Industrial Agriculture v. Sustainable Agriculture

Differences tabulated. In columns. And marked by me. I'll start above the fold with an excerpt:

i-b941a56c60172e38eff6d2dbf227e1ca-Domination v Harmony.jpg

The main distinctions are between a system that tends toward domination and one that strives for harmony; between that which seeks to specialize and that which promotes diversity; between promoting competition and seeking community and cooperation; and between that which is defined by values of speed, quantity, and profit and that defined by values of permanence, quality, and beauty. One prefers mechanistic identity, that is, the other ecological.

Here is the full table, as reproduced from Thomas Lyson's (2008) article, "Agriculture of the Middle: Lessons Learned from Civic Agriculture," in Food and the Mid-Level Farm: Renewing an Agriculture of the Middle, Thomas A. Lyson, G. W. Stevenson and Rick Welsh, eds. 165-178, on 172 (MIT).* Yes, now I need to go to the library and scan a clean copy.

i-b0cd25e77cfca9020d82bd00a06e0663-Ind v Sust re-marked reduced.jpg


*Lyson, who wrote the well-received book Civic Agriculture: Reconnecting Farm, Food, and Community in 2004 but unfortunately passed away in 2006, compiled the table from Beus & Dunlap (1990), "Conventional versus alternative agriculture: the paradigmatic roots of the debate," Rural Sociology 55:590-616

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Seeking to juxtapose industrialization and sustainability in the manner illustrated is a sure sign that somebody's got an agenda that's only indirectly related to the problem of providing adequate nutrition for everybody.

I think the only way to sustainability, short of killing (or letting die) billions of our fellows, is to get serious about industrial agriculture. We should be developing vertical farms that are located in densely populated areas, thereby freeing huge swaths of land from the plow so they can be returned to forest and savanah.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 12 May 2009 #permalink

A very interesting post. Thanks.

And in response to Bob Koepp, could you clarify your statement:
"I think the only way to sustainability, short of killing (or letting die) billions of our fellows, is to get serious about industrial agriculture."
You seem to imply that industrialized agriculture can produce more food per acre. This is not true. Industrial agriculture produces more food per dollar, and that's only if you ignore the costs of damages (present and future) caused by pollutants released by the industrialized agricultural system as well as socioeconomic inequalities. Sustainable agriculture can produce much more food per acre without the ecological damages, but requires more intelligent use of technology and more involved management.

Secondly, the idea of vertical farms would be tremendously energy intensive both the build and maintain. However, the idea of urban, roof-top farms is certainly worth looking into and offers many benefits to the communities responsible for maintaining them.

I am a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate with a BS in the life sciences. I also enjoy reading about economics and in particular, environmental or non-valuation economics which focuses on externalities that free markets fail to take into account.

Andrew - Industrial agriculture in the form of vertical farms can produce vastly more "per acre" if acreage is measured by the amount of planetary surface required. Forty acres stacked on top of each other use only one acre at ground level. Further, if the vertical farms employ closed system technologies, you eliminate the need for pesticides, there is no "runoff" whatsoever into the external environment, and any potential for unintended gene flow is minimized. By siting such "farms" in the middle of urban areas, you can provide people with fresh picked produce that hasn't been transported except from upper levels to street level markets. And most importantly, you free land from the plow, which has destroyed more natural habitat than any other human invention. What's not to like about this picture?

By bob koepp (not verified) on 12 May 2009 #permalink

On your first comment, Bob, I think you're right that Lyson had a motive for comparing features of two different systems (as did Beus and Dunlap before him, and me after). This does not negate the fact that the features of the two columns are valid. Also, suggesting that sustainable agriculture systems don't provide adequate nutrition is not accurate. Not only does the food produced that way offer nutritional superiority (see Joan Gussow's work, among others), it is also more effective for soil nutrition (see Albert Howard, about 70 years ago), thus requiring less land extension and fewer chemical inputs. Furthermore, I agree with Andrew's comment about urban farming, of which vertical farms are a subset.

And here's a third thing: On my view, the primary issue we need to tackle to move towards "sustainable" living is conceptual, about pursuing means that help us see our connections to and membership on the land. Vertical farms don't necessarily do this and, as in Despommier's versions, seek to control rather than participate. That is, vertical farms suggest that we can isolate food production and maintain separation from the land.

Finally, an additional problem I see is with the premise that the problem here is food availability -- more prominently, we have a problem with food distribution. I share your concern for feeding the world, but I would like to work on reducing our own waste and over-production (the reigning agricultural policy paradigm for several generations now) first, so that (on the waste side) Americans don't throw away 1.3 pounds of food a day or 30% of our total food.

Ben - I question the "validity" of the juxtaposed "features". What's not "sustainable" about the scenario I sketched? Further, in what sense is a system that permits the restoration of vast areas of natural habitat at odds with "harmony with nature," "diversity," "community" and "a primary emphasis on permanence, quality, and beauty?" One can, of course, simply stipulate that "industry" is contrary to such things, but to what end, and with what justifiction?

By bob koepp (not verified) on 13 May 2009 #permalink

promoting competition and seeking community and cooperation; and between that which is defined by values of speed, quantity, and profit and that defined by values of permanence, quality, and beauty. One prefers mechanistic identity, that is, the other ecological fence charges