Jul 8, 2009

good agriculture

a few days ago, a friend who's a political scientist sent me a link to a new york times article about will allen, who is, among other things, an urban agriculture advocate. i've not run across his stuff before, but i think urban agriculture is generally the right way to go, if it is done correctly. i have some minimal objections to urban agriculture fanatics: the principal one is that if it isn't done right--ie in an ecosystemic way--it is often worse than the alternative. city rainfall runoff systems are generally not capable of dealing with non-botanical agricultural runoff. urban market gardening on a large scale, without NPK nutrient addition, is probably sustainable and net-beneficial. include meat animals anywhere in the system and things begin to break down unless all the components are fairly carefully hooked together. for example, the urban meat animal par excellence is the chicken, or so people think. but keeping chickens in urban environments without transferring the chicken wastes into a composting system that then feeds a garden almost inevitably pollutes the rainwater runoff system with high-nitrogen fecal matter that promotes algal growth in pipes, reducing their lifespan and increasing maintenance costs (and incidentally, increasing the likelihoods of oxygen-starving any water bodies into which the runoff is directed: that's what algal blooms do; high temperature composting sterilizes fecal matter, and plants absorb nitrogenous compounds so that rainfall washing through a flourishing garden is generally close to being filter-clean).

the article concludes by noting that intelligently-executed agriculture has positive externalities, enough perhaps to warrant subsidies to encourage it. well yes. duh, in fact--i've been grouching about this for years (since the year we created the seminar on biodiversity, agriculture, and economics, which was also the year of reading more about agriculture than is good for my blood pressure). certainly, if we are willing to subsidise badly-executed agriculture with massive negative externalities, we should be willing to subsidise the opposite. conventional industrial agriculture, at least in the US, produces food that is incredibly cheap by using and abusing generally underpaid labour, large quantities of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, and transportation to arbitrage low land and production costs. (there are more, but these are the big ones) each of these sources of private savings in fact transfers costs onto various parties:
  1. farm labourers (often illegal, living in horrendous conditions, and exposed to high pesticide loads) go without healthcare which they cannot afford and then tax emergency care systems,
  2. fertilizers run off into local water bodies and cause algal blooms and aquatic die-offs that require expensive remediation often funded by federal or state bodies,
  3. pesticides and herbicides damage local ecosystems (also expensive to restore) and additionally often disrupt the biochemistry of humans that consume them even in trace quantities (see this list of foods frequently contaminated with chemicals used in production). this latter health impact constitutes a potentially enormous distributed cost which magnitude is not yet clear.
  4. transportation-intensive agriculture relies on heavily subsidized fuel and systems (like the interstate freeway), both funded by the taxpayer.
all this, and the food produced isn't even tasty. it's not great for you, it's bad for the environment, it doesn't even taste good; why is it so cheap to buy when it costs so much? because the price of purchase doesn't include all the other costs incurred. on the other hand, local, intelligent agriculture (if done correctly), has fewer of the drawbacks of industrial bad agriculture:
  1. the workers tend to be paid (slightly) better and have better access to healthcare,
  2. fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide use is much reduced or nonexistent (discounting judiciously-applied manure or compost), and
  3. produce is transported much shorter distances.
the food so produced is much more expensive, but the price of the locally-grown organic tomato captures most of the costs of production without spreading a large proportion of those costs thinly across taxpayers and consumers. the cost of intelligently-farmed meats is, of course, even more astronomical, as befits a product which (even correctly-raised*) is costly. arguably, this sort of fully-loaded pricing encourages more efficient consumption: food should be good, it should be produced well, we should be eating smaller amounts of it, a larger proportion of which should be vegetables, we should be treating it with the respect due to costly things.

but can intelligent agriculture provide for people who already can't afford food, or is it going to be the province only of the affluent? the answer depends on assumptions:
  1. if we assume that everyone must eat as much as they currently do (anywhere from 10% to 40% more calories than they need, hence the obesity epidemic in the US),
  2. if we assume that foods will be eaten throughout the year regardless of whether or not they're in season, and
  3. if we assume that the majority (over 90%) of the $50+ billion spent annually on farm subsidies continues to go to industrial agriculture,
the answer probably is no. but if both these assumptions are relaxed, more local, lower-impact agriculture might go a long way towards feeding people well and cheaply. we'll never be able to grow all the staple starches (rice, potatoes, beans, etc) within 50 miles of the coastal urban centers, but a large-scale shift in produce production is possible. food in season is more plentiful, cheaper to produce, and cheaper to sell. locally-grown food travels shorter distances and is thus cheaper to transport. organic or low-pesticide/low-herbicide produce keeps people healthier and eventually will result in healthcare cost reductions both for individuals and for healthcare provision systems.

the key, in a food production system already heavily biased in favour of the incumbents, is to change the price incentives consumers face, so that making the right choice isn't a matter of fighting price signals. bad food produced badly is currently cheaper to buy than good food produced well. for those at the margins of poverty, such a situation is untenable: the obvious rational choice is to choose the cheaper food (and thus to choose all the implications that cheaper food brings). even for those comfortably above the poverty line, choosing between organic strawberries at $6.99 a pound and conventional ones at $3.99 a pound becomes a tough choice between the amorphous, possibly distant benefits of organic produce** and the clear, immediate benefits of saving a couple of bucks.

assumption #3 above, if relaxed, may begin to get us out of this trap. to get this started, subsidize local farms again. levy heavy, punitive taxes on industrial agriculture to pay for subsidies for local, intelligent agriculture. (the same way significant taxes on gas, roads, and personal cars should subsidise cross-national railway and efficient, high-frequency urban public transit, another hobby horse of mine.) we know that good food produced well is less expensive than bad food produced badly; but the price tags need to say so too.

(next: a description of a system for producing and distributing food locally. a food grid, if you will.)


* the costs of meat agriculture gone wrong are legion, and are enormous. low beef prices (for the fast food industry) are largely supported by almost completely unregulated cattle ranching in central and south america. the result is deforestation on a massive scale.
** which is not to say that all organic food is necessarily well-produced. earthbound, one of the largest organic producers, is as industrial as they come. strawberries are top of the list for foods containing herbicides and pesticides: a luscious berry without an outer skin, we eat exactly what birds and insects want to eat and everything sprayed on to prevent them from eating before we do.

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