Saturday, May 1, 2010

Why I am not a Localvore

Here is a pretty good read on the Greening up our food, and why it may be hurting the impoverished around the world.  Oddly, he doesn't make the most obvious argument for helping the impoverished world and that is simply buying food products from those that can export them.  As more people become localvores, foreign farmers lose more consumers, pushing them further into poverty.  Now Paarlberg is concentrating on those who are in much worse conditions, and I agree those are people we should assist first.

But this is where I start disagreeing with him.  First, he says that we should bring the industrial model to Africa.  Now we have tried industrial models in Africa, and they don't succeed because,  infrastructure aside, its too expensive.  In America we give farmers heavy subsidies to ensure a reliable income in times when crops fail because of weather, or whatever other reason.  These subsidies also keep food prices artificially low, making them affordable by all (at least for the staple crops like corn and wheat). 

Second, when he says that the industrial model does not create unsafe food, he seems to be focusing only on plants.  With crops, he's correct.  With livestock, he's incorrect.  In fact, most outbreaks involving crops, are usually traced back to livestock.  But he conveniently forgets this when he brings up fertilizer run-offs.  Suddenly farming includes livestock again.

So what about animal manure and fertilizers?  First, fertilizers and pesticides are already OVER used.  If there is little financial incentive to avoid over fertilizing and over spraying, other than you're wasting product, but the product is already dirt cheap as it is, and the losses are could be significant if you UNDER fertilize and spray, farmers tend to err on the side of overuse.  This is the profit first thinking that characterizes industrial food production.  So his analysis that organic farming would be worse, because the amount of livestock would increase is simply flawed.  First, if we simply had fewer livestock, we would have less need for cropland, since most of our cropland is devoted to feeding our livestock.  Second, if we utilized manure instead of petroleum based fertilizers, industrial farmers would aim to UNDER fertilize than over fertilize, since it would be more expensive, and increase the risk of E. coli which could significantly damage their brand marketability.

But Paarlberg does bring up many good points about the green revolution in food, like organic not being particularly healthier, or safer for that matter.  The industrial argiculture is becoming more green, and more efficient, as always, and in many ways this is better for the environment.

Strangely, Paarlberg doesn't suggest the easiest way that we can aid the impoverished of the world.  Donate money to them.  World poverty rates have dropped almost in half from the 60s to today, largely due to the work of NGOs.  World poverty does not have to continue to exist.  If we have been able to reduce world poverty in half in 50 years, we could eliminate it in probably 20 more years if we simply gave money, in a responsible manner, to assist them. 


  1. I don't even pretend to be an expert on this topic, but simply giving money to impoverished countries does not seem like it would be fixing the problem. While it would certainly help the people immediately in need (and this is a good thing- I'm not saying we shouldn't help them) it is not a permanent solution, unless you want these people and countries to continuously require the charity of others. This is an unreliable source of income, and one that I think most people would also find undesirable.

    I'd be interested in seeing the amount of aid given during times of financial crisis (like now) from the big, industrial countries that these impoverished places rely on.

    I'm not saying that I have a better solution, because I don't. But relying on the helping hands of others seems like a huge risk. One day you could come to find that hand empty.

  2. You should know I'm not advocating blindly throwing money at starving people, as that really wouldn't be a temporary solution. " a responsible manner" would mean that our monetary donations would aim to help the impoverished become self-sufficient. :)

  3. Perhaps a better compromise would be microcredit ( loans to help those people learn to "fish" rather than just giving them "fish".

  4. Microfinancing helps those who have some means already, and live in a economically self-sufficient world. So it is great for India, South America, parts of Asia, etc. But it really isn't that helpful in places like Africa. Helping someone open a business in Africa won't help people get clean water.

    But I'm a pretty strong advocate for Microfinancing too. Check out Http://