Embracing industrial agriculture

Ezra Klein:
Jay Rayner offers some real talk on food production:
If we are to survive the coming food security storm, we will have to embrace unashamedly industrial methods of farming. We need to abandon the mythologies around agriculture, which take the wholesome marketing of high-end food brands at face value – farmer in smock, ear of corn, happy pig – and recognise that farming really is an industry, much like car manufacturing or steel forging, one which always works better on a mass scale, but which can still be managed sustainably.
Despite the dreams of many foodies, I can't think of a major industry that went from small, decentralized production methods to large, scaled industrial production -- and then back again. Are there any examples I'm missing? Maybe so. But for now, I think of the preference for farmers markets and small producers as being mainly important in sending certain signals about production methods and branding preferences to Big Ag than in actually creating some sort of viable alternative.
There will always be a niche for small, organic and local farm products.  I love to eat this kind of stuff too.  But I agree with Ezra Klein and Jay Rayner here: We're not going to solve the world's food problems with everyone eating local and everyone eating organic.  Indeed, that recipe is probably the opposite of sustainability, as I understand the term.

But I do think we can make large-scale industrial agriculture more healthful and environmentally friendly.  And the local/organic movement may be just the thing that pushes us in that direction.


  1. How about beer, and the renaissance of craft brewing? OK, so it hasn't completely banished the industrial fizz, but at least it is now possible to get a pint of good stuff in the UK and in the US.

  2. Jeremy:

    Yes, we'll get a lot more of that kind of thing. More specialization, more variety, more quality. Craft brewing is a lot like the organic movement: It will continue to flourish for the upper snot like me. But it's not going to feed the world.

    Some will have the nice craft brews. Most will still drink Bud.

  3. Dear Michael,

    I agree with you. But, let me also say that it is an issue I struggle with and question. The efficiencies and production levels achieved by agricultural practices, as exemplified by the growers in the U.S. are in a word, amazing. And, I don’t think there is much common understanding of how dependent our current culture is on large-scale agriculture. In the main, supporting the lifestyles and feeding our now mostly urban population can only be possible with large-scale farming.

    A certified crop adviser I know that works with large wheat, corn, and soybean growers in Kansas once gave me this analogy:

    Growing a tomato plant on your backyard patio is one scale.

    Growing a garden for vegetables is a step up in scale.

    Growing enough food for you and your family is another.

    Now, grow enough food or grain to be able to afford to buy a car …and that is a completely different scale of production. And it is the last that allows farmers not only to support themselves but also provide food and support the culture/commerce we have.

    There is orders of magnitude difference between each of these. And that is something that most of those not involved in production agriculture do not understand, in my opinion at least.

    On the other hand, large-scale agriculture is also faced with a set of increasingly pressing problems. Those challenges include its heavy dependence on fossil fuels as a prime input; environmental impacts; and its tendency to lessen genetic diversity.

    In essence: is production agriculture sustainable in the “long run?”

    It is here, in the intersection of sustainability and addressing the problems facing agriculture in the coming decades, that local/small-scale farming can provide examples of success.

    Also, efficiencies can be achieved at every scale.

    Hey Michael…thanks for allowing me to sprout off! By the way, there are some great locally brewed beers here in Wisconsin!

    Best regards,
    James Giese
    Director of Science Communications
    American Society of Agronomy


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