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Dec 19

Agribusiness as Usual (pay no attention to that man behind the subsidized curtain!)

The idea that organic farming just can’t work on a national or global scale is so often presented as a self-evident, undeniable fact that I tend to believe it.

Cherry tomatoes growing in my roof garden.

So as I go about trying to make healthy, ethical decisions about my own food consumption, I sometimes see myself as part of a privileged few who get to make such choices, while resigning myself to the fact that there’s no way the world is going to go organic — even if it would be better for people and the planet.

But three articles I’ve encountered in the last few weeks have been good reminders that just because something is repeated long and loud doesn’t make it so. Sometimes Toto just needs to pull the curtain back to remind us that we’re listening to puffed-up pronouncements from the great and powerful Wizard of Big Ag.

ONE. In a terrific Dec. 5 piece at TheAtlantic.com, Organic Can Feed the World, Barry Estabrook (Tomatoland) takes on the agribusiness claim that organic farming is a idealistic undertaking (and maybe even a dangerous idea!) and that we must rely on industrial farming to feed the world. Estabrook pulls together a lot powerful evidence to turn the oft-repeated claim that organic can’t feed the world on its head.

I’m not going to quote Estabrook’s piece here. It’s not long, wonderfully well written, and worth a few minutes. Read it here.

TWO. Then I came across a recent Forbes Q&A with angel investor Ali Partovi, who is investing in a number of sustainable agriculture projects. It’s a really interesting interview that covers a lot of ground, but I was particularly intrigued by Partovi’s thoughts about pasture-based livestock production. First, this:

Domestically, the factory farm and corn systems go somewhat hand in hand. The corn system feeds the factory farms, but the factory farms are what create a lot of demand for the corn. I guess the area that I find particularly enticing is to enable scalable pasture-based livestock production. Whether it’s a single company or a series of companies or the equivalent to a larger scale Niman Ranch. Essentially, the more we can transition to eating animals raised on pasture directly, the more we will be able to reverse some of the negative impacts of both factory farms and the corn based system.

And then Partovi went on to say:

From every conversation I’ve had, it seems to me that grass-fed beef, and pasture-raised livestock more broadly, is a huge opportunity for capital investment. The market is not developing as fast as it should because there’s not enough capital flowing into it. This is a classic problem whenever there’s a rapid-growth opportunity in a traditionally slow-growth, capital-intensive business. I experienced the same thing first-hand when I invested in early Zappos: the company was posting insanely rapid growth, doubling every year, but it was always on the verge of running out of money because it didn’t have enough capital to keep its warehouse stocked with shoes. The same situation applies for many pasture-based ranchers and livestock operators: they are seeing meteoric growth, and they don’t have enough money to expand their herd and land fast enough to keep up with demand. And in both cases, the typical investors are hesitant because they’ve never seen a shoe store or farm that needs so much capital to grow so rapidly. As a result, supply of pasture-raised meet and dairy consistently lags behind demand, which means there’s a systemic shortage. This causes prices to be artificially high on a product that should really be cheaper because it doesn’t involve all the fossil-fuel inputs or waste-management issues.

I think there’s a particular opportunity to build a national grass-fed beef brand. Beef is really a seasonal food, because cattle have the most fat (and flavor) right after peak grass season. This puts grass-fed producers at a disadvantage, because at the wrong times of year grass-fed beef will be leaner (and less flavorful), whereas corn-based factory farms have trained people to expect prime beef year-round. There’s an opportunity to overcome this via regional diversification, because different parts of the country have different seasonal variations. A national brand could provide grass-fed beef that’s “in season” year-round by drawing cattle based on regional variations in peak grass seasons. This wouldn’t be 100% “local,” but it would involve far less transportation than shipping corn to feed cattle.

I find Partovi’s take on this really intriguing. These days, when I do eat meat, I only eat grass-fed, sustainably raised beef, pork and poultry from suppliers like Polyface Farms and Tallgrass Beef (best hot dogs ever!). But even more than with grains and veggies and fruits, I tend to think: well, this can never go to scale. Americans won’t pay for it. And we consume way too much meat for it to be feasible.

But Partovi’s analysis, in which he compares grass-fed beef producers to his experience investing in Zappos, opens my eyes to new possibilities. He sees opportunity for investment and innovation. He sees supply and demand. He sees systems and networks and solutions.

THREE. In Can Danilo Atilano Feed the World?  (Winter 2012 Earth Island Journal) authors Robin Broad and John Cavanagh provide a textured, thoughtful on-the-ground account of how rice farmers in the Phillippines are learning to employ and embrace zero-chem farming techniques, and then they relate what they observe back to the big question: can organic feed the world?

The full article is worth reading, but these paragraphs, in particular, get to the heart of the matter:

Small-scale farmers using agroecology approaches can produce ample and accessible food for the world’s people. So, the question is not really if farmers like Atilano can feed the world. The question is whether eco-friendly, smallholder farmers like him will get the support they need to feed the world.

Picture the contest over the future of food and farming as a shifting battlefield with many players. On one side, agribusiness firms, some development agencies, technocrats, and academics like Robert Paarlberg, author of Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, continue to push the myth that only agribusiness plantations can feed the world. Their battle cry: Countries should shift fertile lands to “efficient” and “modern” large-scale export crop production, even if it means increasing food imports to feed their people.

On the other side are policy experts like de Schutter and hundreds of millions of small farmers and consumers. Groups representing about 200 million small-scale farmers in 70 countries have united in La Via Campesina, a movement that promotes “food sovereignty,” by which they mean “defending small-scale farming, agroecology and local production.” They, in turn, are supported by thousands of community and consumer groups – such as the Slow Food movement, whose 1,300 chapters in 153 countries support small farmers, co-ops, and community-supported agriculture across the world.

The outcome of this war over the future of food depends on two things: who wins the policy battles over food, and what personal food choices each of us makes on a daily basis.

So how I choose to eat does matter because it is part of a bigger battle — I’m not living in some organic la-la land.

And yes, organic can feed the world, but forces lined up on the side of industrial farming have a lot of power — including the ability to shape public opinion by propagating conventional wisdom about conventional farming.

But just saying something over and over again doesn’t make it true. Even if you have a big Wizardy voice.

I’ll let the Scarecrow have the last word.

Dorothy: How do you talk if you don’t have a brain?
Scarecrow: Well, some people without brains do an awful lot of talking don’t they?