On the eve of Food Day Mark Bittman articulated an alternative vision for the future of agriculture in his essay, How to Feed the World. This was Bittman at his best, laying out his case that our current food and agricultural system is broken and must be transformed if we are to feed a growing world. He is dead right in framing agriculture's challenge in different and more nuanced terms than simple caloric output: "Better, it would seem, would be to ask not how much food is produced, but how it is produced, for whom, at what price, cost and benefit."
Bittman also recognizes the broader forces—poor governance, ill-defined property rights, rapid urbanization and poverty—that contribute to hunger and malnutrition. Unfortunately, as an agrarian fundamentalist, he cannot bring himself to acknowledge that even the most radical transformation of agriculture cannot solve these broader social, economic and political problems. In this respect, he falls into the same trap as those who see technology as the sole solution to the problems of poverty, hunger and malnutrition.
Bittman also gets it right in identifying "knowledge-based agriculture" as critical to the future: "This isn’t about ‘organic’ versus ‘modern.’ It’s about supporting the system in which small producers make decisions based on their knowledge and experience of their farms in the landscape, as opposed to buying standardized technological fixes in a bag. Some people call this knowledge-based rather than energy-based agriculture…." If you drop the word small, and make the statement scale-neutral, this is as descriptive of “precision agriculture" as it is of Wendell Berry's farmer, who knows every inch of his field from personal contact. In a world driven by information technology and big data, knowledge-based decisions can be made on an increasingly large scale. In this world "industrial agriculture,” that Bittman so clearly despises, is rapidly becoming "post-industrial" agriculture.
Unfortunately, while he rejects a dichotomy based on production system (organic vs modern), Bittman’s vision for the future of agriculture is build on another simple dichotomy, that of scale: "Let’s at last recognize that there are two food systems, one industrial and one of small landholders, or peasants if you prefer.”
The reality is that around the world farmers operate across a wide range of scales and, while that mix of farm sizes is evolving in response to markets and policies as well as technology, a wide range of farm sizes is almost certain to persist well beyond my lifetime. More importantly, knowledge-based agriculture is rapidly changing both "industrial" and "peasant" agriculture. The post-industrial and post-peasant agriculture of the future will almost certainly be a diverse and rich mix of farm sizes and production systems.
I could go on to pick over some smaller issues I have with Bittman’s vision of how to feed the world; for example, he does not understand the concept of total productivity in economic terms, i.e. total outputs/total inputs. But that would only distract from my central point: the debate over the future of food and agriculture on the planet has fallen into a trap. The search for simple solutions, defined by stark dichotomies, and a failure to recognize that agriculture—whether "modern" or "peasant," "industrial" or "organic"—cannot by itself solve the problems of hunger and malnutrition on the planet. Let’s see if we can escape the trap as our dialogue continues.