Monday, October 10, 2016

Pollan, Schlosser, etc.

Agricultural economist David Zilberman (my professor, long ago) has a nice post responding to the series of claims made by journalists over the past 10-15 years. While many of the critiques made in those books ring true, he also has a series of facts that are overlooked in their analyses, including:

1) It's easy to take shots at the nutritional and environmental impacts of mass agriculture and fast food. At the same time, a lot of good is done by cheap grains, cheap meat, and accessible prepared or mostly-prepared meals (like what you see at a supermarket deli). Less time and money spent on food and cooking is a real blessing for the poor.

2) The trend toward organic and small scale production is great for consumers of boutique goods, i.e. those with enough disposable income to afford them. However, these approaches require heavy investments of time and energy by people, removing a burden that was a huge part of society's work output as recently as 100 years ago. Large scale, industrial approaches mean that machines do most of the work rather than people. Further, these small scale approaches require more land: they just aren't as productive. If it takes more land to produce the same amount of food, that creates pressure to devote more land to food production, and that pressure often results in wild lands being converted to agricultural fields. That's not good for the environment. Finally, there are more tradeoffs. For example, no-till cultivation requires the use of more herbicides than traditional methods, but it decreases soil erosion and thereby carbon emissions. Good ends are achieved, but at a cost, and in some cases at least that's a cost worth paying. As Dr. Zilberman says, technology is the key to a good future for rural areas, and being afraid of it or denying its benefits condemns a lot of people to more difficult lives.

3) Finally, the world is complex! What works in one place may not work in another, so there needs to be room for multiple solutions to a given problem once that variation is taken into account. Thus, industrial approaches should give way to artisanal farming in some areas, but perhaps not in others. Issuing blanket condemnations ignores the complexity of the world we live in.

Food for thought?

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