Michael Pollan on food and farming
October 30, 2008, 8:14 pm
Filed under: Farming, Global change, Interventions in the carbon/climate crisis

Laxness, illness, holiday and day job have made me a particularly slack blogger recently, for which I apologise. Here’s something I should have written a few weeks ago

If I were writing Eating the Sun now (Amazon US|UK, since you ask…), rather than a couple of years ago, the biggest difference would probably be that there would be more about food and farming in it. The fact that photosynthesis is where food ultimately comes from is of course there in the book (it’s actually the theme of one of my favorite passages) and agriculture crops up in various places and guises. But it could have been worked in more deeply — something Jeremy Cherfas’s review picked up on — and in today’s climate it certainly would have been.

So this passage in Michael Pollan’s recent piece in the New York Times — a letter to the new president on reassessing the politics, business and culture of food in America — struck a chord:

The core idea could not be simpler: we need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine. True, this is easier said than done — fossil fuel is deeply implicated in everything about the way we currently grow food and feed ourselves. To put the food system back on sunlight will require policies to change how things work at every link in the food chain: in the farm field, in the way food is processed and sold and even in the American kitchen and at the American dinner table. Yet the sun still shines down on our land every day, and photosynthesis can still work its wonders wherever it does. If any part of the modern economy can be freed from its dependence on oil and successfully resolarized, surely it is food.

The key point in the piece — that the food business accounts for about 20% of US fossil fuel use — is an important one, and the article has received a great deal of pick-up, including by its intended reader, as interviewed by Joe Klein.

I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollan about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it’s creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they’re contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs.

There’s much in the article to like, though I must say that I wish Pollan would take a leaf out of George Monbiot‘s book and put up references on his website to the various unnamed studies he cites. And I wish he’d give percentages as well when he gives crude numbers, and vice versa. If you don’t do that you don’t give a real quantitative sense of the state of play, and you engender the feeling that you are using the numbers more for rhetoric than clarification: are 4700 farmers’ markets in the US a lot or a little?

As I say, though, there’s much to agree with. Perennialisation, for example, makes a lot of sense to me, if it can be got to work, as do winter cover crops, and making sure farmers markets take food stamps. An increased reliance on polycultures and controls on antibiotic use and agricultural pollution from intensive livestock operations all seem reasonable, and the second two seem things a regulatory regime might bring about. It seems to me that he’s less clearly right on fine tuning, as opposed to cutting, subsidies; if you redeploy subsidies (which I think is what he is suggesting) you’ll just encourage new ways to farm the subsidy. It might be easier, as well as cheaper, to scrap subsidy than to create subsidies that can’t be gamed and have no unintended harmful consequence. But I’m not dogmatic on that, and I certainly think doing something about subsidies for vast grain farms is a good idea.

He’s also oversold, it seems to me, on organic food and becoming locavores. Shipping food long distances does not necessarily give it a higher carbon footprint than locally sourced food. Ocean shipping (and for that matter the sort of truck shipping that a company like Walmart does) can be pretty energy efficient. There is a much cited study showing that New Zealand lamb, consumed in the UK, is a much better carbon bet than Welsh lamb, consumed in the UK (James McWilliams wrote about this in the NYT); Michael Specter wrote a terrific piece in the New Yorker about this and other subtle aspects of the “food mile” idea that reveal its woeful oversimplification. The fact that it can make economic sense for food to be shipped from A to B even if very similar food is being shipped from B to A — biscuits from Denmark to America and America to Denmark, for example — is, as I understand it, the basis of the work for which Paul Krugman just won the Nobel Prize. Both parties get economies of scale that offset the transaction costs, and there seems to be no theoretical reason why this would not be so in many cases even if full environmental externalities were accounted for. (No false modesty in the “as I understand it” — I may have this wrong and would welcome knowledgeable correction.)

On organics, there are a bunch of problems. For me the starting point is that some of the goals organic farming prizes are right: but the assertion that achieving all those goals is best done with no industrial inputs whatsoever is an ideological shackle that leaves the movement fatally hobbled, and open to the criticism that its a scam designed to create artificial market segmentation and elite price premiums. In short I agree with Gary Jones at Muck and Mystery, who actually makes a living from the land:

Balanced fertility in healthy soils growing improved crop cultivars gives the best nutrition and taste while continuously improving soil.

There are good practices that are approved by organic regulators but they are good practices in any agronomic system. Maintaining soil organic matter by using green and brown manures, no-till cultivation, leaving crop trash in place, cover cropping and intercropping is just good practice. Attention to soil micro and macro organisms is also good practice.

But, the effective use of manufactured fertilizers is one of the best ways to increase soil organic matter and achieve balanced fertility. The use of some GMOs makes perfect sense though not all. The effective use of some pesticides and herbicides in an integrated pest management system makes perfect sense.

We need to move beyond these lack wit notions and support good growers without fussy taboos that defy scientific evidence and reason.

Organics are also frequently oversold. If the “recent University of Michigan study” Pollan looks to for evidence that organic farming can feed the world is this one, then it seems to me that the criticisms of it here are pretty strong (yes, that attack on the work comes out of the Hudson Institute; seems pretty well argued though.)

Organic farming is also not necessarily good for the climate: sometimes it’s harmful. A UK government report (pdf) which my friend Tom pointed out to me last year gives figures from a study at Cranfield University for chicken production which show that normal industrial production uses less energy and has less acidification and eutrophication potential than free range and organic alternatives. For milk the conventional uses slightly more energy but has less global-warming, acidification or eutrophication impact; in both cases organic uses more land.

I think Pollan’s wrong to imply that polyculture in itself will drastically reduce the need for energy-intensive fertilizers. Farmers were using fertilizers long before the shift to monocultures; farmland has always lost fertilitity over time. And putting fertility back with sunlight alone is hard — you can do it for nitrates, given time, and of course for soil organic matter, but it doesn’t really happen at all for phosphates. There are no phosphate-fixing microbes, because there’s (thankfully) no suitable gas in the atmosphere for them to fix. When it comes down to it, anything that you take from farmland that’s not carbon, hydrogen and oxygen will need to be replaced sometime: all the sunlight gives you is carbohydrates. Replacement will take energy, and that means more sunlight somewhere else driving renewable generation of some sort, or the use of fossil or fissile fuels. (Exporting less protein from farms can reduce the inputs you need, since more nitrogen etc stays put; but that means convincing people to eat less meat, which while probably a good idea for many of us is a bit beyond the president’s powers, I suspect.)

You can substitute muscle for some inputs: labour intensive farming can replace energy intensity in farming to some extent. But who’s going to do that? If you want labour intensive farming, surely you’re best trying to get it going in places where labour is cheap — which is to say not the US. John McCain was undoubtedly wrong to claim that native born Americans won’t pick lettuce even at $50 an hour. But it is true that Americans don’t at the moment seem to like farm labour as a career much, and that if it takes $50 an hour to change their minds then lettuce is going to be very expensive. So Pollan may claim that “We need more highly skilled small farmers in more places all across America … The revival of farming in America … will generate tens of millions of new ‘green jobs’,” but who is going to fill them? When he writes “We emptied America’s rural counties in order to supply workers to urban factories” it’s not clear who “we” are, and why the workers who were passively supplied aren’t included in “our” number. Seems to me the workers made a choice — a constrained one, of course; they all are — and it is not clear how “we” or anyone can reverse that choice. They have seen Paree; it will be hard to get them back down on to the farms. This may be false consciousness; people might be a lot happier on farms, wresting their bread from the earth by the sweat of their brows. But I think it will be hard to convince them this is so.

More or less arbitrary Washington farm image from flickr user Darhawk, used under a Creative Commons licence. The picture of Obama I couldn’t find details for and will remove if anyone objects.


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