FoA 335: Farming isn't natural, but it can be more sustainable with Alex Smith of the Breakthrough Institute

Visit Sound Agriculture: https://www.sound.ag/

The Breakthrough Institute: https://thebreakthrough.org/

Alex Smith Bio & Articles: https://thebreakthrough.org/people/alex-smith

"To Decarbonize Food Production, Washington Must Invest" https://thebreakthrough.org/issues/food-agriculture-environment/to-decarbonize-food-production-washington-must-invest

"The Problem With Alice Waters and the 'Slow Food' Movement" https://jacobin.com/2021/12/organic-local-industrial-agriculture-farm-to-table/

"Fraudulent Foods" https://thebreakthrough.org/journal/no-17-summer-2022/fraudulent-foods

I’m very pleased to be joined today by Alex Smith, senior food and agriculture analyst at The Breakthrough Institute, which is a global research center that identifies and promotes technological solutions to environmental and human development challenges.

Today’s episode might challenge you a little bit. Before I interview guests I ask them to fill out a brief pre-interview form to help me dig into the right areas during the conversation. One way I can tell if I’m going how much I’m going to enjoy an interview is based on how they approach one question in particular. That question is: “What are the top arguments of the critics of the work you do?”. Many times that will be left blank or answered very generically, but it’s when someone gives a thoughtful answer to this question that I really get excited to dig in. Alex gave one of the most comprehensive questions I’ve ever had to this question. And I think I’ll just read this to you, as both a trigger warning for some of you, and way to intrigue most of you. Here is Alex’s answer: 

“I think a relatively common critique that I give real weight to is that my work (and Breakthrough's more broadly) has tunnel vision for GHG/land-use and not other enviro/ecological or animal welfare/ethics issues.

Another important critique is that by supporting the technologies and practices of large-scale agricultural production, I effectively justify the expropriation of land and concentration of power into the hands of the largest agricultural corporations, landowners, and interest groups.

By advocating for mass-production of food (see my and Ted Nordhaus's essay in Jacobin Magazine), I miss out on the problems of nutrition and diet-related diseases.

A critique from the right is that the focus on industrial policy and even public R&D is significantly less important that getting the government out of the way of the ag sector and letting private entities be successful.

Finally, in arguing for sustainable intensification and productivity growth, how do you limit the expansion of agricultural production due to rebound effects? Basically, given jevons paradox, do we need to have very strong conservation policy that will likely run counter to the interests of ag producers/businesses who want to expand production due to more productive practices?”

Talk about doing an interviewer's work for him! What a great answer by Alex. With that, let’s dive into the conversation. Alex joined Breakthrough as a research analyst in the food and agriculture program in 2019 after completing a dual MA/MSc in International and World History from Columbia University and the London School of Economics and Political Science. In his masters, Alex studied and wrote about American foreign policy, French colonialism, and environmental history. Alex is interested in the entangled nature of politics, power, and geography and the central role that food and agriculture have played across time and space.

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Tim Hammerich

I share stories about agriculture, agtech, and agribusiness on podcasts and radio.