Zilberman on the Slow and Natural Food Movment

David Zilberman, an agricultural economist at UC Berkeley, has an interesting blog post on the slow and natural food movements. The timing of his piece is impeccable given the long, aggressive defense of the food movement Michael Pollan just wrote in the New York Times Magazine. After a bit of praise for the movements, Zilberman gets to some critiques.

Here are the core criticisms:

However, most of these bodies of thought emphasize advocacy and are short on analysis. In particular, they underemphasize several factors. First, they underemphasize tradeoffs and costs. There are tradeoffs on the demand side, where consumers choose food based on cost, taste, and convenience. Fast food is a huge industry for a reason. The development of ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat meals, modern equipment (electric stoves, refrigerators, and microwaves), and modern supermarkets have been contributors in enabling women to join the job market. At the same time, there are tradeoffs on the supply side between cost of production and technology.


Second, the naturalized paradigms undervalue the importance of technology in production and distribution. Modern lifestyle is the result of immense innovations in medicine, biology, communication, etc. I am very aware of the risks that technologies pose, but when I see a poor farmer in Ivory Coast with a cell phone and bicycle, I realize the power of technology. ... The challenge is how to use it appropriately and spread its distribution broadly rather than giving up on it.


Third, the naturalist paradigm underestimates the importance of heterogeneity among people and regions. Differences in income lead to different food choices. ... There is a huge difference between farmers in Iowa that obtain more than 10 tons/Hectare of corn and farmers in Africa that may obtain 1.5 tons/Hectare. ... I don’t expect people to use the same techniques everywhere, and that different technologies are appropriate in different locations.

On his last point, I full agree:

Heterogeneity brings me to a larger point. There is a place for both industrial and naturalized agricultural systems. The naturalization paradigm is leading to the emergence of higher-end restaurants and fresh food supply linking the farmer to the consumer, each of which have limited reach but are important source of income and innovation in agriculture. At the same time, the majority of people will be dependent on industrialized agriculture. The two can coexist and coevolve.