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November 3, 2008

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The Politics of Food

We all know I’m a giant fan of Michael Pollan, and his recent NYT Magazine piece is no exception, containing a bevy of ideas for how the next President can transform U.S. food policy. But it seems to me his locavore-cheerleading and attacks on factory-farm monoculture are in direct conflict with the claims Paul Collier makes in this month’s Foreign Affairs.

Two parts of Collier’s thesis - that we should promote factory farms in developing countries and work to overcome Third-World opposition to GM foods - seem to run counter to Pollan’s ideas. (They agree on a third argument - that US farm subsidies are wack.) Re-reading Pollan’s article after reading Collier’s, I’m struck by how quickly Pollan glosses over the effects of his policy recommendations in the developing world. (A characteristic line: “To grow sufficient amounts of food using sunlight will require more people growing food — millions more. This suggests that sustainable agriculture will be easier to implement in the developing world, where large rural populations remain, than in the West, where they don’t.”)

Where the two seem to be especially in conflict is in Collier’s total disdain for what he calls “peasant agriculture,” or what Pollan might call “sustainable farming.”


As a society, we devalued farming as an occupation and encouraged the best students to leave the farm for “better” jobs in the city. We emptied America’s rural counties in order to supply workers to urban factories. To put it bluntly, we now need to reverse course. We need more highly skilled small farmers in more places all across America — not as a matter of nostalgia for the agrarian past but as a matter of national security. For nations that lose the ability to substantially feed themselves will find themselves as gravely compromised in their international dealings as nations that depend on foreign sources of oil presently do. But while there are alternatives to oil, there are no alternatives to food.


The first giant that must be slain is the middle- and upper-class love affair with peasant agriculture. With the near-total urbanization of these classes in both the United States and Europe, rural simplicity has acquired a strange allure. … But […] given the chance, peasants seek local wage jobs, and their offspring head to the cities. This is because at low-income levels, rural bliss is precarious, isolated, and tedious. The peasant life forces millions of ordinary people into the role of entrepreneur, a role for which most are ill suited. In successful economies, entrepreneurship is a minority pursuit; most people opt for wage employment so that others can have the worry and grind of running a business. And reluctant peasants are right: their mode of production is ill suited to modern agricultural production, in which scale is helpful. In modern agriculture, technology is fast-evolving, investment is lumpy, the private provision of transportation infrastructure is necessary to counter the lack of its public provision, consumer food fashions are fast-changing and best met by integrated marketing chains, and regulatory standards are rising toward the holy grail of the traceability of produce back to its source. Far from being the answer to global poverty, organic self-sufficiency is a luxury lifestyle. It is appropriate for burnt-out investment bankers, not for hungry families.

I’m tempted to call it a wash and seek some sort of half-hearted journalistic middle ground, but I sense there’s some nuanced truth somewhere in here that should be sussed out, and I’m not sure who to believe. I’ve gotta say Robin was right, a “great reconciliation” is in order.

Anyone got a link to the equivalent of a Pollan/Collier online cage match I could read?

Posted November 3, 2008 at 10:00 | Comments (1) | Permasnark
File under: Gastrosnark, Snarkpolicy


Well, here's the rub: in industrialized countries like the US, we're actually farming like we're trying to cram every calorie we can at a minimal cost (which in many cases is what developing countries need). But that's the wrong move for us. And if we subsidize it further by dumping our cheap calories on developing countries rather than helping them to develop any kind of stable agriculture at all, then we're combining two wrongs to make a enviropolitical disaster.

Pollan at times seems to be advocating for something like agricultural nationalism, where each country (or each region) grows as much healthy food as possible for their own consumption instead of importing and exporting food across great distances. (This is where "nationalism" breaks down, as it's clearly a function of absolute distance rather than arbitrary borders.)

It seems clear to me that turning the Southern part of the globe into the world's breadbasket ultimately doesn't do anyone in either hemisphere any good. It seems like we need some Jeffrey Sachs sense of a differential diagnosis here.

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