Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Will the eco-foodie movement starve poor people?

That's Robert Paarlberg's case at Foreign Policy:
In Europe and the United States, a new line of thinking has emerged in elite circles that opposes bringing improved seeds and fertilizers to traditional farmers and opposes linking those farmers more closely to international markets. Influential food writers, advocates, and celebrity restaurant owners are repeating the mantra that "sustainable food" in the future must be organic, local, and slow. But guess what: Rural Africa already has such a system, and it doesn't work. Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals, so their food is de facto organic. High transportation costs force them to purchase and sell almost all of their food locally. And food preparation is painfully slow. The result is nothing to celebrate: average income levels of only $1 a day and a one-in-three chance of being malnourished.

If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming. And that means learning to appreciate the modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system we've developed in the West. Without it, our food would be more expensive and less safe. In other words, a lot like the hunger-plagued rest of the world.
Here's the thing, I'm not sure that Michael Pollan -- author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and thus the high priest of the slow-local-organic food movement -- would disagree entirely with this. He builds a sustained critique against industrial agriculture, against the pollution it creates and the ethically and nutritionally challenged food it delivers us. But he does admit that industrial agriculture has been very, very successful at producing lots of food -- and, perhaps, lots of new eaters: the population of the world has exploded thanks in part to industrial farming methods pioneered here in the United States.

And even though there's plenty I find interesting about Pollan's work, this is the part I find most morally troubling: If an abundance of cheap, quickly produced food has made life on the planet more sustainable, wouldn't a slow-local-organic revolution make food more scarce and expensive -- and thus doom many people now living to a miserable death by starvation? I don't know that I've ever seen Pollan or his ilk address this, really -- I could be wrong -- but it seems a worthy and morally weighty question to hash out before going too far down Pollan's road.

No comments: