How Locavores Could Save the World

The latest yuppie craze could do more than just cut emissions -- it might also help feed the poor.

Locavorism, the latest trend in yuppie food politics, is clearly a boon for the environment. Eating vegetables from local farmers and small farms cuts down on emissions from transporting foods; reduces chemicals in the soil because small farms are more likely to be organic; and invariably tastes better, too. But locavorism may be about more than smug new-wave chefs blissing out over Vermont ramps and heirloom garlic: "Locavorism" might be the key to food security and better nutrition for all.

You may say, of course, that locavorism is far too expensive to feed anyone who lives outside the privileged confines of Berkeley or Brookline: Who can afford $3 tomatoes and $12 loaves of bread? But in fact, the costs of the modern agriculture industry are far greater, and more insidious, than the costs of returning to a more localized model of farming would be.

For the last several decades, farmers in places such as the United States, Europe, Brazil, and India have concentrated on growing just a handful of staple crops -- wheat, soy, rice, corn. International agribusiness conglomerates now produce these grains in quantities that individual farmers could have once barely comprehended. From there, these staple crops -- corn especially -- are transformed into all manner of secondary foodstuffs, from chicken and beef to Coca-Cola, at ever-decreasing prices. Yet though this certainly does help make more food, it can also serve to increase the risks associated with such industry, most of which come down to one thing: monoculture, or growing just one crop at a time.

There are three big problems with monoculture, all of which can be addressed with a more sensitive, bottom-up, heterogeneous, small-scale agricultural model.

First, monocultures are, by their nature, prone to disastrous bouts of disease. Ireland's population was decimated by the potato famine; France's vines were wiped out by phylloxera; a disease called huanglongbing now threatens all of California's citrus crop. If you only grow one crop, the downside of losing it all to an outbreak is catastrophe. In rural Iowa it might mean financial ruin; in Niger, it could mean starvation.

Big agriculture companies like DuPont and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), of course, have an answer to this problem: genetically engineered crops that are resistant to disease. But that answer is the agricultural equivalent of creating triple-A-rated mortgage bonds, fabricated precisely to prevent the problem of credit risk. It doesn't make the problem go away: It just makes the problem rarer and much more dangerous when it does occur because no one is -- or even can be -- prepared for such a high-impact, low-probability event.

A more natural and heterogeneous system, by contrast, is inherently much more resistant to disease because few (if any) diseases can successfully wipe out a wide range of crops. Natural resistance is also much more likely to be found where there are a wide range of native varieties growing in the same place. Nature abhors a monoculture, and a system of smaller farms growing a large number of crops will be able to resist any disease in a way that no single crop can. If one or two of them gets hit, the damage done is manageable rather than devastating. It doesn't have the same economies of scale, of course, and it might not have magical flood-resistant properties. But it works, all the same.

The second problem with monoculture is that new, high-tech, disease-resistant crops tend to come with something that is just as unwelcome as disease: patents. Many of these high-tech crops can't reproduce organically and need to be bought afresh each season from the patent holder. And all of them come with layers of intellectual-property laws too complex for most non-lawyers to decode. So how do we expect impoverished and often illiterate populations in some of the most remote areas of the world to take advantage of them? Non-engineered crops, the natural ones that replicate themselves, are patent-free.

Finally, monoculture is based on the principles of trade and comparative advantage. It's supposed to work like this: Enormous areas specialize in growing, say, corn and soy; they then sell those crops and use the cash they get in return to buy a wide variety of foods.

This works in the United States, but it doesn't work well in the rest of the world, where trade barriers are often high, and selling crops for money and then exchanging that money for food is a complex and fraught process. Farmers growing cash crops in remote areas are often taken advantage of by middlemen, who take a cut of the profit and pay the growers much less than the market rate.

Matters are even more complicated when borders are closed altogether. During the commodity boom of 2008, for example, food prices rose sharply, and several countries, including big producers such as Vietnam and Argentina, either banned agricultural exports or taxed them at punitive rates.

What's more, crops are bulky, heavy things that are prone to spoilage, especially in hot and humid countries that lack luxuries like interstate highways and refrigerated trucks. While locavores in Seattle count their food miles because they're worried about their meal's carbon footprint, in poorer parts of the world food miles are much more immediately relevant: The farther away your food is grown, the less likely it is to reach you, and the more likely you are to go hungry.

It's also worth bearing in mind that there's already more than enough food being grown to feed every person on the planet. Right now, when we grow more food, the main consequence is more obesity and waste in rich countries. In fact, we have reached such a level of excess food that powerful agricultural lobbies -- supported by big businesses like ADM -- have been pushing for food crops to be turned into biofuels, especially in the United States and Brazil. It simply isn't the case that we are at risk of shortages without these monoculture crops.

The hunger that persists is a question of distribution; calories don't just magically trickle down to the people who really need it. Locavorism gets right to the root of this problem. By growing multiple crops close to home, less is likely to spoil and more will reach the table.

To be sure, the life of a subsistence farmer is not an easy one. Subsistence farmers make up a large proportion of the world's poor. But local farmers growing local food can create a much more sustainable life for themselves and those around them than Western agribusinesses can. At the very least, locavores should be an important part of the mix.

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Don't Call That Warlord a Warlord

In Afghanistan, the term is no longer useful -- though it should be.

Afghanistan has been at war for much of the past 32 years -- hence the proliferation of warlords. Everyone from international pundits to local governors uses the term to discredit certain political factions or insult the "bad guys." Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, for example, is often described as a "warlord," but bad armed behavior does not a warlord make.

In reality, the term has a specific and more useful meaning in the historical literature. It describes a charismatic military leader who, because of the weakness or absence of a state, ends up playing a political role, though he lacks political legitimacy. In Afghanistan, the two characters who best fit this definition are Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum and Mohammed Ismail Khan. The former dominated northern Afghanistan between 1992 and 1997, re-emerging as a regional power after the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001. The latter ran much of western Afghanistan from 1992 until 1995, similarly returning to prominence after the 2001 invasion.

In the Hobbesian world of war-torn Afghanistan, warlords are "service providers" to a much larger "military class" of petty local military commanders. Those local commanders network to secure supplies, political representation, and -- most importantly -- military backup. Warlords often command the networks, especially in western and northern Afghanistan. The most powerful, influential, and charismatic leaders (such as Dostum and Ismail Khan) even develop "networks of networks," becoming national players and formulating alliances with political actors struggling for control in Kabul.

Dostum and Ismail Khan differed from each other in their approach to power. The former ran a decentralized operation, leaving much space to his regional and provincial-level subordinates. Organizations accusing him of human rights abuses often forget that he made few orders, or even authorizations, from the top; it is often difficult, if not impossible, to determine which commanders made which decisions. Indeed, this was a key strength and key weakness of his governing system. Unable to mobilize and direct his considerable military resources at will, Dostum's performance in the civil wars of the 1990s was mediocre at best. Faced with a weaker but more determined adversary in the Taliban, his forces were eventually overwhelmed. Yet, the decentralization of his military also provided resilience. The "military class," Dostum's key constituency, saw him as a patron who did not demand too much from them.

In contrast, Ismail Khan was a centralizer and micromanager who attempted to enforce strict discipline on his subordinates and organize them into a state-like system. Instead of appeasing and negotiating, he used disciplined units under his direct control to conscript military commanders into a regimented force, modeled after an early-modern state. (He called this system the Emirate.) From 1992 on, he was more able than Dostum to direct the forces under his control, crushing revolts against his rule in 1992 and 1993, for instance. But Dostum was popular -- and Ismail Khan was not. Ultimately, the latter's own constituency of petty military leaders rejected him. They resented their lack of autonomy, and the Emirate collapsed in 1995 after a major battlefield defeat.

Still, Dostum and Ismail Khan had much in common as well. Both devoted considerable energy to managing the unruly mass of small-time warlords and petty military leaders, using a mix of persuasion and coercion. In this sense, like the warlords of the early Middle Ages in Europe, who evolved into kings and feudal lords, the warlords of Afghanistan were part of a process of state formation from the grassroots. By gradually claiming some control over a fragmented and localized military class, they monopolized control over violence: a key process of early state formation.

The skills required to control a fragmented military class like Afghanistan's are always in short supply. Despite many opportunities and attempts to replace figures like Dostum and Ismail Khan, no viable alternative emerged during the nearly 20 years of their presence on Afghanistan's political scene. That is in part because their tasks were not for the fainthearted. Even a regular, disciplined army trained by a foreign mission (like the Afghan National Army today) would find it difficult to crush the thousands of small armed groups loyal to petty military commanders spread around Afghanistan. Of course, there was no such army to rely on in 2002. Even in 2004, when Afghan President Hamid Karzai started increasing the pressure on the warlords, trying to sever them from their constituencies, the Afghan National Army did little and was soon recommitted primarily to fighting the growing Taliban insurgency in the south.

Although Karzai was effective in reducing the power and influence of both Dostum and Ismail Khan, it did little good to help state formation in Afghanistan. Unable to control the myriad petty local commanders or offer them alternative employment, the renascent Afghan state set itself up for trouble. By 2007, petty commanders, left without a political patron and without a charismatic (and ruthless) figure to restrain them, were starting to look for alternatives. Even in western and northern Afghanistan, once hotbeds of resistance against the Taliban, a number started negotiating with the re-emergent movement of Mullah Omar. By 2008, some had fully allied with the Taliban as it expanded beyond its traditional Pashtun base.

It is true that warlords are not good state-building material because their power is based largely on coercion and their political legitimacy is weak. However, there is a common misunderstanding about Afghanistan: What has been going on since 2001 is not yet state-building anyway, just tentative state formation. Ultimately, marginalizing characters such as Dostum and Ismail Khan does not remove the need for dealing with the increasingly politically fluid military class.

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