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Unenlightened article at Freakonomics about agriculture  RSS feed

 
jenny penny
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Annoying article that basically says that big Ag is better than local or small-scale farming. It also makes some other points like local farming would make fattening food cheaper and contribute to obesity, consuming locally-produced food doesn't really save on carbon emissions, and other interesting tidbits. It's depressing to see that [still] the only two accepted forms of agriculture are big Ag, and small-scale big Ag. And this article got picked up by two news sites so far so it's making the rounds.

http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/11/14/the-inefficiency-of-local-food/
 
Tyler Ludens
pollinator
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jenny penny wrote: local farming would make fattening food cheaper and contribute to obesity


Because, goodness knows, nothing is more fattening than grassfed meat and fresh vegetables!

 
Hugh Hawk
Posts: 225
Location: Adelaide, South Australia (Mediterranean climate)
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The article seems to miss the point that eating locally is about eating things that grow well locally. So if you are in California you might eat more almonds, but in Florida you might eat more pecans, for example.

Large, monocrop farms are more dependent on synthetic fertilizers and tilling operations than small polycrop farms, and they face greater pest pressure and waste disposal problems that can lead to environmental damage."


This quote from his article highlights the fact that monocrop farms are driving themselves into the ground, destroying the land they depend upon, and will struggle with higher input costs due to fossil fuel scarcity in the coming decades.

Grains can be grown cheaply across much of the country, but the costs of growing produce outside specific, limited regions increase quickly. Thus, nutrient-dense calories like fruits and vegetables become more expensive, while high fructose corn syrup becomes relatively cheaper.


Luckily, we can grow many fruits and vegetables at home without too much effort.

higher prices on any food are precisely the wrong prescription for the great health problems in the developing world, where millions remain undernourished.


Actually, the world produces more than enough food to feed everyone, we just have a distribution problem. It really pisses me off the way that proponents of big agribusiness pull out this line every single time. As if increasing the cost of farming through using more technological solutions is going to bring the price of food down.
 
Rob Meyer
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Huh. Confounding. It also seems to imply that if "small polyculture farms" were to take root on a widespread basis, the use of chemicals would increase. How they figure this, I don't know, as I would assume (perhaps falsely) that those who are hip to polyculture planting would also be hip to as organic as possible methods, which would mean that chemical use would decrease. How they come to the opposite conclusion, I have a hard time seeing.

Also, here is another pretty awful (for local food) link that was recommended:

http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/10/20/lessons-of-the-listeria-outbreak-do-locavores-make-us-less-safe/
 
Brian Laggis
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This guy makes a great argument based on his assumptions, but I agree that this article is completely unenlightened because he makes so many assumptions that, in my opinion, are simply not accurate. He assumes that local farmers operate in the same way as large scale agriculturalists. While this may be true in some cases it is really not true most of the time. Also, assuming that local food will be more expensive is simply not true - take away subsidies and things get much more even. His article mentions none of the incredible benefits that come from "wasting" money in local food systems - most notably ensuring the resilience of local food systems and supporting a local economy. It's easy to discount this article based on the fundamental flaws in the authors ASSumptions, its too bad this isn't obvious to the author or others at Freakonomics.
 
Fred Morgan
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Location: Northern Zone, Costa Rica - 200 to 300 meters Tropical Humid Rainforest
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One thing that large scale farming has brought us is a reduction in diversity of foods - besides tasteless tomatoes, etc. Yeah, if the food was grown local, people would probably gain weight, because the food would actually not taste like cardboard. :

Also, people assume because it is in the supermarket, it must be better for you than what is growing outside, wild, free for the harvest. It is hard to beat guava as an antioxident, but most people don't even touch them down here, because, well, poor people eat them. After they have been processed, and turned into jam, maybe. I like munching on them. The seeds are hard, but hey, I just spit them out, the way nature intended. The horses love them.

I need to train myself to eat more coconut for fat, since it is all over the place on our property. Hmmm, we have tropical spinach growing like weeds, and coconuts. You need something to take the astringency out of the spinach, I wonder if coconut milk would do it since regular milk does, that with some curry, we might have something there. All from something that grows like weeds.

 
Chris Stelzer
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Thank you for sharing this article. I just did a review/analysis of some agricultural articles on my daily podcast, and I will certainly try and do a review of this one.

The “Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act” sponsored by Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Representative Chellie Pingree of Maine, throws about $200 million to local farm programs.


Exactly, it "throws" $200 million at local farm programs which in turn creates more bureaucracy which take away the freedom and autonomy of local farmers which creates a bigger problem! This is becoming more mainstream, people asking for money from the government to fund small scale farm production. It makes absolutely no sense and is a direct contradiction of what small farms are all about, diversity and autonomy. Does anyone have any other resources or articles in which people are asking for more money from uncle Sam (for agriculture)?

Hugh, I agree with you that it's a distribution problem, which is exactly why we need local farms. People are closer to their source of food. Have a farm in the middle of no where, no matter how "sustainable" it may be is pointless.

These two articles that have been posted so far are maddening!
 
Hugh Hawk
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Location: Adelaide, South Australia (Mediterranean climate)
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Chris, what I meant by distribution problem is that we waste many agricultural resources in producing highly processed products for the global rich. If universal access to nutritious staple foods was a priority, we could make that happen, and without big ag.
 
Fred Morgan
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As the old saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

As much as people have heard, "you have to think out of the box", very few people do.

One time there was a show on survivor man (or whatever it is called, it is in Spanish down here) where he was dropped in a Costa Rican jungle, to survive. Heck, drop me in a jungle down here, and I will come out the other side, fatter. There is food all around us, we just don't recognize it, because it isn't shrink wrapped and labeled.

 
                      
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had to stop reading article after only a few paragraphs...couldn't decide if author was being intentionally obtuse or simply so endoctrinated into the big ag big pharma dogma that he was incapable of realizing that he was comparing large industrialized monocropped farms to slightly smaller industrialized monocropped farms...doubt the young man has ever laid eyes or foot on an actual small locally producing farm or CSA. as a matter of fact CSAs are not mentioned one time in his article...how can you possibly address local farming vs industrialized farming without mentioning CSAs?!?!?!?!?!??!?!? i know i know i'm preachin' to the choir here....just sayin :/
 
John Wheeler
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Location: Slippery Rock, PA
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I think the author's biggest unstated and incorrect assumption is that there is an infinite supply of cheap oil. If we had to turn Idaho potatoes into ethanol to produce fuel to get to Florida, the productivity of Idaho potatoes wouldn't look so much better than Florida's. And at some point we will have to grow all our fuel (or in some other way derive it from sunlight), whether that point is 30 years or 200 years in the future.

I do however agree with the basic conclusion, that if we start adding government subsidies, we will distort the local food movement. It needs to stand on its own; the best intervention is taking away subsidies for competing models.
 
Sandra Ellane
Posts: 71
Location: New Mexico high desert Zone 7a, alkaline soils. 9" average annual rainfall.
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The author, Steve Sexton, is approaching the topic from pure economics as taught in the universities. Also, if you click on his name you can see that all his articles are addressing eco topics. I searched his name to find out what his background/credentials are but couldn't find anything.

His take on the subject, however, reminds me of the way corporations are structured (outside of B corporations anyway)- which is they're required to make decisions that put shareholder profits above all else, and will be held liable if they don't, which is why they don't do much humanitarian or eco work generally speaking (unless they can justify it as an ad campaign). It's simply how business is taught. Look at the the business websites such as inc dot com, Harvard Review, etc. It's all from the big business and investment perspective.

I would venture to guess that Sexton's degree is in economics or some other business degree, and he probably has little experience with actual agriculture.
 
                        
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Question: Did any of you take the time to respond to the article at the site? It was very helpful to have the link brought here but unless we say something THERE...

I think it might be far more useful to do so there than here as he is clearly speaking to a number of people who buy into what he is saying and unless there are other comments which point out the fallacies, these people will continue to have their belief system reinforced. The very first post I saw began with something like "it's a given that factory farms are much more productive....."

Many people are so disconnected with where their food comes from that they haven't a clue and are perfect targets for agribusiness and chem company doubletalk. A study done some years ago showed even then some people thought that brown milk comes from brown cows. If you watched Jamie Oliver's relatively recent TED Talk he shows a video clip where he is showing (primary classroom?) kids various vegetables and asking the kids to identify them..nothing exotic for America, things like tomatoes, potatoes, beets, cauliflower..and they can't identify ANY of them.

It's hard to imagine such disconnect but it's there. So we need to address that whenever it crosses our paths, or at least that's my opinion. If they don't know what vegetables are, even, how can they get motivated to grow anything? The unknown is often intimidating and better avoided, people prefer to stay in their comfort zone, even if they know it isn't the best place. The options need to be made clear and easilly available.
 
John Polk
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The author, Steve Sexton seems to have an issue with "local farms", as pointed out in this other article:
http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/10/20/lessons-of-the-listeria-outbreak-do-locavores-make-us-less-safe/

In that article, he erroneously states that the listeria outbreak in cantaloupes was due to a small farm that primarily sells locally. In fact, the cantaloupe recall was made against Jensen Farms' shipment of 25 million cases of cantaloupes shipped to 17 states. In my opinion, that does not qualify as a small farm, nor a locavore operation.

 
Dale Hodgins
garden master
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The author makes many assumptions which are unlikely to be true for most small farmers. He assumes that pesticides will be used by most, and that crops will be grown outside of areas where they are likely to thrive. There is no mention of crops that grow well in one area becoming staples in that area while people from another region would tend to eat more of whatever grows in their region.

It's unfortunate that so many local food people have latched onto the idea of transportation cost since this does not help sell the cause. In fact if people drive out to the local farms this is a huge waste of transportation energy compared to the use of big 18 wheelers by agribusiness. So transportation fuel arguments should not be constantly dragged out for further examination.

He ignores the fact that vast increases in agricultural production over time have taken an enormous toll on the Earth's resources including fossil fuels and soils.

Agribusiness constantly talks about the inefficiencies of the small-scale farm. Sometimes I think it's more of a financial inefficiency for those wishing to profit from the production of others. If I'm raising 30 pigs per year, it's unlikely that anyone will be investing in my pork bellies. And the small farmer who produces 5 tons of potatoes is unlikely to be listed in futures markets.

When products are being sold through Walmart, everything from their planting to harvest to transportation and retailing may be invested in. But when I sell my much smaller production at Dale-Mart, the scale of the operation simply doesn't lend itself to the involvement of financial investors. I suppose this makes it inefficient. I'm unlikely to produce production forecasts, future price projections as compared to input costs or any of the other bits of information used by commodity traders. By not playing the game my little patch of land is effectively not part of agricultural production as viewed by the investment community. It is therefore an illict trade operating outside the norm. Something that should be highly regulated.

Well, I say, screw them all, every last one. And screw this guy who pretends to speak for the poor and hungry while working to reduce consumer choice and limit employment opportunities. He has nothing of use to say
 
Sandra Ellane
Posts: 71
Location: New Mexico high desert Zone 7a, alkaline soils. 9" average annual rainfall.
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I happened upon an editorial of the Freakonomics article that's worth taking a look at:

http://civileats.com/2011/11/18/food-policy-economists-and-the-hazards-of-assuming-a-can-opener/

I like the way it opens:

' A physicist, a chemist, and an economist are stranded on a desert island with nothing to eat when a can of soup washes to shore. The physicist says: “Let’s smash the can open with a rock.” The chemist says: “Let’s build a fire and heat the can first.” The economist says: “Let’s assume we have a can-opener.” '

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