Casaubon's Book

When Cheap Food Isn’t Cheap

The Miami-Herald is reporting today that food stamp use has more than doubled among Floridians in the last three years:

More than 2.5 million Floridians are on food stamps, up from three years ago where 1.2 million residents received assistance.

That’s according to records kept by the Department of Children and Families, which administers the program.

DCF Secretary George Sheldon told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel Tuesday that Florida’s food stamp rolls grew the fastest in the nation since 2007.

Some of this is due to increased efforts on the part of states to expand access, but it is also, I think, a compelling measure of the economic situation. But it is more than that – food stampls, as I’ve been arguing for many years, are important because as they become more universal (we’re already at 1-in-9 Americans using food stamps, next year’s numbers will probably be 1-in-8, and many states are at 1-in-6 – and American children are at 1-in-4) food stamps become more important. They shift from a safety net program to a basic food subsidy that serves a larger and larger percentage of Americans who can’t afford food. And that should look very strange to all of us.

The case for industrial agriculture has rested heavily on cheap food over the years – the idea that it was worth all the subsidies, the land degradation, the health costs because we all had plenty was a fundamental premise of the move to industrial farming. But if industrial agriculture can’t provide affordable food even with its massive subsidies (at this point a large portion of industrially produced food is being subsidized twice – first at the agricultural subsidy level and then at the food stamp level) what is the compelling case for large scale industrial conventional production?

Perhaps the focus should move. Michael Pollan has proposed, for example, that food stamps should pay double when used at farmer’s markets. Right now only about 40% of all farmer’s markets in the US are set up to take food stamps – making food stamp and WIC acceptance universal, and doubling pay outs when used to buy healthy food would do a lot both for local agriculture and for those who are struggling to eat and eat well.

The case for bringing agricultural subsidies to small family farmers is more complex, and among others, Gene Logsdon has argued that subsidizing organic agriculture (which is beginning to occur) may not be the answer:

This is supposed to be good news. Our dear government has finally recognized that organic farmers are at least as deserving of bribery as all those sinful chemical farmers. After all, industrial agriculture gets $17.2 billion dollars in direct payments every year so surely a little bit of money ought also to go to holy, humble, horse and hoe husbandmen who also help keep the world from starvation. In fact, organic farmers now have their very own farm subsidy program under the Environmental Quality Incentive Program to the tune of $50 million bucks. Ain’t that wonderful?

I will go as far out on the end of my bucket loader as I can and bet even money that this is the beginning of the end of organic farming. Government learned a long time ago that farmers, like everyone else, can be persuaded to do what the government wants done by handing out money. The result? Since government subsidy programs got serious about 70 years ago, the number of commercial farmers has plummeted from over 12 million to something less that one million. That’s how helpful the payments have been. Then along came small organic farmers who although unsubsidized for the most part, began doubling and tripling in number with each passing year. Whoa. Can’t have that, for heaven’s sake. That might mean that government subsidies don’t really help farmers. Maybe, perish the thought, government doesn’t know how to help farmers. Or, perish two thoughts, maybe government doesn’t really want to help farmers but just wants cheap food so the people can afford to buy more SUVs. Any trend toward farmers becoming successful without government subsidies has to be stopped. Uncle knows how to do that. Offer them money.

If you think I am only joking, examine the rules of this new game. The fifty million dollar “Organic Initiative” subsidy is to help organic farmers, and I quote, “implement conservation practices on the farm.” Hmmm. Isn’t every real organic farmer already doing that? Isn’t that part of any proper definition of organic farming?

Rule number two: “Conservation practices that farmers have already adopted are not eligible for payment.” Amazing grace. If you have already been doing what every responsible farmer should be doing, you don’t get any money, sucker.

Logsdon goes on to observe that with the inclusion of “transitional” farmers and the emphasis on giving money to those previously making the biggest negative environmental impact, the subsidies will go disproportionately to industrial organic producers.

But at a bare minimum we could ask ourselves about whether agricultural subsidy payments should exist at all? Most organic and small scale producers would be happy just to have the playing field levelled a bit. At a minimum, we need to ask ourselves this -if the food we get industrially is unaffordable in an environmental sense and unaffordable in a practical “how do we get dinner” sense, what’s the case for conventional corporate ag again?

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 ponderingfool
    March 12, 2010

    But if industrial agriculture can’t provide affordable food even with its massive subsidies (at this point a large portion of industrially produced food is being subsidized twice – first at the agricultural subsidy level and then at the food stamp level) what is the compelling case for large scale industrial conventional production?
    ***********
    Well the food stamps aren’t really a sign of a failure of industrial agriculture to deliver cheap food (heck look at the buying choices, it goes towards the “successes” of industrial agriculture). The fact it is cheap and so many Americans still can’t afford it most likely is a symptom of the fact wealth has for the last three decades becoming concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. As this happens a greater percentage of families find themselves in situations where they require assistance to pay for cheap food in order to have enough money to also have a place to live, heat, water, electricity, clothing, and transportation.

  2. #2 Sharon Astyk
    March 12, 2010

    I don’t wholly disagree with you, but I think that since so much of the case for industrial ag has rested on their production of affordable food, that case is essentially obviated – if Americans are now so impoverished that they require food subsidies that approach the universal, we might as well subsidize good food as bad.

    Sharon

  3. #3 Adam Ek
    March 12, 2010

    I liked what I saw at one farmer’s market in Maine. Only one vendor was set up to take food stamps, but customers could go to all of the vendors, then bring their stuff to this one guy, pay with food stamps, and he’d settle with all of the other vendors later.

  4. #4 Joe
    March 12, 2010

    In Boston, food stamps (a.k.a. SNAP a.k.a. EBT) do count for double at farmers’ markets!

    http://thefoodproject.org/boston-bounty-bucks

    It’s a relatively new program, and my understanding is that getting the word out is still a big barrier. Hopefully that will change.

  5. #5 Alex Besogonov
    March 12, 2010

    “The case for industrial agriculture has rested heavily on cheap food over the years – the idea that it was worth all the subsidies, the land degradation, the health costs because we all had plenty was a fundamental premise of the move to industrial farming.”

    So you’re proposing to use even more expensive local farming? How is this going to help?

  6. #6 Luther
    March 12, 2010

    Dare I mention population growth and unparalleled immigration, especially illegal aliens in Florida, or is that hate speech?

  7. #7 ponderingfool
    March 12, 2010

    I don’t wholly disagree with you, but I think that since so much of the case for industrial ag has rested on their production of affordable food, that case is essentially obviated – if Americans are now so impoverished that they require food subsidies that approach the universal, we might as well subsidize good food as bad.
    ********************
    Industrial ag doesn’t have to do with good vs. bad food. The subsidies may create incentives to grow certain foods over others by industrial ag. but if you shift subsidies industrial ag will shift to those foods.

  8. #8 Mike
    March 12, 2010

    Food science denialists (promoters and consumers of organic) are exactly like creationists and climate change denialists, they take certain concepts or articles of faith and reject all reality which denies that which they believe. Take this quote:

    “If you think I am only joking, examine the rules of this new game. The fifty million dollar “Organic Initiative” subsidy is to help organic farmers, and I quote, “implement conservation practices on the farm.” Hmmm. Isn’t every real organic farmer already doing that? Isn’t that part of any proper definition of organic farming?

    Rule number two: “Conservation practices that farmers have already adopted are not eligible for payment.” Amazing grace. If you have already been doing what every responsible farmer should be doing, you don’t get any money, sucker.”

    Under the articles of faith of food science denialists, organic farmers are perfect for the environment and must be better than conventional farmers (who can and do use every organic technique depending upon conditions). Consider organic beef production. What are some of the more environmentally unfriendly practices? Unfenced streams and continuous grazing. There is nothing that prevents an organic or traditional farmer from doing these practices. to help improve conservation, the NRCS will pay any type of beef cattle farmer through cost shares to fence streams to keep cattle out, develop alternative water sources and develop grazing management plans.

    Now consider soy bean farmers who usually rotate with corn and wheat. How does a conventional farmer prevent erosion? No till farming by spraying a herbicide such as roundup and then planting. While this can be done by organic farmers, they have to use acetic acid and the practice is not done much. Instead the farmers are constantly tilling and plowing. This results in far more erosion and nutrient pollution. There are some conservation practices that can reduce the pollution. Buffer strips and riparian buffers can be used. But because this takes away productive land, the NRCS will pay farmers, organic or not, to do this conservation practice.

  9. #9 Lora
    March 13, 2010

    @ Mike: Wow. Um. Where to start with that.

    Basically, I would suggest that you make an intellectually honest attempt to learn about the incredible multitude of farming techniques that are used by farmers all over the planet which do not involve spraying pesticides and raising commodity crops. You cherry-picked one example of pesticide use that improves one aspect of land management (tilth quality) that also degrades other aspects (water quality, pollination rates, worker hazards, food quality and marketability), then instead of comparing it to organic farming of the same exact commodity crop, compared it to a poor land management habit that is practiced by BOTH organic and conventional farmers, mainly for economic reasons–demonstrating that you don’t have a very clear idea of the financial constraints the vast majority of North American farmers currently operate under (can’t afford the type of fencing or watering tanks that the extension folks recommend). I guess I am mostly amazed that you nevertheless believe yourself to be a very rational thinker. You could quite reasonably make the argument that organic farming of commodity crops is really all about the marketing label, and has little to do with actual practice–lotsa folks would agree with you about that, we’ve seen Cascadian Farms/General Mills do that very thing. The point itself, which Sharon alludes to, is that there is a difference between “real organic” vs. “organic” as a label, which has been debated hotly (by farmers!) since, oh, the 1970s or so. But your comment pretty much indicates that you really have not read anything Sharon has ever written, other than this single post.

    If you would like to learn more about organic meat production and how it can be done inexpensively and while protecting streams & wetlands, as well as improving tilth, may I suggest Joel Salatin’s books Salad Bar Beef and Pastured Poultry Profits?

  10. #10 Mike
    March 13, 2010

    Lora,
    I have multiple degrees in agricultural sciences and work with multiple organic farmers and traditional farmers as part of my job. I am extremely aware of the actual practices going on in both organic and traditional farms.

    I picked no till production because from a water quality standpoint and a soil quality standpoint, no other practice comes close to being as good for crop production. It is by far the most environmentally friendly practice that a crop farmer can engage in. this practice improves yields, reduces pollution and has no negative effects on food quality. Unfortunately a higher percentage of traditional farmers employ this practice than does organic farmers.

    As far as the beef side, i do recognize that fencing and water systems are expensive for both organic and traditional producers. That is why the quote Sharon used, that all organic farmers are already doing all of the environmentally friendly practices is BS. Of course a food science denialist will reject that reality. Hence it does make sense for NRCS to offer cost shares to help improve the best management practices of both organic and traditional farmers.

  11. #11 Lora
    March 13, 2010

    Mike:

    Agree that no-till is a great technique, although don’t know if I agree with “the best” given that it does have drawbacks to implementation–depending on where you are, invasive species can be very, very hard to kill and more than one round of herbicide required, in which case you’re applying herbicides so often there isn’t any net gain. Pale swallow-wort and smartweed are the ones that leap to mind, in my area; have to burn them out rather than spray, which is not feasible for large fields and prohibited in most of the drought-stricken areas where no-till is being used. Ask me how I know that applying herbicides of all types and costs in ridiculous quantities five times per year is insufficient to clear those particular weeds… ;-) I assume you’re familiar with Purdue’s list, but there are many more (e.g. burdock) that are problematic in other areas.

    I would argue that polyculture and “stacked” land use (e.g. running poultry under orchards to clean up dropped fruit and fertilize) is probably better as it improves the economic yield overall and helps reduce the severity of bad years in any one crop. Even rotational monoculture of commodities seems to me a bad business model for the farmer (great for ADM though).

    “Of course a food science denialist will reject that reality. ”
    Um, I think you are still missing an important point here: The word “organic” is being used differently in the quote you reference than how you are using it. There is a long and complicated history behind, shall we say, the evolution of the *postmodernist* notion of “organic,” before the official USDA definition came along, which is what I was referring to with Cascadian Farms/GM. You are using that word in the USDA sense. Quote is referring to something a bit more complicated, where the very definition is to be farming in a manner which is healthy for the environment–many of the old farts like me, who grew up on non-pesticide-spraying non-herbicide-using stream-saving windbreak-planting manure-spreading pasture-preserving free-range-livestock farms in the 1970s, now reject the “organic” label because of this change in meaning. Unfortunately every time a good descriptor comes along, some absolute bastard from Cargill’s Marketing department comes along to eff it all up. ;-) Some farmers still use “organic” and refuse to change their words (a la Humpty Dumpty: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less”) because that Marketing bastard will probably be laid off in a year or two anyway. Quote, I believe, is using it in the latter sense.

    Also, it does not follow that cost shares == better management practice. Please read the Joel Salatin books, he makes a great point that moving livestock frequently with inexpensive portable fence and using gravity-fed portable tanks is both cheaper (minimal capital required to implement) and better for the environment (less damage from all the animals constantly crowding around a few large permanent concrete-aproned tanks). This is not the model of conservation that the extension offices are promoting though: the extension guys are always nattering on about concrete and pumps and spendy permanent installations as if it’s the only way to operate. They do that because someone teaches them in college that this is How It’s Done, and it is bloody hard to teach them to use all those physics lessons and effing *calculate* pipe bores and valving specs to do it any other way.

    Sorry I’m long-winded about this, but I spent the past month attempting to teach an engineer how to calculate a simple passive solar energy capture model, and ended up having to build a prototype and bribe him with beer to get him to watch the damn thermometer go up for 15 minutes. Up until that point, he was certain I was insane, even though all this stuff was Physics 101. Feeling a little touchy about being called a crazy hippie at the moment.

  12. #12 Greenpa
    March 13, 2010

    Mike: “Food science denialists (promoters and consumers of organic) are exactly like creationists and climate change denialists, they take certain concepts or articles of faith and reject all reality which denies that which they believe.”

    Does that happen? sure. Though the absolute statement is a bit excessive.

    Evidence: the abundant promotion of clueless ideas, with no concept of current scales, etc.

    Modern agriculture collapse denialists (promoters and consumers of industrial ag) are exactly like creationists and climate change denialists, they take certain concepts or articles of faith and reject all reality which denies that which they believe.

    Does that happen? sure. Though the absolute statement is a bit excessive.

    Evidence: the very high number of current ag academics (70% or so in my extensive experience) who will tell you- in private- that they know perfectly well “modern ag” is already doing very bad things; and will turn into total catastrophe if new pathways are not developed.

  13. #13 Jesse
    March 13, 2010

    I think there are a couple of things going on here.

    One is to remember some of why we have subsidies in the first place. That has to do in part with the history of famines (which, ironically, political leaders understood better than economists).

    What do I mean? Take the Irish potato famine for starters. The problem wasn’t that the potatoes died. The problem was that the potatoes dies and nobody had any money to buy other food. As long as farmers could grow potatoes — and potatoes are damned good in that they pack a lot of nutrition/energy into relatively smaller pots than say, wheat — everything was fine. But in a money economy, if you haven’t any money, and can’t switch crops fast enough, and don’t have enough land, well…

    Same in Bangladesh. There was plenty of actual food, but nobody could afford it and it was more profitable to export the stuff.

    So, when ag subsidies were set up in the 30s, it was to do two things: keep the farmers (who were not largely industrial farmers at that point yet, but getting there) and to keep the price of food low, on the premise that a lower price would enable people to afford food and you’d avoid a situation like the above two. (Yes I know Bangladesh was in the 1970s, I am just using it as an example).

    The unintended consequence though, is to encourage factory farming and lower the price of food without any attention to the quality thereof.

    Now, that said, there is something to be said for factory-like farming technique. I am sorry, but the days of people subsistence farming have been over for 200 years or more, and there just is no possibility that such farming can feed 6 billion people. There just isn’t. Most people in the world live in cities and most are probably not willing to go Amish.

    It’s also worth pointing out that in your grandma’s day there were dozens of nutritional diseases that were common because certain foods were not available in certain areas or only available for a couple of months tops. I don’t think anyone want to re-live goiter, rickets, scurvy, or ber beri either. Those diseases were common enough among people in the 19th century — heck even in the 20th (pellagra, anyone?) that you simply can’t make the case that returning to the habits of a century ago is a good idea, not to my mind.

    Also bear in mind that the trend of fewer farmers was well on its way before the Depression — 1920 was IIRC the first census where a majority of the American population lived in cities. (And BTW that also heralded a lower rate of population growth– the baby boom was the last generation of farm-habituated people giving birth).

    The fact is, the factory stuff worked for people (even farmers who no longer needed families of a dozen and had to hope the crop didn’t fail this year and kill them by starvation in the process). It just worked too well, in one sense.

    At the same time, this isn’t an endorsement of current agricultural practice. There is a point where the inputs get so large and damaging you screw up long-term outputs. Phosphorus, for instance, may already be heading for crisis, and there will come a day very soon when Morocco is as important to us as Saudi Arabia.

    All this is to say you’d have to come up with a way to keep food cheap enough so people can afford it, providing the volume that many factory farms do. That’s a tough order.

    Remember, one reason more people don’t, for instance, cook at home is the time. Yeah yeah I have loads of dishes I can do relatively quickly too, but I had the privilege of being educated, no kids, a job that paid me pretty well, and not having any other worries besides getting dinner ready before my wife gets home.

    For most working class people the situation is nowhere near as easy. If you haven’t got much money, are working two jobs, trying to deal with kids, you aren’t worrying about getting organic freaking food. The issue of the privileged position of many advocates of organic food, slow food, all that jazz has to be addressed. It often isn’t.

    The whole process of making food, making sure it’s good for you, all that stuff can be really, really tiring. And a lot of people have enough on their plate, so to speak. Especially those getting food stamps. I mean, I love the farmer’s market, but the thought of shopping every day for fresh stuff is sometimes just too damned much after work. Unless you have one spouse at home I am not sure how realistic some of this stuff is.

    I’m not saying nothing should be done. But affordability is a major reason why Whole Foods doesn’t sell in Washington Heights and I see few people on food stamps at the Union Square farmer’s market.

    Maybe a better way to attack the problem is of course to ask why we are even in a situation that two incomes are necessary, which I think might be more useful a way of approaching it…

  14. #14 Greenpa
    March 13, 2010

    Jesse – good thoughts.

    “The whole process of making food, making sure it’s good for you, all that stuff can be really, really tiring.”

    I’d like us to consider very seriously that this perception (near universal in USA culture) is in fact- cultural. It is not actually a universal perception; something the Slow Food movement is working of highlighting.

    Here we are- huge “unemployment” – and nobody has the time or oomph?

    Cultural perceptions are fiercely difficult to alter, no question- but moving towards realizing that we’re not talking about a phenomenon on the level of the laws of physics could help.

  15. #15 Lora
    March 13, 2010

    Jesse:
    “So, when ag subsidies were set up in the 30s, it was to do two things: keep the farmers (who were not largely industrial farmers at that point yet, but getting there) and to keep the price of food low, on the premise that a lower price would enable people to afford food and you’d avoid a situation like the above two.”
    Don’t think I quite agree with that. The structure of crop subsidies today is very different than the way crops were subsidized in the 1930s. In the Dust Bowl, there were lots of large, recently-consolidated farms that had been foreclosed on. Yes, food was priced cheap, but not for export–even at very cheap prices, it cost more to produce than it could be sold for. So food was dumped in the garbage, burned, etc. rather than given away to hungry people, because giving it away even to charity soup kitchens would have killed the market entirely rather than the economy merely being in the toilet. The 1930s and 1940s subsidies were structured to guarantee a minimum price to farmers, and surplus commodities sold overseas were put into what amounted to a national granary bank: in bad years, farms would get paid regardless of output, out of the price controls earned from previous surplus years.

    In the 1970s, that changed, and subsidies became more like you describe thanks to Earl Butz. That was when family farms really took a significant hit and factory farms became the norm rather than the exception.

    Bear in mind when you are thinking about subsistence agriculture that we know a hell of a lot more about farming and ecology than Grandma and Grandpa knew. We can use hydroponics and aquaponics to raise food in city buildings themselves, we can rotate crops more efficiently, we know a good bit about animal and human nutrition. We know that in winter, if you’re a dedicated locavore, you had better eat tomato sauce, root-cellared carrots and greens grown in a windowsill to stay healthy ;^).

    You cite time as a problem, but I don’t think it is as great a problem as you believe it is. Turning off the teevee helps immensely. Money-wise, the problem is really this: the starting costs are out of reach. See the Sam Vimes “Boots” Theory of Economic Injustice (http://wiki.lspace.org/wiki/Sam_Vimes_Theory_of_Economic_Injustice) for a more detailed explanation.

    This is something an intelligent subsidy program could cope with by restructuring a food access/stamps program. Cooking a lentil stew and freezing portions to be eaten throughout the week is pretty darn cheap–we’re talking $0.50 per serving. But if you’re living in a hotel room for $200/week, you have no place to cook such a thing. Buying a quarter pig for the freezer works out to $1.50-2/lb. for organic pork, but most poor people can’t afford to shell out the $300 for a chest freezer, much less another $50 for a slow cooker or rice cooker that could plug into an outlet or $200 for a portable fridge/freezer that could be used in a studio apartment, hotel room or campground common area.

  16. #16 Jesse
    March 13, 2010

    Greenpa — the problem is that you don’t get paid to work at home.

    Look, I’ve been unemployed for stretches and while I have time to cook, but I don’t get paid for it. For that I need a job. That’s why I said a lot of it demands that you have someone at home to spend hours doing stuff. Now imagine working a couple of jobs — or even one — where you leave the house at 7am, get home at 6pm, have to make sure the kids eat (and hope to hell you had child care for those hours) make dinner, get the kids to bed at a reasonable hour, and sleep. Remember, cooking a lot of foods takes about an hour. I can get it down to 30 minutes if I have prepared something beforehand. Remember dishes don’t do themselves either.

    Now, imagine you live in a large city and you make the median wage, about $40K, and you take home about $30K of that.

    I really am convinced that a lot of people who rhapsodize about cooking have never had to face those kinds of pressures. And this is from a guy who loves cooking and digs making vegetable-oriented stuff.

    When I and my wife are both working, it is not a matter of the teevee. It’s a matter of I leave my house at 8am and get to work by 8:30-8:45 and work until 6pm+. Maybe you have a job that lets you out early, but again the point is what is realistic for people who aren’t very, very privileged. Most jobs out there are quite inflexible (all that stuff about flex time and breaking up your day is to put it bluntly, horseshit if you work an ordinary time-card-punching gig, which is 80% of the working population. It’s for professional-class people. The guy who works the baggage claim at the airport or at the starbucks isn’t getting any of that).

    Lora– be aware that the nutritional problems I cited weren’t because people had no knowledge. They occurred because certain foods just weren’t there. In the days before refrigeration, the only way to move a fish more than a mile or two was to dry it out. There is a reason goiter was a problem. Summer used to be the time when people were hungry for a reason. (The food form winter was eaten, and nothing had time to grow yet). It is only since people started shipping food a rather long way that ended.

    And many of the hydroponic technologies aren’t any better in terms of inputs. I’ve seen the designs for growing food in urban areas, and the problem is that you use a ton of energy to get the water to any height (water is heavy stuff).

  17. #17 stripey_cat
    March 14, 2010

    Jesse:

    First-up, I can prepare a big batch of chilli, stew or soup for the slow cooker for probably less than an hour of my time (varies a little depending on the state and varieties of the vegetables I’m using: garlic is much fiddlier to prepare than onions or leeks for instance). This will then provide maybe 10-12 portions (ie 5 or 6 meals for two) over the following week, or frozen over the next month or so. So I can cook for an hour once a week, and have cheap and nutritious food nearly every evening for the effort of a few minutes with the microwave. A larger pot would allow me to feed a larger household! Furthermore, I could do this from the age of being old enough to lift a full kettle and use knives safely: maybe six or seven. If you don’t have electricity then you have a problem (refrigeration and cooking), but that isn’t the case for the majority of the working poor you’re describing. (BTW, that’s a category I’ve been in myself!)

    I would disagree when you say that the nutritional problems are inevitable in a peasant economy: iodine to prevent goitre is easily refined and transported, once you know you need it; beri-beri can be prevented simply by eating wholegrain rice (or the parboiled before polishing sort); pellagra was only an issue once Europeans started eating maize (traditional preparation with lime frees up B3); winter/spring scurvy can be staved off with preserves (like sauerkraut) and spring greens. All of these became worse once populations (particularly urban ones) became isolated from their food traditions and started trying to ape upper-class food prejudices.

    Reliance upon local food-staples does leave you very vulnerable to supply-side fluctuation, especially in the absence of trade surplus to buy imports, but this is worsened by lack of access to land and by monoculture (a large part of why the potato blight in Ireland caused such a humanitarian disaster was that the farm-plots were too small to allow mixed culture: when one crop failed there was nothing else to eat). Of course, these problems are much worse if you’re trying to feed a poor urban population (if you have access to a university library, grain supply was a constant concern to Classical cities, from fifth-century Athens to the enormous urban population of Rome – state subsidy was the only possibly solution in both cases).

  18. #18 Jesse
    March 14, 2010

    stripey_cat–
    I am not saying it is impossible, just very difficult.

    And you do realize that people were shorter, with shorter life spans, when peasant economies were the norm? A big chunk of that was nutritional.

    My god, look at some of the physical anthro literature. They take a look at the bones of people who lived as subsistence farmers. It’s freaking scary.

    LIke I said, a lot of the time people would have loved to grow varieties and such. But it just wasn’t as easy as we like to think it is. I feel like there’s this image of bucolic farming people have and that isn’t the case. It was hard, nasty work, and you never, ever got a rest. Ever. George Washington — a guy with slaves and a pretty good living — worked until he died. All day. Every day.

    If you were to travel back in time to the 16th century, you would be the tallest person in the room, and people would wonder that you had all your teeth. These kinds of problems go back to the very beginning of agriculture. (Hunter-gatherers were generally healthier, but they lost out because no matter how tall and strong you are, if you can’t outbreed the city-dwellers/farmers you are doomed — that tall, strong warrior is facing ten short, less healthy people, who just overwhelm you with numbers).

    That’s one reason we have money economies for food now. It works — especially when you have a population that is mostly urban.

    One reason farms consolidated in the 19th century was technology had moved on a bit — by 1900 or so it just wasn’t necessary to have small plots producing subsistence farming (and those pioneers going west weren’t going to do that either, they were clear about farming as a business, and few people grew all their own vegetables).

    I said before the Irish problem was in no small part because nobody had money for that money economy to work. Same in Bangladesh. Both countries exported food because it was more profitable to do that — no locals could afford it, but foreigners could and they paid more.

    Look, all I am asking is that people face up to some things. One is that a locavore-based economy can’t support 6 billion people. Absent a rather large investment in fertilizers etc., you just aren’t going to get the necessary yields. There are already people working on the problem and it looks pretty bleak, honestly, though there are folks I know who are approaching it from the standpoint of GM crops. Yields have to double by 2050 or so if we are going to eat even if the rate of population growth were to decrease. (And no, ZPG is not happening anywhere near then).

    Second, you have to ask how to make it so that the start-up costs, as Lora put it, aren’t out of reach for everyone who does not live in a regular house. I live in 3 rooms with my wife (about 700 sq feet). Where do we put our garden? Our chest freezer? Remember, unless one of us is unemployed, we have to put in some hours there too with jobs on top of that. The problem is worse in Tokyo, or HK, or London.

    It’s ok to say that for locavorism to work the population has to be smaller, by the way. But let’s be honest about it.

  19. #19 Sharon Astyk
    March 14, 2010

    Good comments here – Jesse, I think we can agree that a lot of people don’t know how to cook, and that some households have insuperable barriers to cooking – people live in motel rooms without adequate facilities, parents work multiple jobs leaving older siblings to cook, etc…. in most cases, those are the folks who most need the advantages of someone with time and resources and ability to cook and least often have it. The solutions are extremely complicated there – better aid programs can help, better education can help, better facilities for families can help. Honestly, a return to welfare would help – that is, we’re not saving a lot of money on our social subsidies right now, so it might make more sense instead of subsidizing poor childcare for the very low income to simply return to a system in which parents can receive short terms support to take care of their children. I think that’s unlikely, however, since lower middle class and working poor families are so exhausted and overwhelmed and would bitterly resent it.

    As for the rest – well, I’ve lived in high cost cities with small children and incomes below 40K – in fact, when my oldest son was born, my husband and I made less than 20k on our grad school salaries and paide more than 50% of our income in housing costs (one of the most expensive housing markets in the country). And I cooked on weekends and at night, because I couldn’t afford to do otherwise. I grew up with working class parents who did the same – divorced, in one case single parenting, they came home after work and cooked every night.

    I just came home from staying with friends who are recent immigrants, they were teachers in Colombia, now they run a cleaning business. They work 12 hour days cleaning houses and then come home – and cook, because their parents did the same.

    I don’t deny that we have a lot of things in our culture that make it hard – but at the same time, I’m not buying the idea that people can’t find any time to cook for the most part – I don’t claim it is easy. But the idea that it is impossible is, I think, wrong.

    Sharon

  20. #20 Sharon Astyk
    March 14, 2010

    Mike, you win silliest coinage on this blog – “food science denialists” – that’s just funny.

    I think you missed the point of Logsdon’s commentary – yes, it is true that not all organic production is pure in any way, particularly not large scale industrial production, but even small organic farmers do stupid things. But the point of Logsdon’s observations was somewhat different – it was that by focusing on crediting people who were maximally destructive for their improvements, while not crediting those that were already making changes, the subsidies essentially serve the status quo.

    Sharon

  21. #21 Greenpa
    March 14, 2010

    Jesse: “- the problem is that you don’t get paid to work at home.”

    Beautiful example of what I’m talking about; thanks. True- in much of our world at the moment, MONEY is what brings you respect, contributes to the family welfare, and is “appreciated”. And, indeed, the majority of homemakers in our culture are “unpaid”; unrespected; an unappreciated.

    That, however, is truly not “a fact of life” it’s a fact of our culture. In MANY others, the woman’s contribution to the family welfare IS highly respected; and greatly appreciated. Should be, don’t you think?

    It CAN be too; though getting there, as I mentioned in the first place, requires a cultural shift, which is as difficult as converting a Catholic to a Moslem.

    While that approaches an unrealistic option- it may eventually be the ONLY option available.

  22. #22 Mike
    March 14, 2010

    Food science denialists and climate science denialists have both created a narrative in their head and reject all reality that does not fit.

    The status quo is that a number of farms, whether organic or not, have not adopted a number of environmentally friendly practices (in many cases due to cost). Therefore to improve the environment and change the status quo, certain capital costs and management labor costs will be paid for by tax dollars. Of all the subsidies, the environmental conservation ones are most likely to change the status quo. Why you would attack them for maintaining the status quo makes little sense.

  23. #23 Greenpa
    March 14, 2010

    Mike- you may want to think VERY seriously about something you already know.

    “Food Science” has been IN CHARGE of world food practices, top to bottom- for around 6 decades now; possibly 8.

    Here we are. Obese. Or starving. Around 2 billion in the world chronically ill-nourished.

    And don’t tell me that’s not your problem; lots of people think it is.

    So- how is “Food Science” doing, then?

    I’ll answer: it’s approximately the same as if the Civil Engineers responsible for highway design built beautiful – short- sections of freeway; interconnected by one lane dirt roads.

    Perhaps it’s time to listed to outside voices?

  24. #24 Mike
    March 14, 2010

    Greenpa,
    In the US food science (all agricultural and materials sciences related to food production) was started by the Land Grant system in the Lincoln Administration. But let’s just compare 1900 to now.

    In 1900 there were 1.65 billion people. Now there are almost 7 billion. In the intervening 125 years, the amount of arable land has significantly decreased.
    So how is food science doing? I would say pretty damn well. Are there problems? Of course. Capitalism does not handle externalities like pollution very well. But that problem is not limited to agriculture. But is that the problem with food science? Food science has helped to identify those management practices which are environmentally friendly as well as production friendly.

    Your suggestion that outside sources be listened to is the same refrain that creationists and climate science denialists use.

  25. #25 Greenpa
    March 14, 2010

    Mike: Yes yes, but “science”. In the modern sense. If you’re serious about the history, you need to go back to Thomas Jefferson’s moldboard plow- quite revolutionary; and George Washington’s meticulous controlled experimentation with crops.

    “Your suggestion that outside sources be listened to is the same refrain that creationists and climate science denialists use.”

    Have you studied the history of science; and of engineering and technology?

    Your attitude is EXACTLY that of a discipline that is senile, and in denial. It’s classic. “We know exactly what we’re doing! NObody else knows enough to give us any useful advice; how could they?!”

    Thankfully, not all those in ag and food share your thinking. In fact, I’ve been astonished by the drastic increase in open mindedness since the 70’s.

  26. #26 Lora
    March 14, 2010

    Jesse: “I really am convinced that a lot of people who rhapsodize about cooking have never had to face those kinds of pressures. ”

    I hate to disabuse you of a notion you clearly cherish (i.e. the one that we are all classist foodies who Don’t Know How Haaaaaaaard It Is), but I grew up in Amish country, eating local farm produce. We sure didn’t starve or go hungry in March. It’s March, BTW, when the crops aren’t up yet in northerly climates–we’re harvesting winter mushrooms, maple syrup and indoor-grown spinach at the moment, eating the last of the winter squash, but we’re just starting to go fishing once in a while and the chickens are laying like gangbusters, I’m up to my eyeballs in eggs. Greens and scallions will be up for real in April, along with rhubarb, dandelions, violets, daylily tubers (good salad potato-type substitute until the real potatoes come in), morels. In May we’ve got more greens and the asparagus will come in with the final batch of cold-weather mushrooms, the first crop of peas and radishes. By early June we should have a first harvest of short-season broccoli, early cabbage from the seeds started in Feb, garlic scapes, honey, strawberries and gooseberries. Come July the new potatoes will be ready, and we’ll drown in zucchini.

    Been told many MANY times that I was supposedly going to starve to death and die of malnutrition and whatnot from being a locavore and rejecting Big Ag. Still waiting for it to happen. What I have found from reading primary history sources and anthropology is that food taboos and ignorance of what is edible and how to grow/find it will surely kill folks: Where I live now, it’s a fact that half the Mayflower families starved to death while surrounded by plenty of food. They were middle-class merchants and upper-class folks, though, and were trying to learn farming out of books, having never done it personally–and they didn’t know jack about fishing, even though fishing expeditions had been traveling to the New England coasts for centuries by 1620. They could’ve had lobster rolls and chowdah all winter, but they had a religious prohibition about eating things that look like bugs, so they starved to death.

    I currently work 50-60 hours/week and commute about 1.5 hours daily (45 min each way). And when I come home, I do anywhere from 1-3 hours’ worth of chores, depending on season. On weekends, if I don’t have to run to work, I do maybe 8 hours’ worth of chores. It’d be less if my house was a little more conducive to laundry and if I didn’t have so many effing buttercups in the garden (startup costs again–building work-arounds is harder than building something right the first time). When the Dear Husband and I first moved in together, we had about $14k/year between the two of us. When we first got married, we had all of $16k/year–this was in the early-mid 1990s. I went to school full-time, worked 35 hours/week, did research AND minded a veggie garden AND cooked all our meals. I did that because when you are a few bucks per year over the cutoff for receiving state aid, you get a choice between starving to death or having chili for dinner for the third time in a week, so you’ll take the chili.

    You asked how to raise some of your own food in a 700 square foot apt. Good question, and one I can’t hope to answer in a mere blog comment, but it depends on a few things: Do you have windows, and what direction do they face? A balcony or fire escape? A rooftop that the landlord will let you use? Outdoor common areas you could use? My Chinese co-workers tell me how they managed to raise chickens and veggies to supplement their state-marketed rice during the Cultural Revolution, and my Russian co-workers tell me how they managed to raise berry bushes, dairy goats and chickens in downtown Moscow. But, as Greenpa said, you have to keep an open mind about what can be done.

    @Mike: Repeatedly name-calling does not make you any friends. I’m telling your momma.

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