Ezra Klein on Industrial Ag: Asking the Wrong Questions

On Monday, domestic policy wonk Ezra Klein published a short piece over at his Washington Post blog entitled “Industrial Farms are the Future,” in which he challenged the idea that the local food movement is doing anything but informing the big players in their marketing strategy. Further, he wondered aloud whether there was ever a major industry that “went from small, decentralized production methods to large, scaled industrial production–and then back again.”

Tom Philpott over at Grist took down the evidence Klein quotes in the piece, and which inspired its title. Klein bit back, addressing the issue again and pointing to the growth of industrial agriculture in China, India, and particularly Brazil as a case in point about the inevitability of growth in agriculture. I thought I would attempt to challenge Klein’s assumptions once again.

Klein’s question about whether any industry has decentralized historically is, at least in the case of farming, a bit silly. Due to increasing climate uncertainty, and waning water and energy resources, the question is not whether industrial agriculture will decentralize, but when and how.

Any farmer will tell you that the weather is her biggest concern, and increasing uncertainty will push farmers by force to diversify instead of putting all their eggs in one basket–that is, unless the government keeps giving incentives in the form of crop insurance for farming monocultures. (As the Farm Bill debate heats up, cutting or changing crop insurance is on the table. But more likely direct payments–what farmers get whether they work the land or not–and conservation programs will be considered for cuts.) Instead, it might be rising oil prices and the changing availability of water, which scientists agree is on the horizon, that could overstep the ability for government intervention, and deliver a death blow to the industrial promise to feed the world.

Furthermore, farming is a unique “industry,” in that what it produces is perishable–and therefore time is of the essence, favoring a local system. Sure we’ve come up with methods of pre-picking fruits and using chemicals to ripen them off the vine, found profits even when jets and trucks are employed to bring these foods to the plate, and have convinced the consumer to except flabby tasting food. But these could be hurdles that get harder to leap.

Efficiency is the keystone in the pro-industrial argument, and yet industrial farms produce a sea of poorly-regulated manure, food that is then excessively processed and packaged, and encourage higher meat consumption by making it cheap. Klein’s argument that big farms can be more sustainable–pointing to the case of Brazil, which I will get to in a moment–ignores the fact that its model is inherently unsustainable.

Meanwhile, research suggests that organic yields are higher over time, and that industrial yields plateau and even peter out. In addition, organic production does things like protect soil micro-organisms that are necessary to get nutrients to plants and protect them from disease–considerations the industrial model doesn’t usually take into account.

So what of Brazil, the case Klein points to, from the Economist:

For them, sustainability is the greatest virtue and is best achieved by encouraging small farms and organic practices. They frown on monocultures and chemical fertilisers. They like agricultural research but loathe genetically modified (GM) plants. They think it is more important for food to be sold on local than on international markets. Brazil’s farms are sustainable, too, thanks to abundant land and water. But they are many times the size even of American ones. Farmers buy inputs and sell crops on a scale that makes sense only if there are world markets for them. And they depend critically on new technology.

Despite the contradiction here–like the fact that it states that the country “loathes” GM seed, and yet has the second-largest land mass planted in them (after the U.S.), and that the country supports small farms, and yet most are many times the size as those in America, and that farmers are buying inputs on a huge scale yet shun chemical fertilizers–Brazil is doing things differently and I’m sure the U.S. could learn something from their model. The article goes on to explain that between 1996 and 2006, the total value of Brazil’s crops increased 365 percent without subsidies. With a wealth of land and water resources, and value placed on agricultural research–notably in breeding grasses, cattle and their own GM soy, and using lime and lab-produced micro-organisms, making fertile previously unproductive soil–we are only seeing the beginning of Brazil’s industrial prowess.

However, the article paints a rosy picture of industrial farming, and fails to mention any of the environmental impacts this kind of high-intensity production is having. As one commenter notes, “The Cerrado – Brazilian Savanah [sic]- is the second largest area of Biodiversity in Brazil. Second only to the Amazon. Hence, large areas are being destroyed in order to produce commodities.” Another commenter alighted on the fact that a higher rate of insects in the tropics and vast monocultures would require higher rates of pesticide use and, “Thus, the critical headwaters of Brazil’s two major rivers become heavily freighted with toxic agricultural chemicals, with “externalized” consequences for river ecology and downstream users.”

On a recent trip there, I saw that on the consumer side, Brazil is also implementing some of the most forward thinking policies to end hunger–including universal school feeding and subsidized restaurants, both of which favor local buying, as well as urban agriculture programs, added markets for local farmers, and even writing into the Brazilian constitution last February that food is a right of citizenship. Further, Brazil has already achieved a Millennium Development Goal to halve hunger ahead of the 2015 deadline. But these actions were taken out of necessity, because when food is placed into a market context it fails to feed everybody equitably.

So are industrial agriculture and organic agriculture just producing different products, and some people will always be “dumb” enough to buy organic food (According to the House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-MN)? Big Ag would have us believe that there is room in the market for everyone. But without the government propping it up with subsidies, the industrial behemoth would not survive. Without abundant energy and water resources, industrial agriculture would be paralyzed.

In fact, it seems the future lies in hybridized farms–diverse production and multi-tasking farmers employing direct-to-consumer sales, eco-tourism, education programs, and even off-farm income to make their work viable.

2 thoughts on “Ezra Klein on Industrial Ag: Asking the Wrong Questions

  1. I still wonder what the problem is with high meat consumption. It is readily possible to sustainably produce meat from many different animals, and the health detriments of meat consumption have been found to be questionable at best and actively false at worst. Certainly, getting, say, americans to move beyond the cow/chicken/pig paradigm to embrace a wider range of meat animals is an uphill battle, but no more so than the same quest with organic, locally sourced, sustainably produced fruits and vegetables.

  2. @ yay food: I don’t know quite what you’re referencing, but in any case I don’t think most informed people are arguing against meat consumption. It is the American-style, intensive consumption of industrially produced, grain-fed (read: fatty) meat products that produces health problems. “Unnaturally” low meat prices allow Americans to eat way more meat/protein than they should (thus the calls to reduce meat in your diet, “Meatless Mondays”, etc). I think the general call is to eat less, better-quality meat.