Many of us feel that organic is better, local even more so, and the two together unbeatable. But why?

A new movie, Food Inc., looks at the “dark” side of industrial food production, highlighting the nutritional and ecological effects of eating highly processed, inhumanely slaughtered, and otherwise unsustainably produced food.

I haven’t seen the movie, though I hope it will receive some play in Lexington (come on Kentucky Theater!). Previews have already generated a lot of buzz, including this response by Rebecca Ruiz, a health writer for Forbes.

I have to admit, I am conflicted. As Ruiz points out, activists who sing the praises of small scale, locally produced food often don’t discuss the thornier issues surrounding hunger, access, and cost.

These facts are undeniable: small scale food is healthier, but more expensive; organic crop yields are often lower (perhaps “normal” is the correct word), though prospects for long-term ecological sustainability are greater.

Many questions remain: Are those of us clamoring for locally produced food really just advocating for a privileged food class? How would the world shift food production from large to small scale and achieve this without starving millions of people? Is small scale, local agriculture a realistic model given the realities of ecological changes and increasing world populations?

Though Ruiz’s critique is serious and well-reasoned, she conflates a number of topics into one topic, while simultaneously buying into some common misconceptions. When she says, “Skeptics point out that by and large, the healthiest food is not cheapest, nor is it available in every market,” she is raising a good point, one that I’ve raised myself. When she criticizes locavores as being naive, she does so at risk of sounding like a hypocrite.

Let’s not confuse the issue of cost and access, which seems to be an American concern, with the issue of eradicating hunger, which seems to be something else entirely.

Sure, as Americans, we have access to an abundance of cheaply made food, much of it produced using industrial farming techniques. But what kind of food is it? The next time you’re at the grocery, take a moment to break the store down by types of food. You have a relatively small produce section; you have an aisle of dairy and one of meats; you have an aisle of canned produce; you have a section of pastas, flour, and other grain products. The rest of the store is mostly made up of pre-packaged, prepared foods that are full of artificial everything, extra sodium, and more sugar/corn syrup than our great grandparents probably ate in their entire lives. Is it just a coincidence that the most processed foods are the cheapest, or that rates of obesity and poverty often overlap?

So is the issue food scarcity? Or is the issue, perhaps, using the food resources we have, no matter how they’re produced, to make better quality food?

Access to affordable, healthy food is one issue, though one that I believe is only tangentially connected to the larger issue of feeding the world’s population.

To that end, Ruiz offers a slight defense of Monsanto and their ilk by saying that industrial farming techniques have been developed as they have in order to feed as many people as possible. And these techniques have fed a lot of people. However, here Ruiz is being slightly less naive than the food activists she set out to critique.

If you really believe that Monsanto, Cargill, and DuPont helped develop these farming methods out of the kindness of their hearts and in order to feed the world’s hungry, I will buy you a new tractor. If Monsanto really cared about the world’s farmers, would they breed corn that has a kill gene in it (which prevents the seed from sprouting the next year, in effect making the plant a one-and-done), or sue farmers who try to save seed from plants originally purchased from Monsanto?

Admittedly, I haven’t researched the investments of Monsanto, Cargill, or DuPont, so I’m not entirely sure what all they own. But I would wager a bet that these same companies pushing enhanced/modified seeds also sell the weed killers, pesticides, and petroleum based fertilizers necessary for this type of farming. These are businesses. Their business is to make money, and making money is never about long term sustainability/success.

But what about the recent success of grain farming in Africa using these seeds and techniques? Well, as every good drug dealer knows, first you subsidize the product, then once the customer is hooked, you charge them full price. As the Punjab region of India has shown, relying on these techniques may increase production in the short term, though the success comes at an astronomical price.

Still, Ruiz and others who share her concerns can’t be entirely discounted. The real challenge in all of this is in changing how we perceive food. Cheetos are not food, nor are Cool Ranch Extreme Fiesta Salsa Doritos.

One solution would be to use the food we produce to better ends. Another solution might be to reduce the number of animals raised for meat. I’m not saying to eradicate meat consumption entirely — I enjoy a nice steak, piece of sausage, or chicken thigh as much as the next person. But Americans (and now, following suit, most of the world) eat entirely too much meat. Meat production requires large amounts of grain and other staple crops that could be used to feed a larger portion of the world’s populace. Meat on the scale that we produce/eat it is unsustainable.

As the National Geographic article (linked above) points out, industrial “green” farming techniques are only moderately more successful than organic/sustainable techniques. The larger question is whether we can encourage the paradigm shift necessary to radically change the scale and sustainability of world agriculture while still providing enough food to the world’s population? If environmental pressures continue to mount, we may be forced to answer this question far sooner than we have anticipated.

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