Food Fight: Washington Post Foodie Ezra Klein Defends Industrial Agriculture

Fields
Earlier in the week influential blogger Ezra Klein of the Washington Post wrote a short post dismissing the influence of the local food movement and heralding that "Industrial farms are the future." He wrote;

Despite the dreams of many foodies, I can't think of a major industry that went from small, decentralized production methods to large, scaled industrial production -- and then back again. Are there any examples I'm missing? Maybe so. But for now, I think of the preference for farmers markets and small producers as being mainly important in sending certain signals about production methods and branding preferences to Big Ag than in actually creating some sort of viable alternative.

In the article he references an article from the Guardian in the UK where Jay Rayner argues;

Words such as local, seasonal and organic have become a holy trinity. But these are merely lifestyle choices for the affluent middle-classes, a matter of aesthetics, and nothing to do with the real issues.

If we are to survive the coming food security storm, we will have to embrace unashamedly industrial methods of farming. We need to abandon the mythologies around agriculture...and recognise that farming really is an industry, much like car manufacturing or steel forging, one which always works better on a mass scale, but which can still be managed sustainably.

Ezra Klein is a farmers'-market-shopping, meatless-monday-eating, full-on-foodie so his little post created quite a stir. Tom Philpot at Grist offered up the highest profile retort. He mainly takes down Rayner's editorial and tisk-tisks Klein for passing it off as meaningful commentary. He writes;

Rayner's argument goes like this: a) because the U.K. relies increasingly on food imports, and b) U.K. supermarkets demand flawless, uniform fruits and vegetables, forcing farmers to "grade out" much high-quality produce, and c) U.K. consumers have come to expect dirt-cheap food, then the nation "will have to embrace unashamedly industrial methods of farming" to avoid looming famine.

Really? The same line of reasoning could more logically have led Rayner in the opposite direction: that Britain's food problems stem from a globalized industrial food system consolidated into the hands of a few powerful companies.

Yesterday, Klein offered a little bit of an apology for citing the Guardian editorial, which he admits is weak, but he sticks to his guns when it comes to the future of food being industrial;

...I'm increasingly less convinced that small and big are, in the overall scheme of things, terribly useful dividing lines for the future of agriculture. Whether one could hypothetically imagine feeding the world using decentralized production methods, I don't see much reason to believe it will happen. At the same time, small farms can be run wastefully and large farms can be run sustainably.

When I say that the food movement is sending important signals to America's agribusiness giants, I mean it -- forcing them to innovate in organics and compete with Stonyfield and think about the success of farmers markets are types of pressure that could lead to really important transformations in how they do their business. And those are transformations that might then be copied by large producers in other countries. That's why I think the most important role of the food movement is potentially changing the behavior of players like Nestle and ConAgra, and creating some large companies that demonstrate how a different ethos of food production can be brought to industrial scale.

Andrew Sullivan just pinged this dialogue so I suspect it will get a lot of play on blogs and editorial pages in the coming weeks.

This little food fight touches on so many different aspects of what I blog about here that it's a little hard for me to decide where to enter in, but let me pick one aspect of the debate and see where it leads.

Klein mentions the hypothetical question as to whether it's possible to feed the world through decentralized production methods. It's typical in these debates for defenders of industrial ag to assert that it's not possible to feed the world using organic or local methods and others reply that, actually, you can. Klein dismisses this line of argument as irrelevant. He says it's not going to happen. He asserts that we have never seen "a major industry that went from small, decentralized production methods to large, scaled industrial production -- and then back again," which is what would need to happen in the case of food. The industrial cat is out of the bag and there is no turning back. All we can hope for is mega-corporations that are responsible and responsive to consumer demands for more sustainable and local food.

He takes the the pose of the realist and on one hand I agree with him. I often say (I just said it yesterday in fact), that real substantial change in food distribution will have to come through changes to big retailers like Walmart. For an example of how this is happening with potatoes go here.

But I disagree with Klein's and Rayner's foundational assumption - that the production of food is best viewed as an "industry, much like car manufacturing or steel forging, one which always works better on a mass scale..." For one, there is mounting evidence that food production does not work better on a mass scale. It's only over the last 75 years that food has been imagined as an industry and practiced as such. We fed the world for millennia with small, local and organic agriculture. Modern industrial food practices are a very recent innovation and the long term consequences are still unknown.

There is no doubt that modern technologies have been a boon to the task of feeding people around the world, but there is something different about food than making cars or forging steel. Manufacturing cars is a product of the industrial revolution. Eating food arises out of the very nature of the created order. For all of history food amounted to more than the shallow categories of industry. Food was culture, family, provision, and for the three major religions of the world, a sign of God's grace.

In the Genesis account of creation the first words out of God’s mouth to Adam and Eve are, “You are free to eat….” Not far behind is the warning, “You must not eat…” After their disobedience, God proclaims judgment, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:17-19). Even in judgment there is a grace of provision.

It's funny to me how casually we throw around the phrase "saving the world" in debates about sustainability. Isn't it so obvious that "going green" is a veiled, modern-secular way of entering into the territory of apocalypse and salvation, the ancient categories of the human quest for life and meaning and God. Food goes deep into mysterious and hallowed places of human existence. Food cannot be reduced to the limited categories of industry and it does great damage to imagine it exclusively as such.

There is one thing I agree with in the Guardian column. Rayner says that the local, seasonal and organic food movements are a matter of aesthetics, and have nothing to do with the real issues of industrial practices and pragmatics of feeding the world. He's right in pointing out that what drives the local food/sustainable food movement is, something beyond the pragmatism of calories and food miles, something more intangible. Aesthetics is a rather dismissive way of putting it. I would say that it arises out the human search for meaning and hope.

One last comment. Rayner claims that it's only the well-off middle-class who have the luxury to dismiss the reality of food as industry. In my experience it's actually the impoverished 2/3 world that understand the reality that food is more than industry. To the majority world food is culture, family and life. Most of the world gets that those are "real issues" that are relevant to conversations about food. Wealthy westerners are actually the innovators of the exclusive view of food as industry and profit margin. It is our particular single-minded lens that is foreign in the world. 

The insurgent foodies in the western world are attempting to lift up other issues that are very real, issues that touch on aspects of human life that industry can never reduce and control, and issues that impact and change industrial practices.

As I see it, the task is not to de-industrialize food, the task is to re-enchant, re-annimate, and re-new our imaginations around food, which by necessity means to re-connect with the land that supplies us with food (and perhaps the Creator of the land), and along with that to re-connect with the farmers who farm the land.