Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Again With the Inefficiency

Over at The Freeman, in an otherwise good essay on the unpredictability of the future, Steve Horwitz writes:
Further consider that, contrary to the spirit of futurism, we can afford to consume food that is produced in less-efficient, more labor-intensive ways through organic farming and the “slow food” movement. These are the indulgences of a rich society where we have put our technology to use not to make the mundane act of eating more efficient, but to open up that mundaneness to the variety of human desires. The proliferation of cooking shows, books, and even whole TV networks, not to mention the fancy kitchens more people can afford, is evidence of how technology meeting the market improves our lives—not by large, dramatic changes but by the accretion of marginal ones that enable us to enjoy the mundane more completely.
Horwitz is a great champion of the industrial food system; he has written about this subject here and here (and surely other places as well); additionally, we were both a couple of times involved in Facebook discussions about food systems back when I still had Facebook. Here he claims that our society is so affluent that we can indulge in the inefficient and laborious practices of "organic" farming to our leisure.

There are a few problems with Horwitz's claims (claims which virtually every industrial food apologist repeats ad nauseum):

  • The term "organic" is not explicated in any way at all, so it is unclear what type of farming is being discussed (or rather, being criticized). Are we talking about CalOrganic's thousands of acres of organic broccoli, or are we talking about something more akin to Origins Farm near where I live? Is it organic vegetable farming to which Horwitz refers, or livestock farming, or both? Is it certified organic or ungraded? Pasture-based or confinement-house based? Local or regional or national or global? The inputs and outcomes of various types of farming shift radically when these questions are answered. Referring to "organic farming" is akin to referring to "four-wheeled cars." The umbrella is too big, the possibilities to endless, to draw any real conclusions about anything. Hence why I put scare quotes around "organic" here and elsewhere. I find the term "organic" to be vague, clunky and impractical when discussing food systems.
  • Naturally, this ambiguity trickles down into Horwitz's claim that "organic" farming is "less efficient." Again, less efficient under what system? No clarification is given. Plenty of studies have shown that various modes of organic farming are far more productive per acre than conventional farming, but plenty of studies have shown the opposite. Yet now we're just at a wash and the ambiguity is still there. 
  • Even less clear is the stipulation that organic farming is "more labor-intensive." More labor intensive for who, and what kind of labor? My farmers raise their broilers in the pasture in some ramshackle shelters, butcher them in a shed a few hundred feet away, bag them up and take them to the market. Is this more labor-intensive than industrial methods? 
    • The argument might be made that my farmers produce much less chickens than the farmer who builds several enormous chicken houses and who sends his chickens to slaughterhouses and grocery stores across the country---in other words, proportionately speaking, my farmers are more labor-intensive than the Big Operators, the latter of which produces much more for more people. Yet the industrial chicken farmer requires a massive amount of labor that dwarfs that of my local farmers. You could build one my farmers' chicken shelters in an hour with some scrap wood; the same cannot be said for their industrial counterparts, to say nothing of the upkeep of gargantuan slaughterhouses, big-box grocery stores, fleets of tractor-trailers, myriad packaging and preservation requirements, advertisement expenditures, and the like, not to mention debt-ridden corporate contracts---all things which necessitate labor (and paychecks!) and of which my farmers have no part. Calling industrial farming "less labor-intensive" is a puzzling and suspect approach to the issue, at least when labor taken in the aggregate.
  • More broadly and philosophically speaking, what other "indulgences" have our "rich society" granted us so far? We are certainly better fed than any society in history---so much so that many among us are clinically obese and subject to the attendant health care costs that come with such "indulgences." And people are projected to get even fatter as time goes on (though perhaps Horwitz's futurists will be mistaken about that). The opposite end of the spectrum is that we have too little to eat, and are hence malnourished, and nobody wants that. Yet in the course of making "the mundane act of eating more efficient," people have gotten sicker as a direct result of that efficiency and their personal choices within that efficient paradigm. There may be a middle ground where efficiency is at maximum and health is at optimal levels (I am very certain there is), but in any case, it's no sure thing to claim that the "efficient" industrial food system is an unalloyed boon to American society, or even a mostly good boon. 
These are just questions to consider when encountering people who sing the praises of industrial food systems and who lambast "organic" approaches to food with broad brushes and little explanation. Such people might be right, but they are not very thorough at all, and hence it is possible, and moreover quite likely, that they are wrong.

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