Can Industrial Food Be Part of the Food Movement?

Earlier this month, Jayson Lusk, a professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University, made the audacious case that “Industrial Farms Are Good for the Environment.”

Lusk explains that operating at a large scale gives farmers the opportunity to invest in technologies that both improve productivity and reduce environmental impacts, like advanced machinery that can precisely track crop yields or water use. These tools and the precision they enable is something farmers a few decades ago could only dream about. He presents statistics showing American farm productivity has risen in recent decades while environmental impacts like land use and soil erosion have decreased.

Lusk is an expert on food and agricultural policy and his op-ed presents research directly related to the environmental impacts of farming. The food system he describes produces the vast majority of food, measured in both calories and dollars, to Americans and export markets.

Yet his Times piece reads a bit man-bites-dog. We’re not geared to think of industrial farming in a positive light.

More familiar is Michael Pollan’s latest essay in the New York Times Magazine. Pollan divides America into “Little Food” and “Big Food,” contrasting the “food movement” against “processed,” “packaged,” and “industrial” food. It’s a divide we’ve read about for at least two decades now, since the advent of slow food and the skyrocketing public interest in nutrition, cuisine, and farming.

But thinking about it, it’s unclear why industrial agriculture would be excluded from the food movement. Again, why couldn’t majority of the food eaten in America be part of the “food movement?”

After all, questions of resource use and environmental impact don’t fall neatly into Pollan’s binaries. Organic and conventional agriculture both use pesticides, so which ones do we need to be concerned about? Large farms may use more fossil fuels at the aggregate level, but they also produce more food, so what systems are actually the most efficient on a per-unit basis? Scale has become falsely conflated with impacts.

Commercial farmers who use technology and best practice to grow large amounts of food while minimizing environmental impacts deserve as much (or perhaps more) praise as small-scale farmers producing only for local customers. Unfortunately, we’ve come to see “Big Food’s” impacts as categorically worse precisely because they are, by definition, bigger than the absolute impacts of smaller-scale farming.

UC Berkeley’s David Zilberman put it well last week:

There is a place for both industrial and naturalized agricultural systems. The naturalization paradigm is leading to the emergence of higher-end restaurants and fresh food supply linking the farmer to the consumer, each of which have limited reach but are important source of income and innovation in agriculture. At the same time, the majority of people will be dependent on industrialized agriculture. The two can coexist and coevolve.

As long as we have billions of mouths to feed around the world, we’re going to need lots of land and resources to produce their food. Agricultural systems will necessarily always have environmental impacts. If the “food movement” is about making agriculture as safe and environmentally friendly as possible, Big Food should be able to march alongside Little Food.