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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

What Would Be "A Food Movement Worth Of The Name?"





Back in October of 2012, author Michael Pollan wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times  in which he said the vote on California Proposition 37 would show whether or not the “Food Movement” had developed into “a movement worthy of the name.”  Proposition 37 failed for good reasons, but Pollan has raised a good question: 

What would a food movement worthy of the name look like?

Food is a tremendously important topic –necessary for survival, but critical in many other ways too.  Our diets influence our health in profound ways.  Food is also an integral component of culture, history and religion.  Food can be a source of great enjoyment and is an important medium for family and broader social interaction.  A worthy “Food Movement” focused on a topic of this importance should have at least the following positive goals:

·      The alleviation of hunger in the world.
·      Making sure that there is a safe, affordable and nutritious food supply
·      Helping people make good food choices for optimal health
·      Encouraging food production systems which are sustainable, just, and which have a minimal environmental impact

I’m sure that many who consider themselves part of the “Food Movement” aspire to these goals, but some of those who write, speak and blog for this movement tend to focus on what they are against more than what they are for.  Additionally, some writers are anti-scientific, inclined towards conspiracy-theory-thinking, and inclined to incite fear more than understanding.  

The Food Movement's Least Worthy Tendency

However, I believe that antipathy towards farmers is the least worthy characteristic of the current “Food Movement.”

If you reflect on the positive goals listed above, most are outcomes that can never be achieved without the critical contribution of those who actually produce the food.  By this I mean those that produce the 98+% of our food that does not come from small, local or organic farms.  While there are some foods for which localness is a real advantage, the fact that different foods tend to be produced in specific regions is because it makes the most sense to do so in terms of productivity, quality, and risk. Scientific and statistical evidence shows that organic is much less productive, and that it is not expanding in terms of acreage or production at least in our own country.  Organic is growing, but only in cost.

When many food movement advocates talk about farmers they tend to do so wielding epithets via terms, like “big,”  “factory”, “industrial,” “chemical,” or “corporate.”  They tend to imply negative or malicious or irresponsible motives.   Overall, they write about farmers in a way that indicates that they don’t actually know any of them.  I don’t think it is a good feature of any movement to dismiss broad groups with no real knowledge of those they are talking about.

What Modern, Large-Scale Farmers Are Really Like

I wish many of these writers could have the privilege to meet some of the farmers I have met over the years. Examples would be a grain producer in North Dakota with a 12,000-acre farm whose “office” is the kitchen table or the 5,000-acre grain grower in Kansas whose “office” was a desk in the corner of the machine shed with a brand new runt calf under a heat lamp next to it.  These are family farms operated by an individual or two brothers with maybe one hired hand and some family help at busy times of the year.  Between the economics, amazing equipment and the steady decline in the farming populations, this is modern farming, and it is just as noble an endeavor as ever before. 

I wish these writers could meet farm managers who work at multi-thousand acre vineyards or orchard companies in California that are actually “corporate farms”.   Like the grain farmers, these are all examples of technically sophisticated, business-smart, environmentally aware, generous and friendly folks who farm today.  Well under 1% of our population is directly involved in farming today.  Those who do are worthy of recognition, not demonization.

Farmers take on enormous economic risks each growing season with so many factors outside of their control (weather, commodity prices, pest outbreaks, new regulations…).   Rather than being armchair critics, it would be wise for Food Movement folks to assume that if farmers do something, there is probably a pretty good reason.  If they apply pesticides, it is because pests and their damage are real, and that failing to control them would compromise the production efficiency, quality and safety of their crop.  If farmers grow a certain crop or a biotech improved version of that crop it is because that is their most rational economic and risk/management choice.  The companies that sell seeds, equipment, chemicals or fertilizers to farmers can only do so if they create real value for their customers. Farmers are not stupid.  They only stay in business if they make good purchase decisions.   The products that famers buy support private investment in the development of better seed, better equipment and better crop protection chemicals.  There is nothing sinister about this.  It benefits farmers and thus, indirectly, all of us.

The Farmers Most Worthy of Food Movement Support

There are a great many “conventional farmers” who are on the cutting edge of environmentally friendly farming.  They use best practices like no-till farming and cover cropping to build soil quality and reduce off-site pollution. They use integrated pest management; fertilization via precision-variable-rate application for non-irrigated crops, or “spoon feeding” of nutrients via irrigation; or controlled wheel traffic (GPS and beyond) to avoid soil compaction and to reduce nitrous oxide emissions (greenhouse gas).   A “food movement worthy of the name” would be allied with this major group of progressive farmers.  Instead of railing at the farm community as a whole or at the companies that supply progressive farmers what they need, a worthy food movement might be brainstorming ways to change the farmland lease and credit systems which don’t encourage the sort of long-term thinking that is required for farming in the most sustainable fashion. 

Farmers are not the problem when it comes to important things about food or about legitimate goals of a worthy Food Movement.  Farmers are a critical part of the solution.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to write me at savage.sd@gmail.com


29 comments:

  1. It feels good to read some decent thoughts about agriculture and I wish I found out about your blog earlier. Thanks also for all the interesting links!

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  2. Steve - could you provide links to more information on the credit issue. The blog post you link to gives a very 50,000ft in the air view - anything with more details?

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    1. Yes. Here is a link to a talk I gave on this topic at the Ag 2.0 conference in Toronto in 2011

      http://www.scribd.com/doc/118694859

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    2. Thank you. I work for a foundation that hopes to develop Mission Related Investments in areas such as this. There appears to be a positive trend in philanthropy towards looking at market driven solutions such as this. Thanks for being a thought-leader.

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  3. I visit South Dakota every year and the farmers there are thrilled with the new strains of corn and soybeans that have come out in the last decade, they need less water and have extended the 'corn belt' several hundred miles west - allowing them to grow more profitable corn and soy in areas that previously grew wheat, milo and sunflowers. Also yields have increased across the board.

    A lot of foodie activists don't understand that often there is no choice between GM crops and not. In many areas it's GM or zero yield.

    You can see test plots that seed companies grow all over the place, figuring out what strains produce the best in a given area. They spend considerable resources to bring the best product to the farmers that benefit from it most, and the farmers are happy to pay a premium for higher yields. Higher yields ultimately are expressed as lower prices to us consumers, surpluses that can be used for biofuels, and allows land to be placed in CRP for wildlife.

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    1. Good points. Farmers are going to grow what gives them the highest net returns and/or what mitigates their risks. What food companies do with what they grow and what choices consumers make are not the farmer's responsibility.

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  4. An absolutely naive and shallow article written by a brown-nosing insider (or wannabe insider) of the big corporate farmers. While you were lathering up the big corporate farmers, you might as well have thrown in bits about how they're barely breaking even and how tough it is for them to make ends meet. Or maybe you should have included some heartwarming pictures of some big corporate farmers sitting around the fireplace with their grandchildren. Heck, why not throw in a picture of a sad-looking corporate farmer with one leg? When you're done making Hallmark cards for big corporate farmers, maybe you can consider for a moment that these average schmoes are poisoning America's children and wrecking our environment. Much trust has been given to our farmers and much is expected of them. Sadly, for the most part, they have shown themselves not to be the progressive white knights that they were able to portray themselves as to you as you sat on their laps, but as average clueless lazy dolts typical of any backward desperate industry. Human beings are wonderful creatures, but they need a kick in the arse. Regardless of how wonderful they are, they will commit widespread atrocity simply out of their own laziness, myopia, and self-interest. Big corporate farmers are just people. And they're fine people. They have wonderful families. But that doesn't change the fact that they need to change what they're doing. They won't do it willingly. In fact, they'll throw lots of money at trying to get government off their backs, so they don't have to change. But in the end, they will be held accountable for health of America. Their industry's rapidly eroding reputation is just the first step. And it's a good step. If I were a big corporate farmer, I'd be ashamed to tell most people what I did for a living these days. And that's a good thing. That's a very good thing. Maybe it'll make some of these dolts wake up and see the catastrophe they're wreaking on the public health and our environment. As for you, blogger, use a little more of your brains and a little less of your heart. These people are salesmen. Of course they're going to try to sell you on how wonderful they are. Now it's time for you to do the responsible thing and learn about the other side of the issue. And when you do, it'll make you sick to your stomach. And you'll be furious at your "friends" on those big corporate farms. And you'll want to demand answers from them. But my money says that you won't. My guess is that you'll be just like them - your head in the sand.

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    1. Anonymous ranter,

      One question. Do you actually know any farmers or have met them? Do you realize that there are very few corporate farms and most that are are just for inheritance reasons? No farmer every tried to "sell me on how wonderful they were." I simply sat down at the kitchen table with them or walked around the machine shed and talked with them. Farmers are not "wreaking catastrophe on the public health" People who drink multiple liters of soft drinks or way too many burgers and fries are doing that. Don't blame farmers for this.

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    2. S.D., thanks for having the courage to post these critical comments. You need a complete education on the other half of this issue, and there are plenty of us that are willing to take the time to do it, if needed/wanted.

      Are big farms are "corporate" or are they just "industrial"? Let's call them "big industrial farms" so as not to mislabel single proprietorships, family-owned farms, etc.

      "No farmer ever tried to sell you on how wonderful they are"? Let's say they didn't actively do so (although many people do so unconsciously every day). You're certainly espousing the justifications that we'd expect to hear right of our their mouths. We'd expect to hear them whine about how hard it is to make a living, how clueless the EPA is, how clueless the organic weirdo activists are, etc. You can hear all of these things said by farmers in many of the documentaries on the agriculture system in America (and I've seen dozens of those documentaries).

      "Farmers are not wreaking catastrophe on the public health - people who consume soft drinks and burgers are doing that"? Pesticides. Pesticides are the biggest problem. Not high fructose corn syrup or saturated fats or any of the other obesity causes. Pesticides are poisoning our food. Research has shown this repeatedly. That's the whole point of organic farming - to do it without pesticides. Pesticides are harmless in small doses, but when they're in lots of different foods that we eat every single day (a recent Stanford study found residues of them on 38% of non-organic produce), they continue to build up in our bodies. As the insects become resistant, as they eventually do, farmers require stronger and stronger pesticides. So the problem gets worse. These pesticides also wash into our streams and our water supplies. They enter our food chain. The bugs eat the leaves, the birds eat the bugs, and so on. So the pesticides accumulate as they go up the food chain.

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    3. You have a seriously out-dated view of pesticides and the Stanford study didn't enlighten it. They only looked at 9 studies, only one of which was from the US. The one from the US was from a screen that does not even look for the copper fungicides which tend to be used on organic crops at high rates with frequent application. The Stanford study also recognized that the levels detected were not of concern.

      If you look at the very public data from the USDA on pesticide residues, what you find is that most of them are very low in mammalian toxicity, and they are present on food at levels which are of no concern. Pesticides that bioaccumulate in the food chain have long been banned.

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    4. Show me a blog post that analyzes this topic with an informed viewpoint after objectively examining both sides of the issue, and I'll gladly have a real discussion with you about ecology and research, giving you credit where credit is due. But this blog above was just sentimental cheerleading for the very people that need to be held to a much different standard than the rest of us. These farmers control the food for millions of Americans and act as custodians for thousands of acres of American land. The American public is forced to trust them with our very health; we have little or no choice. For farmers to be lazy, reactionary, and hide behind inconclusive research and ideological platitudes is absolutely unethical for people in their position. If there's risk, they need to do everything in their power to minimize it. If there are safer alternatives, they need to try everything in their power to find ways to make them work. If there are unknowns, they need to slow down or look for answers. The American public shouldn't be the guinea pigs for modern industrial farming methods. For those of us getting sicker every year, we don't have decades to wait until the research is 99% conclusive. By then, the damage is done to millions of people. Why are global sperm counts dropping? Nobody knows. Why are diabetes, obesity, attention disorders, thyroid disorders, and many other illnesses skyrocketing? Nobody knows. Blame television? Blame high fructose corn syrup? At some point, we need to turn the spotlight on our farming system. And most everything we've seen so far has been frightening. If farmers have been such wonderful, progressive ecologists and scientists, why is America terrified of what's in our food? Why do big farmers have such abysmal reputations? It's well-deserved. They're been dragging their feet, focusing on their profit margins, believing whatever nonsense is told them about these serious risks. America deserves a lot better. We don't need blog posts like this one above. Our farmers need to completely change the way they do things, or they need to give up farming and let someone else try. America's health and environment deserve it.

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  5. Yes, big corporate farmers love their children too...as they poison the rest of us, and wreck our environment. Are these wonderful, heart-warming big corporate farmers then just lazy, or dumb, or both? I don't think we need to care about what these presumably-wonderful people are like. They have a responsibility. Much is expected of them. They are entrusted with the health of our nation and of the care of environment. They're failing on both accounts. You may cozy up around the fireplace with your favorite big corporate farmer and open Christmas presents together, but I'm glad that the reputation of their industry has gone to pieces. I think it's well-deserved. I hope more of them wake up and become part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

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  6. Must you censor the comments? I notice the 6 that made it through your filter don't dare criticize your premise in any way. Are you trying to get into the pants of your favorite big corporate farmer? Come on, dude. You wrote this piece of trash and you should open yourself up to hearing the other side. Don't hide your head in the sand.

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  7. One other point. Organic farming not productive? Only in the short run. Monocultures require expensive pesticides and genetic modifications. That doesn't even mention the health costs. Permaculture farmers have proven again and again that they produce as much yields per cost of input as big corporate farms. Organic and permaculture farmers are a tiny fraction of the industry right now. As this market grows in size, their prices will go down. There is also the issue of federal government subsidies going to the big corporate farmers. There was a recent attempt to reform our federal agriculture subsidies, but it failed from lobbying pressure in an election year. The bottom line is that nobody should be saying "organic farming isn't productive" without knowing both sides of the issue.

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    1. Recent data (see an earlier post here) shows that organic acreage and production in the US is flat to down overall in the US between 2008 and 2011. Even when it was on a growth track before 2008 it was on track to reach less than 3% of cropland by 2050. There was a meta-study published in Nature earlier this year showing that organic was consistently less productive, particularly for things like cereal crops. Unless you imagine putting 30% of the population back on farms doing intensive hand labor, your permaculture idea isn't likely to be any sort of significant contributor to the food supply

      BTW, I don't censor comments unless they are spam. I do; however, sleep, so there can be a delay in posting

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    2. Thanks for not censoring. Monopoly power is a quite an obstacle in any market. Small craft brewers have been trying to nibble at the market share of the big breweries for decades and they've made little progress. That's what the Sherman Anti-Trust Act was designed to address. I'll make you a bet. If permaculture was required by law tomorrow, the American farm industry would suffer tremendous shakeup initially, but within a decade, they would completely rebound and surpass their pre-existing levels of production. Why? Competition. Innovation. Those are things are dead in the current monopoly system. Open up the market and watch the impossible become possible. The only winners right now are the vested interests and their platitudes of denial, ignorance, and lack of responsibility. America's health and environment are suffering. The lazy, reactionary big industrial farmers are turning the American public into guinea pigs for modern farming methods. America deserves better.

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    3. You clearly don't know much of anything about agriculture. Farmers are about the furthest thing from a monopoly that is possible. Let me guess - I bet you learned all you know about this topic on the internet?

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    4. I've learned most of what I've learned on this topic from watching dozens of independent film documentaries. You can find many of them on the documentary sections of Netflix and Hulu. I've also learned from a lot of articles from reputable magazines and newspapers. I've also read many blogs like yours and discussions like ours - but everybody knows that blogs and comments are just unsubstantiated opinion. I haven't gotten around to any books on the subject yet, but I plan to. If you can recommend any sources, that would be great. I want to know both sides of every issue, because the truth is always found in both. I think it's extremely important that all of us learn about both sides of every controversial topic. Today, people are more segmented and polarized than ever before. Most people people today literally only see the information they want to see, from sources they want to see it from. It's an irony that, despite having more information than ever before, we have one of the most ignorant populations. Every time I clash with an opposing viewpoint, I learn something new. It's possible that both of us have a lot more to learn. I appreciate having the dialogue and thanks for being so civil despite my scorchingly bombastic tone.

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    5. Anonymous,
      I appreciate the dialog as well. My discussions over the last few days have inspired me to write a post titled: "welcome to the disinformation age." Take a look at this video of an environmentalist who was instrumental in starting the anti-GMO movement who has since taken the time to understand the science and now regrets the rather considerable damage he and others have done to the food supply
      http://www.marklynas.org/2013/01/lecture-to-oxford-farming-conference-3-january-2013/

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  8. Hey, Anonymous. You said:

    "That's the whole point of organic farming - to do it without pesticides."

    That is a bald-faced lie.

    I worked at an organic farm for four years. I had to be certified as a pesticides applicator to work there. Why? BECAUSE THEY USED PESTICIDES.

    So please shut up about it.

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    1. Hey, Michael. We all know the point of organic farming is to use FEWER pesticides and to use NATURAL pesticides. If you have something meaningful to contribute to the conversation, please speak up. Otherwise, shut up.

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    2. You didn't say "use fewer pesticides," anonymous. You said, "to do without pesticide."

      I know, I know, it's not easy to EAT your own words, but there you have it.

      As for a "meaningful contribution," how about this:

      I attended a conference for new farmers at which an apple grower detailed his experience growing conventional and "organic" apples.

      He had to spray his conventional apples with pesticides 12 times per season.

      He had to spray his "organic" apples with "organic" pesticides 22 times per season! And the trees only yielded 25% of what the conventional trees yielded.

      So much for your original "without pesticides" lie.

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  9. Steve, where do you think we should begin addressing antipathy, or bridging the empathy gap?

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  10. The idea that issues have only "two sides" with truth to be found in both is a bit of a fairy tale.

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  11. Awesome topic! Thanks for sharing and have a good year 2013!

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  12. Today, people are more segmented and polarized than ever before. Most people people today literally only see the information they want to see, from sources they want to see it from. irrigation calgary

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  13. A worthy “Food Movement” focused on survival warehouse offers a topic of this importance should have at least the following positive goals:

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  14. "If farmers grow a certain crop or a biotech improved version of that crop it is because that is their most rational economic and risk/management choice."

    This would be great if growing GMO corn and wheat wasn't "their most rational choice" because the government so heavily subsidizes the industry so that it is the ONLY economic choice to make.

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