Saturday, December 18, 2010

What we lose through "efficiency" - feedback

Tim told me this morning that in yesterday's post, I have confused industrialisation with efficiency. He says that we choose and want to be efficient in everything, including non-industrial agriculture and food production. I see what he is saying, and I agree with him. Maybe I have confused or not delineated between the two concepts thoroughly enough. What I am trying to get at is the notion of trying to get more for less (or more for the same amount of input), which is exactly what industrialisation is, and which is exactly what efficiency is. When we choose to apply fossil-fuel based energy and chemicals to agriculture, we think that we may be able to increase "yield," or the amount of output per area of land (which, I emphasise, is not true in practice). But the concept of "efficiency" is also the foundation behind genetic modification and the development of seeds and crops that are better able to survive given inputs of industrialisation. Through this process of increasing "efficiency," we deplete the natural balances of nutrients in soil and water, resulting in poorer tasting food. What is then lost is the experience of food - no one can deny that better tasting food makes you feel better, mentally and physically. If the notion of "efficiency" is to be applied to non-industrial agriculture, it would entail treating the land and what feeds it in a way that doesn't overburden it (exactly the opposite of industrial agriculture), and respecting the land enough so as to get the best tasting food.

To Eleanor's point that efficiency and industrialisation has allowed us to taste foods that only exist in other parts of the world, and that industrialisation feeds the world. There is a grain of truth in what she says, but I think what industrialisation is good at doing is underestimating the costs of itself. "Economies of scale" applied to industrialisation are good at providing "low-cost" food to people, but the costs, especially environmental and social, are completely neglected. When we go to Wal-Mart or Kroger, we do not pay for the costs of petroleum or lost livelihoods of small farmers. (Those costs are indeed covered by subsidies.) Furthermore, even though Americans have continued to spend less and less on food, and it is possible to get entire "meals" at fast-food restaurants for $2, the number of people going hungry locally and globally is still remarkable, and nothing that industrialisation "promises" can address that. It is also undeniable that industrialisation leads to a decrease in the quality of food, and it is debatable whether you can call industrial, fast food "food."

With the issue of flavour, I am speaking to the mental and social impacts that good tasting food can have. Maybe people will eat bad-tasting food if a gun was put to their head, or that was all that was available on a particular day. But once you have tasted good food, the smell, flavour and experience stay with you lifelong. I do not believe we have to sacrifice the quality of food for quantity - Cuba has resisted this sacrifice since petrochemical exports to the country stopped with the fall of the Soviet Union, through innovative approaches of biodynamism and organic urban agriculture.


  1. Another thoughtful and interesting post. One issue I take some issue with is, "the number of people going hungry locally and globally is still remarkable." Although the number of hungry people is remarkable, greater than it has ever been in history, the percentages of infant mortality and other indicators of quality of life increase all the time. It seems that you are ignoring the fact that these increases are only possible because of industrialization. It is true that we cannot industrialize without changing the environment but I think most people feel that it is a necessary evil that the environment is changed for our benefit. I also think most people agree that we should minimize the effect and we are trying to do that as a society. We should try much harder but the way you are talking makes it sound like we should abandon our efforts and go live in the woods.

  2. I mentioned this before, but I'll say it again: I love how you challenge what I say. It really makes me rethink, and hopefully rephrase what I am trying to get at, and hopefully point out flaws in my arguments.

    I do not advocate for going back into the woods, although that may be a beautiful experience; I don't know. But my concern surrounds the concept of limits. When you say that changing the environment is a necessary evil for our benefit, I think what that assumes is that our purpose is domination over the environment. But as we can see all around the world, most explicitly through biodiversity loss, we are acting without limits.

    I might have to disagree with you on quality of life indicators. I doubt that the quality of life of people in the West has changed at all over the past few decades. I wonder what studies say that, and what assumptions they make. I do agree that infant mortality is much lower now, and that is an outcome of medical practices, possible because of industrialisation. I understand humans care for themselves and other humans, and I must say I love being human =). But I think that that care for our own species has had serious environmental impacts, such that our potential for existence is compromised.

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