Friday, May 8, 2009

Feast? Famine?

Embarrassed as I am to admit how behind I am on my reading (as the dates below will show), it’s almost worth it once in a while for the interesting juxtapositions of information that result.

Recently I was reading an article from a May 2006 issue of the New Yorker, “Paradise Sold: What are you buying when you buy organic?”, which, as part of a broader exploration of organic agribusiness, describes “how to feed the world’s population” as “the most urgent problem with the organic ideal”. To support this, the author cites a statement made in 1971 by Earl Butz, Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture (and apparently "despised by organic farmers"), that “if America returned to organic methods ‘someone must decide which fifty million of our people will starve!’”

Wow, that’s some hair-raising rhetoric, right? It certainly stuck in my mind, especially when, a few days later, I came across this statistic in Marion Nestle’s Food Politics (2007):

“The greater efficiency, specialization, and size of agriculture and food product manufacture have led to one of the great unspoken secrets about the American food system: overabundance….The US food supply—plus imports less exports—provides a daily average of 3,900 calories per capita. This level is nearly twice the amount needed to meet the energy requirements of most women, one-third more than needed by most men, and much higher than that needed by babies, young children, and the sedentary elderly.”

What to make of these totally contradictory statements? Yes, the one by Butz is almost forty years old, and the food industry has undoubtedly changed a lot since then; but the author of the article included it to support the argument that this is a present problem, and relevant to the debate over organic versus conventional/industrialized agriculture.

So who to believe? My inclination is to assume that Nestle is accurate and that Butz represented the interests of Big Agribusiness, who didn’t (and don't) want to deal with the costs and headaches and smaller profits that switching (back) to organic farming would involve. But I admit I’m biased.

Who do you believe?


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