Thursday, June 12, 2008

Killing me softly with his investments

On Thursday, June 12, 2008, CBC's The Current did a report called Buying Farmland about the trend of financial investment firms to buy up farms worldwide (after they devastated all the other markets available to them). One of the guests was Gary Blumenthal, president and CEO of World Perspectives, an agricultural investment consulting firm. Among other things, Blumenthal claimed that large farms are more productive (any agricultural census will demonstrate that this is false) and that peasant subsistence farming was not conductive to maximising human potential (not that this is the business that World Perspectives engages in, mind you). The following is my response sent to The Current:

Listening to your report on investors buying farmland, I was deeply impressed by Gary Blumenthal's willingness to demonstrate his ignorance of both agriculture and the economy.

He tells us that "half of all production in the U.S. comes from just 34,000 farms." This says nothing about the relative efficiency of farms with respect to size, it only tells us the status quo, as though mere existence is an indicator of efficiency.

Looking at the data from the USDA census, we find that the most productive farms are small farms with production rapidly falling off as acreage increases. And any positive production on large farms is based on fudging the numbers. If you consider that on these farms it takes an average nine calories of energy to produce one calorie of food crop, you quickly realise that the energy intensive, poorly yielding large farm does not have a future.

Furthermore, traditional peasant systems, elements of which I use in the systems I design, normally require little input in terms of time and energy. Assuming there is a tradition of sustainable agriculture in the region, peasant agriculture is not arduous. What is genuinely disastrous is the repeat of England's Enclosure which is currently being played out across the Third World. It does not "maximise human potential" to force people off the land and into shanty towns to become $4-a-day sweatshop workers.

Considering that people like Gary Blumenthal are going to have increasing say over farm administration, my advice to listeners as a designer of sustainable agriculture systems is to start to forgo your flowerbeds and grow as much of your own food as possible.

Douglas Barnes
EcoEdge Design Ltd.