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big-picture sustainable food

As you know, we're big hippies around here; and as such, we are concerned with local and sustainable food production. There are those, however, who do not share our concern—who, in fact, argue that sustainable food is bad because it will contribute to the mass starvation of the world's population. Really! This seems to be quite a popular view among troglodytic reactionaries and Monsanto sales-reps alike. Robert Paarlberg, the author of a recent Foreign Policy article on the topic, is maybe a little of each.

His argument is as follows:

Wherever the rural poor have gained access to improved roads, modern seeds, less expensive fertilizer, electrical power, and better schools and clinics, their productivity and their income have increased. But recent efforts to deliver such essentials have been undercut by deeply misguided (if sometimes well-meaning) advocacy against agricultural modernization and foreign aid.

Leaving aside the snarky parenthetical (what, advocates of sustainable agriculture sometimes want to help local farmers, but other times are just screwing with them for kicks?!), Paarlberg is himself deeply misguided for several reasons. One of them is something he himself brings up in the article, only to fail to grasp its relevance: the rising cost of worldwide food prices. Those rising prices aren't due to the growth of sustainable or organic farming practices (as much as those may affect prices at Whole Foods), but to the very industrialization of farming that Paarlberg advocates. Yes, fertilizer and improved (and patented, naturally) seed will improve yields for a single year, but then you have to buy them again next year. And at the same time, in order to make your operation efficient and corporate-buyer-friendly, you need to dedicate your entire growing area to your cash crop. Congratulations, you are now linked to the world economy! But don't worry, if food prices rise faster than what you take in for your crop, you can always eat your Roundup-Ready soybeans.

Seriously, most farmers in the United States, one of the most industrialized farming countries in the world, are barely scraping by. Every year the US loses about 10,000 farms, as farmers realize that even with government subsidies they just can't make a go of it. Paarlberg would probably claim that the shrinkage is due to the effects of increased efficiency, which may be—but the last thing countries in the developing world need is tens of thousands of out-of-work farmers flooding into cities... where they will be dependent on the ever-increasing production of industrial food to keep them alive.

Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with aid to Africa. But in the litany of "improved roads, modern seeds, less expensive fertilizer, electrical power, and better schools and clinics", some of these things are not like the other (bonus points if you guess which are most exciting to a former adviser to Monsanto!). Wouldn't Africans better off if, rather than being tied to the world agricultural economy, they were given tools to improve their ability to grow their own food? The system of factory farming in the United States emerged gradually—organically, if you will—once conditions made it possible and apparently desirable; if such a system is going to take over in the developing world then perhaps we can let it happen the same way (only, you know, without the multiple ecological catastrophes that marked—and continue to mark—American factory farming).

I will now pause to allow those more knowledgeable than me about the state of African agriculture to comment, should they choose to do so; I will follow this post with another refuting the suggestion—made frequently—that abandoning industrial farming methods, including petroleum-based fertilizers and monoculture plantations, will lead to worldwide starvation.


Thank you for this post. It reminds us of that which Paarlberg's article obscures: that phenomena are intricately interconnected across time and space. Paarlberg espouses a technical-rationalistic and teleological belief in Eurocentric modernization built on a foundation of pure, objective positivism. Yet, for decades now, if not longer, people from all over the world have been pulling back the curtain on these evidently political positions.

So, while I don't know much about African agriculture, I think I know: that there are many African agricultures; that there are no simple technological fixes to complex problems; that an African farmer's poverty is a localized manifestation of historical and globalized processes—namely colonization and the globalization of fetishized market capitalism; and that market-driven politically-motivated "aid" to Africa has generally done more harm then good.

Here are some more thoughts on the issue: a blog post from Jan. 22nd, 2009 written in response to article in another periodical with "foreign" in its title (a correlation?)

Let me end (for now) by saying that in our efforts to address "world hunger" and to foster sustainable local food systems, we should problematize and historicize our privileged responses such as shopping at Whole Foods (which is another localized manifestation of other—however connected—global processes.)

Yet we should also do something. Thus, in my efforts to address such issues, I want to become more like Dan and Leah.

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