Not very important industry is slightly buggered. World ‘gives a shit’.
Y’know, as much as I love this blog — and I do so love this blog — every now and then, I end up with a pained expression as I read it.
This is a good thing of course. Too much agreement is just as much a pain in the arse as too much disagreement.
Still… you can’t seriously be calling the “industry” which provides us with our food, “not very important”. I guess if you’re making a specific point about modern beef farming, then fair enough… maybe. But every time there’s a major agricultural story in the news, there’s always some idiot economist who points out that “actually, agriculture only accounts for X percent of the national economy, so — harsh as it may seem — we needn’t actually worry too much about this”.
Because the numbers demonstrate that, economically speaking, food isn’t all that important.
The trouble is though, it’s fantastically important in other ways. In fact people — yes, even economists — tend to die without the stuff.
The view that native food production should be viewed as a “not very important industry”, usually goes hand in hand with the “we’ll just import more from elsewhere, it’s a globalised food market here in the shiny 21st century” philosophy.
But the twin spectres of climate change and a peak and decline in oil and natural gas production make such a philosophy fundamentally unsustainable. It’s provable on an etch-a-sketch as the man said; the whole food / air deal; projected rates of arable land loss due to desertification and increased flood frequency as well as shifting rainfall patterns, coupled with decreased yields from remaining arable land due to increases in pesticide and fertiliser costs (and eventual supply constraints) will mean a significant drop in total quantities of available food.
Hell, it’s already beginning, the UN Food programme is getting very panicky indeed about the effect that increases in agrofuel production is having on global food supply (yet another increasingly significant cause of arable land being lost from the global food production budget). The average western consumer can afford to pay more to fill up their hybrid Saab than the average non-westerner can afford to pay for food.
By thinking of food production as an industry like any other (or worse, as a “not very important one”) you are denying its unique position — historically, culturally and biologically — at the heart of the human organism. Reducing food production to ‘a percentage of an economy’ is profoundly anti-human. And any philosophy espousing such a view should be resisted.
On this subject, may I recommend Colin Tudge’s illuminating and very important book So Shall We Reap.
I was mostly being thoughtlessly sarky, admittedly. But I do think it’s reasonable to separate ‘modern beef and milk farming’ from ‘feeding the people’, and to view the first as just an industry that doesn’t matter.
Feeding the people involves using plants to convert solar energy and water into food. This is essential; without it we’d die (given the low environmental cost of boat transport, I’m slightly sceptical that importing wheat from Canada and the US Midwest to cover our core calorie needs would be significantly more carbon-heavy than trying to grow them on our less conveniently shaped terrain – however, I haven’t done the sums and might well be utterly cluelessly wrong).
Cow farming involves using animals to convert food and energy into a far smaller amount of nicer, food. Even if you ignore the ethical issues around animal treatment, it does nothing to provide additional food – in that sense, it’s exactly equivalent to manufacturing BMWs, Rolexes, or any other luxury good that’s inessential for survival.
Therefore, I give about as much of a shit about a new foot-n-mouth crisis as I would about a fire at the Rolex factory…
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