The politics of food-2: The benefits of sustainable farming

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

The previous post examined the four kinds of food production systems in existence.

The sustainable farm model is easily the best one for animals, people, and the environment, and if widely adopted could have hugely beneficial effects on us all in many ways. But unfortunately it is very rarely found in practice. This is partly because the cost of the food produced this way is more (though not a lot more) than that produced by the industrial food chain. This discourages many consumers who have been conditioned to think of price as the determining factor when making food choices. In supermarkets, the only information we are usually given is the price, weight, and price per unit weight, not under what conditions the food was produced, so we have no basis for comparison other than price.

Another reason that such farms are not more widespread is that they cannot be scaled up easily to meet changing demands. In the industrial farm model, if the demand for eggs (say) goes up, one simply builds new coops, purchases more chickens and chicken feed, and thus produces more eggs. But sustainable farms, because of the interdependence of the various components, cannot simply change one of the components in the cycle. As a result, such farms tend to be smaller and cater to a limited number and geographical range of customers.

A third reason for the relative scarcity of sustainable farm practices is that because it supplies just a limited geographical range, the food it produces is largely seasonal and determined by the climate of that region. But we have become accustomed to treating as a right to have whatever food we want all year around, even if it involves having grapes in winter. This results in creating vast international transportation networks to airlift and truck huge quantities of food from place to place, which consumes huge amounts of energy resources.

The food industry burns nearly a fifth of all the petroleum consumed in the United States (about as much as automobiles do). Today it takes between seven and ten calories of fossil fuel energy to deliver one calorie of food energy to an American plate . . . All told, growing food organically uses about a third less fossil fuel than growing it conventionally . . . though that savings disappears if the compost is not produced on site nearby. (p. 183)

The claim can be made that the price of food produced by sustainable farm practices, although higher, reflects the actual cost of food. In the industrial food chain, the direct cost to the consumer is lower but there are uncalculated indirect costs to society due to the damage it does to the environment and to the health of the consumers. So what we save as individuals in the supermarkets, we pay collectively as a society in health and cleanup costs.

As sustainable farmer Joel Salatin says: “[W]ith our food all of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water – all of the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap.” He says that the choice for consumers is simple: “You can buy honestly priced food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food.” (p. 243)

But there is another important reason that the kind of sustainable farming practiced by Salatin does not get much support. It does not feed an economic mindset that advocates consumption:

It isn’t hard to see why there isn’t much support for the sort of low-capital, thought-intensive farming Joel Salatin practices: He buys next to nothing. When a livestock farmer is willing to “practice complexity” – to choreograph the symbiosis of several different animals, each of which has been allowed to behave and eat as they evolved to – he will find he has little need for machinery, fertilizer, and, most strikingly, chemicals. He finds he has no sanitation problem or any of the diseases that result from raising a single animal in a crowded monoculture and then feeding it things it wasn’t designed to eat. This is perhaps the greatest efficiency of a farm treated as a biological system: health.

I was struck by the fact that for Joel abjuring agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals is not so much a goal of his farming, as it so often is in organic agriculture, as it is an indication that his farm is functioning well. “In nature health is the default,” he pointed out. “Most of the time pests and disease are just nature’s way of telling the farmer he’s doing something wrong.” (p. 221)

For those of us who prize conservation, this lack of need for outside inputs is a good thing. But in our present society of warped values which urges people to consume more and more, a sustainable farm in which most of the input comes from the energy of the sun does not ‘stimulate the economy’. All it does is produce healthy food and protect the environment, and ‘the market’ does not value such things.

POST SCRIPT: Bill Maher on Larry King Live

Discussing politics and religion:


  1. Vincenzo Liberatore says

    The CNN video gives me the following error:

    “Malformed Error: The video you are attempting to embed does not exist. Please check your URL and try again.”

  2. Matt says

    I agree. It is hard for someone that has spent most of their life working in the food industry to actually afford the sustainable, humanely raised products that I would prefer to eat. Because of this my diet has changed more towards grains and vegetables with a small amount of meat. Because of this I have started a garden in my backyard, having just purchased a compost tumbler and a rain barrel to help produce my own food, inexpensively.

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