Friday, September 17, 2010

Fear mongering and non sequitors from a couple of pro-Big Ag liberals

© 2010 Joshua Stark

A Grist blogger slams Ezra Klein at the Washington Post over a snippet in support of industrial agriculture.  Klein "argues", in two paragraphs, that we'll have to keep agriculture industrial, and he quotes a man saying the same thing... well, in fact, half of "his" piece is the quotation.  The good news?  If that's the best he can get in support of big ag., then we don't have much to worry about in the arena of reason. 

The quotation claims that farming benefits from economies of scale, like steel manufacture, so we should keep it industrial, and even make it super-industrial.  Klein tries to add to this excruciating generalization by noting that no other enterprise that has gone industrial has ever gone back, and he does so in a remarkably juvenile fashion, I might add.   We can comfortably ignore Klein's little "addition" because there is no argument in there.  It's so silly, in fact, it's actually quite shocking.

However, the gentleman being quoted, Mr. Raynor from the Observer, attempts some semblance of a conversation on a serious topic that involves the lives of billions of people.

Mr. Raynor believes that the U.K. is on the verge of food shortages of such a level as to cause riots.  His description of the British food supply goes a long way toward proving how silly that sounds, but he sticks to it - it is the gist of his opening line, after all. 

In light of the cheap, perfect-looking foods Brits have come to expect, Mr. Raynor argues, the only way they will avoid Mozambique-like riots over food is to build a big mega-dairy...?

From there, he gets even more lost.

First, Mr. Raynor makes an across-the-board claim about agriculture, taking an extraordinarily diverse concept and treating it as if it is one product in one market.  His belief that "agriculture" always and everywhere benefits from economies of scale illustrates his ignorance of both agriculture and economics.

Mr. Raynor fails to realize, for example, that economies of scale in agriculture most often come from lax environmental regulation, extraordinarily cheap labor, poor animal treatment, and/or subsidies.  Mr. Raynor spends much time considering the British apple market, probably because they are an iconic English crop, but he gives no example of how big ag. can save British apple production.  Would he be willing to allow DDT, labor at a pound or so per day, and tax breaks in order to save apples?  I think he would argue that these measures wouldn't save British farming, and he would be 100% right.

And if Mr. Raynor is worried about the status quo, he must surely realize that the status quo includes big ag. for most of his food supply right now, anyway.  Those imported apples he hates?  They get there only through a few, gigantic corporations.  Instead of vilifying the apples, he should be praising their availability to the skies. 

Since he couldn't provide an industrial ag. solution for the problem he outlined, he picked up another one:  dairy.  I don't know the specifics of the dairy industry in England, and from Mr. Raynor's quick description, neither does he.  I've spent some time debunking the "farmers don't get profits from sick animals" claim, so I won't do that here, but the fact that he uses this as his argument in favor of a mega-dairy says a lot about how much he really knows about food production facilities.

His last point, the inference that organic and sustainable farming practices can only be enjoyed by the wealthy, actually undermines his first point, that Brits have put themselves in a pickle by demanding produce at half of what they've previously paid (and will even burn buildings and kill people if they have to go back). 

Mr. Raynor's bias of omission is also startlingly revealing:  No mention of the impact of oligopoly on food markets, which often exacerbate scarcity and jeopardize food security to maximize profits - the very crises he hopes to avert by concentrating food production in the hands of a few people and places.  He needs to consider the past 25 years of price gouging and collusion that major corporate agriculture enterprises have committed, and study the recent foodborne disease outbreaks originating from huge, centralized production facilities, before he goes waving the Big Ag Flag in public.

To me, though, his biggest offense is that he compares Mozambique with England to give a frightening picture of a possible English future.  This is just wrong, and maybe immoral.  Mozambique's GDP per capita in 2008 was roughly $440.  Ten years ago, it was below $200, which means that Mozambique has been slowly improving, and that people remember times worse than when they averaged four hundred bucks per person.  This, alone, should explain the reaction of Mozambicans in light of a 30% hike in bread prices, and  it should make startlingly clear just why it is so wrong to compare Mozambique to England.  What do Londoners pay for bread, two pounds?  If it rose 100%, there would be no riots.  If it rose 500%, there would be sternly-written letters to MP's, replete with apologies for doing so, but there would be no riots. 

Mr. Raynor points out that Brits are paying half of what they paid for food 20 years ago, from about 20% to about 10% of their incomes.  If prices rose 100% for all foods, not just bread, they'd just be back where they were twenty years ago.

Mr. Raynor makes no serious claims for supporting big ag.; he obviously is not familiar with scientific studies that point to organic and sustainable smaller ag. producing higher yields and more sustainable business models without the need for exploitation of the resource or of humans; he ignores the market impacts of oligopoly that come with big ag.; he completely misses the problems associated with food security when production is centralized; and he tries to scare people in England into thinking that they may start killing each other over the price of bread.

I don't buy it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Must... avoid... cliché... can't resist... must try... ah, heck: A rose by any other name will still cause obesity

© 2010 Joshua Stark

How can a person resist the ease of title-writing via cliché when the topic makes it so horribly easy?  BlogHer reports that the makers of high fructose corn syrup want to officially change its name to "corn sugar". 

The author of that report, Rita Arens, took the topic further at her personal blog, and it's well worth reading.

As Ms. Arens points out, for those already into these issues, a name change won't make a difference.  But in my humble opinion, the name change will have a detrimental effect on the public's buying habits.  In general, marketing works. It works so well that we've decided, socially, to develop our media streams solely on the back of the revenue generated through marketing.

Specifically for this product, "high fructose corn syrup" is not very sweet sounding, because you have to get through three un-sweet words before you get to syrup.  Additionally, the term has become one word, really, and a social inertia has been building against it.  By changing the name to something vaguely nutritious in our society (corn) and something sweet that has already well stood the forces aligned against it (sugar), and is even a term of endearment, hfcs producers hope to distance themselves from the social opposition that has taken hold against the term.  They are betting that A) a typical consumer won't read labels and stay up on the news; and B) the association with "sugar" will diminish the social stigma.

But, the purpose of hfcs, just like marketing, is a means to maintain market share.  Marketing differentiates between products, building resistance to competition in the marketplace.  High fructose corn syrup is a very expensive endeavor to begin, with huge up-front cost in materials and labor, making it difficult for competitors to enter the market.  Unfortunately, these ways of increasing barriers to entrance create scarcity in food markets to create profitability among a few, gigantic corporations.  This trumped-up scarcity for a necessity is a bad way to build a market and a horrible way to distribute food.  In fact, creating scarcity completely contradicts the purpose of economics.

The Basic Economic Problem, the only reason for the existence of the field of study, is scarcity.