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Foreign Policy Analysis
Edible Education 101: Food, Capitalism, and Imperialism (Salvador)

Edible Education 101: Food, Capitalism, and Imperialism (Salvador)

(bright music) – Hi, I’m Mark Bittman. This is Edible Education 101, and I’m here with Ricardo Salvador, who is director of the food
and environment program at Union of Concerned Scientists. Greetings, my friend. – Hi, Mark. – When we talk about soil health, what are we talking about? – It’s a really anthropomorphic concept. Soil is basically the layer of the earth that is most decomposed. Health is this concept
that we map onto it, which describes a number of processes that are beneficial to us. But soil is just geological matter on the surface of the earth. What we mean by health is that it does simultaneously some things
that require equilibrium, so, for instance, one
thing needs to happen, which is that water
needs to drain through. At the same time, we want
some water to be held, so that roots can absorb it. It can’t be saturated with water, because oxygen needs to be present, so roots can respire, so that
they can take up nutrients. There’s a number of processes in the soil. Some geological, some biological, that are of great
interest to human beings, and that’s what we mean when say health. – That’s great. I’m just going to stay on
this for a few minutes. So, what causes soil to be healthy or “ill-thy”? – Well, soil is a breakdown
product of the regolith, which is the last geological
layer on the planet. And that breakdown occurs over time, because there’s physical as
well as biological forces that literally break the rocks into very small particles, and it turns out that
the different diameters of the particles give the
soil different properties. So, you want some of the soil particles to be bound to each other, and that doesn’t happen
just mineral to mineral. Think of sand, you know. So sand just flows, the
individual particles are actually somewhat
repelling each other. So binding agents are organic material, which are breakdown products of plants, and you need organisms
that are breaking down those products in there. So it’s the confluence
of the living organisms, fungi, bacteria, breaking
down living matter, binding some particles of soil that eventually end up
giving us properties that soil scientists
refer to as “texture”, for instance, or “tilth”. They’re actually descriptions of how well water drains through, or how much oxygen is held in the soil, and
therefore how good it is as a growth medium for plants. – So soil’s a combination
of ground up rocks, whatever texture those are,
and whatever organic matter is breaking down? – Plus the living
material that’s in there, because it really does contain billions of living organisms, primarily bacteria, but also fungi in there,
which are essential to what we refer to as soil health. – If you’re farming on soil,
what makes soil healthier and what makes soil less healthy? – So if we start from those features that we want in the soil, for instance, binding agents or organic matter, that means that we need
to literally feed the soil or provide the soil the organic matter, so that means that you don’t harvest away everything that is plant material. You actually know, you manage towards, returning some of the organic
materials specifically, so that the bacterial
populations can thrive. Now, those bacteria are doing a number of really essential things. Essentially, every trick that matters in order to keep life viable on the planet is mediated by bacteria
at some point or another. So they’re keeping the carbon cycle alive. They’re helping to keep
the sulfur cycle alive, the nitrogen cycle alive, and so on. So what you want to do
is feed those bacteria, just like you would any
other living organism, and organic matter is one of
the key ways of doing that. The nutrients that are
the breakdown process of those minerals, you know, the broken, the ground down rocks that you mentioned, that’s another thing. There needs to be appropriate temperature. There needs to be appropriate water. So a farmer that is managing towards those sorts of things and knows
that the soil is living, knows that the soil requires
adequate temperature, water, organic matter, and specifically, they’re trying to optimize
the living populations of soil bacteria and soil fungi. And there’s an equilibrium that
they’re trying to maintain, because not all fungi are beneficial. Not all bacteria are beneficial. So you need to be able
to manage in such a way that the beneficial of both of those actually outweigh those
that can cause problems, and there’s very specific
things that you can do. So, usually, the fungi
that you want to minimize are those that thrive at
really low temperatures, with a very low oxygen content. The sorts of situations that
you get when water ponds. So therefore, you’re going to manage so that there’s adequate
drainage in the soil, so that you don’t get
those sorts of problems. – You’ve used the word
organic a bunch of times. What does that mean in this context? – Yeah. That’s a very interesting point. So, it is a term that
comes from chemistry, and probably the simplest way to describe what we mean is that we’re talking about material that
has carbon as its base. So, organic chemistry is
basically the chemistry of carbon-containing compounds. So for our purposes,
let’s just think of it as that very simple definition. There’s no other implication of organic in the chemical sense. – So there are different ways, when you grow things in
soil and you harvest them, the plants have used some of
the nutrients in the soil, and the soil needs to be replenished if you’re going to continue
to grow things in it. – [Ricardo] Exactly. – Talk a little bit about
the number of different ways it can be replenished. – Well, the basic cycle is regeneration, and so this means that
some of the extraction that occurs is specifically because plants take up the nutrients from the soil. So to the extent that those same plants then break down within that same soil, so, say, an annual grass
would do this seasonally, unless you harvested
or remove it some way. This is one of the ways that you ensure that that cycle continues. You can also have cycles upon cycles. So, for instance, an example would be when you have livestock
that actually are removing the annual grass, but then the manure that the livestock produce is returned to the field where the grass was grown, and so then that cycle upon a cycle does regenerate or replenish
some of the nutrients. So those are some of the basics. Now, in an agricultural sense, the really sharp question to ask is, the purpose of agriculture is to extract. It is to harvest and remove, because that’s what we’re doing when we eat, so we don’t stand in the field and eat and then return all the nutrients that we consume to the field. So the principle of agriculture is, you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to replenish or regenerate when, in fact, a part of the cycle is
a leak from the system. So, fortunately there are organisms, and this goes back to the
concept of soil health. Bacteria that can actually mine nitrogen out of the atmosphere,
just for one example. That one is a huge example, though, because nitrogen is the
single most important, most limiting element for plant growth. So, it turns out these
bacteria, preferentially associate with certain plants, legumes. So, in order to replenish nitrogen without depending on
purchased external inputs, you would manage by rotating legumes into the mixture of the crops that you’re growing in the field, with the idea being that, on the net, at the very least, what you’re doing is
replenishing what you extract. With very good management,
you can actually build up the quality of the soil, build up the nutrient levels, build up the organic matter, and so on. – So if you harvest and
then plant something that compliments what
you’ve just harvested or replenishes what you’ve just harvested, there’s a way in which, this is, we know this is called crop rotation, there’s a way in which
you can replenish the soil by planting things in different sequences. – [Ricardo] Exactly. – What’s wrong with just… Taking chemical fertilizer and sticking it in the soil and skipping all of that? – Yeah. Well, I’m not sure that I would start out by calling it wrong. However, we do end up with it being abused and causing all kinds of problems. So the general principle,
which is actually not something that we’ve
been practicing very long, at least intentionally,
actually came about as a way to prevent the
wearing down of soils. The idea was, it was actually better than what we had been doing before, because practices that you and I have discussed right
now, around regeneration, were actually not being practiced in areas of Europe and
areas of the United States, where, instead, soil was being degraded and its productivity was being lost. So it was a major boon to essentially find pools of fertility,
meaning pools of nitrates, pools of pot ash, pools of phosphates for nitrogen and potassium
and phosphate, respectively, and then refine them, and
then bring them to the farm, and add them in chemically, analytically precise quantities. It means that you are managing less bulk, that you knew exactly how much you were adding, and
so at first it appeared that this was going to
be a great advantage. Well, the major issue with that is that you have to bear in mind that you can only continue to practice
that kind of agriculture for as long as that pool of external mineral nutrients exists, and that pool is actually quite finite. As a matter of fact, just in the history of modern mechanized agriculture, we’ve already extinguished
a lot of those pools. So, for instance, a lot of the nitrates that we’ve extinguished completely were imported to Europe,
particularly Northern Europe, from the coast of South America. It was basically guano. So without going into lots of examples, item number one is that you can take fertility from someplace else, but then you’re going to exhaust
that, and if you’re not at some point regenerating it, then essentially, you have limited that form of agriculture. So that’s one problem. Another problem, which is just as serious, is that the kind of
agriculture that we perform under mechanized systems
tends to be like a sieve. As opposed to being
regenerative, where you return nutrients so that they can
be used multiple times, it is linear, meaning
that you provide an input on one end of it, some
of it is used internally in the system, but then you have escapes, in the form of nitrates and other residues of the chemicals that you’re adding. These, when they accumulate in levels that are higher than the background level, then create toxicity problems, or they essentially do in
nature what we’re doing to the farm field, which
is to fertilize nature. So then we’ll get
excessive growth of algae, for instance, or other organisms, which then compete with organisms in their own natural
habitat for such things as oxygen or other nutrients,
and just create havoc in the ecological chain. So those are two key flaws in the way that the system is practiced. Now, in principle, there could be an equilibrium that could be constructed out of a system that uses
chemical agriculture, but that’s not the way that
we practice that system. So there’s serious
problems that tend into it. – You just addressed chemical issues, but there’s a physical issue too, right? Because… As we all know, when you take a plant out of the soil, it doesn’t come cleanly. You’re removing some of
the physical structure of the soil comes with it. And what you spoke about ten minutes ago, or we know that, if soil is a mixture of rock and organic material, and living, living critters, you’re taking those out when you harvest. If there were a perfect closed system in which you could use
chemical fertilizer, you still wouldn’t be
replacing the physical structure of the soil. You’d still be losing soil. This happens, right? – Right. To the extent that the
soil itself is being lost to the process of erosion, you’re right. We’re just talking about one component of the material flow through
an agricultural system when we’re talking about
the chemical inputs. That’s absolutely correct. Now, it should also be noted that the, the chemical contribution
of soil to plant nutrition, if you measure it by volume,
is vanishingly small. In other words, very
small amounts of breakdown of mineral can generate
significant amounts of nutrients for plants. The real issue with soil erosion is that that is the rooting volume and, really, the growth medium for the plant. It’s where the water
pools, so that then plants can take up water, without having to have rain perpetually. It also is the place where of all these chemical reactions are occurring, that we’ve described. So soil erosion is very important, because it affects the
viability of the chemical cycles that the plants depend on in order to have what agronomists refer to
as extractable nutrients from soil. The living fraction of the soil actually accelerates the breakdown
of the organic material. If you just put plants into a physical growth medium, and there
were no living entities within there, again, that’s the example of putting a growing plant into sand. So nothing would happen there. You would get very, very
slow growth in there. No water would be retained by the sand, and so, and even the
physical, the capacity of the sand to hold the plant upright is very limited, so you
can see the difference between just the pure,
physical contribution of soil and then what
happens when you actually add living material, the organic material. – When you grow things in monoculture, which is the way most plants are growing in the United States, you
do use chemical fertilizer and you don’t rotate crops. So you’re not really returning nutrients to the soil naturally,
you’re not enhancing the soil structure, and you’re
using chemical fertilizer which, as you said, is limited. But even, given an unlimited supply of chemical fertilizer, what’s wrong with doing this kind
of blanketing the land with one crop, replenishing the nutrients that are missing, and then planting that same crop again? What goes wrong there? – Sure. – [Matt] A lot of what we talk about is about what’s wrong with this system. – Right. The reason why we talk a lot about it is that that pattern creates
lots of different problems. So there isn’t, we can’t talk credibly about a single thing that’s wrong. There’s really a battery
of things that go wrong, but we can talk about dominant
results of monoculture. As the name indicates,
the critical problem is the loss of biodiversity. So, an engineer talks about a system as being composed of parts
that operate in coordination to produce an intended outcome. So systems exist in nature,
and to have a system, you need to have parts. Monoculture, by definition, has one part. So all of the parts,
and, using the extreme as an example, but
monoculture by definition is going to depend on the
chemical fertilizer input to provide what nature,
or regenetive practices, might otherwise produce. That’s in an idealized organic system, because you can practice
organic agriculture, meaning that you’re not
using chemical fertilizers in monoculture as well. So, let’s talk about an
idealized organic system as a contrast. So when you lose
biodiversity, things such as managing the balance of predatory insects against beneficial insects
is going to be limited, because each one of those insects has a preferred niche. When you have just one habitat for hundreds of acres,
then you’re limiting biodiversity not just of the plant species you’re cultivating, but of
every other living thing in that field, because
the other living things are doing useful things
for the other living things in that field, and you
limit the resilience and the performance of the entire system. So you’re optimizing for one thing. You know, it could be the production of almonds, and the
entire field, you know, for hundreds of acres out to the horizon, but if you need pest control, if you need water retention, if you
need to conserve soil, if you need things such as fertility, then you’re going to have to come up with alternate methods, usually mechanical or cultural methods, to provide that when the biological
system might provide it on its own if it’s managed in that way. – I lied when I said it
was the last question. What’s the advantage of
growing things monoculturally? What’s the appeal of it? – Oh, there’s a fascinating
story behind this. We’re sort of stuck in
a system that solved a problem that we had in the 1700’s, and this was the problem that resulted when we began to mechanize. And in the early days of mechanization, the draft power was animals. So what you needed was two things. One, you needed uniformity so that the very simple mechanical devices that we used to hoe, to harvest, all of these things, could
handle predictable situations. Then, you needed alleyways,
or regularity in the field, where draft animals could
move through the field without destroying the crop. That is the precedent
for why, to this day, we continue to do things in such a uniform, homogeneous way, which has led to a monocrop agriculture. We don’t need to be bound by that anymore. Agricultural engineers will tell you that there’s no reason why
they can’t design equipment that will handle biodiverse
agricultural systems, and now that, as a matter
of fact, let me go back and say that agricultural
engineers were telling me that, they were assuring me that, back in the days when
agricultural implements were purely mechanical. Now that agricultural
implements are becoming much smarter because of electronics, I’m sure that that’s only compounded. There could be way more sophisticated ways of managing diverse stands of crops. But we’re stuck with this method that optimized doing
things with regularity, with predictability, owing to technology that was developed about 300 years ago, and we haven’t overcome that. – Why are we stuck with it? – I think we got into a model where we expected one
machine that specialized for one particular setting, and we moved uniformity through a field
doing that one thing. That is the key thing. There’s this consequence
in the development of technology, that it,
there’s a history of technology simplifying a task, but then trapping us in that task, and that
solution is being the only one that then defines how we
practice in the future. So, in agriculture, and particularly agricultural mechanization, we have a real good example of that. One of the best examples
of how we got into the trap that was created by
mechanization in agriculture is the story of a real innovator, dating back to the 18th century, in the countryside outside of England. A gentleman farmer, lawyer, by the name of Jethro Tull developed gout, spent much more time
out on his farm estate rather than in the city of London. He despised his farm
workers, he was trying to find ways in which he
could replace his farm workers whom he thought were
lazy and whom he thought were costing him money, cheating him, and so he devised what today we know as the grain drill, and also perfected hoes that could be drawn by horses, and so eliminated the
labor of workers that would sow seed and also workers
that would harvest the seed and would weed the plants. And so in the course of
developing his technology, he did what today we would call replicated field experiments. Very sophisticated stuff
that he documented, and then he published in a book called The New-Fangled
Horse-Hoeing Husbandry. – That’s what it was called? – And this is a book that was dominant around the time that
England was sending farmers to colonize the United States. So we’re talking about
the middle-to-late 1700’s. So in that period of time,
the latest technology, the equivalent of today’s
drones in biotech, was this horse-hoeing
husbandry and the grain drill. So new mechanical implements,
where you didn’t need human labor, you relied on horses. So for horses to be used
to draw the implements, Jethro Tull needed to have alleyways through which, in his case, it was wheat, the wheat could be planted, cultivated, the weeds controlled, and then harvested. This led to one of the
major errors that he made in interpreting his research results, and the error had to do with this. Among Jethro Tull’s many assumptions, he thought that the theory that manure actually enriched and regenerated soil could not possibly be
right, and the reason was a matter of principle,
because he imagined that nutrients were taken into plants by little mouths on the surfaces of roots. So when he worked through the cycle, what the implications
were of adding manure to enrich the growth of plants, the theory of plant nutrition was
still far in the future, nobody knew how this really worked. What he imagined was that manure was actually being eaten
directly by plants, and then human beings would eat the plants that were made up manure, and that was a horrifying thought to him. So he wanted to prove that the manure wasn’t actually responsible
for the increased fertility that you saw when you applied manure. And his theory was that
it was actually the urine that was mixed in with the manure that actually was breaking down the soil more rapidly than it ordinarily would, and that then it was the soil itself that was absorbed by the
plants that accounted for the greater fertility. That was his theory. Today we would call it a hypothesis. So he tested it. So he had plots where he applied manure in the conventional way, he had plots where all that he did was to
use the horse-hoeing husbandry that he recommended, and lo and behold, the plots where he did
nothing but hoe mechanically were the plots that out-yielded the plots that had the manure. Ergo, he thought his
hypothesis was proven correct. Now we know, and any farmer
listening to this story knows exactly what happened. So, you need to understand a
little bit how grasses grow. Grasses branch. At the tip of every grass
branch, there is a head that’s where the seeds are produced. The more branches you have,
the more seeds you produce. Well, when you have plants
growing in monoculture, they’re closely spaced,
and so there’s no space for them to branch. When you allow these broad
alleyways periodically, then there’s lots of
space for them to branch, therefore you get more seed heads, therefore you get more seed. So it was a spacing issue
that actually ended up giving him, agronomists
refer to this as tillering, more tillers on the wheat plants which resulted in greater grain yield. So you can see that there’s
like, about three or four examples there of things that were dogma of the 1700’s that we’re still living with in the 21st century,
just as a result of that. – If technology has advanced so far, why isn’t there a better
way of doing this? Why are we still using
a 17th century pattern, 18th century pattern for this? – Yeah, it’s an excellent question. Well, not only that. You know, this is really egregious, because there is research
that demonstrates that if you just take
basic ecological principles where plant species that
actually compliment each other by not competing for
exactly the same spaces, you know, the same sources of light, the same sources of water, and so on, you can actually find
combinations of plants that will outproduce
monocultures of plants. In the best of cases, you
can get up to six times the productivity in what is referred to as a polyculture than you
would in a monoculture. Now, it’s not an automatic thing. You need to find the right
combinations of plants. But such combinations have been found, and as a matter of fact,
in traditional agriculture, they’re exploited, because
their labor is limiting, so it’s been in their interest to actually be very pragmatic and find
these combinations of plants. And initially, because the sophistication of the machinery did limit, you know, you couldn’t go into a field
with a single implement and harvest fruits, seeds, grains, pulses that may mature at different
times of the season, for one, but then would
be different colors, would be different weights,
would be at different places in the canopy, that actually
was a major challenge in the early era of, of cultivating crops in large extensions. These days, ag engineers tell me those are actually good things. Those are actually ways
in which you can actually discriminate among the
different things that you want to harvest, and so
you actually use that. So the answer is that
there really is nothing that prevents us from doing
this more sophisticated agricologically informed
type of agriculture. So you don’t look to
the agricultural factors to explain this. What explains this is that
there is literally dogma, centuries of sunk infrastructure, in terms of how we do agriculture,
the implements that we develop and sell, for
instance, and actually farmer knowledge as well
as researcher knowledge. A lot of what we’ve discussed here would be news to even the most informed agricultural scientists. There would be debates about a lot of what I’ve just described to you, because it’s just not normally imparted when you study agronomy. We start out just from the assumption that the single most productive thing that you can do is to
blanket out the horizon, you know, with as many
plants per unit of area of one single species,
and put the fertilizer to it, and that’s how
you boost productivity. It’s a very childlike way of looking at agricultural productivity,
and unfortunately, what’s not childlike
is that there are very serious consequences in
terms of the viability of the human species
from that perspective. – Well without getting into the viability of the human species, what’s, what’s perpetuating this? Surely there are other people besides you who think this way. Surely there are farmers trying new or, it kind of sounds
like, traditional ways of doing things. Something is reinforcing the notion that monoculture, rote crop agriculture is the way to go. – Yeah. – [Matt] Why are we having so much trouble breaking away from this? – So there has been
scientific research into that, it won’t surprise you, and the people that have made the greatest headway in explaining that are sociologists. So they study human behavior. It’s almost, you know, a
facepalm what the answer is. They’ve come up with the fact that it’s essentially peer pressure, that the fear of appearing
to be unorthodox, doing strange things, is a huge limitant among farming populations. Now, they’ve also learned that the vulnerability to peer
pressure is easily overcome, and that is that if doing something new, even strange, is clearly
and reliably more profitable than the alternative,
farmers will go to that. So then the question turns into, why are there not markets
for these diverse products that could come out of
polycultural stands? So you could have serial greens, you could have legume pulses, you could have forge, in theory,
you could have fruits, this happens in the
tropics, you could have materials, you know, fibers and so on being produced in the same area. Well, it appears to be
that what we’ve done is specialize to such a degree that we actually have parts on the planet where they expect that they’re only going to be producing, say, corn
grain and soy in the Midwest. So all of the infrastructure has been optimized over a period of decades, so that that’s what they can handle. You know, there’s
elevators, there’s railways, there’s a whole set of systems that know exactly what to do with
that, and if you were to show up with, say, fiber that you’re extracting from
hemp plants, totally viable, and even in a polyculture,
there is no infrastructure to handle that. You might say zero market for that. There’s a market, it’s just
not a market that farmers will experience firsthand in the Midwest, and so that appears to be the explanation. Specialization by geographic
area on the planet. – It’s not just that there’s
a community tradition and an infrastructure, though. It’s also that there’s
a huge marketing effort in trying to sustain
this kind of agriculture. Am I wrong? – You’re not. This is perpetuated, when you’re trying to preserve a market, you use every tool at your disposal, and you know, all of us have experienced
marketing tools. You know, they start out by appealing to this phenomenon that
the sociologists know really well, that we all want to fit in, we don’t want to stand
out, and so, you know, they all begin their
messages when they’re talking to farmers, where they
appeal to their sense of community and they appeal to the fact that they can be relied upon
not to do strange things. Now, they don’t use those words, but what they say, you know, “Farmers are the backbone
of the American economy, and all farmers know that…” And then, you know, they use this product or they use that product. You know, so, “X Company stands
behind the American farmer doing things this way.” So it’s those subtle,
you know, psychological, sociological methods that
are the most effective marketing tools. Anyone who spends time in farm country, you know, watching the commercials on TV will see immediately how this works, how this actually keeps
status quo in place. – So moving forward, if
we accept that resources are limited, if we accept
that monoculture is, poses problems that are going
to have to be grappled with, what might agriculture look like… Let’s put it this way. If we were to rationalize agriculture, what would it look like? If we were to do it so that the systems were closer to being
closed, so that agriculture was more regenerative, so
that it was more sustainable, so that it was less extractive,
what might that look like? And could we continue to feed everybody the way we’re feeding them now? – Yeah. If we continue to feed everybody the way that we feed them now,
that would be prosecutable, I’m fairly certain, so let’s aim a little bit higher than that. So, well… How about thinking about
two potential scenarios for rationalizing, by which I take, let’s take the best of
what we know right now, solid, scientific, and physical
and economic constraints and then design a system so that it is the best system we can think of. So I can see two scenarios. One is the scenario where you essentially just extrapolate where
we are going right now. So it favors very large scale, relatively homogeneous systems, large specialization by geography on the planet,
intensive mechanization to the point that humans
would be completely replaced by algorithms and computers, and we already are well on the way to that, so there’s been such a diminution of the farming population,
which has essentially been reduced because of
the fact that they’ve been replaced by large, specialized,
commercial operations that are answering to the
description that I just gave you. So that’s one scenario. So, so maybe if we go down that route, 40 to 50 years in the
future, according to the, the Shangri-La that people
who are champions for that advocate, there would
be such precise control of the addition of external inputs and the management of the system that due to optimal management, we would minimize the
environmental impact, the erosion, the runoff of
nutrients from farm fields. We would minimize the
waste of those nutrients on the one hand, and then
we would optimize the cost, because we would only be
applying complimentary amounts of inputs to those areas that would be most responsive to them and
minimize the application where areas aren’t going
to respond to that. That’s the dream scenario, and so overall, that would be a very productive system. You wouldn’t see people. The only people involved would actually be in laboratories who would be developing the technologies, so the
computerized equipment and the algorithms that basically consult with satellites to predict weather, that then know whether
you’re likely to have a pest problem and prevent
it by preemptive application of some chemical, and so on. But all done by algorithms, all done by computer scientists, all
done by agricultural engineers. Nobody out on the field, therefore we don’t need rural towns,
everybody’s in urban cities and whole systems robotized. So that’s one scenario. We’re well on the way there, sort of. The reason I qualify that is that the whole business around
precision agriculture, there’s no indication that
that part is coming through. The mechanization, the
replacement of people, that part is there. But, you know, the whole,
“Apply more when you get a crop response, apply less when you don’t get a crop response,”
that’s not happening. Now, here’s another scenario. It’s diametrically opposed
to that, where you start out by asking the question not
how much can we produce the most efficiently,
you start out by saying, “How many people can we support such that we provide the best nourishment for the human population,
while rewarding farmers for managing not only that process, but the natural setting
where we produce our food?” So we don’t pretend that we’re going to convert the natural
setting into a factory, in an attempt to dominate
it as much as we can. We recognize it is a natural setting, and it’s going to take
special human cognitive skills and management ability
to produce at the scale that we need, when the majority of us are not going to produce our own food. That’s not a scenario that anybody in their right mind can see. So a very small number of people are going to be producing the majority of food for the large bulk of humanity. So the scenario for how that could be done would be to produce much
more per unit area of land, and polycultural systems
essentially deliver on that. We have done so little research on that that I am sure that we have a lot of gain that can be made in that arena, and polycultural systems
by their very name address the whole system. It isn’t just what you’re producing that you’re extracting and then using as the agricultural product, it’s how you’re regenerating those nutrients
that can be recoverable. It’s how you build up soil, it’s how you maintain fertility, it’s how you maintain the biodiversity that
makes it so you rely less on external inputs to
control when things go wrong. So that sort of a scenario is something that’s possible if we change paradigms, in terms of what agriculture actually is, and if we then begin to do the research that develops the knowledge that we need to manage systems that way, and then if our agricultural institutions begin to actually prepare both researchers as well as students, the future farmers and the people that are going to populate the agricultural support business with that kind of a world view. I’m sure that’s a thriving scenario. I’m sure lots of people can be employed on the farm, in the food
processing end of things as well as in generating the knowledge and the technologies that will be required for that alternate vision of agriculture. Question is whether we’ll
choose that alternate path. – What would cause us to
choose the alternate path? – I think at this point
there would have to be massive failure of the existing system, and there would need to
be credible demonstration that the alternative system is superior. So… Per the sociological
research that shows that if farmers can be more profitable adopting practice b over a, they will flow naturally to b, even if
they will feel strange at the beginning. So I think that actually
establishing the credible demonstration of how the production system is viable, along with
markets that actually do provide income for farmers that pursue that alternative model, those two things will need to be working together in order to incentivize
a shift of systems. – So we’re, we’re going to
show that alternative systems can work, but in the
mean time, we’re waiting for some kind of disaster? – I wouldn’t put it quite that way. That would be one thing
that would prompt the shift. I don’t think that the disaster
is absolutely necessary. What I meant when I
said that if farmers see profit in option b over
a, that they would flow that way, even if a is still viable. If there’s greater profit
and greater benefits to them, then they would flow that way. Now, the thing that’s missing. You know, one could say, “Well, that’s the scenario
that we have right now. Why don’t we develop those alternative credible systems and why don’t we develop the markets?” and so on. We tend to be focused on one thing that the food system produces for us, as the name indicates. That one thing is the food. Now, if we go back and recast
the entire conversation that we’ve had, there’s many other things that we want farmers to provide for us, but we don’t want to pay them for that. We want them to be altruists in terms of providing clean air, retaining soil, building up fertility, clean water, all those sorts of things, you know. We may critique farmers,
you know, very aggressively, and we’re not doing a thing economically to incentivize and reward them if they do anything about that. So it isn’t just the food thing. It’s actually saying, “Okay, we want this whole series of different practices and different outcomes of
agricultural activity,” and then developing the markets that will actually reward all of that. – Including better lives for farmers. – At the top, because I, I would argue that’s criterion number one. You don’t want the
farmers to continue to be the exploited class that
they have been historically. The beginning of agriculture is exploiting people that have no choice but to perform the brute labor necessary in order to provide food for the privileged. By and large, that
continues to be a pattern that you find within
agricultural practice, and farmers need to have the same dignity that any other creative
entrepreneur expects in order for them to be
contributors to society. – That’s great. Thank you, Ricardo. – It’s been a pleasure. – Mark Bittman. We’ve been talking with Ricardo Salvador of the Union of Concerned Scientists. (bright music)

1 comment on “Edible Education 101: Food, Capitalism, and Imperialism (Salvador)

  1. BONNIE FAULKNER: Why has World Bank policy since its inception been to provide loans for countries to devote their land to export crops instead of giving priority to feeding themselves? And if this is the case, why do countries want these loans?

    MICHAEL HUDSON: One constant of American foreign policy is to make other countries dependent on American grain exports and food exports. The aim is to buttress America’s agricultural trade surplus. So the first thing that the World Bank has done is not to make any domestic currency loans to help food producers. Its lending has steered client countries to produce tropical export crops, mainly plantation crops that cannot be grown in the United States. Focusing on export crops leads client countries to become dependent on American farmers – and political sanctions.

    In the 1950s, right after the Chinese revolution, the United States tried to prevent China from succeeding by imposing grain export controls to starve China into submission by putting sanctions on exports. Canada was the country that broke these export controls and helped feed China.

    The idea is that if you can make other countries export plantation crops, the oversupply will drive down prices for cocoa and other tropical products, and they won’t feed themselves. So instead of backing family farms like the American agricultural policy does, the World Bank backed plantation agriculture. In Chile, which has the highest natural supply of fertilizer in the world from its guano deposits, exports guano instead of using it domestically. It also has the most unequal land distribution, blocking it from growing its own grain or food crops. It’s completely dependent on the United States for this, and it pays by exporting copper, guano and other natural resources.

    The idea is to create interdependency – one-sided dependency on the U.S. economy. The United States has always aimed at being self-sufficient in its own essentials, so that no other country can pull the plug on our economy and say, “We’re going to starve you by not feeding you.” Americans can feed themselves. Other countries can’t say, “We’re going to let you freeze in the dark by not sending you oil,” because America’s independent in energy. But America can use the oil control to make other countries freeze in the dark, and it can starve other countries by food-export sanctions.

    So the idea is to give the United States control of the key interconnections of other economies, without letting any country control something that is vital to the working of the American economy.

    There’s a double standard here. The United States tells other countries: “Don’t do as we do. Do as we say.” The only way it can enforce this is by interfering in the politics of these countries, as it has interfered in Latin America, always pushing the right wing. For instance, when Hillary’s State Department overthrew the Honduras reformer who wanted to undertake land reform and feed the Hondurans, she said: “This person has to go.” That’s why there are so many Hondurans trying to get into the United States now, because they can’t live in their own country.

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