The Whole Foods Whoax

So I live in India – where the “Green Revolution” really started. Many people – here and elsewhere – have a very critical opinion of the work of M.S. Swaminathan and Norman Borlaug (the fathers of the revolution). This criticism is usually presented along with a general criticism of genetically modified foods and other “unnatural” endeavors.

Broadly, the criticism levied falls into several categories:

  1. Socioeconomic: The Monsanto/Cargill empires are breaking down the “small farm” community that once thrived. Labor exploitation is on the rise and the corporations are reaping the profits from the poor farmers.
  2. Health: The pesticides in Green Revolution food are not healthy to eat and is a broad cause of lifestyle distress (I’ve heard claims/speculations as far reaching as that non-organic foods cause cancer from “reputable” news sources).
  3. Environmental: Modern agricultural practices are water-intensive and unsustainable at best – a means of “converting petroleum into food”.

There is some truth to each of the arguments made above. But to what extent does this justify a revolution to the past? To what extent has “modern agriculture” the devil that many make it out to be (and there are many such people here, especially in India).

Socioeconomics From a socioeconomic perspective, I agree that modern farming might be resulting in greater income inequality between large farmers and the actual laborers. However, this is largely a structural flaw of any scaled enterprise. When the Industrial Revolution to foot in Europe and the United States the inequality between the robber-barons and the laborers skyrocketed. However, the general wealth of the population increased. Inequality, per se, is not bad, it can even be a great motivating force (I say this carefully, having fallen on the “right” side of inequality). I’m not trying to throw a free-market, Milton Friedman argument here – but I am saying that the effect on inequality per se is not justification enough.

Government regulation to ensure fair treatment of laborers through prevention of monopsonies is one partial solution. India is largely unmechanized (due to backward government policy encouraging manual work) – the number of agricultural workers in the future will hopefully decrease the need for there to be such a large disconnect between the “owners” and the “workers” in which mechanization allows the “owners” to work their own soil.

The day Facebook had its IPO, the income inequality in California (and the country, and the world) ever so slightly increased. Are we the worse of? Scalability and efficiency even if not ultimate goals benefit all of us.

I had a small epiphany the other day when I went to eat at a chai-kadai for lunch (something that is of questionable sense for someone who has lived in the US for fifteen years, as I have). I had a full, hearty, meal for Rs. 20 (eggs, tons of rice, beetroot – nutritious and healthy) as well as a cup of, well, chai. Rs. 20 is equivalent to less than 50 cents. Such affordable meals have allowed the Indian masses to put food on their tables. So yes, inequality has increased, but so has the ability for the common man to feed his family (a very patriarchal society indeed).

Naysayers of the revolution point to the fact that the Food Corporation of India wastes over half its grain each year – a result of India’s Green Revolution. This is probably a good example of reverse causality. We must a priori assume that India cannot store its food because there has been no investment in the technology needed to do so. A terrible cold-chain, no silos, etc. Therefore the Green Revolution has allowed a large portion of India to eat despite its terrible ability to preserve food.

In 1968, Ehrlich argued that millions would starve and die because “India couldn’t possibly feed two hundred more million people by 1980”. No, not without science it could not. As a result of Borlaug’s dwarf wheat, India became self-sufficient in cereal production by 1974. You find that many of the pro-organic crowd here and elsewhere fall near the top of the socioeconomic spectrum – they’re not the ones who would pay the price when the country doesn’t have enough food. They’re not the ones for whom a lunch means three more hours worked, for whom putting food on the table means migrating away from the kids for maybe over eight months.

Health Organic sounds a lot healthier. And is a lot healthier if you don’t properly take care of the fruits and vegetables you are eating (washing it, etc.) However, thelargest scientific study on this issue – which used data from over 50 years of nutritional studies – noted that there is a negligible positive effect when one consumes organic food. This is not to say that organic is less healthy or that one should not consume organic food – there might be other reasons to do so. For example, animal welfare is generally a more important concern for organic farms than it is for conventional farms. However, this is again a tangent to the real question at hand.

Environment This is the big question, isn’t it? Now, let’s start with the facts. If we revert to Organic Farming, as Norman Borlaug has calculated, the world would be able to sustain ~4 billion people. Before we even consider organic farming, we should accept a priori that we are willing to pay the social cost of a Malthusian catastrophe. Indeed there is something deeply unsettling to me that the millions paying for this do not include those paying seven dollars for a gallon of milk.

I am the first to accept that the status quo, too, is unsustainable. There are states and farms in India that will probably loose the ability to remain fertile in about ten years, a result of modern agricultural practices. However, there do exist ways to sustainably farm using industrial methods. Can we not have major, scientific, research schemes that find ways to increase the productivity while at the same time decreasing the environmental cost? When there is large-scale investment in science (likely in times of war) we find that great advances do happen. We should inject warlike funding to such programs to allow for a more sustainable world.

A common question ignored is that modern farming allows you to receive a greater yield rate per acre, which allows you to till a lower surface area and thereby allowing you to conserve a greater portion of your total land. We would certainly have to increase our “area farmed” (and cut into untouched, pristine areas of nature) were we to abdicate efficient farming practices.

We must first make the steps that have the greatest impact per dollar spent. This means, for a country like India, to invest in high-quality silos, to teach farmers about the proper way to use herbicides, develop a high-quality cold-chain. This would do far more for the environment per dollar spent than investment in organic farming.

There are also simple steps we can take. Eat locally, from your farmers market… Don’t buy Kiwis (sorry New Zealand!) In fact there is some irony in the fact that Whole Foods imports from overseas (at great carbon cost) much of its organic produce in the winter when “conventional” food is available next door.

This post is already too long – and I don’t want to end on a negative note. I understand the merits of organic farming just I’ve heard too much lately about how modern agricultural has ruined the world and I don’t believe that is by itself true. Are we “borrowing from tomorrow”? Maybe. But with organic agriculture you would be borrowing from the many people that would not have existed today or be living on below-subsistence levels of food. To become better we do not need to look back, but look forward. What works about organic farming? How can that be incorporated into a modern and industrial model.

As a final note, when we for reasons of intuition and gut reject science – an evidence-based system – I think we are doing a disservice to our future. To question and challenge science in a rational and critical manner is one thing, but to damn it as a pawn of “big ag” is quite another.

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3 comments
    • arra95 said:

      Exactly. I don’t have a problem with people who shop organic for the yuppie experience, or maybe even the richer flavor,
      but what bothers me is the crew that wants to make it this big policy, damning science and the Green Revolution.

      They forge a pretense of nobility by talking about all the death caused by modern agriculture
      (which isn’t even defensible,
      but that’s another story) and ignore the huge toll forcing an organic revolution would have.

      But they’re the affluent ones, what do they care…

  1. gpr said:

    Nothing runs like a Deere

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