Do We Need Industrial Agriculture to Feed the World?

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Think Forward

Do We Need Industrial Agriculture to Feed the World?

by
Sophia Murphy

Okay, only fair to warn you. I do not answer the question here. Second, the subject is not really one for a blog, more for a book. But it's important to say short things as well as long. Third, I have a bias. We all do. In this case, it matters that I like Michael Pollan's writing and that I believe there is much wrong with conventional agriculture as practiced in the United States. You will see why that is relevant in just a moment. Now back to the question.

This one really matters. The world (I guess I mean governments, but also private companies and a lot of NGOs besides) is spending on agriculture like it has not in decades. So how the money gets spent is important. Is more of what we have already better than trying to grow (and process and transport and sell) our food differently? Can we do better? If so, how?

This blog is prompted by a recent short and angry piece from the CEO of the National Corn Growers Association—Rick Tolman—in the Delta Farm Press. His article drew my attention to another article, this one in the American Enterprise Institute's magazine, The American entitled "The Omnivore's Delusion" written by Missouri farmer Blake Hurst. The title is a play on Michael Pollan, "The Omnivore's Dilemma."

As I said, I am one of Pollan's fans—I think he writes persuasively and cogently; even if I do not always agree with him and find that he makes some issues too easy. So I was curious to see what Blake Hurst had made of it. Hurst writes well, which is always a pleasure. He makes some good points, too. But in the end, he fails to give his critics' point of view their due and thereby fails to persuade. Those who agree with him, people like Rick Tolman, are happy. But those who thought that conventional agriculture was the problem before will not change their mind after reading the piece. Sorry, but driving a tractor is no longer any kind of claim to special wisdom. The question on how we, as a planet, feed ourselves and the world deserves a lot more thought, humility and openness to debate. 

Rightly or not, farmers are having to fight hard to be heard, because they are not where the money is. They are not where the subsidies stick (they flow right back out the farm door), and they are outnumbered 440:1 (at a generous estimate) by the eating population (in the U.S. that is—in much of the world, those who grow food outnumber those who do not). As the most recent Farm Bill showed, the fight is no longer among farmers and between farmers and grain traders, or between food companies and consumers. The debate now engages doctors and public health experts, environmentalists and biologists, parents and school boards, anti-poverty organizations and churches, groups against racism, trade unions and a whole slew of more organizations. 

Hurst has his argument with Michael Pollan, but Pollan is just the journalist here—a smart, rhetorically astute, journalist. Behind Pollan are the people that inspired the stories that make Hurst angry—and Hurst's retort does not answer them. Because they, too, are farmers—some of them in a long line of farmers, and some of them new to the land. They are food workers, some of them living and working in conditions that have inspired latter day Upton Sinclairs to write about their condition (Eric Schlosser is just one for instance). And then there are the others—thousands of them, who, for myriad reasons, care about what we eat, how we grow it, and whether we can do better. 

Hurst opens with an attack on a man (nameless) who he overhears holding forth on all that ails the food system. The trouble for Hurst is, whether or not the man's diatribe is well informed, that man has a significant stake in what Hurst does. It is not a symmetrical relationship—Hurst would not presume, he tells us, to tell the man how to run his real estate or tax accountancy firm. All well and good. But actually, the man in question, just like every one of us, is directly involved in Hurst's business. We eat the food he grows, we pay to clean up the mess agriculture makes, we pay the costs of a grossly inefficient and market distorting farm bill—so we have a voice. Like it or not, agriculture in the United States is not "just another business." And with the somewhat hallowed ground of "feeding the world" comes a whole lot of necessary public oversight and meddling that is not optional, but just the way it is. 

There is a lot to respond to in Hurst's article, but let me focus on just one point: 

Hurst equates organic production with a return to 1930s technology. This would be news to people like Joe Salatin, whose farm Pollan is so enthused about in Omnivore's Dilemma. As Farhad Mazar with Nayakrishi Andolon in Bangladesh explained to me, organic production in his community is not about worshipping the past, but combining traditional knowledge with modern science, and respecting certain basic principles (e.g., do not use pesticides that kill the life you want to preserve on the farm, or that harm the farmer and the farm workers). Rather than organic agriculture being a vision that is frozen in time, or a movement inspired by romantic city dwellers trying to get in touch with Little House on the Prairie (as Hurst implies), it is more like Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," where the majority of U.S. farmers were pushed one way (industrial, increasingly concentrated, ever less diversified and ever more dependent on external inputs) and a few—now again on the ascendent, but still only about 1 percent of the total—chose to think about productivity per acre, not per plant; to think about how a symbiotic production cycle could be maintained among the sun, the rain, the plants and the animals (something Salatin's farm, as described so vividly in Pollen's book, brings alive). Alternatives to conventional agriculture are not historic relics. They are the future, and our present. 

The questions are: Do we know enough? Can we make it work well enough? Can we bring about the simultaneous changes required (in storage, transportation, distribution, processing, retail and standards) to make this a revolution now, or will it be more incremental and hesitant and messy? It will surely involve biology and genetics, but maybe not biotechnology to promote the use of particular pesticides and herbicides. It will surely involve the market, but maybe also functioning competition laws, and a radical reassertion of the public interest in food that is healthy for the planet and people alike. 

Farmer Hurst may not like what he hears about agriculture as he flies about the country, but he might want to pay a little more attention to the science and politics behind it. If Michael Pollan was it, he can ride his tractor in peace. Thankfully, Pollan is a sign of the times. Hurst might want to turn his attention to the President, for instance, and reflect some more.

Sophia Murphy is Senior Advisor at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. See her full bio here.  Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health.

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