12 January 2010

Agriculture links to think about

1. Is the world going to run out of phosphorus? (It's in all our bones and puts the P into NPK fertiliser). Answer: Probably not for 100 years, but we should look for supply shortages now and start recycling it before we get another disastrous spike in fertiliser prices.

2. 25 stories on African agriculture. Haven't read them all, but good news in no. 18 (Zimbabwe grows more maize), bad news for Kenyan horticulture in no. 9 (is that a climate-compatible industry?). The DR Congo award for "world ignores ongoing disaster" goes to no. 12 on Lake Chad drying up.

3. Interesting post on what to eat by a soil scientist. She has a few rules of thumb which she readily admits are imperfect and inconsistent and - because the budget constraint usually binds for grad students - "I can't always decide whether the cost of organics reflects the true cost of the food or whether I'm paying for the word 'organic'."

My rules of thumb are also imperfect and inconsistent: no beef, other meat or fish every other day not every day, seasonal fruit and vegetables because they taste better anyway. Organic milk, fruit and vegetables yes, free range eggs always BUT conventional wheat/rice/maize (where I think the yield benefit of conventional techniques outweighs the biodiversity loss - i.e., I'd rather have a factory farm next to the Amazon than no factory farms and no Amazon). Do I stick to them religiously? No. Do I try? Yes. Am I a hypocrite? Yes and so are you. If we were honest we'd all eat beans.

Thank you Sarah Holmes, Sue Murray and Etienne Pollard for pointing these out!

11 comments:

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JB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JB said...

What is the point of taking care with your diet?

I am cautious of systems of ethics that impose dietary restrictions and consequently tend to reject them without too much thought. Why? Because they are probably nothing more than examples of our natural affinity for ritual. Sticking to a prescribed diet makes us feel ritually clean and reinforces group identity among followers of the diet.

But since Rupert has written a post on the subject, perhaps I should pause for once and give the matter some thought. So, what is the point of taking care with your diet? Is it:

1. The direct effect of the change in your consumption pattern? But this is so small that it doesn't seem worth the effort.

2. The marginal benefit of one's participation to a movement for sustainable farming. But will such a movement work? I think most people in the world will continue to make their buying decisions on the basis of price. A consumer movement for sustainable farming practice is only ever going to lead to small improvements.

3. The marginal benefit of one's participation to a system of elite ethics. This is a more plausible mechanism. If members of the global elite worship every day at the altar of sustainable farming (by taking care with their own diets), they are more likely to pursue other more widely-effective strategies for the promotion of sustainable farming as well.

Point 3. is quite convincing. It would better if global elites adopted ethics like mine, but that is not likely. Ethical systems need to have a degree of mass appeal in order to become widespread, and that means making use of common human characteristics like a love of ritual and of rule-based morality.

So will I become a careful eater on the basis of point 3? No. I value too much the clarity of mind that comes from avoiding ethical practices that encourage insider/outsider thinking.