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Going Beyond Industrial vs. Alternative Ag.

Rather than trying to combat big business or the federal government, the people who initiated food politics 40 years ago turned away from policy reform and instead formed an alternative. Today, the alternative food movement is based on the premise that, if enough people stop supporting the industrial food system, then market forces will drive reform in food policy.

The industrial system depends upon economies of scale to increase production and lower consumer costs. However, lower food costs often come with unseen expenses such as health concerns, environmental degradation, and social injustice. Many alternative food activists think that these problems could be alleviated by shifting from industrial agriculture to small-scale, organic, eco-conscientious agricultural practices.

I support alternative food. I’m an intern on a small-scale, “beyond-organic,” Joel-Salatin-style farm. But I have yet to be convinced that the current trajectory of the alternative food movement is going to create a truly sustainable agriculture.

Gorgeous farmers-market fare with prices that reflect the true costs of artisanal food production is not going to feed the 6.8 billion people on our planet.

The underlying logic of the alternative food movement seems to be, if modern industrial agriculture is bad, then the opposite must be good. If global is bad, then local must be good. If big is bad, then small must be good. If conventional is bad, then organic must be good. If industrial is bad, than artisanal must be good. And so forth.

This logic seems pretty weak to me. Sure modern industrial agriculture has a ton of problems. But an alternative food system based on oppositions has its problems as well – namely that it won’t work on the scale required to feed billions of people.

What’s needed is a less polarizing approach, one that goes beyond pitting small-scale, organic agriculture against industrial agriculture. By merging the positive aspects of both types of agriculture and focusing on policy reform, we might be able to form a truly sustainable agriculture, one that can feed 9.1 billion people in 2050 without completely ravaging our natural resources.

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Image courtesy of Kevin Krejci via a Creative Commons license.

3 comments
  1. russ

    @Rachel – Exactly the answer to the future of the world in many areas – seek solutions on rational middle ground rather than from the extreme.

    Unfortunately it is the extremes that get attention in most any field. Δ° believe that in 2008 some 3% of cleaning material sold was ‘green’. Δ°t was a very noisy 3%.

    Both extremes, pro & con, in the future of the earth make up maybe a total of 5 or 6 percent of the population, The very large middle ground has no voice and manages to allow the ‘wild ones’ to shape the future.

  2. Steve Savage

    Rachel,
    Good points. A lot more progress can be made fixing issues in “industrial” agriculture than by pretending that small scale approaches could ever be the answer. I’ve actually seen tremendous progress in agriculture over the past 30 years. Most of the bad actor pesticides are either long gone or much less frequently used. Breeding advances have been substantial. The amount of land needed to produce a given amount of food is dramatically down. I’m not at all saying all the problems are solved, an nature being what it is, new problems arise. It is just that many alternative and local food advocates argue against an outdated straw man image of farming, not something dynamic.

  3. Geoff

    I think it should be a question not of Industrial VS Alternative or Conventional VS Organic but of Fresh VS Processed.

    Eat Fresh food regardless of it being conventional or organic it’s just going to be better for you in the long run.

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