Locovores, locavores, See these people can’t even agree on how to spell their own damn movement!

A handsome and not at all smelly locovore family

In the unlikely forum of Foreign Policy magazine, Felix Salmon, the financial blogger for Reuters, has crafted a love letter to locovorism, a movement that’s getting sneered at a lot lately as being a fantasy of snobbish foodies and manure-spattered alternative farmers reeking of dirt and garlic.  (After a while, though, you find that smell sexy).

Don’t have much time, so will quote a couple snippets, and encourage all to read the whole thing.

There are three big problems with monoculture, all of which can be addressed with a more sensitive, bottom-up, heterogeneous, small-scale agricultural model.

First, monocultures are, by their nature, prone to disastrous bouts of disease. Ireland’s population was decimated by the potato famine; France’s vines were wiped out by phylloxera; a disease called huanglongbing now threatens all of California’s citrus crop. If you only grow one crop, the downside of losing it all to an outbreak is catastrophe. In rural Iowa it might mean financial ruin; in Niger, it could mean starvation.

Big agriculture companies like DuPont and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), of course, have an answer to this problem: genetically engineered crops that are resistant to disease. But that answer is the agricultural equivalent of creating triple-A-rated mortgage bonds, fabricated precisely to prevent the problem of credit risk. It doesn’t make the problem go away: It just makes the problem rarer and much more dangerous when it does occur because no one is — or even can be — prepared for such a high-impact, low-probability event.

A more natural and heterogeneous system, by contrast, is inherently much more resistant to disease because few (if any) diseases can successfully wipe out a wide range of crops. Natural resistance is also much more likely to be found where there are a wide range of native varieties growing in the same place. Nature abhors a monoculture, and a system of smaller farms growing a large number of crops will be able to resist any disease in a way that no single crop can. If one or two of them gets hit, the damage done is manageable rather than devastating. It doesn’t have the same economies of scale, of course, and it might not have magical flood-resistant properties. But it works, all the same.

This is a hugely important issue to consider, especially as a few opportunistic spores of Ug99 blowing on a kind wind might lead in fairly short order to a worldwide shortage of wheat-based foodstuffs.

The second problem with monoculture is that new, high-tech, disease-resistant crops tend to come with something that is just as unwelcome as disease: patents. Many of these high-tech crops can’t reproduce organically and need to be bought afresh each season from the patent holder. And all of them come with layers of intellectual-property laws too complex for most non-lawyers to decode. So how do we expect impoverished and often illiterate populations in some of the most remote areas of the world to take advantage of them? Non-engineered crops, the natural ones that replicate themselves, are patent-free.

Finally, monoculture is based on the principles of trade and comparative advantage. It’s supposed to work like this: Enormous areas specialize in growing, say, corn and soy; they then sell those crops and use the cash they get in return to buy a wide variety of foods.

This works in the United States, but it doesn’t work well in the rest of the world, where trade barriers are often high, and selling crops for money and then exchanging that money for food is a complex and fraught process. Farmers growing cash crops in remote areas are often taken advantage of by middlemen, who take a cut of the profit and pay the growers much less than the market rate.

….It’s also worth bearing in mind that there’s already more than enough food being grown to feed every person on the planet. Right now, when we grow more food, the main consequence is more obesity and waste in rich countries. In fact, we have reached such a level of excess food that powerful agricultural lobbies — supported by big businesses like ADM — have been pushing for food crops to be turned into biofuels, especially in the United States and Brazil. It simply isn’t the case that we are at risk of shortages without these monoculture crops.

The hunger that persists is a question of distribution; calories don’t just magically trickle down to the people who really need it. Locavorism gets right to the root of this problem. By growing multiple crops close to home, less is likely to spoil and more will reach the table.

The Green Revolution’s bitter fruit: a Biblical plague?

There’s an interesting and frightening story in Wired this month about the potential catastrophe represented by puccinia graminis, or Ug99, a fungus that causes stem rust in wheat. Writes Brendan I. Koerner:

Stem rust is the polio of agriculture, a plague that was brought under control nearly half a century ago as part of the celebrated Green Revolution. After years of trial and error, scientists managed to breed wheat that contained genes capable of repelling the assaults of Puccinia graminis, the formal name of the fungus.

But now it’s clear: The triumph didn’t last. While languishing in the Ugandan highlands, a small population of P. graminis evolved the means to overcome mankind’s most ingenious genetic defenses. This distinct new race of P. graminis, dubbed Ug99 after its country of origin (Uganda) and year of christening (1999), is storming east, working its way through Africa and the Middle East and threatening India and China. More than a billion lives are at stake. “It’s an absolute game-changer,” says Brian Steffenson, a cereal-disease expert at the University of Minnesota who travels to Njoro regularly to observe the enemy in the wild. “The pathogen takes out pretty much everything we have.”

This is a thorough look at what could develop into something truly awful. Massive starvation is a not implausible result, if a few opportunistic spores blow into the wrong spots. (Some scholars apparently believe stem rust was one of the Biblical plagues, FWIW.)

But I have to voice my objection to a basic premise of the article, the characterization of the Green Revolution as a “lifesaving agricultural movement.” Koerner asserts  that the Norman Borlaug-led Revolution “produced multiple disease-proof, high-yielding crops capable of feeding once-hungry populations.”

Which is pretty much a spot-on reflection of the consensus on Borlaug as a selfless, indefatigable Man of Science who fed the world’s starving populations. The consensus, however, glosses over the fact that the Green Revolution created many more problems than it solved. More than a half century after Borlaug’s Rockefeller Foundation-funded trip to Mexico, the state of affairs in the nations saved by the gift of Western agriculture are at best parlous.

Writing in Grist just after Borlaug’s death last Fall at the age of 95, Tom Philpott offered a dissenting take on Borlaug’s achievement:

In Mexico, to be sure, yields of corn and wheat rose dramatically in the areas where Borlaug’s techniques took hold. But while [Borlaug biographers] Thurow and Kilman convincingly argue that Borlaug’s main intent was to “help poor farmers,” Mexico’s smallholders have been in a state of severe crisis for more than a generation. The so-called “immigrant crisis” here in the United States is better viewed as an agrarian crisis in Mexico. Since the the advent of NAFTA alone, more than 1.5 million Mexican farmers have been forced off of their land. Since the Mexican manufacturing economy has been nowhere near robust enough to absorb them, a huge portion of one-time Mexican farmers now wash our dishes and harvest our crops.

While the factors contributing to Mexico’s agrarian disaster are multiple and complex—including neoliberal trade policy and U.S. crop subsidies—the zeal to increase yield certainly factors in. In Borlaug’s Green Revolution paradigm, farmers are urged to specialize in one or two commodity crops—say, corn or wheat. To grow them, they were to buy hybridized seeds and ample doses of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation.

Philpott is careful to point out that he’s not demonizing Borlaug:

For me, the point isn’t that Borlaug is a villain and that crop yields don’t matter; rather, it’s that boosting yield alone can’t solve hunger problems in any but the most fleeting way. Farmers’ economic well-being; biodiversity; ecology; local knowledge, buy-in, and food traditions—all of these things matter, too.

Koerner paints a vivid picture of scientists working with great urgency to develop new seed varieties that are immune to Ug99. I wonder how much, if any, of the big scientific push is taking into account Philpott’s “other” things that matter, especially the biodiversity consideration. My Googling has turned up no answers to this question up until now.

I admit I am laboring in the dark here. This may be an ignorant question, but what about OLD varieties? In past outbreaks, did stem rust afflict EVERY strain of wheat in ALL conditions? I really don’t know. I do hope some of these scientists are working on re-diversifying the seed stock, instead of trying to engineer one or a couple varieties so the monocrop paradigm can continue uninterrupted.

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