Charting a Better Path

America has a strained, sometimes strange relationship with science. When science (or scientific findings, at any rate) vindicates what it already roundly believed to be true it is accepted, lauded, and embraced. When those same findings challenge deeply-held beliefs, desires or predilections, that same science is – sometimes the very same scientists are – very swiftly cast aside or turned into a rhetorical pincushion, an example of intellectual elites in an ivory tower who’ve lost touch with the common man. This strand of American anti-intellectualism has been so well studied as to border on cliche, so rather than examining it in detail I’m going to move on. It’s mostly irrelevant to my eventual point, anyway.

Well, I’m an elite. I’m a scientist. I’ve been in the ivory tower, and have done plenty of biological, chemical and genetic research. At this very moment, I’m sitting in a lab working up exactly how much Benzene is in the municipal drinking water of various localities, maybe even yours (hint: basically none, in all probability). I think, even though sometimes people don’t trust science or scientists, that it is still one of the most effective tools we have at making our world a measurably better place, when combined with good policy and unselfish motivations. So lets give it that policy framework and those motivations, I say.

Basically everyone is agreed that the Earth is pretty swell. We live here, and we like taking care of it. We plant trees, we try not to make a mess, and whenever possible we try to find and make better the good things about this pale blue dot we call home. While we may not always (and in fact almost never) all agree as to how, we can at least start with that common ground as out final aspiration and work out from there.

Specifically today, I’d like to talk about food. The way we produce food, in the United States especially, is in many ways really bad. For us, for the environment, for the rest of humanity, it’s just bad. No, not that we make too many GMO crops or not enough organics, or too few GMOs and too many organics. Although I do have an opinion on that, I understand that that’s a controversial issue that is best tackled when we’ve plenty of time to spare on exhausting debates. We don’t have that kind of time today, or at least I am disinclined to having that particular debate right now. No, what I mean is that we use too much fertilizer (organic and conventional farms both do this), we use too much pesticide (organic and conventional farms both do this), we use too many fossil fuels transporting out food halfway round the world, and we produce too much food that too few people can afford (organic and conventional farms both do this), and we have successfully made unprofitable the farming practices that allowed farmers to be responsible stewards of the land for generations (again, organic and conventional farms both do this). That’s turning farming into the province of Agribusiness, of Monsanto. That is a bad thing, for people and the environment, for producers and consumers.

First of all, we need to recognize that farmers fundamentally want to care for the land. The land is their legacy, and is the inheritance they pass on to their children. We need to enable them to be the stewards they want to be, instead of structuring our laws so that they are encouraged to farm in a way that is, over the long-term, unsustainable. Also, we need to structure our laws so that they encourage and enable small farmers to prosper, so that farming doesn’t become the province of mega-corporations who have no inherent interest in environmental stewardship, sustainability, or the common good.

Next, we need to recognize that our good intentions sometimes have really devastating consequences. For instance, you’d think that providing food aid (to Africa, for instance) would be a no-brainer. People are hungry so feed them, right? Unfortunately, as good as those intentions are, it doesn’t quite work out that way. By flying tons of food over to countries who just need a little temporary help, we depress the prices of food in those countries and make it impossible for the farmers there to make a profit. As a result, they are driven out of business. When a country has no farmers of its own other than subsistence farmers, it can’t ever stop being helped with food aid from abroad. Also, it turns out that the fuel cost to fly food around the world is immense. It would be much cheaper in the long run if we could instead spur the growth of local food production, instead of relying on our own food and flying it halfway round the world.

Next, we need to recognize that while we may not have a common preferred means to achieve the goal of sustainable food production, we do have that goal in common no matter where we are or who we are talking to. Very few people indeed want unsustainable agriculture. So instead of focusing in particular on how we get there, just set our destination as a common end point and reward those who get farther along on that path. That way, no matter who ends up being right – GMOs,/GE crops organics, heirlooms, holistic farming, permaculture, polyculture, etc – we’ll have still gotten farther along that path. So no matter who ‘wins,’ we all win in the end. I think we can all agree that that’s a good thing.

But how do we do it? Well, my ideas aren’t perfect, and aren’t an ideal solution, but here are a few of them.

Restructuring farm subsidies:

Currently in the United States, we essentially pay farmers a certain minimum income per acre per year, up to a certain maximum value, regardless of the amount of crops they produce. However, we subsidize crops at different rates per acre depending on what is grown. Unsurprisingly then, farmers tend to plant what the government subsidizes at the highest rate in order to earn the most they can per acre of crops. Then, they plant the same thing next year, and the year after, and the year after, fertilizing the land with synthetic fertilizers as necessary in order to maintain productivity. For the same reason, they use pesticides as much as they need to, to combat the ever-growing number of insects that prey on their crops.

What I’d like to see is that instead of paying farmers a variable amount for the crops they produce, pay them a subsidy based upon producing what we need. In order to see to that, I propose that we create a panel in the Dept. of Agriculture that would be tasked with setting a target each year for the number of tons of each major crop that American farms ought to produce. Then, pay farmers to meet that target. Rely on things like food processors and lobbyists to communicate with this body the needs of those they represent, and have them then use that knowledge to get us to where we need to be. In addition, use farm subsidies to encourage Best Practices in agriculture. For instance –

* Increase the per acre subsidy by 5-10% if a farmer plants a different thing on that acre this year than he planted there last year (crop rotation)

* Increase the per acre subsidy by 5-10% if a farmer uses substantially less pesticide than is typical

* Increase the per acre subsidy by 5-10% if a farmer uses substantially less fertilizer than is typical

* Increase the per acre subsidy by 5-10% if a farmer produces at least three to five different crops in their fields

* Decrease the per acre subsidy by 10-20% if the farm is owned by a corporation worth more than, say, $20 million

Restructuring Food Aid:

One of the other areas that we need to reform is the way we provide food aid to the developing world. Currently, what we do is simple. When a place demonstrates a need for it, we fly food over to that place and distribute it, generally free of charge. While this helps solve the immediate problem of starvation in those areas, it drives local farmers out of business. In so doing, it locks those countries into a cycle of dependency on foreign food aid. Rather than allow that, we need to find a better way to help people when they need help, but also help them to in the long term help themselves.

What I’d like to see is that any time we activate our food aid program, we then appropriate a dollar amount to that program equivalent to the number of tons of food we intend to disburse, according to the local market price of that food. Then, we go into the country and buy their entire crop of food at the market price plus 5%, and whatever money we have left over we instead devote to flying food aid to that country, up to a maximum number of tons that is equated with the needs of that country. Then next year, we do the same thing, and keep doing it until local production is such that we are no longer sending them food aid. At that point their own domestic production will be self-sustaining, and they will no longer need our help.

Those are my initial thoughts. What are yours?


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