efficiency in farming

California seems to be affecting me–I flaked out on the book club meeting on Sunday. The cookie party started late, it was raining fiercely, and the party was still in full swing when I should have been leaving…

One thing that stuck with me from Righteous Porkchop is the connection that Hahn Niman never quite makes between two arguments in her chapter “Answering Obstacles to Reform.” The first is that factory farms have only one area of greater efficiency over traditional farms in producing animal products: labor. It takes fewer people to raise more animals in a CAFO than it takes to raise fewer animals on a traditional farm. Every other advantage that factory farms have is about power: the power to dictate the terms of their contracts with smaller farmers, the power to make the pollution from their vast concentrations of manure a public problem, rather than one that they have to pay to deal with, the power to have impunity in contaminating our food supply with antibiotic-resistant microbes that they have helped create. And, given their efficiency in labor, their claims to create lots of jobs are pure bunk.

The second argument is that hunger is a distribution problem, not a supply problem. Producing more food over the world’s current surplus will not feed one single person more who doesn’t already have the money to buy that surplus food. And many of the people who don’t have the money are people who have been pushed off their land by the market and political power of industrialized agricultural producers. These people, who used to grow food for themselves and make a living by selling their surplus to others, end up migrating to cities to become the urban poor, the favela-dwellers, the colonia-dwellers.

The connection that Hahn Niman doesn’t make is that from there, especially if they’re in Central America or Mexico, they migrate to the United States, many of them to work our fields with disease-causing chemicals or in our slaughterhouses, where the risk of injury is astronomical. Our dominant method of producing food has devalued the work so much, both there and here, that this seems to make sense. We’ve devalued the work of producing food so much that it sounds plausible to say that no one (who matters) wants to be a farmer anymore, even though there are plenty of people who do–as long as the job involves the traditional benefits of caring for plants and animals and spending time outdoors, rather than monitoring spreadsheets in metal warehouses full of miserable meat-producing machines. And most of the people would like to do traditional farm work would prefer not to have to migrate to do it, but our food production system is one of the things that compels their migration.

That connection, as much as anything that Hahn Niman said directly in her book, has me thinking hard about my food choices again.

2 Responses to “efficiency in farming”

  1. 1 Jon
    October 26, 2010 at 13:00

    So it becomes not just about eating happy pigs, but happy pigs from happy farmers. In our little corner of the world, this is actually easier than it seems. Well, if you put Joel Salantin down for a “happy” farmer; even though irate might more often be a better label

  2. 2 Julie
    October 27, 2010 at 21:37

    I always appreciate your thinking on this topic!

    Also, and I suppose this is neither here nor there, my friend sings in the church choir with NHN.

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