Those who don’t like ‘Feeding the World’ never could

In spending the past several months on the social media sites Twitter and Facebook an interesting trend is apparent.  ‘Some’ who believe deeply in a local food movement and regional food systems seem to have a great distaste for the fact that modern agriculture truly does ‘feed the world.’

Before this goes any further, I must say I’ve met some very interesting, logical, intelligent, and dedicated people who consider a ‘farm’ different than a few thousand acres of corn, soybeans, wheat, milo, etc. that I’m more used to.  I have enjoyed the conversations through social media, and the education that can go both ways for people who ‘do things differently.’  I have an offer to come visit, even to enjoy special tomatoes grown on their farm they’re obviously very proud of, and to learn more about what they do.  I hope I can do that.  They certainly have the same invitation to see that what some call ‘big ag’ and ‘industrial ag’ and ‘unsustainable’ may not be the villian its often perceived to be.

I use the word ‘some’ here frequently because to be fair, you can’t throw a blanket on each farming group.  So if I criticize ‘some’ who say or seem to believe certain things, please understand I also have great respect for others in a similar ‘mindset’ who are willing to learn, and willing to realize that we just may need all kinds of agriculture in this world, and that what works great in some areas, may not in others.

OK, now to the point.  I’m crazily tired of this either/or mentality that ‘some’ seem to have.  One great thing I believe our town has is its farmer’s market (the type that has existed for decades and decades around the country, though ‘some’ feel in the last few years they have invented the idea). Also a plus is our local grocery stores that feature food from local farmers.  It’s great!  It’s local!  It’s a type of regional food system!  And I take advantage of it when I can.  But does that provide all I need?  Of course not.  Could it?  No!  And that reality can be applied around the country, and around the world.

The following sentence is long, just a warning.  Why?  Because the lack of common sense and reality that will be explained is exhausting.

I am amazed that ‘some’ are willing to blindly, and I emphasize ‘blindly,’ believe that some or a number of so-called ‘experts’ with a few letters behind their names from some university, who have never incorporated the economic, political, labor structure, general market research data etc. of the entire farm to fork process, who choose to use statistics 30+ years old, and make incredible assumptions that labor forces will appear out of the air, combined with those who sorely lack any credentials, and simply have an agenda to push, can possibly have ‘solved’ the challenge of feeding the world.  Oh, by the way, most have never actually been on varied types of farms, but only the type they prefer.  If they have, it’s apparent they didn’t learn much. Reality is not a ‘model.’  It’s reality, that’s why they call it that.

There are parts of the country, and parts of the world, where local production systems (either organic or conventional) can be a great thing for the area, its farmers and rural and urban residents.  However, as hard as you try, you won’t grow much in the middle of a desert, and certainly not without substantial help from the latest technology (irrigation, infrastructure, etc.), and/or that ever-hated biotechnology.  And especially if you want a labor-intensive version, you can’t promote it based on dreaming up labor.  Big picture views and ideas are worthless without a reality check.

Also, apparently it’s our conventional ag system that is killing developing countries by squeezing them out of production, etc., even though it’s that very same system that has for so many decades been the teaching tool to get many developing countries to be more agriculturally self-sufficient.  What’s been found is that you’d better find a way to correct the governmental corruption and geographical/cultural limitations in many of those areas before you blame conventional agriculture for all the woes of the world.

I have actually seen some who say if it can’t be grown in a local area, they don’t need to eat it.  I’m not kidding!  Now there’s a brilliant plan isn’t it?  Let’s go beyond the obvious ‘balanced’ diet question to the fact I, for one, don’t accept that.  America is better than that.  I’m blessed to be here, and part of that is having freedom and choice in my life.  I think we’re good enough to conquer that ridiculous ‘sacrifice.’

Finally, let’s talk ‘sustainable.’  What a word!  For some reason the type of agriculture that has been practiced for centuries in this country is not ‘sustainable.’  Many ‘alternative’ ag proponents love to use 30, 40, 50 year-old information to make their points, making them not only wrong and misleading, but seemingly showing their own ignorance of the fact that modern agriculture is constantly improving, has made massive changes over time, and that the fact is Americans right now have the safest, most abundant and diverse food supply in the world.  Here’s a newsflash.  No one is more passionate about saving the land for the next generation than the farmer now tending it.

So, time for another reality check with a few facts of the ever-changing agriculture industry:

* The U.S. population spends about 10% on food, the least in the world, and they get the safest, most abundant food supply in the world.  That’s a good thing, though ‘some’ don’t seem to think so.  Ask someone without a job right now in this economy if they’re interested in paying more for ‘specialized’ food only.  Must be nice to have an elitist enough attitude that those in need don’t matter.  Here’s some valid info on ‘local’ system costs.

* Is ‘corporate ag’ taking over? Hardly.  98% of all farms in the U.S. are owned by individuals, family partnerships or FAMILY corporations, and still sell 82%+ of all ag products.

* The erosion rate on U.S. cropland has been reduced by more than 40% since 1982.  Please throw away your 50 year- old statistics!

* The amount of chemicals used on crops has dramatically decreased in recent decades.  Here’s a hint.  In this day, any farmer is an idiot to use more crop inputs than absolutely necessary.  They’re expensive, it would only cut into his/her profit, and if not used properly and it damages the land or water or crop, his/her source of livelihood is lost.  It’s also why residues today are negligible or non-existent.

* Is cropland squeezing out wildlife?  Through the Conservation Reserve Program, and the fact that deer, moose, fowl and other wildlife seem to love corn, milo, etc. the fact is that farmers and ranchers in the U.S. provide more than 75% of the food and habitat for wildlife.  And those wildlife have shown significant population increases for decades.

* Almost half of U.S. acres farmed use some form of conservation tillage, including buffer strips for lakes and streams, and the number continues to grow.

* Here’s an important one.  Farm programs & payments, which by the way, benefit ALL consumers, are only 13% of the USDA budget, and only 0.16 percent of total federal spending.  What’s the bulk of the USDA budget?  Nearly 60% is for SNAP (food stamps) and WIC (Women, Infant, & Children) supplemental nutrition programs.  Yea, let’s see, let’s make sure food is more expensive, since we already have to supply food assistance to a major percentage of our own population.  Now that’s brilliant economic policy.

* Also, technology has safely created the ability to grow dramatically more crop on fewer acres, saving sensitive lands worldwide and leading to less dependence on foreign oil.

All of the above is gleaned from USDA, ERS, ARMS survey, NRCS, the U.S. budget office, and FAS.

All this and more has made all of agriculture ‘sustainable’  for those who properly care for their land and animals, as all but a minute few do.  If a farmer and his family drink the same water, eat the same food, and work the same land for 3, 4, 5, 6 generations, and the water is still clean, the land is in better condition than in the past, and the future means another generation can be on the farm, that sounds pretty ‘sustainable’ to me.

There’s more, but here’s another reality.  Anything that is ‘sustainable’ will also have to be profitable.  You can hate all the free enterprise theories, big corporations, and whatever you want, it doesn’t change that fact, and fantasy ideas not based in reality won’t change it either.  If  it’s not profitable, it won’t last.

Are there parts of agriculture that can be better?  Of course, and that should constantly be a priority.  But let’s base those efforts on reality, on true science, and without a blind agenda.

A final personal note on ‘feeding the world.’  As part of a magazine special, an organization my family has been involved with for many years followed wheat from a Kansas field to Egypt.  It started with planting, the combine harvest, hauling the grain to the elevator, rail transportation to the port, shipping across the ocean to Egypt, to the mill and bakery, to the small vendors in Egypt who sold the bread (think about local, national and international job creation from agriculture in this path).

Several years ago I was fortunate enough to visit Egypt with my wife.  The vast majority of families we saw were very poor.  Among the places we visited was Cairo, a city of millions with lousy infrastructure, surrounded by desert and leftover military tanks from previous wars.  Because of infrastructure issues, an entrenched culture and other factors,  it’s actually less expensive for the country to import food than to set up the type of agriculture system needed to feed itself.  That decision has come from its own people recognizing the reality of this country over hundreds of years of  ‘modern’ existence, and won’t change based on a university ‘model’ dreamed up in a classroom with innacurate information, or ‘big picture’ thinking without the benefit of reality.

What Egypt has invested in is one of the best port systems in the region.  It shows the workings of a world economy, and how countries have chosen the path best for them, and why the U.S. must always remain a trusted and dependable trade partner.

Let’s think about those Egyptian families, living in an area where a local, regional, actually any major food system is impossible.  But they are able to buy that affordable bread, made with Kansas grain, and increasingly more types of food that can enter their port cities.  Smiles on the faces of  children because they have simple bread to eat and a more balanced overall diet should be a clear wake-up call of how much we take for granted in this country, and what we can offer.  Conventional agriculture and its system is providing that.  If anyone is expecting me to apologize for that, you’ll have a long wait.

Local and regional food systems can have great merit.  Where and when they work, they should be encouraged, and be a part of the overall agriculture conversation.  Where there is a market for organic-only products, then by all means, someone should serve that market.  But local and organic doesn’t mean ‘safer,’ or more ‘sustainable’ than truly modern agriculture.  Those who believe in ONLY local/regional/organic food systems should remember this.  Regardless of your agenda, and whether or not you’d like to ignore it, or whether you have such an elitist mentality that it just doesn’t matter to you, there’s still a moral obligation to affordably feed a growing world out there, and somebody has to do it.


One Response to Those who don’t like ‘Feeding the World’ never could

  1. Lianne says:

    Thanks for a balanced view. I too am tired of one size fits all agriculture ideas. It doesn’t work. Modern conventional agriculture is needed, and there’s plenty of room for alternative production.

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