MORE INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE IS NOT THE ANSWER
In a March, 2011 opinion piece, economist Robert Samuelson rightfully connected unrest in the Middle East to rising food prices. Whenever there is political repression or a crisis of any kind, the populace invariably tolerates more than seems reasonable, but when access to food is curtailed, that's when the masses become especially belligerent and will literally put their lives on the line because without food their lives are already on the line.
With this backdrop, Samuelson then addressed the uncertain future of our global food system and how further food shortages could fuel more unrest. But when he proposed solutions to long-term food insecurity for a growing global population, he may as well have offered an injection of saturated fat to someone amid cardiac arrest.
Samuelson tells us the world population will increase 38% by 2050, and with a growing middle classes in India, China, and other parts of the world, global food production will have to double in that same time to answer demand. He makes passing mention of a doubtful Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute and his concerns for "declining water tables, climate change, and eroding topsoil." But he doesn't add that Brown has also told us arable land is being lost to erosion and urban expansion at a rate of 1.1% per year. Nor that our petroleum reserves are half gone and that petroleum byproducts are absolutely integral to our industrial food system –diesel for combines, petrochemicals for farm inputs, diesel for transport, energy for processing, plastics for packaging. According to the Post Carbon Institute, energy costs represent more than 14% of the price of food–and rising.
Rather than accept Brown's alarm, Samuelson cites the great technological advances in agricultural made in the last one hundred years, then refers to the optimism of Robert Fraley of Monsanto. More industrialization (at the cost of more soil?), more fertilizers (made from increasingly expensive petrochemicals?), more irrigation (with water from our depleted aquifers?), and better seeds (patented and owned by Monsanto!), Samuelson says, will provide the necessary doubling of food resources.
It's too bad he didn't attend the Food Justice Conference held at the U of O in February and learn that all his answers have already proven to be dead ends. He doesn't mention that our industrial agricultural system is killing the planet and us. He doesn't mention that chemically enhanced yields also include lowered nutritional density or that our corn syrup food system has created a nation of obese and diabetic, added to our health system overload, and introduced chemicals into everything we eat.
Current agricultural circumstances in the Willamette Valley serve as a useful example. The industrial agriculture model has turned what was once a widely diverse and food oriented valley into the grass seed capital of the world. Lack of diversity, a reliance on petrochemicals, and a sudden crash in the grass seed market have put our valley farmers in a deep hole. The answer is not more industrialization. The answer is a return to greater diversity. The answer is to transition away from chemical dependency, to let nature be her own geneticist, and to promote more ecological and sustainable agricultural practices. There are ways to increase nutritional density, diminish water needs, nurture and build soil biology, and use healthy diets to cut healthcare costs. We are seeing the front edge of that happening right here in our valley. The movement to eat local is directly related. The work of the Southern Willamette Bean and Grain Project is directly related. The work of CAST in Bethel is directly related. The rise of farmers markets and the steady increase in demand for organic products are directly related.
When we consider the future, particularly when we consider the future of western Oregon, the very statistics that Samuelson used to verify looming food insecurity also verify that food production is the way to turn around our agricultural economy. We must hope that when city planners and land-use visionaries seek to push out Urban Growth Boundaries, they understand the part our farmland treasure will play in the future. It will keep us fed and prevent the kinds of civil unrest we have seen in the Middle East when things get urgent.
Why did Samuelson miss so badly on this one? Traditional economic analysis does not understand that we don't own the community of life. We are imbedded in it. Instead of opening his final sentence with, "If nature and technology don't restore a better balance between supply and demand," he should have written, If humans don't find a better balance between nature and the production of food, then finished the sentence as he did, "the consequences for human suffering and political conflict could be fearsome."