Thursday, 29 October 2009

Crucial question

What are the forces opposing the development of sustainable agriculture?


Nuno said...

.Heavily subsidized non-sustainable agriculture (industrial monoculture)

.Environmental costs of agricultural activities not reflected on product prices. This would make unsustainable agriculture more expensive and sustainable agriculture cheaper. Parodoxically the exact opposite occurs.

. Farmers and producers are no longer paid or compensated for environmental benefits (like biodiversity) they may add/take care of in their region.

.Lack of education, planning and rational distribution of funds by policy makers and farmers/entrepeneurs. What is favored is fast, cheap, low-cost, short term, "easy" and unsustainable ways of producing, one of the principal ones being large scale monocultures.

.Privilege of the large farmer over the small one, which gives incentive to even more growth by large producers and more abandon by small ones. This in turn erodes small scale local markets which, modernized, could present an oppurtunity for small farmers (like CSA's in USA).

.Main Reason: as Joel Salatin (the "beyond organic" farmer") says: buying food is voting for how you want it produced. The vast majority of people in developed countries is voting in a destructive diet employing destructive means of production.

Diagnosis: Installed policies are hard to change, maybe a severe, worldwide food shock will do the trick.


A.S. said...

I mean, what are the reasons behind the status quo that you describe? Why are installed politics hard to change?
Rational evidence doesn't seem to be enough.

Cumprimentos ;-)

Nuno said...

Once again, off the top of my head and within my limited experience:

As Michael Pollan says, "whats for dinner?" was the most important daily question for humanity for millenia but today, in the developed world the answers are automatic- we choose what is easy, cheap, and immediatly gratifying (salt, carbs and sugar). This reflects on Agriculture, which was both transformed and transformative, to become an easy and cheap mechanism to produce the type of food that was in demand.

How can this change, from the point of view of education?

a. Health.It is now common knowledge that certain diets damage health. Obesity is on the rise but so is widespread knowledge on healthy diet and habits. This brings the focus to the quality of food thus decreasing meat consumption and processed foods. This evolution is approaching that of tobacco,which, from widespread use, to alerts on health efects, to campaigns against it finally got governement legislation increasingly taxing and restricting its consumption.

b. Environment. There is growing awareness that agriculture is on par or bigger than transportation or construction as a pollutant activity. This demonstrated fact becomes public knowledge and people increasingly demand less packaging, less transportation and less artificial pesticides and fertilizers.Food distributers, for marketing reasons mostly, follow public pressure and slowly change everyday practices.

Education, while slower and hard to evaluate in the short/medium term is the single most effective threat to the status quo, which was installed by the divorce from the consumers and the origin of food. Most of us dont know anything about where food comes from and how it is produced and this causes most of the problems. Once again Michael Pollan: "There is a veil deliberatly placed between us and the origin of our food because if that veil was lifted you might not want to eat a lot of things."
For me, in Portugal, there is also a cultural barrier: our agricultural past is recent and it is viewed as shameful and related to poverty. For most people the farmer is someone who has failed in life and lives on subsidies and what little he can take from the land. His knowledge isnt' viewed as a skill but something that merely allows him/her to subsist.

2. Policy.
Installed politics obey to the pressure of civil representation. Large agricultural conglomerates, which largely represent the keepers of the status quo, are well organized and command concentrated capital, which makes them very effective pressure groups, even commanding scientific influence through university funding. They are, however, fragile in some points:

1.They depend on their commercial success, an informed and conscient consumer is therefore a threat to many of the practices they depend on to be profitable (animal feedlots, for example, are increasingly vulnerable in the public opinion right now). These consumers also vote...

2. They oppose incoming trends in environmental policy, such as carbon emissions legislation, which will force politicians to choose a side on this issue. You see this currently on USA, where Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack (he came from Iowa and the ethanol industry) is currently jammed between the administration pressure for climate reforms and agribusiness lobbies. He will most likely resign.

3. While impervious to negative influence on a national and multinational scale, agribusiness is inexistent on a grass roots community level (ouside of large supermarkets). This void can be fulfilled with community based food commerce, such as CSA's in USA and the (yet) tiny local and organic farmers markets in Portugal. While extremely small, this movement is constantly growing.

Phew, can't think of much more!