Where to Find Smart, Thoughtful Journalism on Agriculture

As regular readers know, I have done my share of kvetching about GMO media coverage. It’s easy to poke a stick at the stuff you take issue with, especially if you’re on the lookout for it. This is a form of selection bias that I need to be mindful of.

It’s not that I haven’t paused to admire examples of sterling journalism on GMO-related issues. I’ve praised Amy Harmon and Nathanael Johnson for their excellent work in the New York Times and Grist, respectively. But overall, the repeat offenders and flawed coverage (such as this latest from Reuters) seize my attention.

So I need to do a better job of spotlighting the standout work of those who are raising the bar on a consistent basis. That brings me to Tamar Haspel, whose monthly column on food and agriculture for the Washington Post is a must-read. Her most recent piece is on the comparative merits of small and large scale (industrial sized) farms. Like all of Haspel’s columns, this one is engaging, well reported, thoughtful, and nuanced. That’s no small feat.

Here’s how it starts:

There’s a kind of farm that has caught the imagination of the food-conscious among us. It’s relatively small, and you know the farmer who runs it. It’s diverse, growing different kinds of crops and often incorporating livestock. It may or may not be organic, but it incorporates practices — crop rotation, minimal pesticide use, composting — that are planet-friendly. Customers are local restaurants, local markets and us: shoppers who buy into a farm share or visit the farmers market.

There’s a lot to like about that kind of farm, and advocates believe it’s the pattern for what our agriculture ought to look like. The vision of small, diversified farms feeding the world, one community at a time, is a popular one. But is it a viable one?

To find out, go read the rest of the article. You’ll probably walk away a little surprised and lot more informed about agriculture, which is how I feel after digesting Haspel’s monthly column.


12 Responses to “Where to Find Smart, Thoughtful Journalism on Agriculture”

  1. Joshua says:

    Nice to see you (indirectly) acknowledge the nuanced issues related to what some small-scale farmers are doing. See. It really didn’t hurt. If you’re interested in continuing along those lines, I have offered before to put you in contact with some urban farmers who are doing great work. The offer still stands.

  2. JH says:

    What I think is most interesting about the Ag debate is that there is one at all. We have a group of people that think it’s up to them to decide what everyone else can and can’t or should and shouldn’t do. They believe that if we don’t follow their plan, disaster is assured – and if it isn’t physical disaster, it will certainly be a moral disaster.

    It’s a funny thing to think, given that most of the world’s planned economies have collapsed in the last few decades.

    Which is why we don’t have a planned economy. And it’s why there is no “debate” about small vs large farms. The guiding principle of western economies, the invisible hand of economics, has already spoken (as the article points out): most small farms can’t succeed economically.

    So there is no debate to be had and nothing to plan. If small farmers can come up with a way to be economically successful, we won’t have to do anything: it’ll just happen. And if they can’t, the size of farms will continue to increase. We won’t have to do anything. There’s no need for a debate. It’ll just

  3. Buddy199 says:

    I’m all for the invisible hand of capitalism and free market competition put to use in as many areas of society as possible, from finance and industry to health care and education. However, not crony capitalism, which is as free and fair as a three card monte game. Big Ag has become the bloated protected creature it is in very large part thanks to selective, enormous government subsidies. Think tobacco and sugar, not to mention ethanol.

  4. JH says:

    Agree that there are some aspects of Big Ag that are welfare industries. But I think you could say that about almost every industry.

    I guess my point is that the “debate” about what kind of agriculture is best for society – small, large, organic, “factory”, natural etc – is a debate that’s already been resolved in the market, subsidies notwithstanding. It’s been resolved the way it has – in favor of large, non-organic farming – for obvious reasons. Small farms, just like small businesses of any kind, will have to find a niche market to be successful, because scale reduces costs.

    Incidentally, I’m sure you’re aware of the common claim that “factory” farmed produce has little taste, or has sacrificed flavor for production speed and volume and perservability. My mom is 87 and loves salad and vegetables. She’s a total tomato freak (tomatoes are commonly cited as being tasteless because of factory farms) and grew up eating tomatoes out of her home garden in the 30s and 40s. I asked her if the common grocery store tomato has lost its flavor. Nope, she says, not at all. It’s just one woman’s opinion, but it’s good enough for me to chalk the “better flavor” argument for small farms up to the standard “it-was-always-better-back-then” claims.

  5. Tom says:

    I think a lot of people don’t realize that the reason some supermarket produce may not have as much flavor as homegrown produce is simply because many of the varieties you grow in your own garden can’t be shipped in bulk over long distances. The Cavendish banana is a good example of a relatively bland variety [I’ve been told, never experienced anything else] that dominates the global market simply due to its ability to survive transport intact.

  6. JH says:

    I guess my take on that is that the reasoning goes the other way around: if people wanted food with strong flavors, agriculture would develop shippable varieties. IOW, the Cavendish Banana has been made shippable because it’s bland.

    I guess in my mind a strong-flavored banana is kind of like a pink pickup truck. Sure, some people will really like it, but most won’t.

    I’m thinkin’ that most garden produce isn’t that much different than store produce, unless you specifically buy unusual varieties.

  7. Buddy199 says:

    I agree.

  8. Buddy199 says:

    Living close to many farms, I can tell the difference between fresh and not so fresh produce. Fresh to me is picked and eaten the same day for corn, tomatoes. Same for a piece of fruit that has been allowed to finish ripening on the tree and eaten same day. I realize it’s impossible to make the entire food supply same day farm fresh but once you experience the difference there’s no going back.

  9. Viva La Evolucion says:

    I’d like to see some medium to medium/large size goldilocks farms that grow diverse number of crops efficiently, in environmentally friendly manner, and provide healthy affordable produce, dairy, and meat including aquaponically grown fish. I think there should be incentives for farmers who do not pollute the environment. Also, I would like to see the biggest polluters have to pay large fines.

  10. Nom de Plume says:

    Your mother is right: Today’s commercial tomatoes tend to lack taste. The main reason has to do with a disease: Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus. It overwinters in all sorts of hosts, which means even if a farmer carefully destroys all infected plants and practices crop rotation, he can still wind up with TSWV in his tomatoes, as it can be spread by insects. About the only viable solution are varieties that resist TSWV. Unfortunately, these tend not to be as flavorful as the old varieties.

    Thanks to TSWV, I no longer grow tomatoes in the garden. My last descent crop was back in 1999. The TSWV varieties tend to be pricey, so I haven’t grown them much. They’re tomatoes, and alright for canning, but as sliced tomatoes go, they’re a bit lacking.

    The newer varieties have, we’re told, addressed the taste issue, so this may change. From the backyard gardener standpoint, though, there is another issue: The last time I checked, the TSWV varieties were all determinate, which means you get one good crop off them, and that’s it. That’s fine for market farming, but I’ve always preferred indeterminates, which continue to bear until frost. Makes better use of of garden space.

  11. Nom de Plume says:

    Well said. The main driving force behind “Big Ag” is the problem of scale: Advances in mechanization, cultivars, and techniques have increased yields dramatically, with lower prices (adjusted for inflation). This means that a farmer must produce more in order to turn a profit, and that means putting more acres under cultivation, and the equipment to do it.

    In my youth, the standard tractor was a two-row model. Today a farmer would go broke trying to work a farm with a two-row tractor. Time and technology march on.

  12. Conor Flynn says:

    Great article, and thanks for pointing out the importance of informed science journalism. While I hate acting as some sort of bouncer keeping bad journalists out of the discussion room, I do think that ad-hominem attacks and biased reporting lower the general level of discourse.

    Anyway… that’s my excuse for criticising journalists like Michael Specter in the New Yorker, who think they speak with the voice of science, but instead end up quashing informed discussion: http://weltanschuuang.blogspot.com/2014/09/science-vs-ideology-in-journalism.html

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *