Would a decentralized food system be a better option for the world?

The current food system has many flaws. To list just a few:

1) The food industry is almost completely centralized, meaning that it's being controlled by a handful of multinational corporations that have power on pretty much every aspect of production. Often, these corporations do not work in the best interests of consumers and society, but are only profit driven.

2) Although there is enough food for everybody (at least currently), food is not evenly distributed.

3) Although production efficiency is high (in the US the average farmer can produce enough food for 126 people), much of the resulting advantage is cancelled out by the high levels of waste that occur along the production and supply chain.

Given the current technologies (e.g. aquaponics, vertical farming, etc.), would a decentralized system be more advantageous?

• It's quite probable that production efficiency is high and there is so much food available because of the profit available. I think you might not be correctly interpreting the word "average". It doesn't mean that one farmer could feed 126 people. One of the farmers might only produce wheat, for example, while another only produces milk, and so on. But a centralised corporation might combine all of these into food. If each farmer had to produce all the products to put dinner, lunch and breakfast on the table, they would be nowhere near as efficient. – colmde Sep 19 '16 at 7:20
• Define "better". What is your goal? Minimal actual starvation? Optimal nutrition for an average human? Optimal total production of basic nutrients? The ability for a maximum number of people (globally) to choose food according to personal taste? Right now this question is very opinion based. – Guran Sep 19 '16 at 8:17
• Are you asking a politics/economics question about our world, or trying to build a fictional world where agriculture is done differently? – John Feltz Sep 19 '16 at 11:48
• – chrylis Sep 19 '16 at 13:25
• Flagging to close. This seems like a platform for some kind of opinion about specific farming practices. At best answers are going to be opinion based, with very little fact. Maybe if the question was worded differently, or was focused on a single aspect. Like "What would make for a world that favored smaller decentralized farms over centralized farming?" I think the question can be rescued, but as it's currently written I think it's off topic. – coteyr Sep 19 '16 at 16:34

First, the assumption:

The food industry is almost completely centralized, meaning that it's being controlled by a handful of multinational corporations that have power on pretty much every aspect of production.

That is not right. Corporations control most of the food international distribution, not its production (which is still at the hands of the farmers) or local distribution.

Second, the question:

Given the current technologies (e.g. aquaponics, vertical farming, etc.), would a decentralized system be more advantageous?

The issue is again, that of distribution. If all of your farmers in the area are producing, say, oranges, it will no matter how they are producing them, but that they have a surplus production and someone has to sell that surplus outside their market area.

And why are all the farmers producing oranges? Because:

a. it allows to chose the optimate crop for the conditions (weather, soil, etc.)

b. investments (like machinery specific for orange recollection) are easier to amortize if you have a big production of oranges that if you have a small production of orange along some other crops.

c. it is easier to deal with a single market (for oranges) that to deal in a market looking for orange buyers, in another looking for the corn buyers, in another for the potatos buyers...potatos, some buyers for the corn.

If anything, highly technified agriculture impose additional benefits to centralization due to the economies of scale; as someone needs to provide the supplies needed by those technologies.

TLDR Farmers are not "ordered" by the corporations to grow a single crop to sell to the corporations, they do so because it gives them better rewards than the traditional system of growing multiple crops to supply only the local market. The apparition of new technologies is unlikely to change that.

1This will depend heavily of the production model. Farms or areas dedicated to monoculture (like the famous USA belts, or cash crops) will depend more heavily on distribution corporations. Areas with more varied crops will have it easier selling a significant part of its production locally.

• Also worth pointing out that the USA is not the world. Nor, for that matter is the West. Agriculture in the majority of the world is much less technologically advanced and specialized, and many countries still have large populations of subsistence farmers who do, in fact, grow a variety of crops for themselves and their local markets. – HopelessN00b Sep 19 '16 at 14:15
• You rescue your answer in the footnote. ;-) Monocultures are only optimal in personnel needs. The gain per area is lousy, so is the financial revenue for the farmer, who has to split the money with machinery, transportation, biozide, fertilliser, seeds etc. companies. – Karl Sep 19 '16 at 17:22
• a/ you assume that monoculture is optimal. it is not. b/ you assume that intensive production has better ROI. it is not, because it requires big investments (land and machines). c/ by addressing a single market, you basically surrender to whoever controls that market. by having different productions, you limit the control they have over you. TLDR farmers are being bullied into producing what distribution wants. – njzk2 Sep 19 '16 at 17:38
• @njzk2 If somebody wasn't buying the crop, distribution wouldn't want farmers to grow it because there would no money in it. It doesn't stop at the distributor. It stops at whoever consumes it. I don't really call, "trying to make money by fulfilling demand," a "bullying" tactic. If there's more to your comment, it's probably too long for a comment. – jpmc26 Sep 19 '16 at 22:20
• Re "Corporations control most of the food international distribution...", it might be worth considering exactly what a corporation is. It's a legal business entity, so most businesses, from giant multinationals down to family farms and sole proprietorships, are corporations of one form or another. So pretty much every entity involved in food production/distribution, or anything else, is a corporation. What's the alternative, having government do it? Been tried, notably in the USSR and China under Mao. Didn't work too well. – jamesqf Sep 20 '16 at 18:41

No

The entire reason for centralization is specialization. Certain crops can only be grown in certain parts of the world. Corn yields are high in in Iowa, and low in Idaho. Potato yields are high in Idaho, but rot in the ground in Florida. Oranges grow great in Florida, but not all all in Iowa (or Idaho!).

How are you going to locally distribute the production of those crops? You simply can't grow some of those crops in some of those regions.

If these farmers were subsistence farmers, then they would only eat potatoes in Idaho, corn in Iowa, and less corn in Florida (since man can't live on oranges alone). But in a 'centralized' system with distribution run by 'multi-national' corporations, each can trade with the other, and eat a well balanced diet of corn, potatoes, and oranges.

Waste

Waste does not cancel out the advantages of high productivity. Cereal productivity is in the 6000-9000 kg/hectare range for the US and Western Europe. Its is 2000-3000 kg/hectare for middle income countries like Turkey, Mexico, and Russia. It is 1700 in the Arab world, and 1400 in Sub-saharan africa. In Medieval England, yields would be 8-10 Bushels per Acre, which at 56 lbs to the bushel is about 600 kg/hectare.

So modern crop methods are at over a 10:1 advantage over Medieval farmers, and 5:1 over third world countries. Even if you assume 50% spoilage and waste, we still come out way on top.

Remember, one of the big reasons that crop production is so high is that crops are ONLY grown where they are optimally suited. You can grow corn in Idaho and potatoes in Idaho, but no one does because the yields are low. So instead corn is only grown in Iowa with thick black soils, and summer heat and rain, while cool-and-dry-loving potatoes grow in the semi-desert highlands of Idaho. Also, oranges are grown in Florida where freezing temperatures literally cause a state of emergency to be declared. Wusses.

Waste does not counteract the advantages of modern farming techniques or specialization by location.

Cutting Edge Techniques

...are expensive. They are useful for specific things that are perishable (like lettuce) but not so useful for things that store well and have to grown on huge areas (like cereals: wheat, rice, corn). The world is fed by these crops. 51% of world calories come from cereals. Even in the affluent United States, 25% of our calories come from cereals, and another 25% from meat/milk derived from animals feeding those cereals (and 35% from oils and fats!!!). That leaves just 15% of America's calories coming from fruits, vegetables, pulses and nuts. And even those aren't ideal for vertical farming or aquaponics or what have you; peas and beans have low yield per acre and need lots of space; tree crops like olives or oranges need lots of space to grow for years before they start to fruit, etc.

Cutting edge farming has a place in the world, but will never compete with specialized monoculture in producing the calories that humanity needs.

For further reference, here is a summary of the future of agriculture, from the Economist (possibly behind a paywall)

• good answer, although never say never, but as today it is definitely true. – MolbOrg Sep 19 '16 at 15:02
• "Men can't live on oranges alone" but 10-year-old boys can for about three days before getting sick of them, as I know from-- er, definitely not experience. – Nic Hartley Sep 20 '16 at 6:03

• There is a supermarket less than a mile from my home that is open from Monday morning to Saturday night. I can go there at 0300 at night and chose from several dozen brands of sliced bread. Sure, most of them come in plastic bags and taste accordingly, but they are fairly cheap, too.
• There are very few genuine bakers left who make fresh bread from basic ingredients and not from a dough mixture out of some factory. If I go there I pay much more and many kinds of bread may be sold out long before the baker closes in the evening.
• Similar things can be said for vegetables, fruit, meat, etc.
• I have a few boxes of pasta and half a dozen jars of tomato sauce in my kitchen. If I have to work late, or if I decide that it the weather is too bad to go out, I can make a decent dinner. If not, they will keep until next year, or the year after that.

My freedom of choice comes with several different prices:

• If there are fresh apples whenever I want, then there will be a time when unsold apples become not so fresh. Since the customers demand fresh apples, those old apples go to waste.
• The purchasing power of the large supermarket chains is used to squeeze the prices for farmers and intermediate producers.
• If the food comes out of cans or in plastic boxes, I cannot judge if food past the "best before" date is still edible. I have to trust the numbers.

A fictional world to change all this has two options:

Change the Business Model only for Food

With this option, society would recognize that food production is not an industry like any other. Depending on your setting, this could be driven by ecological concerns, protectionism, or strategic/civil defense concerns. The niche market will come under constant attack from people who want to use "modern" business practice in the food sector.

One price your society will pay is that the price of food will go up. Everybody will eat less meat. The poor might get hardly any meat at all. Instead of tasteless, mass-produced vegetables, they get the blemished ones which rich people don't want.

Last but not least, people will spend more time cooking and preparing food. Do they have that time, on top of their commute to work? Cleaning string beans is something I do only on Sundays, otherwise I reach for a can ...

Change the Business Model for Everything

With this option, your society will soon become unrecognizable. Real cab drivers instead of uber share-economy amateurs. Shopkeepers instead of parcel delivery services with Amazon purchases.

Everything will get more expensive. On the other hand, many people will have qualified jobs. It is worthwhile? Will the setting be a better world? Only the author can tell.

• Thanks for pointing out the fundamental problem with returning things to the "old way". The old way is the old way because we like our way better. Everyone wants the benefit of tasty, hand-grown crops until they realize the price they have to pay for it. – Mad Physicist Sep 19 '16 at 17:08
• why do you need several dozen of sliced bread? especially if they all taste the same, and taste like plastic on top of that? – njzk2 Sep 19 '16 at 17:40
• you are comparing the qualification of making bread to that of driving a cab? – njzk2 Sep 19 '16 at 17:42
• I'm perfectly capable of making my own bread (it's not rocket science), and often do in the cooler months. Likewise I get much of my fruit & vegetables from my garden in the summer months - and indeed, in season will often have more than I can use or give away to friends & neighbors. But I can't grow e.g. bananas or mangos, nor have strawberries in April or September, and it wouldn't be economic to grow & grind my own wheat. Thus a food distribution system benefits me. – jamesqf Sep 19 '16 at 19:11
• @njzk2: Because if several eleven of sliced bread get sold out, there's still sliced bread left. – Hurkyl Sep 20 '16 at 4:40

It is an interesting topic to explore a different type of food distro. But does that imply it needs to not be profit driven? Does being profit driven imply that it isn't in the best interests of consumers?

This is an extremely deep economic topic, probably too broad to even begin to answer in this forum. The problem is showing that just because a given system appears to not benefit consumers, maybe that is the most optimal system possible. There are certainly market advocates who would say "absolutely." Any inefficiencies are the result of something interfering... like, for example, national governments. So to improve our food distro system, maybe there's no need to change anything about the companies but instead make nations operate differently. Just a theory.

I suggest reading sci-fi The Unincorporated Man and similar works to get a good exploration of this topic.

Yes, but not for the reasons you theorized in your question.

Firstly though, need to clear up a common misconception implied by your question. Namely that most corporations are not profit-driven. Because 'profits' are a residuum, its what's left over after everything else is paid and it goes to the shareholders of that corporation. Corporations are not required to (nor even in some cases expected to) pay out profits to shareholders. Most corporate ethics scandals (e.g. Enron, Worldcom, etc.) are about employees misreporting earnings (which are not the same thing as profits) for their own personal gain, in a way that jeopardizes the organization itself. So it isn't necessarily that the company is greedy for profits.

Microsoft failed to pay profits to shareholders frequently during the 90's (which is fine), and if the EU prosecutors are to be believed those were not their finest hours ethically speaking (which is not). The real issue (which you mention in your question) is that corporations are frequently allowed to pursue their business without regard to the negative externalities they generate (e.g. pollution). However that too can a thornier issue than it seems on the surface.

Single-payer health insurance is contentious in the US despite its obvious advantages because it allows individuals to externalize many of the costs of their decisions like tobacco use, poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, etc. It may be worth having anyway (we still have fire/car/private health insurance despite the moral hazards) but the concern is a valid one. With corporations as with individuals it is a question of trade-offs (is it worth it for a developing economy to allow corporations to run wild in exchange for the prosperity they generate? look to Africa and China for examples), for a realistic narrative you will want to be aware of these tradeoffs (it says quite a bit about the society you've created as to which choices they make along these lines).

Now back to your question. Yes, it (arguably) would benefit the world to decentralize production/distribution even though it would be less efficient because global trade is far more fragile (susceptible to disruption). It would arguably be worth sacrificing some of the optimal growing mentioned in the other answers to have a more robust system. That being said, there are different ways to spin that narratively: the naively optimized system crashes, the more robust system becomes too unwieldy, the overreaching government that tries to balance this becomes tyrannical, etc.

• Eehhh... sorry, but corporations (more specifically its management) have the duty to do what is best for the owners (usually stockholders), and that translates into money. It is called fiduciary duty. Note that money can be won not only through direct pay to shareholders but also due to increase value of the property (the corporation). And of course a corporation may have losses (nobody expects management to be omnipotent) but in all cases the management must still try to get the best value possible of their actions. – SJuan76 Sep 19 '16 at 22:33
• In fact that is the whole point of the ethics scandal; if corporations had not that fiduciary duty then managers lying to get more money for themselves would not be an scandal but just business as usual. It is an scandal because it is not supposed to happen. And the corporation is not greedy because the corporation is not a human being (not even a physical entity), but managers must get as good results as they can or risk being replaced by the stockholders. – SJuan76 Sep 19 '16 at 22:38
• @SJuan76 do you have any idea how hard it is for stockholders to replace managers? Employees only have to worry about their bosses up to the CEO who only has to worry about the board of directors. Shareholders have very little say in the operations of a corporation. Despite all the buzzword blather about 'the good of the shareholders' companies are managed by employees for employees, the fiduciary duty is there so that shareholders can (in theory) claw back  bilked out of them and so that executives can be criminally prosecuted for actions that would not otherwise be illegal. – Jared Smith Sep 21 '16 at 13:04
• To claim that managers are committing ethics violations out of 'fear of being replaced by the shareholders', well, that may sound good in neo-marxist economic circles but its just not how the real world works. That fiduciary duty is simply not a primary concern, especially not compared to next quarter's bonus. – Jared Smith Sep 21 '16 at 13:08
• Sorry, but that is how the capitalist system works, explained by capitalist theorists. Google for "CEO sacked/fired due to bad results" and see how many results you get (no, you won't be able to sack Apple's CEO because you own a single share and are an angry young, that does not work this way). While you are at it, you can learn about the -very basic- difference between profits and dividends, and google "fiduciary duty" too. These are good steps to get some basic education for yourself before explaining to everyone how the world "works". – SJuan76 Sep 23 '16 at 8:49

This question is pretty much a series of begged questions, undefined "hot" words and misunderstandings of the current situation.

1) The food industry is almost completely centralized, meaning that it's being controlled by a handful of multinational corporations that have power on pretty much every aspect of production. Often, these corporations do not work in the best interests of consumers and society, but are only profit driven.

This does not state what "controlled" means in this context. One could easily have said "managed" and not been as inflammatory.

This begs the question that corporations have "power on pretty much every aspect of production." One could just the same have said "influenced." There are many types of power not all are bad. Force is the type of power that is almost universally bad yet there is no contention that farmers are forced to do anything. Agricorps typically work cooperatively with farmers through contracts, which carry a normal and well considered type of power to adjudicate the terms through the courts when there is a disagreement on the terms or performance.

One could go on for the whole post, but moving to the end.

Given the current technologies (e.g. aquaponics, vertical farming, etc.), would a decentralized system be more advantageous?

Remember, farms are corporations too and the technologies you mentioned are a very capital intensive, mechanized and inflexible type of farming. Would the farming corporations want to invest in new and uncertain technologies without the assurance of access to the most efficient distribution systems. Those run by other corporations that contract in advance for product. have the technology to convert crops to consumable product, and sell in advance to product consumers. Farmers grow corn, but the biggest consumers of corn, feedlots, want specific characteristics in the corn based feeds. They don't want to just buy from the local farmer, they need a manufactured product.

The question also begs the question that these novel and unproven methods are more efficient than ground farming. That is, they will provide more crops over time with fewer inputs. Plants require sunlight. Can vertical farming provide plants with as much sunlight as ground farming? It certainly will still require fertilizer. Can any be saved?. Can fertilizers required for "organic" farming be used? Are the savings enough to offset the high capital costs? Vertical farming is a long term capital investment requiring a big corporation with long term financing to scale up to the most efficient factory levels.

If this technology was currently more efficient, the agricorps would move into the new farming business themselves and cut out those pesky contracts and guarantees given to their suppliers (the farmers) right now. Have you thought that this could have the opposite effect of what you desire by making farm production more centralized?

Decentralization created by an increase in the capacity of individual humans to produce food efficiently would definitely be better for the world.

Decentralization created by a central authority waving a gun around will just repeat the famines of the 20th century.

Food shortages in the world have nothing to do with food.
It has to do with warlords, dictators, and infrastructure of a given region.
Eradicate the first 2 and build the last and the world can easily fed more than they could eat without changing anything else.

To do that, you'd be declaring war on North Korea and having worse situation of guerrilla Warfare than the Iraq war in Africa... If you want to do that, thanks for starting WWIII