Sustainable Economics– Asking the wrong questions about organic food production

The Atlantic brings us an example of industrial agriculture setting the agenda.  It is completely true that you can get higher yields with GMO crops using industrial production methods versus going organic or sustainable with those same crops.  GMO corn, soy and wheat are not the only things humans need for complete nutrition, yet we are expected to embrace industrial production because it is still producing high yields of those crops.  Industrial production doesn’t work so well on potatoes and other root vegetables, or perishable vegetable crops.  Industrial organic is obviously not going to be as good as specially subsidized, cheap-energy fueled industrial non-organic.  And the much-praised industrially produced ‘golden rice’ is not yet proven in its task of supplementing a crucial vitamin.

Genuinely sustainable production is mostly regional, mostly adapted to the climate of the given region, can include organic methods, but it’s not mandatory, and is often more labor intensive. This can be limited to ramp-up with many things, though, and then it can be much less labor-intensive on an ongoing basis.

Energy is already a lot less cheap, and those much-trumpeted industrial yields are not as reliable as they once were believed to be.  And when you account for soil fertility issues, runoff damage, lower nutritional value and a complicated subsidy environment propping up farmer incomes in wealthier countries whether they actually produce or not, those absolute yields look very different.

I can’t figure out why people keep getting suckered into this trap.  It is a trap, because you can’t win if you are playing on the industrial field, with industrial help.  It’s obviously not going to get the same results.  But humans are not corn/soy/wheat machines, we need to eat other stuff, and industrial agriculture is not conclusively better or higher yielding for much of that more essential stuff.  People supportive of organic and sustainable alternative agriculture methods and practices really shouldn’t be allowing the industrial standard to predominate the discussion.  It’s just so insidious.  Diversity is key, not building up an ever more elaborate edifice of one-crop agriculture.

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Getting past an entitlement mentality in sustainable farming

Courtesy of that farmer I mentioned yesterday comes yet another grist special about farm financing.  I dunno, I see these articles around and about a lot and what it boils down to is that people seem to expect tens or hundreds of thousands (or more) for business models that aren’t likely to pan out.  Like, there is a 5 acre ‘farm’ mentioned in the comments that had trouble getting farm financing.  That ‘s not really a financially viable farm size.  It is fine as a homestead or a hobby, but not a working farm, as a solid rule of thumb.

I do think there is some valid critique about lenders not being open to mixed-use, more diverse farming models, but it’s hard to see past the entitlement mentality.

My husband and I are getting a little homestead together and if that goes well, we’ll try to farm for real, but we worked really hard to save up some reserve to buy equipment, stock, etc. and I never see anyone mention that. It used to be (at least where I grew up) that a farmhand (which is what ‘farm manager’ means in practical terms) who wanted their own set something aside over years until they had some kind of down payment or reserve for equipment/seed/etc., even if they were mostly living off room/board and very small wages. They didn’t go around crying that the USDA wouldn’t lend them the money. But, that was a couple decades ago. Now nobody thinks you need savings to do anything, I guess.

Golden Rice is Fool’s Gold

Sometimes the more extreme environmentalists are right and one case is Greenpeace flipping out about Golden Rice, which is GMO rice fortified with beta carotene.  For the childrenz.  It hasn’t been seriously tested for bioavailability or malabsorption problems on vitamin A deficient humans.  There was a smidge of testing done in the last couple of years after people kept pointing out the lack of human testing for this food that was supposed to be rolled out to feed millions.  And that testing didn’t really deal with the issue that not everyone can convert beta carotene to vitamin A effectively– especially, among, uh, women and young children.

The best any of it showed was that Golden Rice was equivalent to mediocre (and cheaper!) supplements.  Which are well-known for not being standardized in bioavailability.  You can only standardize the production, not how each human body works with absorbing nutrients from a pill, without the adjuncts in food that tend to enhance absorption and retention.

If people are not getting enough vitamin A, the solution is animal sources– meat (including bugs and offal), eggs, dairy (including cheese, butter, or ghee).  All cultures have allowance for one of those three options in some form or another and you are getting straight up vitamin A, not having to convert from beta carotene, which is quite inefficient, especially in a low animal products diet.  And some people can’t even make the conversion happen at all effectively and just need to get vitamin A from animal sources to avoid deficiency.

But of course nobody is advocating the spending of jillions of dollars on getting poor brown people more meat and eggs in their bowls of non-golden rice and maize.  Maize is next, once they can roll out the rice.  No, we’re supposed to keep shelling out tons of public dollars to private entities to develop golden rice and golden maize, both of which are extremely unlikely to solve the vitamin A deficiency problem and are highly likely to introduce some new fun problems of their own if they get out into mass consumption.

And way too many people use stuff like Golden Rice to shut down any discussion of simpler (possibly even *gasp* cheaper) alternatives to a very real and damaging problem.  The idea that increased animal product consumption might well pencil out cheaper and more ecologically sound and more deficiency-correcting than Golden this or that is of course crimethink.  No, questioning Golden Rice just means you’re a dumb environmentalist who hates the poor eating untested GMO food with possibly toxic levels of beta carotene because you want them to die of blindness or something.

Anyway if someone is talking about how swell engineered food like Golden Rice is, ask them why dessicated liver wasn’t used instead of spending the money on shiny technology to solve a problem that can be solved with, well, dessicated liver as one example.  There’s a supplement that could use some standardization and population testing, but would basically work at a fraction of the development costs of Golden Rice, with much reduced potential for side effects.

But there I go with the crazy talk again.  Oh well.  I’m just a silly luddite, clearly.

Why Urban Farming is Stupid and Evil

If you spend any time in the sustainable farming scene, you will inevitably run into people pushing the urban farming thing. Oh my goodness it is such a horrible horrible idea. It’s one thing to grow a few herbs in a window box– it is a whole ‘nother to pretend a city can self-produce significant portions of its own food.  It’s not sustainable or eco-friendly or green or sound.  It’s mostly political, sadly.  The entire point is to build a working proof that city dwellers don’t need those “Rethuglican” farmers in flyover country, they can hydroponic their way to food sufficiency!

Sometimes people will actually come out and admit this, but that doesn’t help much. Urban farming boosters are very good at not specifying percentages so they can fall back on “We just want people to produce a little bit for their own families, maaaannn” to critics while cheerfully hyping “long term food sufficiency”  or “community food sovereignty” to fellow fans. Sustainable agriculture advocates have to choose.  They can’t on the one hand say that there is a thing such as urban farming and it will aid in food security for poor people while on the other hand claiming that it’s just a fun community project to keep urban teens busy.  Continual talk out of both sides of their mouths on this is one of the many reasons real efforts towards a more diversified, decentralized, robust food production system are not happening.

It needs to be hammered home that if urban farming production isn’t meant to be significant on a local or regional level, then the money going into it really is a complete misallocation of cash, time and labor. And if it is meant to be significant, then we’re back to the craziness of trying to do that in an urban environment when we totally don’t have to and could put the money towards better farming techniques and opportunities for actual farmers instead of the current, well, racist and classist money grab that is urban agriculture.

Speaking of technology, that is usually where urban agriculture boosters start yipping about how improved technological advancements and farming techniques suddenly make “urban farming” a sane thing.  But having better tech just changes the tradeoff calculus. In fact, it can just make some things look falsely feasible when they aren’t really sustainable. Needing fewer people (except of course they never really want *less* human labor, but that’s a digression for another time) doesn’t erase the input and maintenance issues.  Where does the organic material come from?  What do you do when it’s not the political flavor of the month and the grants run out?  Is it really likely there will be an infinite supply of overeducated, mostly white young people to administer and intern for these programs?  And so on and so forth.

The real truth is that having better tech means BETTER OPTIMIZED FARMING OUTSIDE THE CITY. It’s still local if it goes four miles to the city, after all. We can have clean, green cityscapes and also much better food produced near, just not in, the cities. Why waste the tech on urban daydreams when it could be used for improving and optimizing small farm production just outside the cities? Vast quantities of time, money and labor are being diverted to this ideological foofery instead of actually getting people into functioning small and medium farm production.   This is a case in point, misrepresenting history to further the dumb urban farming agenda.

In Detroit right now, piles of money are raining from the government and non-profit sky for delusional implementations of urban agriculture, and it’s still an unpleasant commentary on what people with money to burn think Detroit and its black people are really worth, which is not much more than stoop labor. Only with 20% less dignity.

Urban farming is not a solution to any of the problems facing sustainable production of healthy, nourishing plants and animals.  At best, it is a nice way for a community to make use out of an old parking lot or what have you.  At best.  In general, though, it is a way to actively undermine or prevent small to medium local-regional food production operations from blossoming.  This is too bad, as it is a fine hobby.  It’s just stupid and evil as policy.