Friday, June 29, 2007

An Inconvenient Idea: Poppies and Cocaine for Food

I'm reading -- skimming -- presently a book called Ecoagriculture by J.A. McNeely and Sara Scherr. Color me deeply unimpressed so far, but it has inspired in me another idea that, of course, makes sense but will, of course, be dismissed or poo-pooed or ignored, either because it goes against the supposedly inexorable logic of capitalism, which governs all space-time, and is thus impractical, or simply because it goes against capitalism and therefore those whose oxes would be gored just wouldn't wanna do it. (Of course, the latter is the cause of the former, but somehow this constitutes immovable realities, around which pragmatic progressives should reshape their dreams.)

What the hell am I talking about? yes, sorry, i'll get on with it.

Ecoagriculture is about feeding the world and the growing human population while saving wild biodiversity. The authors point out the existence of widespread hunger, poverty, especially rural poverty and the poor farmers forced to intensify production and encroach on valuable biodiverse habitats to stay afloat... yadda yadda yadda, all things I agree with. Of course, they somehow (so far) fail to see that a) there's more than enough food being produced today, the problem is distribution, and b) intensification (more food on less land) tends to, economically, draw more people to produce as it gets easier to produce more (yay capitalism!), incurring further price declines of the type what makes being a farmer difficult. (And c) several studies at least have consistently shown it's the rich, large farmers who cause the most damage to conservation-valuable lands... go figure, huh? Why oh why wouldn't people and governments want to go after big business? The mind boggles.)

Jeff & Sara so far seem to be saying we should hurry up and help tropical farmers intensify, and sell tropical products to us so that we pay them enough money that they can then buy grain from us! (You see, thereby saving their biodiversity, because they won't have to bother with growing their own food, they can just sell us coffee and bananas and passion fruit etc.)

So. Can't call them out there, insofar as that this is a pretty traditional view. But wait: let's set a moment and think: if we were designing a system that made sense, and the stakes are really high (widespread hunger: check; rapid biodiversity loss: check), would we figure, instead of carting produce around the world in extremely resource-intensive planes as fuel prices are likely to climb and global warming increases, wouldn't it be better for the Developed Countries to just directly aid the so-called Developing ones, with just normal aid payments to encourage programs that support small farmers, support local agriculture and local markets, and in general look to reduce everyone's ecological footprint as much as possible? Do they have to grow luxury items to sell to us to get money to buy food items from us in turn? Doesn't that seem, I don't know, stupid?

So, what's occurred to me recently is that none of the food & environment-concerned folks (or none that I know of, including me 'till recently) are advocating a turning over of luxury crop land to food land. A coffee plantation, when rustic coffee is grown, can actually provide a lot of food & fiber crops. Pasture systems can become silvo-pastoral (integrated with some amount of forestry) and provide a variety of useful products locally, as well. Why doesn't the US stop paying so fucking much for new clothes we throw away a year from now and instead encourage and support foreign countries in subsidizing the conversion of cotton crops into diversified food & fiber systems for local use? And you know what: if subsidies and price structures were set up such that food prices were a decent living, people growing cocaine and poppies or what have you would probably start growing food. Oh, not today or tomorrow, but if the future is as dire as it may be -- and Sara & Jeff seem to be trying to paint a very dire picture, indeed -- food prices may skyrocket! Then, of course, it would be more profitable to grow food than drugs. But why wait that long, and worry of the effect on consumers? Since farmers only get ~$0.20 on every dollar we spend in food (see handy reports from the U. of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems, especially the work of Marty Heller & Greg Keoleian, a friend and colleague and a former professor of mine, respectively), and advertisers get a whole bunch of the rest... well, you do the math. Should people starve, or food prices go up, or farmers get an unfair price, or... should we market, and eat, locally, making sure the money AND RESOURCES are used well and used in our own communities?

Some factoids from Marty & Greg (not Jeff & Sara):
Marketing of domestically grown and consumed food, including charges for transportation, processing and distribution, cost an estimated $466 billion in 1998[44]. That represents 80% of the $585 billion that consumers spent on foods originating on U.S. farms. Marketing costs rose 54% from 1988 to 1998. Nearly 88% of the $186 billion increase in consumer expenditures for domestically grown food resulted from increases in the marketing costs[47]. The cost of labor composed nearly half of the 1998 marketing bill. The remainder of the marketing cost is balanced between packaging, transportation, energy, advertising, business taxes, net interest, depreciation, rent, and repairs (see Figure 1). The relative cost of marketing different food items is reflected partly in the farm value as a percentage of retail price seen in Table 9. As mentioned earlier, the farm-to-retail price spread has increased every year for the past 30 years. While retail food prices rose 2.4% from 1996 to 1997, farmers received 4.4% less for the food they produced[57]. In 1997, food manufacturers (including the tobacco industry) received an after-tax profit return on stockholder equity of 19.8% (5.6% as a percentage of sales), a culmination of 5 years of increasing profits. Food retailers averaged a 17.3% return on stockholder equity in 1997 (1.6% of sales)[45].

Surely, there are places where resources and costs must be cut and reallocated that would represent wiser choices in a sustainability-challenged world than advocating and increasing silly exportation? (I.e. the luxury food-for-money-for regular food example given here. See also: Nicaragua's Caribbean Coast, where they export bananas and other food to Costa Rica because it fetches better prices there. Then, of course, they have to buy food for themselves, and end up importing some of the same foods from abroad. These are perverse systems, capitalism or no, and I don't think they can survive the harsh gaze of sustainability, ecoagriculture or no...)

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