Opinion: The downside of eating healthy (2)

POSTED: 09/24/13 3:20 PM
Intensive farmingEating healthy makes sense to a lot of people, but there is a downside. Ralph Bodelier, a theologian and cultural philosopher wrote an essay about this issue in Trouw. Not everybody will agree with what Bodelier has to say, but it is at least food for thought.  This is part 2 of his essay. Part 1 appeared in Today’s Monday-edition (click here).

“Working in one’s own vegetable garden between the lettuce and the broccoli becomes a blessing. For a brief moment we are free from the raving globalization. We have everything at our disposal in real time and virtual reality in our global society, but the garden makes us aware of the real time and the real experiences. No matter how much water or compost we add to a tomato seed, the plant grows in its own tempo. On a tablet or a keyboard our fingers no longer get the chance to become dirty, greasy or wet, but between the cabbage and the radishes we are digging into the essence of life. In Damascus murders take place at a crisp pace, a secret service in Washington is reading our emails and climate experts point to the gates of hell, but the global citizen retreats in his own small and safe paradise.

The American sociologist Andrew Szasz analyses the current food trend sharply in his book Shopping Our Way to Safety. Szasz points to fear and uncertainty as the most important cause behind our tendency towards bio, slow and local. This is by the way not the scared conviction that we are currently being filled up with dioxins and carcinogenic E-numbers. It is in particular the fear that things could go wrong tomorrow and that there is nobody around anymore to protect us against it.

In a dynamic society without borders we feel unprotected: against computer viruses, against extremist Muslims, against flash capital, and yes, against dangerous food. For some reason we have also given up hope that the state is capable to offer us safety. We feel naked and left to uncontrollable powers, far out of our sight and reach.

That we withdraw behind national borders, in gated communities or in our own kitchen is therefore nothing else than reversed quarantine. When a pathogenic organism surfaces in a community, a powerful state places it in isolation to protect the environment. In a reverse quarantine the state seems incapable to isolate the pathogenic organism. This is when we retreat to isolate ourselves from a sick environment. Such a reversed quarantine is a-political, of not anti-political. We mistrust the food in the supermarket, we sympathize with animals in factory farms and we long for more social contacts. But we do not force our politicians any longer to deal with these matters.

It is this a-political approach of our food that makes us seldom ask about the consequences of our culinary isolationism for people outside the rich West. Are we capable to provide food for the last 870 million hungry people in the poor south with more and more bio, local and slow?

What does it mean for the three billion additional people that will be born in the next couple of decades that more and more farmers in Peru, Rwanda and Mexico switch to organic farming to meet the increasing demand from the West?

When I pose these questions to my friends they usually stare at me with glassy eyes. They do not link poverty, hunger or undernourishment on a global scale in any way with their own desire for sustainable food. But that link is absolutely there, agricultural experts say. Among them are Louise Fresco and Aalt Dijkhuizen in the Netherlands.

They argue that organic farmers reject exactly that which pushed the global food production enormously during the past century. That today six of the seven billion people have enough to eat is due to amongst others what the proponents of bio, slow and local abhor so much: genetic plant improvement, the use of crop protection products and especially fertilizer.

Rejecting fertilizer alone means that the yield of organic agriculture is much lower than that of intensive farming. By rejecting many crop protectors part of the harvest is sacrificed to weed, fungus and insects. Rejecting genetic modification slows the cultivation of variants that are able to continue growing in long periods of drought and floods and of those that are already resistant against fungus and insects. In all cases the yield of organic farming is significantly lower than that of intensive farming. And a lower yield leads to sturdy price increases, especially when the population grows as well.

Organic farming therefore seriously hampers the chances to provide the poorest people with good and cheap food. My Dutch friends do not only pay more for their vegetables and bread at Ekoplaza, they also cause price-increases for vegetables and bread for my friends and acquaintances in the ghettos of the south.

By rejecting what enables modern agriculture to produce enormous amounts of food for an increasingly lower price, organic agriculture does not just disqualify itself as an instrument for combating global hunger. She also does this as the potential supplier for a global population of which within thirty years seven billion will live in cities.

The continued development of intensive farming, the agricultural expert Dijkhuizen wrote, is a moral duty.

Organic agriculture does not only threaten the fight against poverty. It is also a threat to pristine nature. Because organic farmers refuse to use fertilizers, they must use other substances. They can cultivate these substances on additional land, or they can do it on their own land, meaning that it will not be available for production. Organic farming needs either way a lot more land – twenty or maybe even one hundred percent extra. The experts do not agree on this point.

It goes against our intuition, but due to intensive farming it was possible to produce twice as much corn as in 1968. This was possible on practically the same acreage. This way intensive farming did not just feed six billion people, it also spared a lot of wild nature.

“Contrary to what is often thought, organic and sustainable do not go together,” Louise Fresco wrote in her opus magnum “Hamburgers in Paradise”. In the unlikely case of a large-scale switch to organic agriculture, even in the most optimistic estimate the complete Amazone of the Congo basin will have to be ploughed up.

In 1939 Bertold Brecht, the writer who fled Nazi-Germany, wrote his poem An die Nachgeborenen. It begins with the lines: “Really, I am living in dark times. What kind of times are these wherein  a conversation about trees is almost criminal because it implicates that we remain silent about so many misdeeds.”

What Brecht brings charges against here is the love of German writers and poets for lyrical themes from nature at a moment when all of their critical attention ought to be focused on the national-socialist regime. A conversation about trees seems innocent, but it is not when it takes the place of the highly necessary conversation about bombs.

Brecht’s words are still current today. What we need is not a reversed quarantine, but a new political zest.

To be truly cosmopolitan – and my friends make that claim – the elite should broaden its interest for our daily bread beyond their own health, the misery of the “plofkip” or the social deterioration. Global citizenship also means that you think about big themes in the political debate, the way it happened previously with nuclear weapons or the multicultural society. We have to add an important theme to that debate: bringing our aversion against an abstract and chaotic world together with the fight against hunger, now as well as in 2050.

The Wageningen-bases agricultural expert Aalt Dijkhuizen says that intensive farming is indispensable for combating world hunger. Last year Dijkhuizen said in Trouw: “In 2050 there will be around nine billion people in the world, two billion more than now. On top prosperity in emerging economies will increase, causing consumers to use more meat and dairy products. This means that the food production – for humankind and animals together – has to double per hectare. Obviously under the condition that the environment will be spared as much as possible. This means more production with the use of less raw material and chemicals. We will have to pull out all the stops to make that possible. The Dutch efficiency and innovative power are best suited for this. If we start saying now that intensive farming has its best time behind it, you throw away the baby with the bathwater. Intensive farming in particular is the most sustainable. We should not do less, but more intensive farming.”

Dijkhuizen’s not so trendy vision triggered intense reaction. “The Dijkhuizen affair was born. Sustainability professor Louise Fresco said in her Herzberg-address in September of last year that Dijkhuizen had turned intensive farming into the most emotionally charged word of our times. Intensive farming is the label for the new calamity; it is everything the western urban consumer resists: unnatural, animal-unfriendly, environmental polluting, large-scale, global, and technological.

Most reactions to Dijkhuizen take the Netherlands as point of departure, Fresco said. And in the Netherlands the desire for small-scale and animal friendly is predominant. But it is something else than the social support in Asia for cheap food for as many people as possible.

Fresco defends Dijkhuizen, saying that his opponents who claim that organic farming is capable to yield as much as traditional agriculture, are telling only half the story. They do not take into account that land has to be left fallow every three or four years or that it has to be sown with green-fertilizers. They also do not consider that animal manure requires a multiple in grassland for that one hectare. The real yield, measured over a longer period is therefore significantly lower.


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