Response Part 2: The problems with global food production

Michael posed another challenge to my assertion that there are serious problems with the current food production system by pointing out that our current system produces enough surplus to make us one of the largest grain producers and exporters in the world. He argued that if we took my advice and reorganized our food production system using more local agriculture, then we would essentially be starving the world through our selfish need to take better care of the environment. I brought up some counterarguments at the time, and now I will revisit them and expand upon them further.

The current industrialized and globalized food production system has enough flaws to warrant a complete re-thinking of its structure. The way we produce our food is unsustainable, inefficient, unequal, and unhealthy. It is unsustainable because of the damage it does to the environment, inefficient because of the energy intensive processes used in modern farming, unequal because its distribution is based on who can pay for food instead of who needs it, and unhealthy because by responding to high profit margins the food processing industry has helped create an obesity and diabetes epidemic.

The unsustainability of industrial farming is demonstrable on numerous counts. One is soil quality erosion due to intensive farming and high use of fertilizer that provides only some of the nutrients necessary for plants1. About 90% of US cropland is losing soil at an unsustainable rate2. Another is pollution from the run-off of the nitrates used to fertilize the plants. This already causes areas of oceanic ‘dead zones’ that are larger than the state of Oregon3. Another problem is the cultivation of genetically engineered single-crop, or mono-crop, fields that are decreasing genetic diversity and necessitating massive outlays of chemical pesticides to maintain. With loss of genetic diversity, our ecosystems lose their ability to adapt to changes in the environment and genetically modified species risk wiping out natural biodiverity through cross-pollination and species destruction4. The chemical pesticides used on these crops are their own separate problem, causing increases in carcinogenic exposure5, surface and groundwater contamination6, and social costs of up to $8 billion dollars per year7. We should focus on sustainable levels of production with respect to earth’s carrying capacity, something that our modern production system does not do.

The inefficiency of modern food production may come as a surprise to those who are accustomed to thinking of the ‘green revolution’ as a major advancement in the efficiency of farming. The problem is our implicit assumption that increases in production is the same as increases in efficiency. This could not be farther from the truth. What has changed in agriculture over time has been the energy input into the system and technological innovations that accompany the energy inputs. The availability of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides has allowed farmers to increase yield per acre by pumping nitrogen into fields and developing vast monocrop farms that are dependent on synthetic pesticides to sustain. A study done in 1974 shows that energy inputs into the food system have far outstripped the energy output. The ratio rises dramatically from close to 5:1 to over 10:1 in energy input to output, which includes the energy used on the farm as well as in processing, transportation and consumption8. Another more recent paper reviews current literature on total factor productivity of modern agriculture and states that “In virtually all studies on industrialized-country agriculture, the analyses showed diminishing returns of productivity to increases in energy-intensive inputs.”9 We are simply using up earth’s stored solar energy in the form of fossil fuels and biological capacity in order consume in the short term. This arrangement is not only wasteful, it is irresponsible to every subsequent generation of living organisms on our planet.

The inequalities inherent in our current system have to do with resource distribution. Humans already produce almost 2800 calories for every person in the world, yet according to the WHO over 3 billion people are malnourished (the largest number and proportion in history)10. The trends inherent in globalization include specialization, economies of scale, and global supply and demand. Unfortunately for the poor of the world, this means that they often become dependent on fluctuating foreign markets for income, they compete with rich countries that export subsidized food, and compete with developed countries who can more easily pay for the food(Japan purchases between a quarter and a third of all US corn exports11) . With the rise in meat production resulting from a rise in incomes in many developed and developing countries, more and more resources are going to feed animals rather than people. “The amount of grains fed to US livestock is sufficient to feed about 840 million people who follow a plant-based diet10. The energy input for animal protein is approximately 11 times that of grain production of equivalent protein10, yet because meat can be produced cheaply and sold to rich consumers, resources are allocated accordingly. One factor that contributes both to cheap livestock production and to unfair global competition is US farms subsidies. These subsidies may represent a decrease of 15% in costs for domestic livestock producers12. A reconfiguration of these incentives must happen for equality in food production and distribution to be possible.

Finally, the health consequences of our modern food production and distribution system are nearly all-pervasive. Industrial food production contributes to: significant greenhouse gas emissions13; incentives for processed food that decrease nutritional value14; carcinogens5, pesticides, and bacterial outbreaks15; the ubiquity of high fructose corn syrup in soft drinks has been linked with the diabetes epidemic among children16; and the proven damage that global warming is causing and will cause to human life are all symptoms of the misallocation, misplaced incentives, and insensitivity to ecological principles inherent in our world.

The facts are difficult to grasp all at once. It is hard to believe that modern production could be so problematic when each step of the way has seemed fairly rational at the time. To make sense of all of these failings means acknowledging that humans cannot treat the earth and one another as means to the ends of accumulation and wants satisfaction. We need to re-evaluate our priorities and make sure we take care of our fellow human beings before we focus on building yachts and raising sirloin steaks for the rich. We need to respect the ecosystem that surrounds us instead of plundering it and wiping out irreplaceable species and resources. We need to think about our choices and find ways to change our world to reflect what we believe. Future posts will attempt to outline how we can make some of those changes.

1 Doran and Zeiss. “Soil Health and Sustainability: managing the biotic component of soil quality.” Applied Soil Ecology 15 (2000) 3-11, http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/cropsystems/components/7402_02.html
2 Pimentel et. al. “Environmental and Economic Costs of Soil Erosion and Conservation Benefits.” Science vol.267. February 1995.
3 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/15/us/15oceans.html?_r=1
4 http://www.actionbioscience.org/biotech/sakko.html
5 http://pesticides.montana.edu/PcideProfiles/carcinogens.htm
6 Gallagher et. al. “Ground water discharge of agricultural pesticides and nutrients to estuarine surface water.” Ground Water Scientists and Engineers. Winter 1996.
7 http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/~agroeco3/modern_agriculture.html
8 Steinhart and Steinhart. “Energy Use in the U.S. Food System.” Science Vol. 184 pp 307-316.
9 Naylor, Raymond. “Energy and Resource Constraints on Intensive Agricultural Production.”
10 Pimentel and Pimentel. “Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 78(2003).
11 2010 World of Corn Statistics Book. http://www.worldofcorn.com/pdfs/WOC-Stat-Book-SinglePG.pdf
12 http://www.agobservatory.org/library.cfm?refid=88122#search=%22major%20costs%20livestock%20farmers%22
13 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Greenhouse_Gas_by_Sector.png
14 http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2010/01/why-is-american-food-so-cheap/33259/
15 http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1696&dat=19971222&id=ogsbAAAAIBAJ&sjid=CEgEAAAAIBAJ&pg=2785,3132169
16 http://clinical.diabetesjournals.org/content/20/4/217.full, http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S26/91/22K07/

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