Yesterday the Washington Post ran an interesting article by Barbara Kingsolver, author of this year's locavore manifesto Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about some of the hidden costs of industrial, centralized agriculture. The Blessings of Dirt takes to task the claim that technological breakthroughs in farming allow for the possibility that "one farmer with the right tools and chemicals could feed hundreds, freeing the rest of us for cleaner work."
In the article Ms. Kingsolver recounts her visit to the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy in India, where industrial farming is gaining a lot of traction along with recent trends of economic mobility and urbanization. Consequently many Indian farmers feel enslaved by a system that all but forces them to purchase fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified seeds from large agricultural firms. In fact, according Vandana Shiva, the director of the Research Foundation, "150,000 farmers have committed suicideoften by drinking pesticide, to underscore the pointafter being bankrupted by costly chemicals in a cycle of debt created by ties to corporate agriculture." Ms. Shiva researches ways for farmers to free themselves from this system by returning to "traditional multi-crop food farms [which] can offer them higher, more consistent incomes than modern single-crop fields of export commodities."
Ms. Kingsolver also highlights the complexity of an industrialized system of agriculture by pointing out the flawed logic that says that technology can free society from the burdens of working the land. In fact, "it has only shifted people into other forms of food service":
Waiting tables, for instance, or driving a truck full of lettuce, or spending 70 hours a week in an office overseeing a magazine full of glossy ads selling food products. Surprise: There is no free lunch. No animal can really escape the work of feeding itself. We're just the only one with fancy clothes and big enough brains to make up a story like that: Hooray, we are far from the soil, and that has set us free.
It will be interesting to watch how the relatively small battles we are just beginning to wage in the United States (over industrial vs. organic or centralized vs. local food production) will play out on the gigantic stages of India and China. Will traditional multi-crop (and dare we say organic) farming be truly sustainable when it has to feed over 1 billion people? Will be possible to eat local in a global economy? These are important questions we will all be faced with over the coming years and decades.