|My Claims||Common Ecophile claims|
|Sustainability should be about efficiency||Sustainability isn't just about efficiency|
|Even if externalities were priced in and subsidies were eliminated, industrial agriculture would benefit from economies of scale and be cheaper than "local" food.||Industrial agriculture is cheaper because its real costs are hidden (subsides and externalities)|
|Sustainability is only a real concern for resources that we must use continuously, but that we use faster than we make. Creating a viable alternative, finding a way to slow consumption, and/or finding a way to speed production are the only ways to address real sustainability problems.||We should stop using X now so we don't catastrophically run out of X later.|
|Organic food has not been shown to be any healthier or more nutritious than regular food.||Organic is healthier and more nutritious|
|I see no reason to believe that waste per unit product is higher for industrial agriculture, nor have I seen any numbers to show it. Please educate me if such arguments/numbers exist.||Industrial agriculture produces more waste than local agriculture.|
Sustainability efforts should be focused on pricing in externalities and improving resource usage efficiency. The health/nutrition stuff doesn't really have science on its side. I also think that we benefit enormously from global food markets, since regional disease and bad weather events would be catastrophic if there weren't willing food exporters distributed around the world. It's one of the best tools we have for avoiding global food shortages. Increased diversity would be another good defense from this, but we don't need to go local to do it, and I'm not sure going local would help.
Piles of arguments below the fold. Before you read them you should know that I approach ecological issues in an entirely human-centric manner. I don't think we should destroy pretty places or be mean to animals just because we can. But, I don't care about pretty places or rare animal species or being nice to caged chickens or anything like that except in so far as it benefits human beings to do so. I think saving the algae is way more important than saving the whales and I'd flatten every mountain in Africa if it meant we could feed all the Africans. I am glad we forced smallpox into extinction and would happily support mass extinctions of many other organisms that are inconvenient to human beings (eg. malaria, HIV).
1. Sustainability isn't about efficiency.
Maybe not, but it should be. Basically, there are two ways you can use fewer resources: you can make less stuff, or you can make the same stuff more efficiently (i.e with fewer resources per item of stuff). The former is what we commonly refer to as "reduced quality of life", so if at all possible I think we should rationally prefer the latter.
2. Industrial Agriculture is cheaper because its costs are hidden
This is true, as far as it goes. There are tons of subsidies that go to industrial agriculture, and there are many "externalities"--production costs born by society rather than the producer (pollution, health damage, &c)-- that aren't currently accounted for. We should fix that by eliminating tariffs and subsidies and by introducing carbon-taxes and other pollution-pricing mechanisms. But, my core argument is that Industrial Agriculture is also cheaper because of its scale. In other words, even if you priced in all that other stuff (and maybe allowed a little time for the industrial producers to adjust their processes to account for those changes) we would still see industrial-scale agriculture and its outputs would still be substantially cheaper than local food outputs.
3. Organic versus Local / Small Scale
This is just a common point of confusion. A lot of the points in the comments contrast organic and industrial farming, not local and industrial farming. Local/Small Scale farms can and do use fertilizer, hormones, and insecticides. They have trouble affording high-capital-cost high-efficiency things like irrigation systems and milking machines. That's the sort of thing I'm talking about in this argument.
4. We should stop using oil so that we don't catastrophically run out of oil
I think when put that way the silliness becomes more apparent. This is a general criticism of sustainability arguments that extends beyond the scope of agriculture. The bad thing at the bottom of the oil well is catastrophic pollution and global warming, not an inability to use and access energy. All the alternative energy sources are replacements for oil, and if we didn't have oil we would quite obviously use these replacements. What's more, as oil becomes more expensive (because it gets scarcer) those replacements become better value propositions regardless of your feelings on pollution, and so society would very naturally transition to them long before there was catastrophic oil shortage. It's not like the wells just spontaneously dry up; you just get less and less from them each year until eventually there's nothing left, or it is so expensive to get what's left that it isn't worth doing anymore. If the ongoing efforts to use bacteria/algae/random-other-biological-process to artificially produce oil ever succeed, the arguments against using oil remain exactly the same.
4a. We should stop using X so that we don't catastrophically run out of X
Same arguments, as in 4, except using X might have no negative ecological impacts, making the concern about its conservation even more ridiculous. Also, when people make this claim it's worth asking if X is actually something you can run out of, or if it just gets tied up the things we're using it for rather than languishing unused in some hole in the ground. Rare earth metals are a great example of this; we worry that we will soon run out of the ones lying around in the ground, but the problem with that is that we wont be able to have a constantly increasing supply of rare-earth-metal containing things, not that the supply of rare-earth-metal containing things will be reduced. We'll just have to reuse and recycle more.
5. Organic is way healthier and more nutritious (This point wasn't made in the comments, really, but it comes up a lot)
This just isn't true, at least not at any currently detectable and significant level. Organic stuff often sounds healthier, because it doesn't use as many "chemicals" in its production, but the practical effect of this is basically indistinguishable from statistical noise. This may not be true for some people with extremely rare and serious allergies, but for the general population organic food has no discernible health benefit on any studied timeline. Oftentimes, it does taste significantly better, but you get what you pay for.
6. Local has less pollution per output
This might be true, but I've never seen any evidence or heard a good argument for it. Caged chickens and feedlots produce a lot of waste, but do they produce more waste per egg than free-range chickens, or is it just harder to quantify the waste of the free-ranged chickens? A chicken is a chicken, and the ones in cages are pretty damn similar biologically to the ones wandering around outside. The ones in cages just take up less space--the ultimate scarce resource--and actually require periodic cleaning or else they all get sick and die. Until someone shows me some numbers or provides a compelling argument as to why the per-chicken or (maybe more importantly) per-egg waste production is higher in industrial settings I will remain highly skeptical about those sorts of statements (unless the yield generating process in question involves large scale pollution).