Bastrop Cattle Company

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Bastrop Cattle Company
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The Big Boys Push Back

Well, this has been an interesting month! Much of the news is good. Here in Central Texas, we have started the ritual of spring with food festivals all over the place and with the various local farmers markets starting to hit their stride with more produce, eats, flowers, spices and artisan works. Nationally, even as we all feel rather glum about the economy, many of us are discovering the joys (and good nutrition and economics!) of cooking at home. The local movement is again gathering steam - it certainly didn't hurt to have the First Lady put in a garden. More grocery stores and restaurants are offering locally raised produce and meats, and as more venues develop, more farms and ranches are realizing that they don't have to be economically tied to a system that treats them as a commodity.

But, of course, there is always a fly in the ointment! Right after Michelle Obama put in the garden, one of the large agroindustrial companies issued a press release bemoaning how commercial agriculture had not been given its due. It seems that we should all be in awe of the wonderful things that the big boys have done for us - they've fed the nation and the world with their wonderful technological innovations - more fertilizer, more hybrid seeds, more herbicides, more pesticides - and more water use - have produced bigger and bigger yields on less and less land with less and less labor. Wow!

Along with reminding us that we would all be starving if it weren't for them and their Green Revolution, they also have launched another front. This summer you will begin hearing from the first academic round to counter the Michael Pollen argument. James McWilliams, a professor at Texas State University launched the first salvo in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times this month. He maintained that pork raised on small farms was more dangerous to your health than the pork raised on concrete (and in its own waste) by the big industrial pig farms. It seems that since family farmers don't have the little porkers up off the ground, heavily dosed with antibiotics, and eating pumped up feeds 24/7, you just don't know what they might be into! - a lack of knowledge my pig farmer friends don't seem to suffer from!

This is to soften us up for his bigger argument - a whole book - Just Food - that will be out this summer. In it he will make the argument that the locavore movement is actually a delusion created more to bash globalization than to offer any real solution to feeding the growing world population. Mr. McWilliams seems to think that the local sustainable movement not only cannot be applied on a worldwide scale, but that it is not even sufficient to feed the population of this country. In other words, the US does not have either the land, manpower or know how to subsist off of local sustainable agricultural enterprises.

This argument is being carried even further by some in the agribusiness field that maintain that the local movement is worse than a delusion. It is actually a threat to the food distribution system in this country and to the on-going development of the food system in the world as a whole. After all, by encouraging you to buy that locally grown tomato at the farmers market, you are depriving someone working overseas from selling you a more efficiently (read cheaper) grown tomato there and shipping it here. That means ultimately the loss of jobs overseas, and a starving (no pun intended) of a burgeoning global industry to supply food to the world. Further, locally raised or grown food is neither efficient, nor cost effective and it certainly isn't the best use of high priced land that could be better used developed into subdivisions, commercial parks or shopping malls.

Well, um this is food for thought (pun intended!). The Punjab region of India was limping along on subsistence farming thirty years ago. Then the Green Revolution arrived. Western agricultural methods were introduced along with hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, and herbicides. Initially yields per acre skyrocketed and the Punjab became the breadbasket of India which went from importing food to being able to feed itself. Unfortunately, the miracle had a termination date. To make the hybrid seeds grow in the region, large amounts of water had to be pumped out of the underlying aquifer. Thirty years later, the aquifer is dropping at 3 feet a year. Three times as much fertilizer is now required to get the same yields, and the bugs have become desensitized to the herbicides. The farmers in the Punjab are going into bankruptcy drilling deeper wells every year and buying more fertilizer. The Punjab ecosystem is on the verge of collapse and the suicide rate among farmers is the highest in India.

If this is the system that I am personally responsible for destroying every time I sell a piece of grass fed, free range locally produced beef --- well, good.

Maybe instead of thinking that we should get higher and higher yields out of mother earth by ladling on more chemicals and using up limited water resources, we should be looking at sustainable methods that match the environment. Let's also decide whether we want to commit 'high value' land to agriculture or to more subdivisions -- you can't eat a subdivision. Let's also decide if we want a viable, economically healthy agricultural sector in this country that can feed us, employ people and add to the overall well being of our society and the environment. Or if we really just want to let someone else with cheap labor and arable land (and their own resources to deplete!) raise produce and animals like commodities for us and ship it here when they are finished (wait, doesn't that sound like a national security issue!).

Bashing the local sustainable movement is not the answer to feeding the world, though it will probably sell lots of books! Instead, I suggest we concentrate on a grass roots movement that puts more land back into agricultural use with the idea that each region - whether in Central Texas or southern Spain or northern Nigeria - can and should develop an agricultural model that can nutritionally support the surrounding population of that region.

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Comments:

When I read the piece in NyTimes op-ed section, I searched for "James McWilliams" to see who he is, what he's been up to, etc. He appears to have a long track record in this sort of "debunking" food and farming trends. Its worth a search, and some reading so we (if we choose to) can remain on the lookout and remain ready to discuss issues rationally.

Posted by Steve on May 02, 2009 at 07:44 AM CDT #

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