The Dizzying Grandeur of 21st-Century Agriculture

Our industrialized food system nourishes more people, at lower cost, than any comparable system in history. It also exerts a terrifyingly massive influence on our health and our environment. Photographer George Steinmetz spent nearly a year traveling the country to capture that system, in all its scope, grandeur and dizzying scale.

That is the introduction to an excellent NYTimes photo essay on farming. I liked this photo showing a machine for dumping cranberries from a truck: simple but awesome.




I find it mind-bogglingly to imagine that anyone could read that essay and not be horrified at the cost of our industrialized food system. Not holding my breath for Alex "simple but awesome" Tabbarok to.highlight those costs.

You are mistaking capital investment for unit cost.

Precisely the opposite of my reaction. For me, it underscored how the horror of how much additional land, manpower and cost we would need to devote to food production if not for such remarkable technological advancements. From the tone of the text at the NYT, I think your reaction was likely the one that the authors intended, but I genuinely don't understand it.

Farmers are not incompetent. Therefore, the reason they make this capital investments is because they expect to profit by the time the capital depreciates. In traditional farming, we see lower yields, and more produce/grain getting spoiled before it gets to a consumer. Non technological approaches to this are incredibly labor intensive, so much that this huge capital investments are cheaper!

There are few things better for our environment than being able to feed humanity using as few acres of farm as possible. All of this optimizations are no different than how we use robotic assembly lines as opposed to assemble cars by hand: The investment would look crazy to someone in Henry Ford's time: But all that capital investment lets us make the cars cheaper, greener and more reliably.

I see arguments against factory animal husbandry: Maybe you'd prefer a world where chickens are treated better, but they are 10x more expensive. But produce? If anything, it's less moral to not put our industrial capacity to bear.

What costs? Food is pretty cheap when compared to the cost of human labor. The only threat to people's health is that it's so cheap that dumb people can afford to eat too much.

Wait, what? This is not an intelligence test you are supposed to fail...

But what about all those people who are (and will be) out of jobs thanks to automation? Will John Smith's declaration of "he who will not work shall not eat" not apply anymore?

Good money in reselling Yeezys.

Somebody pretty significant said those words before John Smith. And another pretty significant guy said it after him too interesting how you associate the quote with John Smith I wasn't aware of his use of it.

Saint Paul and the 1918 Soviet Constitution. If he had mention Saint Paul, you would be whining all the same.

You appear to be the whiny one.

Couple of things.

1. 'Will' implies the *opportunity* to work exists. If the opportunity to work does not exist then the paradigm changes.

2. What is 'work'? Isn't it simply an exchange of value like any other. I trade money, goods, or services. I trade labor for money.

Do you think that automation will become so effective and pervasive that there is nothing of value that you can offer a fellow human being? If so, then why would anyone starve, automation being sufficiently effective and pervasive to satisfy all our needs? If not then you can always trade your surplus with others.

John Smith said it during an actual subsistence crisis.

I raised chickens in the Philippines. I found I could not keep my chickens healthy and profitable without antibiotics. After reading up on the effects of antibiotics (they don't change the flavor of the meat but trace antibiotics cause human consumers of the chicken meat to develop resistance to bacteria) I decided to close shop, as it was not that profitable and I felt bad feeding the masses this meat. But you can be sure Perdue or Tysons or Big Agriculture is using antibiotics to make their chickens healthy (for the 30-45 days it takes to grow them) and to keep costs down (antibiotic fed chickens gain weight faster). Thanks Big Agra! yum yum yum. It's a race to the bottom too, since if you raise your chickens "free range" and without medicines, (1) nobody will believe you, and, even if they do, (2) they won't pay extra for the privilege, except in US/EU select health food stores not found in SE Asia.

Ray, I think chicken producers are moving to antibiotic-free chicken over time.

also, as we've discussed before, I think antibiotic-free possibly tastes better. I can't do a controlled experiment, but the antibiotic free roasted chickens I get at Kroger are better than those not marked as antibiotic free.

Tastes better? From no antibiotics?

Call me skeptical. I don't think anyone can taste antibiotics @ a concentration of millionths of a gram.

It's not the taste of the antibiotics: it's the change in the growth rate caused by the antibiotic that changes the flavour. Without antibiotics, the chicken grows slower AND doesn't thrive in a chicken gulag. Chicken that grows slower in a less stressed chicken favourable environment is developing a much different muscle mass.

Ray, I admit there might be many reason not related to the absence of anti-biotics, but chickens labeled as antibiotic-free taste better. Generally juicier and just more flavorful. They're cooked in the same deli so I'd assume a similar process, but I can't be sure. Maybe it's other reasons.

It's a noticeable difference to both myself and my wife. And we're cheap shoppers. If it didn't taste better we'd save the money. I can understand the skepticism, I was skeptical too - but imho there's something to it and it's not just PR.

@Shane M - not without legislation. Think it through: if a blind test results in chickens that taste the same, why pay more?

Organic chicken eggs and meat in general are sold in quantity at almost every major grocery store in the US. Without requiring any kind significant method of forcing customers to buy them.

Have you considered that the antibiotic 'problem' from raising poultry is overstated?

How else do you explain the widespread lack of antibiotic resistance despite antibiotic use being SOP for poultry production? You do see antibiotic resistance cropping up - in places like hospitals where its use is extreme and against antibiotics used to treat specific diseases. But you don't see resistant bacteria running rampant through factory farms - the very place that that you would expect this stuff to first show up in.

" But you don’t see resistant bacteria running rampant through factory farms – the very place that that you would expect this stuff to first show up in" [snip]

Incorrect. I don't think you understand how antibiotics work:

"resistance to bacteria"

Sounds awesome, what's the problem?

"But in November 2015, Chinese and British researchers discovered that mcr-1, a new gene for colistin resistance, was circulating among animals and people in China and was housed on a circular piece of bacteria DNA called a plasmid. Bacteria carrying this plasmid can share copies of it with other bacteria when they come into contact, which allows the colistin resistance to spread widely and rapidly. Because colistin is commonly used in food animals in China, but not in people, “the emergence of mcr-1 likely occurred because of extensive use of colistin in food animal production—which is yet another example of how injudicious use of antimicrobials comes back to hurt us,” explains James Johnson, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Minnesota." [emphasis added]

A quick glance at this photo shows either consumer demands or regulatory demands.

Consumers demand low price, consistent quality. So we have a process where the berries aren't touched, they are cleaned and sorted. All the cranberries in the bag are the same size. Do we imagine that there is a line of people sorting them?

The fields from which these berries come have berms surrounding them. They are flooded, and the berries shaken from the bushes, float to the top, and a skimmer type thing collects them and puts them into trucks.

There are barriers around each pool. Well lit, with a sound proof cubicle for the operator.

I imagine inside would be the packaging equipment, shipping and some storage at temperature. Probably one or more of the pools are at storage temperature to quick chill the berries.

Anecdote. A client and friend has a coffee roastery. Smallish operation. They are replacing their roaster this week with a larger capacity machine that is better all around for consistency and quality. One of the devices attached takes the stones out of the coffee beans. Once the beans are roasted the specific gravity of rocks and beans is different enough that simple gravity can separate them. They pick by hand, mostly by color now, and a few slip through.

Cool story bro. In the Philippines, my in-laws grow rice, half for sale, half for consumption, and I find tiny rice sized black rocks in the rice all the time. The solution, I'm told, is to go to a more expensive mill where they have a giant magnet that picks the rocks out since the rocks are rich in iron...

In-laws? You got married over there? I thought that these were always gfs!!! When did this happen?

So if Ray divorces his child bride, does that mean he is still on the hook for child support payments? I wonder how many chickens per month that would come to....

Too bad the food it produces tastes so bad. Unsurprising, but too bad.

Yes, the winter tomatoes are not nearly so good as what came from my grandmother's garden. And the hothouse red bell peppers are not quite as red as they should be. I found a bruised banana last week. Alas, we truly live in the worst of times!

Nutritional value is also way down

Might be time for another post on robots replacing humans.

Pretty sure that Alex and Tyler have already been replaced by Kochbots.

One takeaway is that NY Times readers may now know slightly more about where their food comes from, instead of just thinking about the grocery store. A century ago there were far more people with personal knowledge of crop and livestock farming. How many in Albany, Washington or other capitals have been to a farm or any other intermediate step prior to a grocery store, and of those, how many can understand and vote on issues surrounding the food supply? Troll prophylactic: not a plea for Big Ag, Small Ag or any other variation in between, just a call for objective knowledge.

Knowing a little bit is almost as useless as knowing nothing. If you want to really care about where you food comes from, it's going to take a serious investment of your time, and most people, including me, have better things to do.

What does that knowledge get you though? I don't know the details of how my car is made. I know how to operate it, how to value it, and how to do some repairs on it.

Good to see an article on agriculture. As a commercial farmer I'm sure that most consumers don't know all the steps we take to provide safe and abundant food. I personally get audited at least 3 times per year by third party verifiers to ensure that we are complying with food safety, humane treatment, employee sanitation and safety, etc (the list goes on depending on your market and whatever claims you are making about how your product is grown. We can produce high yielding, high quality crops much more efficiently than ever but the cost of compliance is skyrocketing. Several neighboring producers have full time GAP (good agricultural practices) compliance officers on staff. If you are growing organic crops, double or triple the compliance burden. There is a lot of organic produce grown in our area but none of the producers that I know are true believers. It is simply a way to hopefully increase the slim margins in ag. One organic producer I know says it's like taking a good mechanic and telling him that you will pay him twice as much for a certain repair if he only uses a crescent wrench and nothing else.

Outstanding post.

Yes every so often someone who knows what he's talking about slips between the cracks. The last line is truly hilarious. It's also literally true - you get a premium price for furniture, for instance, that was made by hand tools rather than CNC. Or guitars. Are they demonstrably better? Sometimes.

See Michael Pollan's book, "Omnivore's Dilemma" for the description of the biological process that explains why organic food tastes better--something to do with the plants exposed to pesticides not having to evolve a certain piece which actually helps the taste. Obesity is the Number One Health problem in the world. Non-organic food is not as satisfying, so people search out satisfaction in Carbs and Sugar, and end up fat.

You're sure this isn't a rendering? Looks like one to me

"It also exerts a terrifyingly massive influence on our health": a much exaggerated influence, I suspect, at least once you get past mass slurping of brown sugar water.

But enough about scotch

That photo of the cranberry truck was very cool. I did not know there were trucks that c could be filled that way. I typically imagine fruit delivered in large, closed crates.
It’s amazing how far agriculture technology has come. The essay was interesting to read as well. It shows how much the industry must do to meet with the demands for food. A few of the pics even seem a little scary.

Cranberries? Ever looked at the sugar content of any cranberry product? Ungodly amounts of sugar must be added to make them palatable. There may be a lesson in that photo about how good we are at efficiently producing food we shouldn't be eating.

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