How Sustainable Are Current Food Production Methods?

Check out this excellent article by Michael Pollan in Sunday’s New York Times: Our Decrepit Food Factories

Pollan discredits the popular cliché of agricultural sustainability:

The word “sustainability” has gotten such a workout lately that the whole concept is in danger of floating away on a sea of inoffensiveness. To call a practice or system unsustainable is not just to lodge an objection based on aesthetics, say, or fairness or some ideal of environmental rectitude. What it means is that the practice or process can’t go on indefinitely because it is destroying the very conditions on which it depends. It means that, as the Marxists used to say, there are internal contradictions that sooner or later will lead to a breakdown.

He goes on to describe two stories from this year which serve as examples of why mass production of food using artificial means is not sustainable.

The first story is about pig farms and the outbreak of MRSA. The only way these farms can raise “vast numbers of pigs or chickens or cattle in close and filthy confinement” is by pumping them full of antibiotics. Not surprisingly, the dreaded MRSA virus is highly prevalent on these farms and could be responsible for spreading the virus to humans.

The second story is about the disappearance of bees from bee farms (60 Minutes had a fascinating piece on this subject a couple of months ago). More so than ever, farmers rely on bees to pollinate crops. For unknown reasons, millions of bees are disappearing from bee farms. Nobody knows why but it’s not a stretch to hypothesize that heavy reliance and over-work of the bees is killing them:

As one beekeeper put it to Singeli Agnew in The San Francisco Chronicle, California’s almond orchards have become “one big brothel” — a place where each February bees swap microbes and parasites from all over the country and the world before returning home bearing whatever pathogens they may have picked up.

*****

The subject of agricultural sustainability is absolutely fascinating to me. To produce enough food to feed the fast-growing world population, farmers are turning to increasingly “aggressive” methods of producing food.

I haven’t read any conclusive evidence proving that consuming meat and dairy produced this way is harmful to health. Nevertheless, I feel like it just can’t be a good thing. And since my obsession du-jour is inflation, I can’t help but to draw the connection between these practices and the boom in global aggregate demand.

Consider how the Fed measures CPI by way of hedonically adjusting prices. This method takes into account the change in quality of items in the index. For example, if a computer gets better and better each year while its price stays the same, the number crunchers might decide its real price is actually declining — you get more computer for your money.

What if we applied this same reasoning to the cost of food: does producing milk from cows pumped full of antibiotics and hormones reduce its quality? I can’t objectively answer this but I believe it does. Just check out the dairy section at Whole Foods – hormone free milk is considerably more expensive than the regular kind. To buy the same quality food as we had 50 years ago, you have to spend WAY more!

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One Response to How Sustainable Are Current Food Production Methods?

  1. […] How Sustainable Are Current Food Production Methods? […]

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