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Budiansky on farmers' markets

A wonderful post from Stephen Budiansky on the subject of farmers' markets, organic food and the like.

The language of the huckster pervades this business; to look at most of the websites and literature of local/organic/sustainable sellers you'd think they wouldn't dream of taking your money, so noble is their calling ("We are in the redemption business: healing the land, healing the food, healing the economy, and healing the culture," reads one typical specimen). Old rule of commercial interaction: when someone says it's not about money . . . it's about money.

Do read the whole thing, it's a joy from beginning to end.

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Reader Comments (58)

Yes, it is indeed a joy. Thanks. I've had the same idea about agr. since forever...

Sep 3, 2010 at 7:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterLuis Dias

I've taken to growling every time Charlie boy's Duchy Originals are advertised through Waitrose. I can't decide if it's organic that rubs me up the wrong way or I just hate the prince of hypocrisy. Hmmm, gotta be Charles.

I always felt that The Good Life was a cautionary tale for anyone who thought they could get back to growing their own. 365 day food production on a large scale is hard, on a small scale it's close to impossible. I say that as a happy gardener with more runner beans and tomatoes than I know what to do with.

I had a debate with friends about how we would restart food production after a catastrophic world changing pandemic. They all had ideas about growing their own. I said I'd turn up at the nearest working farm and beg for a job that paid in food.

Sep 3, 2010 at 8:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

I lived for one month in rural India. I had to buy my food from the local market, which measured 12'x12'. The market offered rice, red and green onions, green peppers, tomatoes, cauliflower (not white, like you are used to seeing it, but black with fungus), sugar, salt, eggs and butter. If you wanted meat, you had to drive to a city; the trip took one day in each direction. If you wanted milk, well, there were cows everywhere and no one owns them, so just helped yourself.

Needless to say, I developed a deep affection and appreciation for the fresh produce section of my local supermarket, to say nothing of the deli, dairy, meet and countless other sections. Not only for the variety we have, but for the quality of the food. Most people in pampered countries wouldn't have touched the food.

Sep 3, 2010 at 8:48 PM | Unregistered Commenterpluck

I like organic produce. When people try to sell it to me, I ask to see their inorganic range just to watch their expressions.

I think we are pampered too much though, and supermarkets have much to be blamed for. Aided and abetted by EU regulations for bureaucratically approved size and shapes for fruit and veg. That may have conditoned us to accepting only the right shape, size and colour of foods, even if that's not natural and results in a lot of waste. Plus a lot of tastless, force grown pap. Looks nice on a supermarket shelf, but sometimes the farmer's market stuff tastes a whole lot better, and homegrown better still :)

Sep 3, 2010 at 10:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterAtomic Hairdryer

In the States, most large supermarkets maintain a special section where one can purchase organically grown vegetables in contrast to the regular vegetables. The organics are pricey, and I have consistently avoided purchasing any. I figure it's the same DNA and my digestive enzymes cannot tell the difference. Now I do on occasion frequent a local farmers market during the summer months for specialty items -- local fresh grown tastes much better than commercial because the latter varieties are selected to withstand transportation and to have a long shelf life.
However, I was given my first, small vegetable-garden patch when I was just 6 years old -- my grandfather was a master gardener -- and I have had a vegetable garden every year since then except for 6 years at college when I lived in a dorm. I currently maintain a large vegetable garden, 30 ft x 60 ft, and I freeze quite a bit of fresh veggies to consume during the remainder of the year. My own veggies certainly don't qualify for organic; I would not be able to grow anything without fungicides and pesticides (warm, high humidity climate during the growing season).

Sep 3, 2010 at 10:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterDrCrinum


Did you ever consider that home-grown might tast better simply because you put effort into it? There was an aphorism, the source of which I've long since forgotten and a Google search yields no joy: "Men, and rats, love the things for which they have suffered."

The enthusiasm for "organic" food is something that is really only possible in a mass society like ours... it is a mark of differentiation. In the UK, something like 2.5% of your population is employed in the "primary sector", farming, fishing, forestry, mining, etc. Here in the U.S., six tenths of one percent feed not just us but a large percentage of the rest of the world. The mechanization of agriculture, the corporatization of agriculture, has made it possible for us to thrive. Up until about 1850, it required nine farmers to support one non-farmer.... but with the invention of the reaper, then the tractor, fertilizers.... up until about 1850, a farmer got back 5 seeds for every one he planted. Today we get back almost a 100. Return to subsistence farming? Nah...

Sep 3, 2010 at 10:51 PM | Unregistered CommenterRobert E. Phelan

Atomic Hairdryer,

You should have seen and tasted the eggs I had in India. You probably expect the yolks to be yellow. I am sure that the eggs were from free-ranging hens. You could tell by the bits of grass and straw still embedded in the shells.

Still, I was very thankful to have the eggs. I don't know how I would have made it without them.

Sep 3, 2010 at 10:54 PM | Unregistered Commenterpluck


Agree on the psychological aspects, home grown stuff justs tends to end up tasting better, and fresh spuds and runner beans are great with a Sunday joint. Rest gets more debateable, and most people probably have no idea how their food gets to their table, or why some 'green' policies are so bad for agriculture. Intensive farming and monoculture can be destructive, which is why I think there's a need to balance yields with sustainability. Some agricultural areas are risking soil erosion due to over production. Getting back 100 seeds for every 1 planted may not benefit the farmer, if those seeds are GM and need royalty payments or activator chemicals sprayed.

But we need food, and for whatever reason, urban greens seem to have a big downer on farming. Subsistence farming can still play a part. Many people have no idea how easy it is to grow their own food. In the UK, many people will never get the chance because we're implementing high-density housing policies with no gardens and selling allotments to property developers.

Sep 3, 2010 at 11:23 PM | Unregistered CommenterAtomic Hairdryer

Why no reference to Norman Borlaug (d. Sept. 2009 at age 95), 1970 Peace Prize laureate when that still meant something, whose seminal Green Revolution via genetically modified (GM) crop staples has prevented any major famines worldwide for forty years? Paul Ehrlich, John Holdren, Peter [not Fred] Singer, Keith Farnish and others of their death-eating ilk hate Borlaug for frustrating their attempts to doom 4 - 5 billion human souls since c. 1968, when Ehrlich's "Population Bomb" test-marketed their starkly nihilistic views.

"Conspicuous consumption" via ostentatiously promoted scarcity is Thorstein Veblen's century-old elitist ploy, now made truly evil not by its mere hypocrisy but by its homicidal view of fellow humans as mere "seething maggots" (Holdren's phrase) worthy of extermination. Lovers of life abominate this creed and all its works, latterly including "organic foods" disciples whose wretched poseurs place warm-and-fuzzy "charismatic megafauna" such as polar bears and whales beyond all natural constraints.

Climate cultists, Warmists, may seem well-intentioned, but they want you dead and will stop at nothing to secure their ends.

Sep 4, 2010 at 12:25 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Blake

Atomic Hairdryer

Much as I enjoy your regular contributions here, I'd just like to point out that royalty payments on commercial, conventional seed varieties are a fact of life for every farmer, and entirely necessary to fund ongoing development of new, more productive/efficient/disease-resistant varieties since the state no longer funds this vital work. The fact that the disinformation spouted by the likes of Greenpeace/FoE/SA has linked this practice solely with genetic modification is yet more evidence of their ruthless and dishonest exploitation of the disconnection between food consumers and food producers. Another whopper that you'll all know about is that 'Roundup' is a proprietory chemical, designed for maximum exploitation of farmers who want to use it on 'Roundup Ready' herbicide-resistant crops, right? Wrong. The active ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate has been off patent for over two decades and it is probably the most widely manufactured and inexpensive herbicide in use today.

I have no connection with the commercial side of this industry, by the way.

Sep 4, 2010 at 12:25 AM | Unregistered CommenterSayNoToFearmongers

I was brought up in country Oz. Sneaking home along a backroad one night with my father after a session at the boozer, I noticed tractor lights in a paddock. Sure farmers plough 24/7 after a rain to prepare for seeding but this was October and the crops were up. "What's he up to?", I asked. Reply - "He grows organic wheat and can't be seen spraying his insecticides during the day"

Sep 4, 2010 at 1:15 AM | Unregistered CommenterGrantB

Atomic Hairdryer - Agree on the psychological aspects, home grown stuff justs tends to end up tasting better, and fresh spuds and runner beans are great with a Sunday joint

I prefer them with a roast.

Sep 4, 2010 at 1:42 AM | Unregistered CommenterGrantB

Ahhh... the common language that divides us. Potatoes, string beans, and a great big marijuana cigarette on Sundays?

Sep 4, 2010 at 2:11 AM | Unregistered CommenterRobert E. Phelan

John Blake:

pulling together Veblen and Ehrlich in one post... wow! Ahh, you wouldn't happen to be a sociologist of the insurgent persuasion, would you? Not many of us around.

Sep 4, 2010 at 2:15 AM | Unregistered CommenterRobert E. Phelan

An excellent post, with arguments put in perspective. However, one of the major reasons for buying local produce is to reduce the food miles, as by implication you reduce the fuel in getting the produce to your table. However, this can be a false proposition. If you use the more accurate (from a CO2 perspective) of fuel per tonne mile, then doing a 30 mile round trip to buy 5lbs of lamb and 2lbs of apples from a farmers market can use more fuel than getting New Zealand lamb and South African apples as part of your weekly shop at the local superstore. The reason is simple. If a supertanker uses 1 unit of fuel per tonne mile, a large lorry uses over 10, a farmer's transit over 100 and a Prius carrying the 7lbs of food about 10000 times. That and the 50% extra cost and the tea and scones on the way back.

Sep 4, 2010 at 2:25 AM | Unregistered CommenterManicBeancounter


I believe that most fresh foodstuffs from distant continents (and islands) arrive by air cargo. How would that factor in your equations?

As to driving about in the Prius, I rather suspect that the opportunity for tea and scones on the way back carries all before it and renders economic arguments null and void.

Sep 4, 2010 at 3:49 AM | Unregistered Commenterpluck

You guys might find this video enlightening on "organic" food,

Organic Food - Bullshit! (Video) (28min)

Sep 4, 2010 at 3:51 AM | Unregistered CommenterPoptech

@Poptech - nice video - amusing to watch people enthusiastically voting for the organic half of the banana.

Why is it that I am unable to think of a money making ruse like organic food, global warming, climate change, credit default swaps, or The Sun? It can't be all that hard, can it?

If only the University of Lancaster hadn't turned me down...

Sep 4, 2010 at 5:05 AM | Unregistered CommenterZT

A while back the following tale of free range egg production was generally ignored by the Waitrosing journos:

Apparently most of the free range eggs in the UK were (and probably are still) simply labeled free range without actually being free range. (Hence the lack of trace element rich, grass and straw, etc.)

Serves to demonstrate the importance of branding, I suppose.

Sep 4, 2010 at 5:12 AM | Unregistered CommenterZT

ZT, it is all environmentalist propaganda to play on people's emotions of wanting to be good and do good. If all farming was organic there would be mass starvation worldwide.

Sep 4, 2010 at 5:28 AM | Unregistered CommenterPoptech

On the subject of world food production, here's a very recent article in the Economist about Brazil as an emerging global agricultural powerhouse:

If accurate, this is another Green Revolution in the making.

Sep 4, 2010 at 7:43 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlex Cull

I do like to work on my own experience and we have purchased free range eggs from the local farm, mainly because they were a lot cheaper than the massive supermarket £4 for 36 eggs). They were definitiely free range ... approx 300 chickens in the field. What I found is that I couldn't determine the taste specifically but I never did a back to back taste.
However I did find that the eggs lasted longer and we kept them out of the refrigerator (not enough room for 36 eggs LOL). Typically we were eating them 3 weeks later.
But we do eat too much crap ... organic or otherwise and as for water and bottled water .. don't get me started.

I do believe that we should farm animals with dignity... I think we can afford to do this currently... and stuffing several hundred chickens into a barn isn't particularly nice for the chickens when there are fields next door that can take them and they can develop good muscle tissue (which I understand is what we actually eat)


Sep 4, 2010 at 8:39 AM | Unregistered Commenterstephen lewis

It's refreshing to read something to balance the constant eco-babble, but by concentrating on a counter eco argument, the author has missed some important points IMO.

Buying locally in a "sustainable" framing was never about "food miles" etc. it was always about the local economy, a plank taken from the monetary reformers and twisted to fit the current CAGW meme. If you shop with local business as opposed to multi/inter-national companies, around 80% of money stays in the local economy rather than being pushed up the globalist profit chain straight out of the local economy. The original idea was to counter the gutting of towns brought about by hyper/super-markets.

Organic food health benefits are unlikely to come from higher/better vitamin/mineral levels, rather a lack of chemical herbicide/pesticide residue.

Home grown food will always taste better, the sugars start converting as soon as it's picked from the plant, so the time between picking and eating will effect taste. Sweetcorn picked and bunged in a pan, or on the BBQ straight away will be the sweetest corn you ever taste, you would notice the difference in taste if you cooked the same corn even a few hours after picking. Supermarket varieties are selected for how they look, how they store, and how easy they are to grow commercially, growing your own means you can select varieties for taste. I'd rather have a selection of free scrumptious strawberries available for 3 months of the year, than have to pay for bloated bland supermarket varieties 12 months of the year, regardless of the chemical residue issue.

Sep 4, 2010 at 9:09 AM | Unregistered CommenterPete

Pluck wrote:

I believe that most fresh foodstuffs from distant continents (and islands) arrive by air cargo. How would that factor in your equations?

Replying on manicbeancounter's behalf, I'd like to ask why you believe that? Only a very small proportion of very high value food arrives as air freight (typically Kenyan fine beans, etc.) - as you might well have observed when Eyafjallajökull blew its top, we didn't see any empty shelves at all. The overwhelming majority of imported food arrives in huge container ships, otherwise we simply couldn't afford to eat the stuff - imagine flying bananas across the Atlantic and still only charging 70-80p/kg - those Kenyan beans cost over ten times this amount.

The disinformation and exploitation brigade have their hooks very deeply into our thought processes, don't they?

Sep 4, 2010 at 9:17 AM | Unregistered CommenterSayNoToFearmongers

Pete wrote

Organic food health benefits are unlikely to come from higher/better vitamin/mineral levels, rather a lack of chemical herbicide/pesticide residue.

There's no factual basis for claiming that toxicity levels in organic food are lower than conventional commercial produce. The organic movement allows the use of toxic chemicals, on the basis that some are more 'natural' than others, such as copper. Unlike modern agrochemicals which are used in tiny quantities (often a few grams per hectare) and break down rapidly once they've done their job, copper has to be used at rates hundreds of times higher and is very unselective. If subjected to current pesticide testing standards it would be banned completely. Further issues include bacterial contamination from animal manures and mycotoxins from fungal spoilage organisms which fungicides effectively control. Mycotoxins tend to be some of the most insidious and simply nasty chemicals in the environment; some will give you liver cancer with doses in the nanogram/microgram range.

Sep 4, 2010 at 9:28 AM | Unregistered CommenterSayNoToFearmongers


As to reasons for my believing that most fresh foodstuffs come by air cargo. I read country of origin labels on the food I buy. In the winter months, a lot of the fresh produce and cut flowers come from South America. There are no land routes from there to here (Virginia), so they must come by air or sea. Some of these items are highly perishable and I have wondered how they manage to arrive at my local supermarket without spoiling. When I have asked about some specific items at the supermarket, I have been told that they come by air. That's the source of my information. Not all of our fresh winter produce comes from South America. A lot comes from Mexico and California, so land routes are quite feasible.

I would be very interested in more information on this point. I find it quite amazing that the food I eat often comes from half-way round the world. When the food is fresh produce, it is even more amazing. As Pete pointed out in his post one before yours, sugars are quickly lost in fresh produce: the difference of a few hours can make a big difference in some foods. And I absolutely agree with Pete with regard to fresh corn on the grill. It's the best corn you will ever eat.

If you have information as to which foods are sent by air cargo, I would be happy to become better informed.

Sep 4, 2010 at 9:52 AM | Unregistered Commenterpluck

I buy local whenever possible mainly because I like to support the local economy. I can usually see which farm has produced the eggs or meat or butter vegetables. I can talk to the butcher and market stall holders. I like to grow my own because I get the best quality and best taste when it is fresh and staright from the garden/polytunnel to the plate. Some of the stuff you see in supermarkets (e.g. runner beans) is only fit for the compost heap. I like to eat seasonal food whenever possible because that way there is always something different to look forward to (e.g. I only eat strawberries, home grown, in early summer) and I wait for cox's orange pippin and russet apples to come into season rather than buy foreign grown ones all year round. I wait for local new potatoes rather buy Egyptian ones. I also like to go out and gather wild food (this year has been exceptionally good for mushrooms and blackberries) which is so much tastier than the cultivated varieties.

That said, I eat bananas and tomatoes all year round, so we all compromise on some things.

Sep 4, 2010 at 10:35 AM | Unregistered CommenterPhillip Bratby

A fascinating post and series of responses. Thanks. The Economist article on the Brazilian agricultural revolution (Alex Cull, 7:43) was particularly inspiring.They seem to be looking holistically at issues and including both "small is beautiful" and "big is better". I'd be interested if there were inputs from Permaculture or Biodynamics (both likely IMO). I still await the development of their Tierra Negra, an extraordinary charcoal that was used by the fabled El Dorado Amazonian civilization before European illnesses wiped it out. Tierra Negra has very potent growth-encouraging properties.

Cuba developed some stunning creative permaculture-inspired responses to a sudden moratorium on their oil supplies.

I love Budiansky's hands-on knowledge of the subject matter - having been a farmer himself, with many utopian ideals, yet seeing clearly the hard life that small-scale farming means for so many. I'd like to see opportunities for city-dwellers to live on a farm for a while, to see firsthand, and learn about, the sustainability cycles on which we depend. In fact I'd like to see it as a compulsory part of our education.

Sep 4, 2010 at 10:44 AM | Unregistered CommenterLucy Skywalker

Re: pluck

High value low weight products (such a flowers) might be suitable for air transport but simple logistics means that most foodstuffs will be sent by container ship. A boeing 747 can carry about 160,000kg of freight which is equivalent to about 6 fully loaded containers. On the other hand a large container ship can carry 7000 containers, or the equivalent of over a thousand air freight flights. The containers used to carry perishable good are refrigerated.

Sep 4, 2010 at 11:18 AM | Unregistered CommenterTerryS

"Climate cultists, Warmists, may seem well-intentioned, but they want you dead and will stop at nothing to secure their ends."
Sep 4, 2010 at 12:25 AM | John Blake

You deniers are hilarious. Your bias confirmation and total lack of scepticism regarding the flawed science and dodgy views in your own denier camp, smacks of hypocrisy, closed minds and sometimes outright gullibility.

This character made this ridiculous comment nearly half a day ago and there have been plenty of comments since then. Not one of you has pointed out how extreme, baseless and outright silly it is.

You lot like to style yourselves as some kind of outsiders battling for truth against a stacked system. In fact you clearly make no qualitative assessment of studies/comments/articles which seem to agree with you.

The vast majority of you are therefore deeply flawed and hypocritical.

Sep 4, 2010 at 11:32 AM | Unregistered CommenterZedsDeadBed

Hi Pluck,

From a UK perspective, there's a useful pair of graphics here which show the (tiny) percentage of total food miles contributed by the air freight sector, and another showing their huge impact on fuel use. As TerryS says, perishable goods are refrigerated and also controlled atmospheres are used to minimise decay rates - there are some impressive technologies used to keep stuff edible - although the breeding of crop varieties for resilience to long-distance travel is one of the things that inevitably impacts on eating quality. Which is why imported tomatoes in the UK are rubbish - home-grown ones are vastly superior.

Sep 4, 2010 at 11:42 AM | Unregistered CommenterSayNoToFearmongers


Thanks for the input. It is easy to see how storage onions could make the trip from Peru to Virginia in a container ship without spoilage. I am curious if fruits, such as strawberries and time-sensitive produce such as snow and sugar snap peas fare as well even with refrigeration. I am confessing ignorance here. I have some information: what I have been told by told by my grocer, but I don't know how reliable it is.

As for volume 6 containers versus 7000: for fresh produce it is time that is of the essence, not necessarily volume. For instance $5.00 worth of asparagus doesn't weigh much or take much space but it does spoil quickly. A lot of our asparagus comes from South America, but I don't know how it gets here. (And a lot of it is very thin and not as flavorful as thicker shoots which suggests, maybe, that they come from recent plantings).

Thanks again for the information.

Sep 4, 2010 at 11:59 AM | Unregistered Commenterpluck


The graphics go a long way to quantifying the answers to points originally brought up by by Atomic Hairdryer, which is to say, the quantity of food shipped by air is insignificant by one measure, weight, but highly significant by a second measure, impact on fuel use. Thanks for the research.

Sep 4, 2010 at 12:07 PM | Unregistered Commenterpluck

What is it here that everyone is so donw on Organic Farming.Having been and still am a practicing Organic Farmer (grain and lamb) for over 20 years, we provide food that has more minerals , a natural balance of the minerals and not contaminated with biocides. Why would you want to eat food that has been dosed several times with an assortment of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. GM crops mean the farmers can't save their own seed (stipulated under the contracts) and the round-up they use has to be the formulation surplied by the seed surplier. Apparantly whilst the basic chemical -glyphosate- is off patient the formulations very and is specific to different seed surpliers. I only found this out a couple of weeks ago from a neighbour (not an organic grower) in regards to his first GM canola planting.
Organic Growers I know (myself included) are a fairly ethical lot, trying to provide a healthy product to a market that wants this product while at the same time struggle to make a reasonable living in a open, competitive market place, as is the case with most small businesses. In 20 years the carbon in my soil (organic carbon) has increased at leart 30% and I obtain all my nitrogen for the crops and pastures via the atmosphere through legumes such as clover and medics.
Truth I am interested in so lay off the stereotyping and stick to the facts, this is a great site and the bishop has down a great service to all of us.


Sep 4, 2010 at 12:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterRay Toster


I don't think any of the posts here have been down on organic farming. Actually, I think everyone admires farmers such as yourself who provide the rest of us with some of the best and most enjoyable food we eat. I think the comments merely recognize that there is a place for food grown in other ways, and sometimes at a great distance. To draw from SayNoToFearmongers' reference, sometimes there is a great distance between plough and plate. No one questions the superiority of locally grown, freshly picked tomatoes or ears of corn (American for maize). It's just that we cannot afford to eat at that high level of quality all the time for all our food.

Sep 4, 2010 at 12:32 PM | Unregistered Commenterpluck

SayNoToFearmongers: You could well be correct re the commercial definition of "organic" produce, I'm sorry if I confused the issue, I was referring to my own produce, and my experience on small organic farms where no chemical inputs are used.

As far as "modern agrochemicals which are used in tiny quantities (often a few grams per hectare) and break down rapidly once they've done their job" you will find manure contamination with resilient herbicide a growing problem. I have seen many allotments ruined by contaminated manure, and have personally lost my whole years potato crop due to inadvertently bringing in 6 tons of contaminated manure, this stuff had stood 2 years and still killed my whole crop.

Lucy: I've researched Terra Preta and made my own charcoals, some activated with compost teas, some put through whole compost cycles, in different 'no dig' raised beds. Hardly a scientific comparison, and I'm only two years in, but I'm not seeing any great advantages yet. I have read similar experiences from others in cool temperate zones, and I'm wondering if the fabled advantages are only for the tropics/sub tropics. A similar point can be made about Cuba, the permaculture principles employed translate well as a design process/ethic, but equivalent yields will not be possible in the UK with less sunlight, it wouldn't be like "power of the community" over here!

Sep 4, 2010 at 12:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterPete

Kipling on food miles:

"For the bread that you eat and the biscuits you nibble,
The sweets that you suck and the joints that you carve,
They are brought to you daily by All Us Big Steamers
And if any one hinders our coming you'll starve!"

Sep 4, 2010 at 2:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterDreadnought

Whenever anyone starts telling me I need to hand over my money as a moral imperative, a moral virtue, or for the salvation of the planet, my first instinct is to check to make sure my wallet is still in my pocket.

How can folks write this, apparently believing it, and then ignore their own good sense and flail headlong into the AGW nonsense?

Sep 4, 2010 at 2:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterRedbone

"Why no reference to Norman Borlaug (d. Sept. 2009 at age 95), 1970 Peace Prize laureate when that still meant something, whose seminal Green Revolution via genetically modified (GM) crop staples has prevented any major famines worldwide for forty years?
John Blake

Borlaug's "Green Revolution" is largely responsible for the displacement of small farmers in Mexico (a significant driver for illegal immigration to the US), massive increases in the use of chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, degradation and overuse of water resources, higher farm energy costs and concentration of economic power into the hands of hybrid seed producers like Cargill and Monsanto. So - has it ended famine globally? Not really. The Nobel people were a bit premature in their judgment...not unlike the Obama prize.

The rant about farmers' markets is a bit misdirected. I agree with much of what he says about the "organic" and "locavore" movements, but not all farmers' markets are trend-driven. Our local farmers' market is simply high quality, locally grown produce sold directly from producer to consumer. And most of the produce far outshines the mediocre stuff peddled in the big box stores. Right now, there's more flavor in one of our locally grown tomatoes than you'll find in a bushel of those hybrid tomatoids that are bred for their 'packing' strength, gassed, shipped across country and foisted on the ignorant in our supermarkets. And the raspberries I bought this morning for my breakfast were incomparable! :-)

Sep 4, 2010 at 3:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterJack Maloney

Over the summer I picked a few of the wild strawberries we have in the garden. They're tiny, around 5-8mm across, but the taste was so intense when compared with the supermarket product. Our local farmers market is less about 'organic' than about local quality produce, and when we buy from there it is because the pricing is competitive, but the quality is so much better. For the last three years our Christmas turkey has come from a farm less than a mile away. The taste is super, the cost is similar to a supermarket, and a much greater proportion of the price goes to the farmer. I see it as a question of value/quality and local economics. I think the issues of foodmiles or with/without pesticides etc are complex and not as black and white as people would wish to present. So for me it is self interest (isn't it always). and I prefer seeing my money support local families that I know, than ending up in the pocket of the multinationals, and my grub tastes better.

Sep 4, 2010 at 3:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterCumbrian Lad

This, I think, is worth sharing. I just asked my son if he'd ever eaten inorganic food, and he replied. "Salt that sort of thing".

Sep 4, 2010 at 5:47 PM | Unregistered Commenteradamskirving

Son could be right. I saw a packet of crisps that listed 'artificial salt flavour' as an ingredient. Can understand that if they were marketed at people who needed a low salt diet, but these were just cheap (and nasty). So I suspect a profit motive rather than a practical one. Bit like trying to understand why a 4-pack of 'organic' small, vine grown tomatoes costs more per tomato that a tube of concentrated puree. Presumably the tomatoes that went into that weren't attractive enough.


I'd just like to point out that royalty payments on commercial, conventional seed varieties are a fact of life for every farmer, and entirely necessary to fund ongoing development of new, more productive/efficient/disease-resistant varieties since the state no longer funds this vital work.

Agree on the lack of state funding. States have abdicated their roles and agribusiness steps in. We shouldn't be too suprised by their profit motives. Some of the rest though can I think lead to a bit of a catch-22. Overproduction and monoculture may lead to pests becoming resistant to pesticides and herbicides, creating a market or need for more GM crops. Problem I see with some GM crops is the licence and royalty schemes are too aggressive, restrictive and can prevent farmers developing their own hybrids. Sometimes the patents granted may be too broad. I'm not a fan of patenting genetic organisms, and sometimes it seems natural varieities can end up patented simply by adding a marker, rather than modifying it in any meaningful way.

The fact that the disinformation spouted by the likes of Greenpeace/FoE/SA has linked this practice solely with genetic modification is yet more evidence of their ruthless and dishonest exploitation of the disconnection between food consumers and food producers.

Kind of agree and disagree. On one side we've got the 'green' NGO's telling us all GMO's are evil. On the other, there was an infamous quote from Monsanto-

"Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is FDA's job."

Not sure thats a great example of corporate and social responsibility, and it's one Greenpeace have played on for years. Monsanto's shot itself in the foot a few times with it's business practices but still ended up the world's largest seed company and a very important part of our food chain. Greenpeace has spread FUD about Bt use and modified crops, but would they prefer going back to spraying more toxic pesticides? But like climate science, they've helped polarise and politicise the debate beyond where it probably should be. I think there are risks and benefits with GM, and the benefits probably outweigh the risks. As Budiansky says-

"You can grow these staple food crops like wheat and rice and pulses and oilseeds the old way on 3 or 4 or 5 times more land, or you can grow them on large plots using modern technology on 3 or 4 or 5 times less land. And we're talking about huge amounts of land, with huge environmental consequences."

Which is surely a good thing, providing it's sustainable, and doesn't lead to soil erosion or contamination, disputes over water rights etc etc.

Sep 4, 2010 at 7:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterAtomic Hairdryer

I've done my time, in lean years, on farms. You get to respect the slog to produce the saleable goods, but those pounds you earn, and are so grateful for like no other job, you almost feel sorry to take from the boss. Unless he's a *******. Then you see the supermarket customers being picky. It's tough.

Sep 4, 2010 at 9:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterPharos

It is a myth that organic food is nutritionally better for your,

Organic Food Not Nutritionally Better Than Conventionally-produced Food, Review Of Literature Shows (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition)

It is also a myth that organic farming does not use pesticides or the ones they use are better,

Organic pesticides not always 'greener' choice, study finds (University of Guelph)

Sep 4, 2010 at 10:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterPoptech

I found this gem on Roger Helmer's blog

‘It will have come to your Lordships’ knowledge that a considerable change of climate, inexplicable at present to us, must have taken place in the Circumpolar Regions, by which the severity of the cold that has for centuries past enclosed the seas in high northern latitudes in an impenetrable barrier of ice has been, during the last two years abated.

‘This affords ample proof that new sources of warmth have been opened and given us leave to hope that the Arctic seas may at this time be more accessible that they have been for centuries past, and that discoveries may now be made in them not only to the advancement of science but also to the future intercourse of mankind and the commerce of distant nations’

That was the President of the Royal Society, speaking to the Admiralty in London on November 20, 1817.

Sep 4, 2010 at 10:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterPharos

Woops! Sorry. That should have been on the previous blog post for context.

Sep 4, 2010 at 10:23 PM | Unregistered CommenterPharos

Well clucking on about farming was not of concern to the last lot of muppets running this country. They were more concerned with destroying industry so they could sit back and say 'We are reducing Carbon Emissions'

Not sure the replacement Muppets are any better yet.

Sep 5, 2010 at 7:49 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohnH

Here is a link to a 10-page submission I have made to the State owned broadcasting service, the ABC, which had had the hots for organic farming for a few years now. It's push marketing pretty hard, even though it's not supposed to do commercials.

It's strange how organic farmers are reluctant to talk about the strange rituals like burying a manure-stuffed cowhown in the corner of the field, them mixing water with it with so many rotations clockwise, so many rotations anti-clock, according to phases of the moon, then spreading the (over) dilute solution to impart cosmic life powers of growth. Yeeek!

Sep 5, 2010 at 12:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterGeoff Sherrington

Geoff Sherrington,

Some of the advice you identify seems quite alarming to a Materials Scientist who has spent his career working with a wide variety of chemicals. Giving bad advice about the safety and safe use of chemicals is not only poor practice, it is criminal; or it ought to be. It reminds me immediately of Hippocrates discourse on the Law:

Medicine is of all the Arts the most noble; but, not withstanding, owing to the ignorance of those who practice it, and of those who, inconsiderately, form a judgment of them, it is at present far behind all the other arts. Their mistake appears to me to arise principally from this, that in the cities there is no punishment connected with the practice of medicine (and with it alone) except disgrace, and that does not hurt those who are familiar with it.


The giving of bad advice on the handling of chemicals is reckless and negligent as it puts people in harms way.

Hippocrates goes further to say,

Having brought all these requisites to the study of medicine, and having acquired a true knowledge of it, we shall thus, in traveling through the cities, be esteemed physicians not only in name but in reality. But inexperience is a bad treasure, and a bad fund to those who possess it, whether in opinion or reality, being devoid of self-reliance and contentedness, and the nurse both of timidity and audacity. For timidity betrays a want of powers, and audacity a want of skill. There are, indeed, two things, knowledge and opinion, of which the one makes its possessor really to know, the other to be ignorant.

That was said 2300 years ago. Still very timely.

Thanks for the information, Mr. Sherrington.

Sep 5, 2010 at 1:21 PM | Unregistered Commenterpluck

yes interesting article

Europe's agriculture was destroyed by French megolomania. We used to have 100s of different apples and pears cherries and berries , more taste and flavour than all the now exotic fruits on offer at Tescoes together.

Of course when a EUcuntocrat pops up and only gives subsidy for milk and corn, because his filofax only can handle that much, the choices are easy.

that said yes pineapples and mangoes: the more they come out of a can the better taste they are.

I hate the fairtrade coffees and think the better quality the coffee you buy the more you help people in the 3rd world. At least the non NGO / UN / dictator affiliated people.

the thordeau / die Gruene fashion is a passtime of BBC quangorats with too much money for doing nought. Thordeau left his shack in nature and went to his mummy each saturday to have his laundry done and dig in the bourgeois apple pie.

Sep 5, 2010 at 2:33 PM | Unregistered Commenterphinniethewoo

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