The other day, a prominent Canadian journalist paid me a visit to interview me for his book on building a sustainable future. At one point, I expounded on the closed-nutrient cycle of old-school organic farming, contrasting it with what writer Michael Pollan deemed the “industrial-organic” way. In the old-school organic style, which relies on animals, farm wastes are recycled into the soil, providing all the nutrients necessary for the next harvest. The industrial-organic farmer, by contrast, imports his or her soil fertility — just like the conventional farmer. The difference is that the organic farmer is likely shipping in composted manure from far-flung places, while the conventional grower is hauling in a processed petroleum product.

“The problem,” I continued — my interlocutor’s eyes may well have been glazing over — “is that most small vegetable farms these days, including my own, don’t have enough animals to produce the nitrogen we need. So our transition to real organic farming is ongoing.”

The journalist then asked me a question that stopped me short: “Do you think real organic farming could feed the world?” I stammered something like “I hope so,” and had him jot down a couple of books to look up. It wasn’t until after he left that I realized why his question made me so uneasy.

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What he was asking me, in essence, was, “can sustainable farming feed the world?” To which the only wise response is, “can unsustainable farming feed the world — for long?”

To an extent, the problem is one of semantics, centering on the definition of “sustainable.” To many green types, places like Whole Foods and Wild Oats teem with “sustainably produced” stuff — everything from T-shirts to apples, chicken and eggs, even versions of Twizzlers and TV dinners. But the great bulk of it falls under the rubric of industrial-organic — like the wares on offer at Wal-Mart, only a little less so, these goods depend on a culture of cheap and plentiful crude oil and labor.

The cheap-oil problem has certainly gained traction among greens. Blogs devoted to “peak oil” abound; this very blog seems like one at times. Most of these discussions, though, devolve into sniping about biofuels and hybrids. It’s important to wonder how we’d get around in an era of super-high oil prices.

But I don’t understand why more people aren’t worried about what we’d eat.

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The cheap-labor problem certainly doesn’t garner much attention in environmental circles. The amount Americans pay for food as a percentage of income has fallen steadily since 1980, leveling off about at 10 percent — less than any people in history. Meanwhile, growth in real wages has stagnated. According to Robert Pollin’s indispensable Contours of Descent: U.S. Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity, real hourly wages peaked at $15.73 in 1973 and by 2000 stood at $14.15 (2001 dollars). And that was after a rare three-year growth spurt provoked by the stock-market bubble; since 2000, stagnation has returned.

What these two facts — cheap food, stagnating wages — reveal to me is a vicious circle. We need our food supply as cheap as possible to feed low-wage people; we need lots of low-wage people — farm workers, slaughterhouse workers, clerks at our number-one grocer, Wal-Mart, and so on — to sustain our cheap-food system. Whatever else it does — and it works pretty well, if you’re a major shareholder in transnational corporations — this cycle consumes enormous resources and, yes, severely damages the environment.  

How do we keep labor so cheap? One way is by prying open foreign labor markets. Want to agitate for higher wages in the textile plant? Fine. We’ll move the plant to China. Better take what the company gives you. Pollin quotes the sometimes-sainted Alan Greenspan on why wage growth lagged productivity growth in the go-go late 1990s: Even then, workers were “traumatized” by the specter of job insecurity, the chairman noted approvingly.

How do we keep food so cheap? One way is by opening our market to foreign-grown food. As Ken Meter has shown, we’re about to become a net food importer. If you think Mexican labor is cheap  in California’s and Florida’s tomato fields, imagine how much cheaper it is down in Mexico. Another way, as I have shown here ad nauseam, is subsidies. Last year the federal government cut checks to commodity-agriculture producers amounting to $23 billion — roughly equivalent to Bolivia’s GDP. In those terms alone — never mind steep environmental and social costs — cheap food is actually a pretty pricey proposition.

But that $23 billion figure shouldn’t make farmers the equivalent of Reagan’s welfare mothers of the 1980s. The payments urge overproduction, which pushes prices down and eats into farm incomes. The real beneficiaries of this welfare scheme are grain buyers: processors like Archer-Daniels Midland and Cargill, and feedlot operators like Smithfield Foods. And, of course, their shareholders.

Back to my Canadian journalist visitor. He spoke with great knowledge about energy issues, about fluid local grids where everyone’s a producer and everyone’s a consumer. About food — even though he tends a garden plot, even though he shops at farmers markets — he seemed, like so many environmentalists, like so many people nowadays, out of his element.

Why is it so difficult to get people interested in the politics of food? In a culture where food production takes place in such abstraction, food becomes banalized into minimal rituals of ingestion, digestion, and expulsion. Food, when we do think of it, becomes a kind of sport, another spectacle to consume: chefs puffing like fullbacks on Iron Chef, Emmeril bellowing idiotically like some sort of high-school football coach.

Can sustainable agriculture feed the world? That depends, I suppose, on what you’re trying to sustain. But I seriously doubt that industrial agriculture — or its bastard child, industrial-organic — can for much longer.