Main Street Project


Locked In the Industrial Closet

lock-insI am far from finished with the gift that is the IPES’ From Uniformity to Diversity: A Paradigm Shift from Industrial Agriculture to Diversified Agroecological Systems. I could write about this report for years, because it’s not just a nice collection of data and prescriptions. It examines the very foundations of our unsustainable, exploitative food system: the “lock-ins” or mechanisms that reinforce each other and power a destructive treadmill. They’re so pervasive and insidious that we don’t even recognize that they’re not natural facts, not intrinsically true. We don’t know that we’re being fed a well-crafted story, let alone recognize it as fictional. Acknowledging that can help us start to shift our collective thinking in a different direction.

The story tells us that people like unhealthy food, and that a system that supports workers fairly will make food too expensive, and that crops will fail without synthetic inputs. Those statements are all true in the context of the industrial food system. This is why the system has to change. In a food system liberated from the chains of Industrial Agriculture, widespread health, financial, and environmental benefits can be the standard. Bold alternatives are quickly labeled as unrealistic, but realistic is a relative term. If reality means the prevailing culture, then by definition anything that promotes a new way of thinking is unrealistic. Trailblazers are usually unrealistic.

The IPES offers suggestions to weaken each of these 8 lock-ins, but also insists that

industrial agriculture does not and cannot reconcile the multiple concerns of sustainable food systems. Food and farming systems can be reformed, but only by moving away from an industrial orientation and organization. Tweaking industrial systems will only improve single outcomes, while leaving untouched the dynamics and power relations that reproduce the same problems over time. A fundamental reorientation of agriculture, particularly in its relationship with ecosystems, is required in order to break these cycles. (41)

So I see this list less as problems to be solved and more as pitfalls to avoid when building an alternative, sustainable system from the ground up. (The simplified explanations below are mine; you can find thorough, academic parsing in the report itself, starting on page 45.)

Lock-in 1: Path dependency – Industrial farming requires huge up-front investments, so the need for big returns commits farmers to intensive monocultures, even when they know the long-term negative impacts.

Lock-in 2: Export orientation – When countries put all of their agricultural eggs in one outward-bound basket, whether that be coffee, sugar, or bananas, they become both more vulnerable to price shocks and less able to feed their own people.

Lock-in 3: The expectation of cheap food – It’s difficult to summarize the negative consequences of this apparently benign idea. It dictates the relationships between grocers, farmers, and governments, and demands strange subsidies and will probably be explored in its own blog post.

Lock-in 4: Compartmentalized thinking – Bigger poultry cages and big-O Organic foods are nice, but they reinforce the strength and perceived inevitability of the prevailing system and fail to weaken the underlying industrial infrastructure.

Lock-in 5: Short-term thinking – Politicians that need to be re-elected every 2-4 years benefit from conventional food systems which deliver cheap, processed, calorie-rich food at the expense of the environment and the community’s future.

Lock-in 6: ‘Feed the world’ narratives – This will definitely be explored in a future blog. Not only does it paint profit-driven global corporations as something akin to charity organizations, it enforces a particular type of patriarchy that tells the rest of the world what is good for them and, of course, reinforces Lock-In 8.

Lock-in 7: Measures of success – Those who hold the reins decide what is measured and how, burying evidence of ecological destruction, discrediting studies that promote the success of alternatives, and compartmentalizing the scope so that downstream effects are never part of the story.

Lock-in 8: Concentration of Power – Do I need to explain this one? Power dictates policy and practices which strengthen profits and power and the cycle continues until it’s broken.

There are other beliefs that lock in the lock-ins. Like the idea that labor-intensive production is bad. Or the idea that science is done in a lab, not a field. Building an alternative food system is not only technically challenging, it forces us to examine and deconstruct our own preconceptions and question the validity of long-held but unsupportable beliefs. Personally, I find that exciting.

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