Sustainability in food production: moving beyond the pastoral ideal and simple solutions

In the last 6 months, I've been researching the food system full-time, trying to make sense of the realities, current issues and future challenges of feeding our world. I've immersed myself in writings on food, covering everything from human health, food security, agricultural technology and economics, environmental impacts, the ethics of food, and much more. I worked on 3 farms over the course of 2 months in the Otago region of New Zealand – two organic produce farms and a dairy heifer grazing farm raising cows for conventional dairy – often staying overnight and speaking for many hours with farmers. I also helped operate a stall at the local farmer's market, visited a large conventional arable farm, sat in on a farm extension meeting of an agricultural research organisation, and spent two days at one of the largest gatherings of farmers and agricultural technologists[1] in New Zealand. At the same time, I'm an industry outsider, having no prior connection to or interest in any major food organisation.

One of the biggest public discussions about our food system is in regards to its sustainability – how we will continue to feed a growing population around the world while preserving our planet's precious environmental resources.

Source: PopulationMatters.org
Source: American Journal of Agricultural Economics

On this topic, there is a large gulf between the views of most sustainability experts and food producing rural communities, and the views of average consumers. This is especially true for urban consumers, who are often completely disconnected from the realities of producing food and yet hold immense power through their voices, dollars and votes.

I'd like to address some of these differences and highlight a worrying trend I've observed in consumer demand for food: the pastoral ideal. The pastoral ideal is the nostalgic, singular belief that traditional methods of food production, including local and organic, are always more sustainable than more technologically advanced approaches. Traditional approaches undeniably have a lot to offer us, but we can get the best and most sustainable results for our world by carefully combining tradition with new tools, techniques and technologies.

I believe the most sustainable form of food production today is not organic (which is philosophically founded on the pastoral ideal and aims to only use practices deemed acceptably "natural") but instead conventional, modern food production that adopts the very best sustainable practices from both tradition and technology. Consumers and broader society should come together to support and promote this combined approach, even if they look different from the pastoral ideal.

The Pastoral Ideal

Michael Pollan coined the term "Supermarket Pastoral" in his highly acclaimed book, The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006). He used it to describe what he and many consumers saw as false advertising, where organic brands in stores such as Whole Foods use pastoral imagery in their consumer marketing despite utilising farming practices that don't resemble pastoral methods at all.

Source: Alamy.com. Why do we think using a pitchfork is more sustainable?

I agree with Pollan that this sort of marketing is deceitful. However, Pollan also goes on to praise and romanticise the authentically pastoral Polyface farm of Joel Salatin, and focuses almost all of his discussion of the modern, conventional food system on its worst abuses and injustices. The implication of the book is that local, pastoral farming is the right solution to the issues of our food system.

His work, like many others of the modern food movement[2], urges consumers to move away from the conventional food system to instead embrace more traditional forms of food production that rely on small-scale, local, organic methods.[3] I believe this vision for the food system is a flawed one. Moving to such a food system would almost certainly make our society poorer, nutritionally deficient and do real damage to our environment. Let me address each of these points – the economics, the environment and health & nutrition.

Economics

Romanticising and pushing for the pastoral ideal in our food system has very real economic implications for society. I will use the example of the US, but this applies to all of the world's advanced economies, and increasingly, to the rest of the world. Between 1870 and 2008, the percentage of the US population working in agriculture fell from over 50% to 1.5%, while the food supply available per person grew by 600 calories (for context, the recommended adult daily intake is ~2000 calories)[4][5][6].

Source: Our World in Data

Over the same period, average life expectancy went from 38.3 to 76.7 years, the real value of goods produced by the average American grew 11-fold, average height (a good measure of childhood nutritional health) of men increased by 7.9cm (3.1 inches)[7][8] (Note: this particular statistic is male-specific only because it comes from historical military records). Now obviously, these improvements in material wealth and human health were driven by more than just our food system, but take a moment to think about those numbers. We went from a society where half of all people were focused on producing food to just 1 in 50. At the same time, consumers went from being able to only buy minimally prepared food items (flour, sugar, salt, produce etc) to a full range of semi-prepared and prepared options (sauces, spreads, bars, morning cereals etc). As a society, we were suddenly able to spend much less time thinking about food and more time on all the other things we care about – the arts, medicine, education, engineering, sport, philosophy – you name it.

There's more to this story: this same revolution in our food supply allowed women to step away from farms and kitchens to focus on more meaningful pursuits, and allowed children to step away from farm work to instead focus on their education and the full enjoyment of their youth. Much of this was thanks to the dramatic increase in farm and food supply productivity, underpinned by (now suddenly maligned) technologies like the mechanical tractor, genetic engineering, modern packaging, preservatives, and, most attacked of all, agricultural chemicals. These technologies and others like them have helped more people in society reach extraordinary levels of health, leisure time and culture than we've ever achieved in human history. To ensure both people in emerging economies and future generations get to enjoy these extraordinary benefits, it is important that we understand how critical food production technologies have been for our society and continue to innovate upon them.

A valid question to ask here is, "can organic agriculture achieve this just as well as conventional agriculture?" My personal experience on a well run intensive organic farm (farmed using the much acclaimed organic methods of Jean-Martin Fortier's The Market Gardener) and the empirical evidence on the agricultural productivity of organic[9] lead me to believe the answer is "maybe, but we can do much better using all the methods available to us". Organic agriculture is much more labour intensive, especially in the management of weeds, and suffers from lack of access to important agricultural tools for improving food production, including synthetic pesticides, fertiliser, genetic engineering and mechanisation (the specific limitations depend on the relevant organic rules). It's important to remember that conventional farmers can and do adopt the best practices of organic agriculture - Integrated Pest Management, or the use of a range of non-chemical techniques beyond pesticides to control pests, is a popular example. Conventional farmers are therefore in the best position to most effectively grow food for our world, using the best methods out there.

Environment

The environment is a critical consideration as we determine the future of our food system. Food production is arguably the single biggest strain on our planet's critical support systems, as the largest user of land, freshwater and soil, as well as emitter of 24% of global greenhouse emissions and a large contributor to biodiversity loss and waterway pollution.

Source: Bloomberg - Here's How America Uses its Land [10]

Many consumers imagine that less intensive, traditional pastoral farms are less of a strain on our environment than more intensive, modern farms. However, agricultural intensification is a double edged sword. While more intensive operations often more seriously disrupt natural systems, they also produce food much more efficiently from the same limited environmental resources – most notably, from less land. Because of this, higher yields are often linked to an overall reduction in environmental impacts for the food we eat.[11] We should therefore measure environmental impacts per unit of food, and on this metric, modern conventional farms seem to be the environmentally superior solution. Quoting plant pathologist Steve Savage from "Is Organic Farming Better for the Environment?".

Organic crops are well documented to yield less output for every acre or hectare farmed. The yield gap ranges from approximately 15-50 percent. Some organic proponents have argued that this difference is diminishing or that it can be overcome, but specifics are scanty. Considering global food demands are expected to roughly double by 2050, the gap is too significant to ignore. Indeed, a major conversion of agriculture to organic, as critics of “intensive agriculture” campaign for, could lead to environmentally unacceptable pressure for “land use change” — converting even more of the small remaining reserves of wild lands to farming, threatening habitat and biodiversity, ecosystems services, and soil-stored carbon.

Many modern agricultural approaches do even better than such trade-offs, increasing food production while reducing negative environmental impacts. Five of the most important such technologies include no-till systems, cover crops, controlled wheel traffic, precise fertilisation and integrated pest management (you can learn more about all of these here). These practices are not only found on a few environmentally conscious farms – many are popular or mandated practices. Anecdotally, on the conventional farm I worked at, I witnessed many such practices, including rotating pastures using movable electric fences or choosing an intelligent polyculture mix of pasture grasses[12]. Government bodies will often step in to mandate or incentivise the most well proven practices, as in the case of Canterbury, New Zealand's Good Management Practices, or Maryland's Cover Crop Program.[13]

One important environmental concern for many consumers is the issue of "food miles"  – the greenhouse gas emissions of food transportation from far away producers. This concern leads many consumers to choose local food producers over distant ones. However, according to a study by Carnegie Mellon University on the lifecycle emissions of food, the greenhouse gas emissions of transporting food from the last producer to the customer makes up just 4% of the total emissions of food production. The vast majority of emissions (83%) are determined by production methods.[14] While it is important that we value local agriculture for its critical role in educating people about food and nature, we should look carefully for strong evidence if we choose to promote it in the cause of environmental sustainability.

For further discussion of this topic, I encourage you to read Hannah Ritchie's "Is organic really better for the environment than conventional agriculture?" .

Health & Nutrition

Consumers should rightfully question the nutritional value and health risks of their food, especially those produced in new ways. A food system that doesn't nourish and keep us healthy certainly isn't sustainable. On this point, I do think the modern food system still has some way to go.

Consumers and public health experts are demanding better answers to the global obesity epidemic. I myself avoid consuming too many processed foods since the negative health outcomes of these have been well documented.

Many consumers are concerned about the risks of pesticides, antibiotics, GMOs or synthetic ingredients, and this is not entirely without justification. While health authorities have mostly taken the right actions to protect consumers, there's real room for improvement in consumer transparency, broader use of the precautionary principle, broader and more independent testing, and better protection of farm workers and rural communities. This criticism is particularly applicable to the US, where consumer safeguards seem to be generally weaker than in other OECD countries, as well as to many emerging economies around the world, where public health institutions are still catching up to socioeconomic changes. Ultimately, there is little point in boosting the efficiency or sustainability of our food supply if consumers choose to avoid it due to health concerns.

That said, as consumers, I believe such concerns should remain within reason. If we choose to demand stronger rules from government, these concerns need to be supported by adequate high-quality scientific evidence. Remember again how critical these technologies have been for our society and how important they will be for our world's food security in the decades to come.

Given their complexity, I can't dive into each of the listed health concerns. However, as an example of the care taken by health authorities to protect consumers from such risks, consider the issue of pesticides in food. Health authorities and food producers work very hard to protect consumers from any associated risks. I'll quote from Hannah Ritchie at Our World in Data who explains this excellently[15]:

However, the important question is: should we be concerned about the  health impacts of pesticide residues? The World Health Organization  (WHO) have established a Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) which establishes 'safe' intake levels of individual pesticide inputs,  where 'acceptable daily intakes' are set at levels for which exposure  would have no carcinogenic effects on human health. Governments and food  governance bodies then use acceptable intake levels to establish Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs). These are enforced by national governing bodies to ensure that consumer food has residue levels which are below such MRLs.
Evidence suggests that residue standards and limits are strongly enforced. A US-based study investigated the ten most  frequently identified pesticide residues across twelve commodity groups from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Pesticide Data  Program (PDP) database.19 The authors searched USDA database results for nationwide residue assessments from 2000 to 2008. All pesticide exposure estimates were found to be well below the defined 'chronic reference doses' (RfDs).  Only one product had a residue level greater than 1% of the RfDs (and  only just, measured in at 2% of RfDs). The majority (75 percent) of  commodities measured below 0.01 percent of RfD limits. For context, this means residue levels were one million times lower than the threshold  for which there are observable effects to exposure.

Note also that some "natural" pesticides (used as far back as 4,500 years ago) that are allowed within the organic rules are also quite toxic[16], and can pose serious risks to consumers and rural communities. In these cases, the overall toxic risk to communities can be reduced using modern synthetic pesticides.

As such dilemmas begin to arise, the real question to ask is – why limit ourselves to a food system based around traditional, pastoral methods when we face such incredible challenges to safely feeding our world's population and have the tools and scientific evidence to do better? The right answer for consumers is to continue to demand high transparency and safeguards for our food, but not to demand an alternative, simpler food system that cannot adequately meet the nutritional needs of our world. I encourage you to read more on the subject here and here.

Where do we go from here?

I hope the points raised have at least caused you to question the beliefs you may have previously held about choosing to buy (or avoid) the products of modern, conventional farms. I hope that maybe, you'll hold off quick judgement next time you hear a politically charged phrase like "industrial agriculture".

While the pastoral ideal may be a comforting idea, it simply does not provide all the answers we need for our food system. As consumers, we need to continue to demand a high bar for the quality, safety and ethics of our food. Many of the issues raised by The Omnivore's Dilemma and the food movement, such as the meteoric rise of obesity rates and the horrific treatment of livestock, are very much real and need to be addressed. But to do so, we need to pull on the best tools and practices, rather than hope that a return to traditional methods will somehow solve our complex, present-day problems. And as consumers and responsible citizens, we should avoid using the pastoral ideal to judge our food producers and instead support proven sustainable approaches, no matter where they come from.

— Soroush Pour (@soroushjp)

Thanks

Thanks to Harvey Multani, Jason Hew, Julian Borrey, Nicole Byer, Rick Marron, Steve Byer, Susan Byer, Zi Chong Kao for reviewing early drafts of this post and providing invaluable feedback.

Further Reading

Footnotes

[1]: South Island Agricultural Field Days at Kirwee, Canterbury.
[2]: A good definition of "food movement", from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh website: "Food movements have proliferated in recent history in the United States and around the world. Food movements today revolve around sustainable farming practices, farmers markets, localization and urbanization of food, restoration agriculture, permaculture, cooperatives, and much more. These movements involve both activism in favor of policy amendments and the creation of alternatives to the business system we now have producing our calories. Most recently, the equity of food availability and distribution has taken the forefront. Demonstrations against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have also become popular. Dubbed the March Against Monsanto, these demonstrations garnered an estimated two million participants."
[3]: Omnivore's Dilemma, chapter 13, page 257
[4]: Our World in Data - Food per Person
[5]: https://www.agclassroom.org/gan/timeline/farmers_land.htm
[6]: Our World in Data - Employment in Agriculture
[7]: Economic History Association - A History of the Standard of Living in the United States
[8]: Our World in Data - Human Height
[9]: Agricultural Systems, Volume 108: The crop yield gap between organic and conventional agriculture
[10]: Bloomberg - Here’s How America Uses Its Land
[11]: Nature Sustainability: The environmental costs and benefits of high-yield farming
[12]: The conventional grazing farm I worked on was chosen at random, not for its superior sustainability practices. From what I saw and heard, these practices were common (or in some cases, required) for all farms in the region.
[13]: This is a reason for everyone interested in sustainability to adopt evidence based approaches. Policy makers and scientific experts do adopt farming practices backed by bodies of evidence.
[14]: Environmental Science & Technology - Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States
[15]: Our World in Data - Is organic really better for the environment than conventional agriculture?
[16]: CDC Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry - SULFUR DIOXIDE

Soroush Pour

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