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big-picture sustainable food, part 2

In a comment to the other post, Tom says:

Paarlberg espouses a technical-rationalistic and teleological belief in Eurocentric modernization built on a foundation of pure, objective positivism.

Which, for those of you who've been outside of academia for as long as I have, means that Paarlberg thinks the way Whitey does things is always the right way. I think.

I was contemplating something similar today as I walked the dog. The problem is as follows: many people in the developing world endure poor living conditions, by their own standards as well as ours. It is a problem that needs to be addressed, and because it cannot ethically be addressed by shrinking populations (or allowing them to shrink: Barbara Kingsolver in Poisonwood Bible) we need another solution. Paarlberg, technical-rationalistic and teleological (if the teleos is global capitalism) would fix things by increasing incomes: "improve" agricultural methods, link farmers to markets, get them paid for their produce so they can buy nice things. As he writes:

Poverty — caused by the low income productivity of farmers' labor — is the primary source of hunger in Africa, and the problem is only getting worse.

I would suggest that a better solution would be to redefine the terms of the "poverty" in question. If we can look past the equation that tells us that "money = security", surely "food insecurity" would be more productively addressed by increasing farmers' ability to produce actual food. Can't eat cash! This is where Paarlberg and others who share his point of view go wrong, because they don't actually care about food.

As a point of comparison let us consider the other side of the world, where increasing numbers of people are choosing to pay more for their food in order to see higher quality and a lighter impact on the world's environment and resources. The most forward-thinking among them—like me, naturally!—are working to grow some of their own food, or at least to understand intimately the conditions under which it's grown. That is to say, we are moving in exactly the opposite direction than Paarlberg suggests for Africa. Are we misguided? Stupid? Spoiled first-world brats who are just playing at sustainability while cursing Africa to poverty? All three have been suggested.

Leaving aside the question of whether sustainable, organic farming itself will lead to a collapse in the world food supply—a ridiculous but oft-mooted suggestion that deserves its own post—I think that Paarlberg's dismissal of sustainable-food enthusiasts in the United States as dilettantes who are somehow not connected with the real world is at the heart of his misunderstanding of the situation. Produce from a small organic farm in New England is not a luxury, but an investment in the idea that food itself is important, and in fact is more important than the money involved in buying it. Paarlberg wants to solve hunger by making food cheaper and giving people the opportunity to make more money; I would rather make food better and give people the opportunity to be more involved in its production rather than wasting their time in useless jobs. Would my ideas lead to the collapse of the economy? Maybe, but I'm not concerned with the economy, I'm concerned with food. Unlike Paarlberg.

He wrote his article to condemn those who argue against his kind of aid to Africa. We will curse them with starvation, he says, if we do not encourage development in a specific direction, one which will not only align third-world farming with the Western economy but which will tie third-world farmers inexorably to the Western farm-industrial complex. American farmers have already found out how tough it can be to escape that machine. No one today—well, not many people—would suggest that, since the burning of coal in tremendous quantities powered development in the Western world, the same model should apply in Africa: most sane individuals would agree that we now have better solutions, and that developing nations can learn from our mistakes rather than repeating them.

We are now learning in the United States that our prevailing system of agriculture is in large part a mistake. We need to avoid exporting it. Instead, we should be encouraging sustainability both in the Third World and at home, and we should be listening to African farmers as well as preaching to them: maybe they have as much to teach us as we have to sell to them.


I totally agree. On local, sustainable agriculture: the current system of food mass-production isn't working, sustainable small-scale production could (and is starting to).

Thinking of countries with food shortages: large-scale, imposed solutions (for agriculture or business) simply don't have a good track record. It seems like small-scale ideas with social entrepeneur/community support have a much better history. Not to say that a solution is for everyone to go "back to the land", but there's an inherent dependency when communities who once had land and edible crops now have to rely on cash.

I'd rather do anything right now than waste time at my useless job. The money, it flows directly from my employer to my bank account and back out to my student loan servicer. This is certainly an efficient way to run commerce but a damn demorilizing way to run a life.


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