This past Saturday, in her Globe and Mail opinion piece entitled “Take the romance out of farming and ditch locavorism”, Margaret Wente’s usual logically formulated arguments failed her. I don’t often agree with her viewpoint, which seems to be constrained by the expectation that all her readers live in a pleasant area of urban Toronto, occasionally leaving to drive to a cottage in an SUV, but seldom are her arguments as poorly considered as in this piece. Food production is a complex subject, with many implications for the planet and its inhabitants. I strongly believe that it is a subject in need of far more public awareness and public policy discourse than is currently taking place. Some of Ms. Wente’s more egregious and simplistic pronouncements misrepresent the issues and cry out for debate. I volunteer to start the discussion!
Ms. Wente starts her article by waxing rhapsodic over the taste of her home-grown tomatoes. Then she shares with us the difficulties in growing tomatoes: one year the crop is too big, the next year it is too small; some years we get too much rain, other years too little; some years, too hot, other years too cold; some years blight, other years some other problem. The strange part is that, having had this real-life “farming” experience, both in experiencing the reward of truly fresh food and also the risks inherent in farming, she doesn’t translate that into what farming is like. Instead, she uses this as an example of the waste and inefficiency in local farming. This is where she first lost me. What? Do you think that the food you eat is grown somewhere where the weather is always the same? Do you think farmers don’t suffer these same vagaries of nature, which, I might add, are starting to get worse – everywhere – because of climate change?
Her premise is that agribusiness is more efficient, less wasteful, and better for the environment by having farmers specialize, growing “a lot more food on a lot less land”. There is no doubt that modern farming practices are more efficient than the subsistence farming of 100+ years ago that she uses as a comparator. We have mechanized equipment, fertilizers, and improved seeds. We have transportation infrastructure, centralized slaughterhouses and storage facilities that allow farmers and ranchers – and middlemen – to manage their production outcomes. But – and this is a big but – there is a difference between subsistence farming and modern family farms that should be viable but are being driven out of business by truly big business.
Regardless of whether we are talking about family farming or the increasingly large commercial ventures that lock up the contracts with Walmart and the SuperStore, they all contend with risks from unpredictable weather and market-driven prices. Ms. Wente may like the convenience and reliability of getting cheaper food at the big stores, but don’t pretend that it is more efficient, and please don’t pretend that it is more friendly to the environment. The fact that the abandoned farms north of Toronto have reverted to woods is a sadly myoptic example of an improvement in her local environment. The reality is that any environmental issues have just moved to where your food is being grown.
The lettuce and other vegetables you buy all winter, transported “fresh” in trucks, ships and trains for a few weeks, are cheap because they are being picked by migrant workers being paid very, very low wages. And the land on which this produce is being grown is suffering from overuse and fertilizer runoff instead of your local area. In California, farm workers from Mexico are being paid illegally-low wages for very long, hard days, picking vegetables watered by unsustainable amounts of water from the Colorado River. The Colorado River, which flows mightily through the Grand Canyon, now runs out of water before reaching the Pacific Ocean, and 78% of the water taken from the Colorado is used for agriculture. Ms. Wente, sorry, but your arguments are misguided and NIMBY-based. Our cheap food, although not as cheap as many people would like and bound to get higher, is paid for by the sweat of poorly treated labourers. There is nothing environmentally friendly about it. And how can food that has travelled for thousands of miles possibly be “more nutritious, safer, higher quality, and far less wasteful than the local kind”?
An article published in the 4th of July issue of the Washington Post, “Why Your Hamburger Hates America”, raises some interesting points on the subject. This article reveals some of the worst excesses and exploitation in today’s agriculture business, using the production of hamburger, buns, and the fixings of lettuce, onions, and tomatoes as examples. The author, Tracie McMillan, paints a distressing picture of the plight of field labourers in the tomato fields of North Carolina and the lettuce fields of California, and reminds us of the control of a very few companies over slaughtering houses and food production. Speaking of which, did you know that Walmart controls one-quarter of all food sales in the U.S.? Food for thought. Their low prices come as a result of scaling up, putting most family farms and even what we’d think of as medium-size farms out of business. That’s a lot of control of our food supply in a very few hands. Their focus is not on taste and quality, it’s on profit.
The pursuit of the lowest possible prices, regardless of how it is achieved, brings up a related issue: outsourcing. We have developed a fully-integrated global economy without understanding possible consequences, although some of the consequences are clearer as an outcome of the economic crisis of 2008. In Canada and the U.S. we have enjoyed relatively low prices of food and consumer goods because large manufacturing companies have outsourced to countries where labour costs and conditions are far lower and less regulated than ours. As with our food, we have access to cheap goods at the expense of the working conditions of people elsewhere, impacting their environment instead of ours. Out of sight, out of mind. In doing so, we have also closed down many of our own manufacturing companies, who were no longer competitive on the world stage. Needless to say, no clothing manufacturer in Canada could find employees to work for wages similar to those in Vietnam or Bangladesh. So when Ms. Wente says, “locavorism makes no more sense for food than it does for clothing or computers,” she forgets that the loss of jobs in those sectors is in fact lamented by many.
As I posited in a previous post (Where did the family farm go? Does it matter?), it is difficult to say with absolute certainty that the demise of the family farm is something about which we should raise alarms. Personally, I believe we should be concerned. If most of our food is coming from other countries over which we have no control and then supply is cut off by internal strife or climatic emergency, we are in trouble. We will have given up our ability to feed ourselves.
I think that Ms. Wente was trying to take aim at “idealists” for being suspicious of commercial farming by making a case for how far we’ve come. But instead, she is confusing modern farming techniques, which are used almost exclusively regardless of the size of the farm, with subsistence farming of yesteryear. She is dismissive of any concern that agribusiness is ending up in the hands of a few, exploiting third-world labour and their environment in the process. It’s all about what works for her – for now. In doing so, in my opinion, she is drawing some very short-sighted, if not irresponsible, conclusions.