The Real Cost Of Cheap Food  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Grist points to a recent article in Time on some of the shortcomings of industrial agriculture - Sustainable ag meets the MSM—and wins!

TIME Magazine‘s current cover story wants you to know that our fossil-fueled, chemically intensive industrial food system is destined to fail. Granted, the second part of that sentence isn’t news to Grist readers. But the first part of that sentence is news. Personally, I wouldn’t have expected to read the following positively Philpottian (if not Pollan-esque) prose in a national newsweekly cover story:
With the exhaustion of the soil, the impact of global warming and the inevitably rising price of oil — which will affect everything from fertilizer to supermarket electricity bills — our industrial style of food production will end sooner or later. As the developing world grows richer, hundreds of millions of people will want to shift to the same calorie-heavy, protein-rich diet that has made Americans so unhealthy — demand for meat and poultry worldwide is set to rise 25% by 2015 — but the earth can no longer deliver. Unless Americans radically rethink the way they grow and consume food, they face a future of eroded farmland, hollowed-out countryside, scarier germs, higher health costs — and bland taste. Sustainable food has an élitist reputation, but each of us depends on the soil, animals and plants — and as every farmer knows, if you don’t take care of your land, it can’t take care of you.

TIME Magazine talking about exhausted soil? Whooda thunkit? The importance of Bryan Walsh’s piece, of course, isn’t in the particulars of its insights or its prescriptions. The importance (aside from its very existence as a cover story) is in its declarative nature. For openers, Walsh offers a whirlwind tour of industrial ag practices which covers swine tail docking, sub-therapeutic antibiotic use, manure lagoons, ag subsidies, nitrogen fertilizer run-off and the Gulf of Mexico deadzone—all in the first paragraph. And better yet, Walsh doesn’t fall back on that tired journalistic trope of the “third party fact.” “Experts” don’t “claim” nor do “critics” “observe” nor even does “Michael Pollan” “relate” this or that fact of industrial ag’s excesses: they are instead plainly stated as established, if awful, truth. How refreshing.

Indeed, in these two paragraphs Walsh brings into stark relief the very issues over which Big Ag willfully and relentlessly refuses to engage. One of the more surprising aspects of the article is a total lack of any boilerplate denials from Big Ag of all responsibility for the ills of industrial food that typically get some play whenever the topic of food production gets attention from the MSM. I don’t think it’s an oversight that we didn’t hear from the National Corn Growers Association or the American Farm Bureau or Monsanto or Smithfield or any other Big Ag mouthpiece in this article—it’s likely that nothing they said was worth repeating. ...

If I have a regret about this piece, it’s in the conclusion. Walsh invokes the concepts of “conscious” eating on the one hand, versus “selective forgetting” of the consequences of our food choices on the other. Consumers must be open to change, he declares, if we’re to move toward a more sustainable system. This is no doubt true. But I would have liked a final invocation as well of industrial agriculture’s “ticking clock.” Right now, consumer choice is surely a crucial factor. But if, for example, worldwide demand for meat is in fact set to rise 25% by 2015, it seems to me that we’ll be having unpleasant “choices” thrust upon us much sooner than we may expect. And after 2015 things are only going to get worse (Peak Oil, anyone?) America’s Food Crisis and How to Fix It may have been one of the most thorough and alarmist articles on the industrial food system ever to appear in a major magazine. Sadly, it may not have been nearly alarmist enough.

3 comments

Been a farmer all my life. Every time I hear that the soil is exhausted I am curious as to whose soil they are talking about. Perhaps those making such statements think it should be possible to raise a great crop without fertilizer and that if fertilizer is needed then the soil must be exhausted. Personally, I find it hard to take the term exhausted as anything but exaggerated alarmism.

Steve, I'm interested in your opinion on what life would be like if there were no more fertilizer (or it were too expensive). My father was a dairy farmer and struggled most of the time to make a living at the best of times.

There are three primary types of fertilizer, (N) Nitrogen, (P) Phosphorus, and (K) Potassium. While there is little chance that we run out of P or K or that they become too expensive, it is plausible that N becomes too expensive.

But lets say, for arguments sake, that there is no fertilizer except what waste we collect from humans. Then the world's diet would change.

Yields on the world's four big crops (rice, corn, wheat, soybeans), would probably drop by somewhere around half of what we produce now. There would still be enough food to feed all of the humans but we would stop feeding cows and pigs. Instead humans, especially, American's and Europeans would eat more like India does now.

Cows and pigs would still exist but in far fewer numbers. Cows would still live on land that is only good for grazing but would still need to be feed in the winters. Pigs would be even fewer in number as their primary food source would be garbage.

I don't think the world without fertilizer will happen any time soon. We are much more likely to run out of cheap power first which would have an even greater impact on diet.

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