Saturday, March 24, 2012

Not sold on the Local Food movement: take two

My college roommate--an ecologist--just took a swing at my local food skepticism post.  I think he missed in all the same ways that my other ecophile buddies do, but his comment gave me a great sampling of the typical arguments I hear.  I'm going to address each of them in the hopes that future ecophiles might be able to help me understand their position better, or come to the realization that their position is untenable and surrender to my superior arguments.  You can read his original comments here; I'm just going to summarize what I see as the key claims and arguments and then address them systematically.

My ClaimsCommon Ecophile claims
Sustainability should be about efficiencySustainability 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.

My Conclusions:
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.

My Arguments:
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).


  1. page 1
    Your list of points is surprisingly easy to address- you’ve really thrown me some bones. First a summary: point one seems to be your main argument from a philosophical perspective, arguing for efficiency, but what you’ve written remains a statement without any supporting evidence or arguments. You could flesh it out, and then I can respond, but as is, you make no argument (but I give a short response anyway, including pointing out how industrial agriculture is inefficient in terms of water, etc). Point two, possibly your strongest point (but still weak) that you could argue on, but it has no evidence for your or my side, sadly we must declare a draw. Points about running out of oil and resources are straw men, as I will show below, but your thoughts give me some traction to rant more about the benefits of some aspects of sustainability and drawbacks to an efficiency based approach, drawbacks which you recognize. Further, the health (but not nutrition) argument most clearly has science on its side, as I will argue below. And for your final point, as per your request, I will present an ecological argument about waste from industrial food production with the case study of waste from confined animal production.

    I can’t say that my original rant was a very convincing series of arguments either, thus I understand the weakness of your counterpoints. So after I refute every point on your list, and further show that actually some of what you write is arguing for rather than against sustainability, maybe we can keep going, or maybe you will concede on some or many points. In sum, though, from your table and detailed arguments, you present some supporting evidence for the sustainability side (I think you agree with it more than you let on), but you present few or no arguments against it. I recognize that your arguments are not entirely for industrial agriculture but for a philosophy of efficiency, so we should recognize these are different, and maybe this is where we can really step forward in our discussion.

    Before getting into your points, you may want to read my various footnote rants about the larger issues of species extinction, food security and “food aid” which you briefly touch on. I have placed at the end because they are somewhat distracting asides, but important things we can discuss later.

    I will also state that I share your human centric view- as you obviously know, I care (and often rant extensively) about social justice, human rights, distribution of wealth and resources, etc. People should be able to live happy lives with all their basic needs met. And even meeting our basic needs will impact (ok, destroy) species and ecosystems. As animals, we obv have to take our fair share from nature, including resources which sometimes forever changes the environment around us (e.g, fighting diseases- however to compare the extinction of smallpox to extinction of, say, wolves or destruction of the rainforest, is a leap you imply that I think is super hyperbolic and downright silly). All animals change their environments (sometimes drastically, e.g., beaver dams). We can too. What I argue is that many aspects of our current industrial approach to agriculture (and our stuff-making-using-disposing system) in large degrees works against a goal of human happiness and welfare (again, see footnotes). Various aspects of sustainability, organic, and local (we should choose the aspects of course that are proven to work, and focus on actions and outcomes not principal) can help immensely towards a goal of human welfare. My position is to not follow organic and other choices blindly of course, but accept it as a necessary piece of our future. Now, on to your discussion points..

  2. page 2

    (1. Sustainability isn't about efficiency.) Your point one. Brief rant about your wording, and then on to the logic. Really, Rory, to imply that “reduced quality of life” is a necessary outcome of “making less stuff”? I put it simply, and invite your response: If we are looking at stuff vs. quality of life as a mathematical function, you are implying a linear relationship. Seriously? I think its quadratic (or at best asymptotic).

    Ok, obviously there is a point at which “making less stuff” becomes “poverty.” I do not want poverty. I want my whiskey and good beers and a warm home and clothes and to travel a bit and amazing food and more. Glasses so I can see, and medicine and a bike, and art and music, trains and telephones. But we (EuroNorthAmericans, hereafter ENA) are well beyond the point of production-consumption at which we have enough “stuff” for a good quality of life. We have stuff that a) we don’t need, b) we don’t even use, c) that stresses us out, d) that causes environmental degradation, e) and/or that is outright toxic to the health of us and our children. Ergo, we can give up lots of our “stuff” without losing our quality of life, for sure. Ergo, we should both make less stuff and make stuff with appropriate processes and resources (processes we can sustain and that sustain us). To argue only or mostly efficiency or to focus on efficiency without also focusing on reducing our amount of stuff (especially stuff from categories A-E above) - I invite you to make an argument on this, because I don’t see it.

    Also, sometimes the stuff that brings us quality of life often brings lower quality of life to the people who live where the raw materials are extracted, who work in the factories where the stuff is made, and who live in the places where we dispose of the stuff we don’t want anymore. So be sure in any argument for efficiency to think whole system, if your goal is human-centric. (While it is not inherent that these bad things happen to make our “stuff”, it is a current fact of most of our “stuff making system” (although not always, obv)).

    Also importantly, you don’t address my position about the right kind of efficiency, e.g., using renewable, non toxic processes to produce our food and goods rather than nonrenweable, toxic ones. See my third point that ends with, “There are some kinds of inputs that we have LOADS of and that are kinder to our bodies and planet, and some kinds of inputs that we have few of (and that are toxic).” Sustainability is about the former, rather than efficiency in the most immediate sense. If you want to be thorough, you could also re-read and address points from my original first paragraph that ends with “sustainability is not about efficiency but is rather about sacrificing efficiency in the short run to obtain, well, sustainability.”

    In short, your point one is too shallow to considered an argument. However, with it, you make progress. I think we are getting close to agreeing that less stuff (in my opinion, a lot) needs to be made with resources that a) we have more of, b) that are easier to get at, and c) have less enviro/health/climate/social effects. Which is what I was saying, and which is the key tenet of sustainability, and which is counter to most of the industrial-consumer system as it stands today.

  3. page 3
    (2. Industrial Agriculture is cheaper because its costs are hidden) Unfortunately, the short rebuttal is that neither of us have numbers on this, so we have to call this a draw. Unless you have some numbers across an array of crops and ecosystems (I doubt more than a few example studies exist)- I don’t think we even have ballpark numbers. If anything, I would say the evidence of “costs born by society” after environmental disasters like oilspills, and the health effects of pesticides and other pollutants, is that these are huge. The cost of restoring desertified land that we have made unusable because of neglect and pollution and overuse, is also massive, possibly unquantifiable.

    But I am glad we both agree on “eliminating tariffs and subsidies and by introducing carbon-taxes and other pollution-pricing mechanisms”. This is something all the sustainable people have been shouting about for a long time, so here you are slightly siding with sustainability.

    In the end, you cannot make the argument that “Industrial Agriculture is also cheaper because of its scale”, and I cannot counter the argument.


    (3. Organic versus Local / Small Scale) This is exactly what I harped on in my response: that sustainability does not always equal organic does not always equal small scale does not always equal inefficient. Its why I eat (some) meat now, and why I critique mainstream vegetarianism/ vegans. In some places, meat is better than plants, in some places fertilizer is needed. What sustainability is about and what industrial agriculture is not (in general) about is reducing fertilizer to only the amount necessary, using less toxic chemicals, producing crop systems (rotating crops, cover crops, no till approaches) rather than monoculture that demands more synthetic inputs. Etc.

    Sustainability embraces various aspects of organic/ small/ local, but (I agree with you here) sometimes blindly, and without thinking all the way through. It should. Again, my position is to not follow organic and other choices blindly of course, but accept each as a necessary piece of our future.

    I would add something I neglected before... sustainability is about efficiency over water, a super key resource (e.g., irrigation with drip systems instead of open air, the approach of most big farms). In its hugeness and scale, the industrial farms are very inefficient, transporting water far from its source and overusing it. Same with other inputs: fertilizers used so much that most ends up in the Gulf of Mexico, eventually killing all the fish and mussels and such, is a good example. Point is, the system you call efficient is not necessarily efficient at all.

    A point of clarification. “Irrigation systems and milking machines” are not “high-capital-cost high-efficiency”. They are actually a part of even quite small farms. And are not necessarily unsustainable. Milking machines can be run on solar power, and irrigation can be somewhat low impact (if you are not trying to super maximize yields of plants that don’t belong in a certain climate in the first place, as most industrial agriculture does). My sustainable argument? Grow the plants that suit the environment around you, or grow foraging animals, and as a side point, people shouldn’t live where nothing grows.

  4. page 4
    (4. We should stop using oil so that we don't catastrophically run out of oil)

    I need only quote you, as your words make a better argument against oil (which is inseparable from most of industrial agriculture in any near term future): “The bad thing at the bottom of the oil well is catastrophic pollution and global warming.” You are making a coherent, if brief, argument about the destructive nature of oil (and the industrial agriculture that currently uses LOADS of oil). Most sustainability people are more worried about these two items than the loss of oil per se (it is possible that many environmental people might be glad if oil went away). So your statement is a straw man argument, it is mostly doomsday people who are afraid of the nonexistence of oil, as such.

    Now for the argument that the market will figure it out, that as oil becomes more expensive to extract, we will stop using it... Current efforts to extract oil from tar sands and miles and miles deep in the ocean show otherwise. Actually what is happening is that we (as humans) are taking bigger environmental risks (see the Deepwater Horizon explosion, and fracking for natural gas, and tar sands oil) to get the remaining resources.

    In any case, in negating the specific argument (about catastrophic running out of oil, which I didn’t put forth anyway), you have effectively argued for the overall point of sustainability here- which is to consider environmental consequences of our energy uses. I am glad that you seem to agree that in the long term, pollution and global climate change are unsustainable. Again, you seem to side with sustainability.

    (4a We should stop using X so that we don't catastrophically run out of X) Same point as above. Sustainability people worry more about the pollution, environmental degredation, people exploitation (many sustainability people are big supporters of fair trade, etc, so we should mention this), etc., than the particular fact not having a resource around anymore. The sustainability people (myself included) would rather we leave more of this stuff in the ground. We would also rather not cause so much desertification, saltification, improper disposal of all the toxic stuff we make, etc., because it destroys our most precious resource (that you aptly point out)- land. Fact: Less and less land becomes usable every year directly due to industrial agriculture. On the other hand, the best and most sustainable agriculture, ecological agriculture, can help reclaim and restore land.

    Again, I am glad we agree to reuse and recycle more. Another key point made by all sustainability people. Again, you support sustainable systems.


    In terms of benefits of industrial agriculture, you have some ground here in the “we currently benefit greatly” from cheap prices and readily available huge amounts of food in our grocery stores. We and currently are key here The “we” is because not everyone benefits... the people who lose are for example the native people of the rainforest whose livelihood is destroyed so we can make crops and raise cattle there. Do we have the right to destroy other people’s ability to make food so we can make food? A conundrum. The “currently” is because as I point out, every year because of industrial agriculture less land is arable, there is more pollution and less fish and more toxins poured on our food (to fight off the diseases which will evolve faster than we can breed).

    Footnote on you being absurd: Your statement “I'd flatten every mountain in Africa if it meant we could feed all the Africans”. First there is the paternalistic “all the problems are over there in Africa and we, from our white man world, have to solve them” perspective that your words (probably unintentionally) imply. Second, flattening mountains has very little to do with feeding people. Indeed, our extractive industrial food-and-stuff-producing mechanisms (which are fuelled by the coal from the mountains, among other things) are often the direct cause of hunger and health problems (via, duh, environmental destruction, and removing of people’s ability to do just fine on their own, thanks). You need look no further than climate change. I think this was a super ignorant statement- I understand your overall point that you would sacrifice nature for people, but at least pick a analogy that makes sense.

    Footnote on you bringing “food aid” into the argument. You state that keeping the worldwide food production and distribution system in place has a benefit of allowing us to send spare food to people in emergencies. For sure. However, this is similar to an argument my brother made for keeping plastic water bottles- they are good in emergencies. However, their everyday use is an abuse. Our everyday transport of strawberries from Brazil in December is an abuse. Further, our “food aid” in the long run is counterproductive in many ways (cultivating a reliance on our aid), but that is another debate.

    As for relieving disease, again an interesting point, but see the point above. Further, the regional and global occurrence of epidemics increase as we transport more food and stuff around the world. So while we might be able to send food relief, this same system of transport spreads disease very efficiently. Should we all be disconnected? No, but I don’t think your argument is tenable. Relieving weather disasters- same point about causes. Climate change (from fossil fuels) is making these worse every year. Its a nasty cycle we have gotten into.

    Further, your general arguments show short sightedness. If sacrificing long term ecosystems that function to support our oxygen, water, wood, and food, is what is needed to “feed all the Africans” or our desire for stuff, is it worth it in the long term?

    As for the whales, and saving species in general, I am with you about halfway. I can’t join the ranks of PETA, and many other pro-animal or pro-nature groups, because sometimes people come first. As my intro says, we consume parts of nature to keep existing. Any conservation action must be balanced by social, political, and economic concerns, but vice versa, the SPE concerns must be balanced by an awareness that we still and always will depend on our environment (oxygen, water, energy) for life. But I will give you a short argument for saving species, which might give insight to why myself and most of your colleagues do what we do. Let’s picture the global ecosystem as, say, a car, with all the pieces and parts as species or abiotic things like mountains. We are currently taking parts of the car apart, replacing them, etc. Sometimes we improve the car. But we aren’t mechanics. We have a user manual that we are writing ourselves. Do you know which species the global system can do without? Take CO2. Fifty years ago we didn’t know it would be such a big deal, now it is a big deal. Will whales, or some tiny flower in the amazon, be the next key? Probably not. But here you can call me a conservative- the natural ecosystems have been functioning for a long time (and sustaining us and everything else), and there is a point where removing lots of pieces will make it all fall apart.

    Still, what about whales specifically? As the largest organism in the sea, and therefore one of the top consumers, they play a role that dominant herbivores in any ecosystem play- eating lots of stuff and thus cycling nutrients. Removing such a keystone species will probably affect other parts of the ecosystem, such as the phytoplankton, the microscopic plants that produce oh about half the oxygen. So I don’t argue whales for whales sake, but I argue whales for the role they play, eventually, in the system, in keeping us alive. The general point is that we do not know exactly which species keep us alive. Its why I like being an ecologist, to learn about how all that nature is a part of us, and to show people that it is really an all things are connected world.