food systems

If you ever wanted to understand the debate over the future of our food system, you only had to attend the "Future Trends in Animal Agriculture" conference in Columbus a few years back. On one hand, speakers touted large-scale animal confinement facilities to boost Ohio's farm economy. On the other hand, animal rights activists warned that these facilities, like the recently shut down million-chicken AgriGeneral sheds in western Ohio, are economic and environmental horrors, as well as being immoral.

The two sidesyou can call them industrial agriculture and sustainable agriculturedebated all day without compromise. Each viewed the other as advocating a path to disaster.

Industrial agriculture

The industrial agriculture speakers believed they represented bedrock American beliefs and values, a natural assumption for them since industrial agriculture is indeed the mainstream of modern agriculture and rewards its spokespersons well. These beliefs include:

  • Continued economic growth is necessary and desirable.
  • Expanded productivity is essential to ensure abundant, cheap food.
  • Larger farm units and improved labor efficiency are key to continued agricultural modernization and farm profitability.
  • Technological innovation is an appropriate measure of agricultural progress.
  • Profit and production maximization should be the primary goals of farm operators.

The speakers pointed out with pride that America has the most dependable, best food system the world has ever known. Cheapest food. Astonishing efficiency. Just two percent of Americans are farmers, and they not only feed the U.S. but a good part of the rest of the world besides. Anyone who questions this system, the speakers said, is either naive or living an "eco-activist fantasy."

"The sustainable agriculture movement is a sham," said Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute, a free market-oriented think tank. To feed the world, we need ever-higher yields from genetically-engineered seeds and intensive chemical use. If we reject such methods, we will be forced to farm less efficiently, cultivate more land, and devastate the earth's remaining natural areas. "Sustainable agriculture won't sustain people, wildlife or topsoil," Avery said.

Sustainable agriculture

"How can you say that?!" the sustainable agriculture folks cried back. "It's industrial agricultural that's not sustainable."

The sustainable agriculture advocates went by various labelsorganic, alternative, ecological, low-input, bio-dynamic, regenerativebut they all saw food not only as a product but as part of a living ecosystem for which they were temporary stewards. They were united by profound concerns about the impacts of conventional agricultural practices. Soil depletion. Water pollution. Crops hooked on pesticides. High-energy inputs based on nonrenewable petroleum (they noted that it takes nearly 10 calories of energy to get one calory of food into the mouth of a typical American). The loss of small, family farms. The increasing monopolization of the food system by multinational conglomerates with no allegiance to any nation, much less to any local community. To the sustainable agriculture speakers, "agribusiness" was a dirty word.

They sounded frustrated that their concerns were not being addressed by the agricultural establishment. Gene Logsdon, a writer/farmer from Wyandot County, spoke about his management-intensive rotational grazing methods, which enable a farmer to reduce pesticide and fertilizer applications, reduce use of heavy machinery and reduce reliance on farm subsidies.

"All this puts money in the hands of the farmer, not in the pockets of agribusiness," Logsdon said. But the agricultural establishment represses such methods, he charged. "An unholy alliance of government bureaucracy, universities and business in this state...can shout their half-truths from the rooftops, and they have the money to make them come true. I don't even exist to them...They have defined me out of existence."

Bridging the two worlds

Thus, you can hear two world views of foodtwo views with different languages and attitudes, different data and assumptions. It seems a wide chasm to bridge. EcoCity Cleveland suggests that the chasm can be bridged and is being bridged as the ideas of the sustainable agriculture movement inexorably percolate into the mainstream.

Granted, it's a slow process of change. Industrial agriculture is still dominant all over the globe, and the movement for an alternative food system is comparatively small and weak. It's the local food co-op vs. Archer Daniels Midland, the self-proclaimed "Supermarket to the World."

Yet there are glimmers of hope, examples of a new food system being born. You can see it in the rapidly growing interest in local, organic foods. In the growth of programs linking consumers with local farms. In the growing concern about agricultural pollution. In the growing pressures on world grain reserves as soil and water resources are depleted. In small programs for sustainable agriculture taking root at the land grant ag colleges. Even in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which set up a sustainable agriculture program in response to President Clinton's Council on Sustainable Development. Slowly but surely, the formerly unorthodox ideas of the sustainable agriculture advocates are becoming official best management practices.

Continued change will depend on more people caring about the sources of their food and how it gets to their tables. More people will have to question, for instance, whether it makes sense for taxpayers to subsidize irrigation in Californian mega-farms so that cheap lettuce (which is mostly water) can be shipped cross-country to the Great Lakes region where water is abundant. How long can such practices be sustained?

If people really thought about itpeople on both sides of the food system debatemost would agree on what we all want as humans who share a fragile planet and who all need to eat. As a recent newsletter of the Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association suggested, we want our agriculture to sustain a few basic things: "Families. Profit. The long-term ability of the soil to produce. A clean, healthy environment. Abundant, wholesome food. Strong rural communities...We want short-term returns (because we can't survive without them) and long-term sustainability."

If we can agree on such goals, perhaps we can all cross the bridge to a more sustainable food system.

The above list of values of industrial agriculture comes from Planting the Future: Developing an Agriculture that Sustains Land and Community edited by Elizabeth Ann Bird, Gordon Bultena and John Gardner.

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