The Revolution Will Not Be Actualized

by Tom Lee


Damn my fellow bloggers and their prolificity! I wrote the following post last weekend, but I hadn’t found a content-free crack in the posting schedule in which to publish it — and now Mother Jones has put up an article drawing on the same obscure Canadian academic’s work to make a similar point.  Well, nuts to that — I’m pressing onward!  You should read Paul Roberts’ MJ piece too, though — it’s got a somewhat broader focus, although it inexplicably spends many words talking about vertical farming when they could be better employed waxing poetic about the nitrogen cycle (see below).

It’s been fascinating to watch the reactions to my post about Alice Waters’ proposal for school lunch reform, and not just because I’m interested in the narrow issue of how to feed kids at school. I think it’s fair to say that I have a very different understanding of food and nutrition than many of the people who disagree with me; trying to understand their perspective has been an illuminating exercise.

I’m planning to talk more about this later, but for now I’d like to just highlight one aspect of the divide: namely, the withering contempt that many have for our current food system. A good example of this comes up in Tom Philpott’s response over at Grist, in which he writes:

Lee’s model would continue to funnel federal cash into a globalized food system that relies on cheap labor and mined and synthesized inputs, many of them highly toxic and greenhouse-gas-intensive (see oxide, nitrous). Waters wants federal cash to bolster the foodsheds that surround schools, incentivizing (that one’s for you, wonks) ecological-minded farming.

This list of sins and virtues swings around pretty wildly, and Philpott doesn’t stop to explain what’s wrong with globalization (for example). But he doesn’t have to: it’s clear he means that my school lunch incrementalism is allied with the status quo, and Waters’ proposal is not, and that this alone is enough to recommend her plan.

This is perfectly understandable. People like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser have made convincing cases suggesting that our farming, corporate and cultural practices have led our society toward food habits that are unhealthy, unethical, unsustainable and generally unpleasant.

But it’s worth asking what we can realistically do about it. Not “we” in the sense of the individuals reading this blog, but in the sense of our global society. How much can we realistically suppress demand for meat in the developing world? Given the constantly-increasing cost of our spare time, how much of a viable market is there for food that prioritizes quality over convenience? These are the sorts of questions that are often ignored in favor of firebrand condemnations of, say, corn syrup.

But at some point we need to face the limited reach of our idealized solutions. Consider the organic farming movement. By any measure it’s been an enormous success: you can get organically produced items in nearly any supermarket in the country, including the incredibly abysmal Giant by my house. Most people know that if they buy organic food they’re paying a premium for an item that’s been grown without pesticides and in a manner that’s easier on the environment than industrial agriculture.

I buy organic produce all the time, and I understand why people become advocates for it. But organic farming can never supplant modern agricultural techniques. The reason is simple: you just can’t feed enough people that way.

Here I have to lean on the scholarship of Vaclav Smil, a faculty member at the University of Manitoba whose work I was introduced to by my friend Jeff. Among other things, Smil studies the nitrogen cycle, an arrow-laden bit of middle school science that you may dimly remember. A quick refresher:

There are obviously a lot of things that, when in short supply, can constrain the growth of life on this planet, from limited sunlight to too little water. But the most inescapable is nitrogen. It’s an essential component of proteins.  It’s also the most common element in the air we breath, but getting it into a form that’s usable by living things is tricky — it takes a lot of energy to break apart nitrogen gas and turn it into fertilizer (that high-energy transition is why you can make bombs out of the stuff). Soil bacteria are up to the task; so are leguminous plants, which harness that bacteria more efficiently than others. But there’s still a limit on how quickly nitrogen can be pulled from the atmosphere, and other bacteria are always unhelpfully converting usable nitrogen compounds back into useless gas.

Fortunately, humanity has figured out a way around this limit: the Haber-Bosch synthesis of ammonia, which uses natural gas and an iron oxide catalyst to pull nitrogen from the air and, eventually, into our bellies, albeit at considerable energetic cost — it’s estimated that 1% of global energy output goes toward the production of fertilizer through this method. By Smil’s count, about 40% of the protein we now grow comes from artificial synthesis. Our bodies are about 16% protein; that means that about 6% of you and of me comes courtesy of a natural gas field somewhere.

(Aside: Kriston, being a professional art guy, is fond of The Futurist Cookbook, which contains avant garde recipes from 1930s Italy’s premiere proto-fascists — things like chicken with ball bearings. But Haber-Bosch makes Marinetti look like a kid rolling out Play-Doh pasta in a Fisher Price kitchen. Science has effectively created a recipe for taking the gaseous fossil remains of mysterious ancient organisms and, through the artful application of crushing heat and rust, turning them into whatever food we’d care to eat. I find this pretty amazing, although I’ll understand if others are less enthusiastic about the idea. )

At any rate, Smil has tallied up all of the natural sources of nitrogen, and it turns out that they fall far short of providing enough protein to feed the 6.7 billion people estimated to be on the planet — the key paper in which he does this is unfortunately only available through pay services, but he’s got a review paper here (PDF). There’s no getting around this: nature can only cycle nitrogen so quickly. There’s no secret source of it waiting to be mined. If we limit ourselves to growing food naturally, we’re going to have to figure out how to break some very bad news to about 2 billion people.

None of this invalidates the idea of organic farming; it just means that organic food will remain a market niche rather than an agricultural revolution.  And so it is with many of the food reform efforts currently underway.  The system we’ve developed to feed ourselves is highly sophisticated and amazingly efficient.  It should surprise no one that a system so large carries with it some unpleasant externalities.  The appropriate response is to address those problems, not to dream of blowing the whole thing up in favor of alternatives that haven’t been carefully considered.


11 responses to “The Revolution Will Not Be Actualized

  1. Externalities? I find it hard to attribute, say, the 9 dead, 22,000 sick from the recent salmonella outbreak – to “unpleasant externalities”… External to what?

    Amazingly efficient? Yeah, shipping foods back and forth across the country and world is efficient… Relying on petrol for inputs is efficient?

    These problems are very much inherent to the food system we’ve created. Creating massive bureaucracies, shortsighted policies, and recalls to further a diseased industry? That seems a far less considered response than that of the millions of people dedicating their lives and livelihoods to the “revolutionary” alternative of responsibly produced foods…

  2. The Peanut Corporation of America was certified as being organic. Organic food has nothing to do with salmonella prevention -in fact the introduction of animal manure is a potential source. The largest lettuce recall in history (E coli) was by Earthbound Farms and organic producer. Odwalla killed kids with their ” healthier” unpasteurized apple juice. Let’s not delude ourselves by believing that expertise or intelligence go hand and hand with organic and local.

    As far as transportation goes why do people think that hundreds of people in their own cars driving to a farmer’s market where a farmer has also delivered a small amount of produce inefficiently in a small truck uses less energy than shipping 40,000 pounds of produce from California to New York. Why are California strawberries cheaper than locally grown East coast strawberries? The answer simply is that one system is more efficient than the other. This goes to soil, sunshine, variety and ecosystem. It never ceases to amuse me that editorial writers on the East Coast are always clamoring for local sustainable products. What products would these be? Wheat, out; rice; out; citrus, out; beef, out; soy, out.

    If people want to buy organic, local food and want to pay the premium they have that option but it is a freshness issue (and not always) not a health or environmental issue. People can also shop at Tiffany’s; let’s just not say it’s a way of life.

  3. Cheap and efficient are not analogous.
    Local and organic are not analogous
    Why are the foods you mention, “out”? They are all grown on the East Coast..
    Transportation is but the last variable to account for, what about all of the inputs leading up to transportation?
    Buying local food is a health issue, an environmental issue, and a food quality issue… Is that really contested?

  4. I wish more people in the food movement were willing to acknowledge these kinds of difficulties… but if the comments I’ve seen regarding Paul Robert’s piece are any indication… you’re more likely to see suggestions of feeding the world’s poor by turning every one Vegan with pixie dust and magic ponies than you are to see anyone admit we can’t feed everyone in the world with organic farming.

  5. Cheap and efficient are analogous. Everyone grows the same thing. Those who are more efficient at it succeed by having lower costs in absence of a market-organic, for example-where people are willing to pay more.

    Those commodities are not grown in sufficient quantities on the East Coast to feed its population and its absurd to think they would be.

    The inputs leading up to transport are a factor but this is again a factor of output. If I am an efficient farmer with twice the output of a non efficient farmer than the amount of pesticides and fertilizer per unit of produce is the same. One cannot count inputs and ignore outputs.

    Buying local produce may be a community issue, could be a quality issue (likely). Health? Unlikely. Environmental, possibly but not a universal truth

  6. A very good article below:

    Also, one has to take into account human nature in making reform efforts: bureaucracies, financial shortfalls, logistical obstacles, lunchroom politics even.

  7. It’s not spot on, but check out what the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics at St. Louis University is doing:

    I believe the initial reason for starting these programs was to help poor kids improve their nutrition. Also as I understand it, the Cafe was started when they realized that they were a department of *nutrition* and they were serving crappy industrial food in the same building.

  8. The post is at least thoughtful, so probably deserves a more thoughtful reply than I’m going to give it. Suffice it to say that the fact that artificial fertilizer is actually necessary to sustain the current population of the earth does not justify the practices of industrial farming in this country, nor necessarily invalidate the arguments of Waters, Pollan, and others.

  9. I’m actually with Brian on this one. I don’t know anyone who thinks that the big issue in global food production is that the whole cycle should go organic (which is not to say that none of these people exist: Just that I don’t know of them. If I meet any, I will mock them).

    Indeed, in the course of this post we moved from Philpott’s statement that “Waters wants federal cash to bolster the foodsheds that surround schools, incentivizing (that one’s for you, wonks) ecological-minded farming” to an accusation that Philpott and are “blowing the whole [food system] up in favor of alternatives that haven’t been carefully considered.” But are they? Philpott seems to be saying that, in the US, we should be incentivizing better farming behaviors, which is certainly within our power. He doesn’t seem to be saying that the WTO should demand all organics starting tomorrow.

  10. I live in Mexico, in the state of Veracruz, high up near the state capital of Xalapa. We live in an area of rich land mostly planted in shade-grown coffee. Most of it is, if not organic, then almost so because of the requirements of the coffee itself.
    It is impossible for people here to make a living solely on this coffee.
    There are a variety of efforts to diversify agriculture and to make it sustainable. However, an insistence on pure organic will make it impossible for local farmers. They can’t afford the process of certification alone. Even an insistence that people start down the road would be cruel. Even before NAFTA, big industrial agriculture was driving farmers into poverty, off the land and to emigrate.
    Junk food has made its way into the diet of just about everyone. As in the US, it is now cheaper in many cases than healthy food, and cheap and filling are major considerations when you are poor and the fruits that used to be readily available no longer are. I might add that poor people have in many areas resorted to cheap and filling: lard, for instance; organ meats.
    Here the situation is further complicated by the fact that in the 1980s Mexico, due to its effort to globalize, pushed land into export crops and took it away from subsistence crops. Today, people import corn and beans, the major staples, for instance. The reasoning behind this was that industrial agriculture devoted to export would “free” the farmers to seek jobs in the dream of an ever-increasing industrial economy. Clearly this hasn’t worked out.
    Even before the recent crisis, the price of masa, corn meal, had become expensive for ordinary people, as had the price of beans. Recently, due to the fact that the dollar has fallen in relation to the peso the price of corn and beans has soared. As recently as a year ago, it was maybe 11 pesos to the dollar. Now it is closer to fifteen, sometimes more than fifteen.
    We need not to be fighting for organics, but for sustainable farming practices that permit people to be able to grow and eat nutritious foods and to export specialty items than can be grown by smaller groups of farmers. Sustainable farming means sustaining the soil and environment. It doesn’t mean being organic purists. Industrial agriculture here in Mexico has been killing these abilities.
    I have overgeneralized what is a very complicated picture, but I hope you get the idea.

  11. There’s a lot I want to say in response to this article (which was very thoughtful and shared some thought-provoking ideas), and I know I can’t get it all out in the detail it deserves. I agree with Brian. There are some serious problems with our current industrial method of food production, and organic vs non-organic is far from the only issue. In my mind, the biggest problem is that our system creates a self-fulfilling loop, where the more we use industrial solutions to solve existing problems, the more problems and externalities we create, until they spiral out of control. Maybe going organic won’t feed the world – does that mean we shouldn’t try to reform the system, and turn it into something better? Does that mean we should dismiss calls for far-reaching reform? We’re so good at creating economically efficient solutions. Why can’t we put our heads together and create solutions that work for the environment and our health?

    I’ll add that the “we can’t feed 7 billion people” argument always rubs me the wrong way. If our world population keeps growing, at some point we will inevitably outgrow our ability to feed ourselves. We only have so much land and resources. Why does everyone assume we need systems that scale to larger and larger populations? Is it a crime to suggest that maybe we should try to stabilize our population?

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