Who is winning the food fight?

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Most farmers are working quite hard to produce as much food as possible for a hungry world and marketplace, but daily get criticized by non-farmers because of doing things that the non-farmers do not think should be done. Few folks, other than pork producers, have seen pregnant sows fight, but think they know how hogs should be raised. Today, agriculture seems to take it on the chin from society, and it makes you wonder who is winning.

The winner in the modern day food fight has not been decided, but each has scored punches, believes Robert Paarlberg, a Wellesley University ag economist, who recently spoke at Purdue University.  Addressing “Food Politics,” Paarlberg said there are several fundamental disagreements, including what farms should look like, agriculture’s relationship to nature, and who should make decisions about food and agriculture.

Dividing the two sides into advocates for conventional agriculture and advocates for alternative agriculture, Paarlberg said large specialized farms are OK for conventional agriculture, but not for the alternative group. He said the first group finds the primary challenge is to produce much more food by 2050, but the alternative group wants to preserve traditional rural livelihoods, protect biodiversity, and provide ecosystem services. Regarding their relationship with nature, conventional agriculture sees nature being protected by high yields to reduce the area being cropped. The alternative group believes the best systems are those that imitate nature.  And regarding decision making, conventional agriculture accepts governments, technical experts and the market, all of whom are not to be trusted by the alternative group.

The current movement toward “local food,” promotes the fact that the number of farmers’ markets has doubled since 1998, and the number of community-supported agriculture enterprises has risen from 400 in 2001 to 4,000 today. However, food sales by those entrepreneurs represent only .04% of all agricultural sales in the U.S. Similarly, only 4% of all food sales is organic, only 7% of farmers’ market sales is organic food, and 45% of all organic food is produced in only 2 states. In 2008, harvested organic cropland made up only .51% of all US cropland.

Within nations belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) the period from 1990 to 2004 saw a 5% increase in the volume of food production, along with a 4% decrease in land farmed, a 9% decrease in irrigation used, a 17% drop in excess nitrogen use, a 5% decrease in pesticide use while the contribution to increased greenhouse gas production was only one sixth of the rest of the economy. Since 1980, U.S. agriculture has engaged in precision agriculture for more precise irrigation, fertilizer use, reduced pesticide use and reduced tillage, which saves diesel fuel. Paarlberg pointed to his home state of Ohio and said while 30% of all farms had GPS systems in tractors, that technology was used by over 78% of farms in the large category with over $1 million in commodity sales.  The same comparison was made for yield monitors, which are used by 25% of all farms, but 80% of large farms, and for geographically-referenced soil mapping that is used by 23% of all farms, but 56% of large farms.

Crop protection chemicals are becoming more precise in their use says Paarlberg since the 1972 ban on organochlorine insecticides and the 1990 introduction of variable rate application. In 1996, glyphosate was introduced replacing more toxic herbicides, and in the same year Bt corn and cotton was introduced to reduce the insecticide use on those crops. He also said significant reductions in the use of diesel fuel and loss of soil began in the 1980’s with the use of no-till planters and in the 1990’s with the introduction of glyphosate that required less mechanical cultivation.

However, Paarlberg said confined animal feeding operations or CAFOs have become significant targets recently for opponents. While CAFOs have reduced the cost of food to consumers and reduced the frequency of food contamination, CAFOs work less well for waste disposal, dependence upon antibiotics and raise animal welfare complaints.  He noted the increasingly hostile environment for CAFOs, in which court and FDA actions have been against the use of antibiotics, there have been state-level bans on gestation crates for gilts and sows and small cage space for laying hens. And he said a growing number of food service companies have taken voluntary action against gestation crates.

So who is winning the food fight? Paarlberg concludes that alternative agriculture has become dominant in the elite cultural marketplace. Conventional crop farming has given up none of its dominance in the commercial marketplace.  And conventional livestock farming is being forced to accept new restraints from the commercial and political marketplace.

Source: FarmGate blog


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