Finding Balance: Industrial Farming

“The health of a nation’s food system is a critical issue of national security. Food is about to demand your attention.” -Michael Pollan, Farmer in Chief

The Heart of a Society

Whether you’re René Redzepi, Dan Barber, or Kimbal Musk, it seems that the new vogue of culinary titans is a deep concern for the source of their ingredients. Whether the increasing social concern for quality food be attributed to environmental concern, millennial zeitgeist, or a cumulative awareness of diet-linked health problems, the way our food is grown seems to be a hot button topic that is not fading. Though the cultural consciousness is more and more aware of the demons associated with industrialized farming, the polarized thinking around it may not be so black and white.

We spoke with Joe Wheeling of James Ranch, a farm in southwest Colorado that strives to be an example of sustainable and quality agriculture. He explains that in his view, the core of the issue is a quandary of moderation.

“It seems like people are at their happiest point when they lead a really balanced life. Sometimes we chase extremes, which, from a psychological perspective is not balanced,” he says. In a world that romanticizes instant gratification and the “go big or go home” mentality, exorbitant degrees of specialization and centralization seem to make sense.

“If a little is good, do more and more and more until something reaches a breaking point. I think that really has gotten us into two food systems that are radically different,” he says. Joe suggests that this kind of thinking is at the heart of impending issues generated by the global food production system. Technological advance has shaped the way humans eat since breeding (or early genetic engineering) of crops began, but understanding where we start to be deeply affected by diminishing returns remains challenging.

Limits

Magnitude: When a mistake is made on a small scale, its effects are equivalent in scale. Thusly, when a single species of wheat or method of cow farming touches the entire world, potential consequences for error are scaled. With companies more and more operating inside the silicon valley dogmas, preached by those like Peter Thiel and exemplified by those like Jeff Bezos, monopolized niches are textbook environments for exponential effects. 

Nutrition: Being able to attain high yield from any investment of space, time, and energy is a meaningful factor in the production of food. Quantity and quality are not positively correlated in agriculture, however. While genetic modification and chemical fertilizer lend to massive caloric output, increased understanding of human nutritional needs show that a single minded focus on caloric efficiency can be detrimental to people and product.

Disease: In 1965 the banana was declared extinct. What we find in grocery stores was once considered a tasteless, inferior fruit. Because of the scale on which that single species had been cultivated, one disease was able to decimate banana farms across the world. In another corner of commercial food, overuse of antibiotics within industrial animal farming is contributing to harder-to-combat strains of bacteria. These stories are mirrored in every industry that utilizes monocultures and standardized practices that don’t leave room for protective diversification.

Resource balance: By 2027 our world will be existing at a 214 trillion calorie deficit, according to Sara Menker, the CEO of a New York based startup that is using big data to correlate global trends, environmental factors, and our ability to feed the planet. While 214 trillion calories in a year doesn’t sound like a lot—after all, we eat 2,000 calories a day—that is roughly enough to feed the population of China (1.38 billion people) until the year 2094. While this issue isn’t being ignored, the structure of the industry results in a lack of unilateral efforts to contend with these resource discrepancies on a global scale.

The Exclusive Factor

So arguably, the enabling factor that supports standardization and homogenization in agriculture is the demand of the consumer. Fast food chains and multinational food producers would not be able to thrive without a customer base. Though the modern food system is hardly designed for the idealized image of free market dollar-voting, the question of what we understand as value also comes into consideration.

“There is a cost for freshness and a cost for not taking any shortcuts,” Wheeling explains. There is not a whole lot that can be done to circumvent the simple fact that good food is costlier to produce. The quality of one’s diet often comes down to the individual’s fiscal priorities. Simply, many do not actively seek nutritious and healthy sustenance. “I think a piece of that is in the education, making sure that everyone understands the value of getting good food that’s good for you.”

This makes a lot of sense, understanding that not 60 years ago, the epitome of good eating was canned food and pre-packaged dinners in a country still adjusting to the post-World War 2 economy. With more of the population allocating greater portions of their food budget to food eaten outside the home, restaurants are attempting to maintain a price point that will allow that trend to continue.  Urbanization and automation are contributing to a shift in economic weight between blue and white collar work, and knowledge workers are choosing to spend the extra hour in the office that would otherwise be spent at home in the kitchen.

The Fulcrum

While the amount of food we need to produce in the coming years is seemingly not in line with the thinking with the traditional mentality of organic farming, proceeding with the current means of production comes with significant risk factors. “Get big or get out” has been the tagline printed on the metaphorical banner under which the advocates of industrialized farming rally. This mentality of course feeds into a cascade of heated controversies that have woven themselves into the cultural consciousness over the last several decades: Are genetically modified organisms okay? What is this industrialized food system doing to the way we eat? What are the long-term impacts of relying on ever more complex herbicides and pesticides? All of these issues come with their own set of unique moral, political, and scientific complications.

It would seem that amidst the debate of what to do about the future, the future is all too quickly becoming the present. More join the discussion with fervent and unyielding ideas about the way things ought to be done. Meanwhile organic farmers and plant geneticists quietly begin to rise above the squabble to attempt to find middle ground that will allow our species to contend with these imminent concerns. Defining the black and white between industrial and organic agriculture seems increasingly pointless as more evidence points to the necessity of finding a solution from the gray. Extremism is a danger to any practice and while technology and farming seem to be irrevocably married, balancing the two will likely be the constructive narrative our world needs to accept.

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