his message -- that we should all return to some form of romantic pastoralism. The problem is that it doesn't work. Kentucky imports more food than it exports and it imports clothes and building materials too. In KY, 67 percent of farms sell less than $10,000 worth of argricultural products, and the KY Dep. of Ag does not even report on vegetables and the like because it is not part of the economy -- unlike tobacco, corn, soy, hay and other mechnized crops. Horses are the biggest cash crop in KY -- accounting for over 25% of revenue, and tobabacco is in the top seven for agricultural income.

Question Alex: Did you loom the clothes you wear and grow the fiber? Did you handcrank the electricy flowing through your computer and did you make your plastic keyboard from soybeans you picked yourself on land you own and plowed with horses? No. You are hooked up to the international grid and sucking for all you are worth. Wearing hurachi sandals and eating a few organic tomatoes from the back yard does not change that, does it? The difference between me and you, it sounds like, is that I do not pretend I am "off the grid" or living a particulaly virtuous lifestyle, when I am not. And neither is Wendell Berry -- his nose is just about as far up the backside of the global marketplace as the rest of us, even if he does write on a manual typewriter (made with industrial metal and industrial plastic, and using chemical-laced ribbons). And no, I would have no problem saying this to Berry's face -- we have common friends up on Rattlesnake Mountain, VA, and I sure do say it to them! I am not opposed to the way Berry lives, and I enjoy his writing. Not am I a tub-thumper for all things industrial. I just recognize the hypocrisy of someone like you, writing on a computer, lecturing me about how virtuous your life is because you have eaten an organic tomato. Unlike you, I recognize the irony of the fact that when Wendell Berry rides up Rattelsnake Mountain to give a talk, he is not riding on a horse -- he took a car like everyone else. And the clothes on his back were not made in America by Americans, were they? No. No clothes made today fit both of those labels.

Now here's a little fact: Wendell Berry was one of four children. What's that mean? It means that his family DOUBLED their footprint on earth. Which brings me back to this simple fact: the reason we no longer have room to pasture horses, is that the folks in Berry's father and mother's era were having four children. The result is that IN HIS LIFETIME, the population of the U.S. has grown by more than 150 percent. That is the problem, but does he talk about it? No. An yet, no amount of home-grown tomatoes is going to change that. The world it not going to hell in a handbasket because it is not plowing with horses and is no longer using manual typewriters. It is going to hell in a handbasket because people like you and Mr. Berry think that the issue is "them" -- industrial agriculture -- rather than family plannnig choices you yourself make. No doubt you are very young and perhaps you do not yet have children. If so, take a stand for the environment and run down to the urologist this week and get a vasectomy. In short, instead of gassing around about the virtue of organic cucumbers while having three children, why not recognize the root of the problem and take action? America is not going to be saved by poetry. It is going to be saved by action. And Job One is slowing population growth. If we don't do that, where will we pasture all the horses?