A Reply To Benfell

David Benfell and I had a at times heated debate on topics like organic vs. conventional farming, plant-based vs. meat-based diet, industrialized vs. peasant agriculture, on veganism etc. (You can read the whole discussion here.) In the end we parted in acrimony. His latest answer provoked this following reply of mine, too long to be published on the original platform MicroFragDev.

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@benfell
Sorry, I’ve been away for two days, to cool off and due to work. Should content and tone of mine have been annoying you, I apologize. That you didn’t preach veganism to me is also true – you kept your arguments well in the confines of “plant-based”, I acknowledge that. Furthermore, you’re not responsible for my experiences with preaching vegans. But your dismissive way of handling my replies and your refusal to acknowledge (via ridiculing) that the massive food waste and over-production play a major role in the problems around feeding 7 billion people and reaching a sustainable agriculture left me with the impression that you weren’t listening either.

The only piece of literature you did provide (from 2003, which makes it very old) clearly states that both the “meat-based average American diet and the lactoovovegeterian diet” are “not sustainable in the long term based on heavy fossil energy requirements”, even though the latter is less harmful than the first. But if both – as they are right now – are unsustainable, and that was my point in my last reply, then the simple advocacy of a plant-diet to save the planet and our moral well-being can’t be of much help.

Given the other aspects of our discussion – and regardless whether you think I’m trolling, and that I already pointed to solutions like waste reduction – the heart of the problem seems to be that we’re talking about three different if related topics at the same time:

  • Plant-diet vs.- meat-diet (with regard to resources as well as ethics)
  • Industrialized vs. peasant farming
  • Conventional vs. organic agriculture

I think we didn’t differentiate enough between those three. And with regard to these three topics some comments.

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1.   Industrialized, not peasant farming, is energy-intensive

Vandana Shiva has some good points why it is industrialized agriculture that erodes soils, overproduces crop, and keeps the more people hungry the more it takes hold worldwide, see here and there. But even today, as a report she links to states, 70% of the world food is still produced by 50% of the world population:

“There are 1.5 billion on 380 million farms; 800 million more growing urban gardens; 410 million gathering the hidden harvest of our forests and savannas; 190 million pastoralists and well over 100 million peasant fishers. At least 370 million of these are also indigenous peoples. Together these peasants make up almost half the world’s peoples and they grow at least 70% of the world’s food” (p.1)

If we take into account that small farms (most) often don’t use energy-intensive production methods and are rather harmed by them (e.g., poisoning, indebtedness, the wave of suicides of Indian farmers unable to pay the bills for patented pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides that come in combination, etc.), we may attribute monoculture, decrease in diversity, soil erosion, high energy- and high water-consumption primarily to industrialized-, not peasant agriculture. (Although in industrialized countries this difference seems blurred given that single families on their high-tech farms can work 200 hectares, have 200 cows, and still have time to work as subcontractors.) We may, then, attribute peasant agriculture with far lesser ecological footprint and increased sustainability, wildlife preservation, habitat cultivation.

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2.   Industrialized rather than peasant meat production is the main problem

(I say “rather” in order to leave room for the ethical problems in meat-“production”.)

If what was said in sec. 1 above is reasonable, then peasant-/small type farming may be the way to go, pretty much regardless whether we concentrate on plant- or meat production. Small farm meat production may have lesser emissions (compared to huge meat-factories), will probably treat animals better and will imbue customers via direct contact with a sense of preciousness. Raising cattle and fish is possible at many places (cf. fish farms in the city).

But increasing demands for meat esp. in/from China and South-East Asia will fuel the trend to consume ever more meat. The main of it will come from mass-production. I don’t see how this trend can be stopped or turned around. I agree that worldwide consumption has to decrease heavily, for a variety of reasons, animal welfare, land- and water consumption not the least.

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3.   Industrialized food production and delivery systems necessitate massive food waste

The industrialized production of food (crop, vegetables, fruits, meat, fish) is part of the capitalist production system that tries to balance losses in earnings by enhancement in output. It thereby ruins market prizes, destroys local community-economies, drives small farms out of existence. Undercutting is possible only through the maximum exploitation of resources given at a single time. Yields thus increase over time (with a steady rise in energy- and resources-consumption). Producing more than is necessary is a way to gain market shares by dumping prices. The result is a surplus in food.

With that comes the activities of the middlemen, of transport, delivery, supermarkets. Much food gets lost because supermarket aim at larger package sizes or higher “quality” standards than actually needed. The waste is not only factored it, but expected to occur.

The global food waste of approx. 2 billion tons a years (of 4 billion tons produced annually worldwide) has a variety of reasons: over-production; insufficient storage (in developing countries, e.g.); demands from retailers, demands and predilections from customers, to name a few. Reducing that waste seems pretty much impossible, given that the whole system depends on overproduction to meet its minimal profit line.

Minimizing waste is an individual option. I consume minimally spoiled or “garbage” food from the local food bank. (Organic food, bought in the supermarket or farmers market, is too expensive for me. Interestingly, my health improved when I gave up my diet of organic food for a broader variety of conventional produced and only minimally spoiled food. No kidding, no lecturing, just mentioning.)

Indeed it would be ridiculous to send half-spoiled food from the supermarkets around the world, as you wryly remark. But there is no need for that, as the above mentioned report (p. 1) says:

Eighty-five percent of the world’s food is grown and consumed – if not within the “100 mile diet” – within national borders and/or the same eco-regional zone.

Veggies, fruits, nuts, meat, fish in particular seem still to be produced and consumed primarily locally, whereas food exports to developing countries seem to consist primarily in staples and grain.

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4.   There already seems to be enough food, but is it good food?

Half the world’s food gets lost in the bin. The reasons for this are manifold. But to me feeding the world and keeping food security don’t seem to depend on the question whether the food is conventionally or organically grown/produced. As long as we have this waste, there is already enough.

In capitalism we seem to need to produce abundance just to be able to afford some tiny basics. We need to overproduce in order to keep prizes that low that we can afford to buy a few rolls. That is a rather interesting Zen-like phenomenon, esp. when we compare it with the type of abundance nature “produces” on an average summer meadow just to keep things going. (I wrote more on that in a different context here.)

The Zen-like riddle seems: We need to produce abundance in order to create/ensure the availability of the minimal basics at all. So is our way of producing things harmful, given that Nature seems to do something very similar? Is it not ecology too if we turn to the national federal reserve banks when we’re interested in how things interact to create a communal whole? I find this a frightening way to conceive and understand ecology, but it seems to have become the norm in our age of data-fetishism and systems thinking.

But what if we can’t reduce food waste? Simply because it is part how capitalism works?

There are endless discussions on whether organic food is healthier than conventional one, whether organic farming has a smaller ecological footprint than conventional farming; how much the cut in meat production may reduce greenhouse gas emissions. With regard to soil, landscape, wilderness, water, energy, moral, and all, organic farming seems to score better than conventional farming.

But I suspect that this is less relevant and will not change much as long as organic farming occurs under the conditions, provisions, and market-realities of industrialized farming. Right now it pays to produce organically as the consumers are willing to pay more for the products. Demand increases which will have its own consequences. (Labelling-fraud, e.g., or the already mentioned auto-cannibalism of hens due to lack of sulphur (not magnesium, as I falsely claimed) or group attacks of hens on individual ones in larger groups, copper-poisoning of soils in organic orchards etc.)

Also I suspect we tend to think that organic farming is a solution to many problems created, prolonged, and exacerbated by industrial agriculture. But in this we just might have confused the beneficial effects we think organic farming has with those of small scale farming. Just because organic farming is often done on small peasant farms that doesn’t mean it is the organic farming that evens out, or is able to even out, the negative consequences of industrialized large-scale farming. On a similar token the dietary effects of a lactoovovegeterian or even a vegan diet may result regardless of whether the food is produced organically or conventionally. I wouldn’t be too surprised if one could lead a healthy vegetarian/vegan lifestyle without ever touching organically produced and fairly traded goods.

But to understand more of that I would have to study, e.g., the Agriculture at a Crossroad – Global Report (2009) (606 pages), or its Synthesis (106 pages), both available here, for which I lack the time right now.

So things are difficult. Confusions are ubiquitous and certainties dubious. You can see a nice example of all that in the to-and-fro on organic food here and there. Just watch how both play with their data and talk about different things albeit in answer to the same question. So it is perhaps a bit too much asked of me to come up with a consistent plan in one or two dents/tweets. Things are too complex for that.

Thank you for making me think.

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