Read it and weep…

…then comment:

Romantic notions about the environment and technology are harmful, for their implementation can lower quality of life and worsen the problems implementation was meant to solve.

In recent years, the ideas espoused by some environmental and conservation groups have had adverse effects on agriculture, food supplies, and human health in developing countries. The difficulties these organizations create originate in their antiscience, antitechnology worldview. They deluge us with figures on soil loss, pesticide-related deaths, and alleged failed attempts at using pesticides to reduce infestation — but their figures are too often unverifiable.

In the 1970s, “small-is-beautiful,” “back-to-nature” types told us that we could sustain resources only if they were “renewable.” Two decades later, the “nonrenewable” resources we allegedly were exhausting are generally abundant and often available at historically low real prices — while the “renewable” biological resources, such as rain forests, are in danger.

Organic agriculture does not pass the first test of sustainability: It cannot sustain the existing population of the world. Actions that undercut agronomy — the science of field-crop production — are detriments to the poor and to the environment. Such actions lead to the bringing of marginal lands into cultivation.

The sustainability of agricultural techniques is an important, valid concern, but such concerns do not legitimize technological and sociocultural regression.

10 thoughts on “Read it and weep…

  1. Two decades later, the “nonrenewable” resources we allegedly were exhausting are generally abundant and often available at historically low real prices

    Oh, great, two decades later. What an amazing perspective this guy has. Two whole decades. Is it just built into people that they can’t see past their own generation?

    “Well, they said we were gonna run out of stuff, but 20 years later, we haven’t. Which obviously means that the supply is safe for the next 5 billion years that the Earth is expected to be around for…”

  2. Organic agriculture does not pass the first test of sustainability: It cannot sustain the existing population of the world. Actions that undercut agronomy — the science of field-crop production — are detriments to the poor and to the environment. Such actions lead to the bringing of marginal lands into cultivation.

    that is such a load of crap, so to speak. organic agriculture managed to sustain populations for ages and ages, it’s only with the development of capitalism that it’s been turned into a commodity and manipulated in such a way. the green revolution opened up a lot of doors but the use of that technology has also fucked a lot of people over. is he saying that there won’t be enough food for everyone unless pesticides, gene manipulation etc. become entrenched in agricultural production? because if he is then he’d better take a closer look at the work of people like frances moore-lappe, who have spent their lives proving that the problem isn’t with a lack of food but instead with the actual distribution.

    i love food politics.

  3. Seems to be much like everything else these days – science is too mixed up with politics. Scientists will always disagree on things – it’s part of the scientific process. But politicians and political activists jump on any scientific report that supports their position, and run with it. This is one more reason why I don’t believe anyone anymore. I have no idea what the real answer is.

    However, I’ll tell you my cruel-hearted position on sustainability. I don’t care about sustaining the world’s population. I care about sustaining myself and the people around me, and doing it in a way that doesn’t poison me. If organic agriculture can do that, great. Whatever does the least damage. As for the rest of the world, if a region can’t sustain itself – too bad. Some people are just going to have to die. That is how nature has always worked, until humans started messing with it.

  4. I think the author is trying to make the point that resources that we were supposed to have run out of already are actually still around in relative abundance. Besides, by 5 billion years all of it will be used up whether anybody uses it or not ;)

    Having seen the agriculture industry up close in America and many places around the world (including the third world countries), I would have to agree with most of what he is saying. Organic farming is actually not as natural as you would think. Large scale organic farming has as much enviromental impact (bad) as the worst cases of abuse in conventional farming. Agriculture itself is not natural. Think about that. If you need it spelled out in block letters: WE ARE NOT VIABLE AS A SPECIES IN A NATURAL ECOSYSTEM.

    And I’m not talking about at the population levels we are at now either. Even primitive tribes have to remake the ecosystem around them to survive. Its what we do. Other animals have claws, wings, teeth, etc. We have technology.

    Anyway, he didn’t mention things like DDT has been proven to not be harmful (and the ban has kills the equivalent of a holocaust every year… Yeah, Joni Mitchel has killed more people than Saddam). The natural pesticides have a broader spectrum of action (read it can crossover into environmental damage more readily) than the chemical version which, nowdays, is targeted to specific biochemical pathways of only a small population of insect species. Sure, this wasn’t as true back in the 50’s and stuff, but science progresses. A lot of farming is computerized (on field or not) now with watering scheduals fine tuned like you wouldn’t believe. America has virtually eliminated tail end polution from irrigation run-off along with a lot of the rest of the world. Agricultural technology in third world is progressing like you wouldn’t believe, my dad has been to all the continents except Australia to learn about local agricultural practices. Conventional agriculture is improving in technology by leaps and bounds right now.

    Organic produce is fashion.

  5. This guy feels like a less successful Lombard. Write a controversial “shock” book that turns assumptions on its head, but base it on weak premises and strawman arguments.

    Yes, the environmental movement has become politicized, but there is an obvious reason: if you believe that decisions made now have long-lasting effects, and the only way to change policy is to enter the political process, then of course the issue will be politicized.

    The more important question is: who truly argues for “regressed” organic agriculture? If anything, modern sustainability research is not about regressing technology, but using advanced technology to understand and harness complex methods from the past and combine them with modern understandings in order to develop real sustainable economies. This is a ludicrous argument to say that the sustainability debate is about technology regression. I was in a room of scientists a month ago and one scientist actually made the same argument. The rest of the room was polite, but I enegaged him and pointed out that sustainability is NOT about technology regression. Everyone else there reiterated my argument. It was almost embarassing to hear such a simpleminded statement.

    As a real-world example, I am currently growing vegetables and herbs using organic nutrients and a complex hydroponic system. It is a melding of technologies with things like fertilizer made out of bird droppings, seaweed and other organic substances. It requires a MORE advanced understanding of chemistry, biology, and quite frankly, evolutionary macrosystems to develop this kind of high-yield agriculture. The best part is that this kind of technology while complex to develop, is cheap and easy to implement, particularly in parts of the world that have been devestated by short-sighted policies that have eroded away critical topsoil, only leaving salinated soil for agriculture.

    The editorial board that approved this book for publication should be ashamed.

  6. Actually, I agree with most of your points. One thing I was wondering about is how large scale hydroponics can be made without spiraling into the cost prohibitive territory.

    My father has actually been researching an alternative which is more cost effective: Subsurface pipe irrigation (leaky type pipe) with nutrient and water delivery that way. It combines the same thing as hydroponics with the convenience of soil medium. You can grow things on nutrient poor soil and (because you don’t have evaporation etc.) use extremely little water. Even then, you run into problems when you are talking about large scale cultivation. We knocked around the idea of multi-level robotized food factories, but even that seems prohibitive.

    The only thing we agreed on was that you could develop technology for individual households on the level of hydroponics, etc. which they could use cheaply and almost conveniently to grow their own food year round. It could be possible to price something like that on the range of a car and have it take up about the space of an one car garage. Which would would lessen the impact of the population that puts the greatest strain on food production: The middle class in developed countries. But the likelyhood that such a practice would be widely accepted culturaly is about nil. Plus, it could have unforseen impact on water usage, etc.

    I also agree with an earlier point that most of the problems with food “shortage” (which we don’t actually have at current time) is delivery infrastructure.

    The rest of what you labelled as organic agriculture is so close to conventional nowdays (and getting closer) that I don’t know what you are trying to distinguish. Fertilizer from natural sources btw aren’t that much better than the “petrochemical” variety, they just pollute in different ways.

  7. I don’t have much time (I’m on a deadline), but:

    I agree.

    Sadly, there are morons out there who think that regressed organic agriculture is the only right way to do things. They’re proposing a solution that is just as inappropriate as those who think that GM is the panacea to the world’s food problems.

    As others mentioned, the real difficulty these days is food transportation. And we’re getting better with techniques of the sort that the tiger0range mentioned.

    Overall, we’re making great progress. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t fight against the demons of stupidity at every turn.


  8. Well, if we agree that food distribution and in part, global markets relying on hard currency are parts of the problems…then maybe large-scale agriculture isn’t really an endgoal we need to seek. The justification for large-scale industry is economies of scale. In terms of hydroponics, microsystems seem to be better. I recently read in a hydroponics magazine about a grocery store that bought a few of those Omega rotating hydroponic systems. They turn around and sell the output of these farms, and the customers love it. At most they are only producing maybe 250 heads of lettuce at a time, but they were so popular, the grocery store is considering getting more machines. Maybe the solution is a decentralization of the food business in terms of production, but centralization in terms of research and information dissemination.

    As for the fertilizer issue, yes, any fertilizer is a pollutant unless properly disposed of. The book seems to treat organic agriculture as some kind of arcane form of primitive food production. The point is that it is possible to “think outside the box” and not rely soley on industrial era techniques to solve post-industrial world problems.

    Anyone that thinks ancient food production is “prmitive” ought to step back and look at south east asian irrigation methods as just one example. Just looking at how the Balinese festival calendar ties into proper irrigation, flood control and pest control is pretty amazing. People who lived hundreds and thousands of years ago were just as bright as we are now, we just have the benefit of accumulated knowledge from the past. If we choose to ignore this accumulated knowledge, then we are probably LESS intelligent, I would think.

    Back to hydroponics, I just started my project a few weeks back, so my research has just begun. What fascinates me and what I think might work for large scale agriculture is aeroponics using ultrasonic misting of the nutrient solution. It seems to me that once you work out all the bugs of ultrasonic aeroponics, it is a solution that can be implemented with a smaller technological infrastructure than more complex forms of hydroponics.

  9. As long as food producers can externalize the negative consequences of their actions, and as long as economy of scale of RETAIL DISTRIBUTION will trump whatever production costs are involved (in US a lot of agriculture is subsidized anyway — it works at loss that Greenspan+everyone pay for), “market” not produce anything positive. “Organic” food that is being marketed as a luxury item, and regulated in a weird, arbitrary and distorted way is a great example of it.

    Sustainable food production has absolutely nothing in common with all those things. If government admits that there can not be self-sustaining _market_ for food (and at least within US this is the case) it should not try to create a toy market with rules that make religions look sane and straightforward, it should develop and enforce quality standards and manage agriculture in a way that will prevent the situation where any farmer that dares to produce anything that does not taste like shit, immediately becomes bankrupt. Or admit the defeat, shut down all agriculture within the country and switch to imported food — this worked well for industry, and there certainly can be a lot of progress in the development of refrigerator trucks and food storage techniques, to keep engineers busy for a while before the next wave of layoffs.

    And, unrelated to this, I have no idea how a human can think that non-sustainable anything may be superior to sustainable one when both alternatives are present, and there is no hope for significant future improvement (such as with energy — at least we know that E=mc^2, and there is a lot of m around, question is just how to use it). Humans used unsustainable agriculture at the very beginning of civilization — cutting the forest, burning the trees, using ashes to fertilize soil, then growing crops until the soil is depleted, then moving to another area. This ended pretty soon after more advanced techniques were developed — I guess, at that time there were no economists, who would without any doubt argue that the cost of crop rotation is high while being nomadic is a natural way of life for a human, and therefore has no cost associated with it.

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