Monday, July 6, 2009

Megan Never Read Omnivore's Dilemma

(or Fast Food Nation, or Marion Nestle's book, or....)
because they aren't about her, and how special she is for her dietary choices. Other people shouldn't try to eat more healthful, non-industrial food, because then she wouldn't be special.

City Slickers Meet Farmhands:

I read this article* on urban farming this weekend, and thought "heartwarming, but uselss." So far it's required subsidies of $1 million to produce a small amount of food--the Times glowingly says that it "provide(s) healthful food to 10,000 urbanites", but of course, all that means is that 10,000 people, give or take, have received at least one vegetable apiece. It's not providing anything like the majority of their food intake. And that's in a rust-belt city with a lot of spare land and spare labor.
Apparently Megan thinks Milwaukee is a giant overgrown empty lot. But she's not a coastal elitist, her grandma comes from upstate NY. Furthermore, the "subsidies" amount to multiple grants given to a privately owned, for-profit business after it had already shown tremendous success. Megan really hopes no one actually reads the article.
Ezra argues that industrial agriculture gets subsidies too, and this is true--but not the things these people eat. More to the point, the subsidies are not why American agriculture has so many vile practices. What enthusiasm for these sorts of projects fail to deal with is scale.
Yeah, fuck Ezra, I included this for the beginning of the sheer cluelessness. As many of you may know, it was precisely subsidies which led to, or at least made inevitable, the industrialization of the American farming system, subsidies put in place by Nixon's Admin. I am not an expert on the topic, but you can refer to Michael Pollan's work for more info. But let's get back to Megan lecturing on issues she's not well versed in. She is a pundit, after all.
Scale matters in two ways. First of all, scale is why so many promising pilot projects fail to yield results when they're implemented broadly--think how many terrific new education and medical programs you've read about over the years, which delivered mediocre results when they became more popular.
Charter schools and voucher systems are immune from this effect, please remember.
Urban gardening is not new, after all--it was in vogue during the Settlement House movment, the 1940s, and again in the hippie sunset of my childhood, when I, along with the other children of PS 166, dutifully weeded little herb patches on 89th and Amsterdam. By the early 1990s, many of those lots had been abandoned or turned into condos.
So the well established, and unbroken in NYC, go to Brooklyn or Alphabet City sometime, Megan, tradition of urban farming clearly shows that urban farming.... can't work.
Milwaukee, unlike many cities, probably has a lot of abandoned property. But it probably doesn't have an unlimited supply of urban farming volunteers, or people interested in buying organic local watercresss at $16 a pound. And if Milwaukee did try to grow most of its own food, it would have the problems that areas with lots of farms experience, like massive pest infestations. (Agriculture has terrific network effects--for bugs and mold spores). And, um, smells, which are the first thing that urban transplants to farm country tend to complain about, particularly if animals are involved. Don't grow animals, you'll say; they're bad for the planet anyway. But animals are key suppliers of key organic inputs like bone meal and manure.
To restate, Milwaukee sucks, both the land and the people, there are no bugs or bad smells in urban environments now, and the bad effects that industrial cow and pig farming have on the environment mean all animals are bad. Sure, locally raised grassfed beef is arguably the most environmentally friendly food out there, certainly more than Megan's prized industrial organic produce flown to her from California and South America, but... ummmmmmm.
Then there's the reason industrial agriculture is like it is: economies of scale. Agriculture has extremely high capital requirements, and thank God, because all that capital is the reason that you and I (aka Shiva, Destroyer of Houseplants) are spending our days on the internets rather than poking at weeds or staring at the back end of a mule. But capital means high fixed costs for land and equipment. Industries with high fixed costs naturally gravitate towards large producers who do a lot of volume. America has a lot of cheap land far from its cities, which is where that scale can be most easily achieved. The subsidies are pernicious, but they are a sideshow. Remove them, and it's quite possible that we'd see a more concentrated, more socially irresponsible industry forcing even more negative externalities onto the rest of us.
This is why there was no large scale agriculture until corporations appeared following the Civil War, and why farms were novelties until the Nixon Admin began new kinds of subsidies. Can you imagine an American agricultural system where the government doesn't pay large corporations to produce untold tonnage of inedible industrial corn that serves as a source of raw materials for chemists instead of food?
We'd all starve, or maybe we'd have to pay more for food, reflecting its actual cost, meaning there'd be less income available for the medical industry to eat up. Plus we wouldn't be eating foods that contribute to all kinds of medical conditions, it'd be a catastrophe.
That scale has, up until now, been least achievable with produce. Produce is also the area of farming which recieves [sic] the fewest subsidies, probably because when our farming policy was framed, produce was a perishable sideline for most cash croppers. But as picking becomes more mechanised, and various technologies enhance the returns for those with capital to invest, that is changing. I don't see how urban or suburban farming becomes anything but a sideshow for a few committed souls. The returns to scale are simply too great.
So... because machines are replacing migrant workers in some areas of agriculture, though she's vastly overstating it, urban farming is a pipe dream....what?

Why try to save a few bucks and have fresher, tastier produce at the same time when a corporation will just outcompete you in the free market? Does Megan even know what her point was in this post?

*- Url changed to the actual beginning of the article instead of page 4. It's a good thing Megan is her own editor, otherwise small mistakes would slip through and make her work seem unprofessional.


ChicagoEd said...

I think I've commented on Megan's problems with reading comprehension before, but this is a doozie. Megan, the article is something called a "profile" piece. It's about, by any measure, a very exceptional person who happens also to be involved in urban farming. Megan, it is not an advocacy piece. It doesn't argue that we need to shut down every factory farm and start growing everything in vacant lots. The tip off is that about 80% of the article is about the subject's personal biographical history. The rest is about agriculture. Second, it's not a call to action about farming policy. The author even acknowledges the limitations of urban farming toward the end of the piece where she notes that grants keep his operation afloat and that a lot of his success is due to his own charisma and skill as a salesman rather than the genius of his business plan. But Megan ignores all this, thinking this guy's an idiot for doing anything that's contrary to the way thing are now--after all we live in the best possible of all worlds.

Note also that the super sophisticated life-long New Yorker Megan presumes in her criticism that the New York Times has got a left-wing bias or "angle" with this piece. Rubes and wingnuts all think that if it's in the Times, it's liberal agitprop. Here Megan creates another straw-man, this time the evil New York Times advocating eliminating the honest rural farm folk who currently work in our agricultural system and replace them with--OMG--the undeserving urban poor who, bolstered only by wasteful government subsidies produce effete organic hippy food. I don't want to compliment Megan, but in the past she didn't really go for the "liberal New York Slimes" bullshit, leaving that to Rush Limbaugh and the folks over at National Review. She once even said that the Laffer Curve's a joke. But maybe Megan's changing--maybe settling down is finally going to turn her (openly) Republican.

NutellaonToast said...

Megan has given only squishy condemnation of the Laffer Curve and still invokes it occasionally. She recently accused the left of having their own version about something, though I forget what.

She thinks its wrong the way she isn't pro-life, that is, not really.

Chad said...

It's hard not to come away from Megan's blog without the impression that she's like a student who has to keep a writing journal for her class: "Oh crap, the last five entries are so short, I gotta write something that's pretty long or else. Um, uh, oh, I can respond to this essay! No time to really read it; I better get started!" Of course, said scenario does rely on the fairly naive view that Megan writes under any kind of real editorial oversight.

Anonymous said...

For someone who is supposed to think a lot about markets, she knows fuck all about the basics.

How can you take someone seriously who doesn't even understand the supply/demmand traps of agriculture?

Megan always finds new ways to be stupid.