We take on five myths surrounding America's food system
If you follow popular movies, books and media coverage these days, you might think that large corporations are taking over America’s farms, and that only the largest farmers succeed. Some might also question the quality and safety of food and conventional farming practices.
There are many sides to the story, and most of us probably view the issues as grey areas rather than black and white. If you relish the opportunity to learn more about the complex realities behind our food system, read on. Next time you hear an ag myth, you may be more prepared to counter questionable claims—all within the bounds of civilized discourse, of course.
Most farms are run by corporations!!
Reality: 98 percent of all American farms are family owned.
We who live in rural America realize that families raise the food and fiber in this country. USDA surveys show that 98.3 percent of all American farms are owned by individuals, family-held corporations or partnerships. If more than one family member becomes involved in the operation, families often form partnerships or corporations for legal or tax reasons.
USDA conducts an exhaustive Census of Agriculture every five years. Here’s what they uncovered about who owns America’s 2.2 million farms in 2007.
• Individuals/family, sole proprietorship 86.5%
• Family-held corporations 3.9%
• Partnerships 7.9%
Subtotal, family organizations 98.3%
• Non-family corporations .5%
• Others—co-ops, estates, trusts, institutions 1.3%
In case your city friends think factory farms and corporate agriculture are growing—they’re misinformed. Farm organization characteristics remain stable—the above percentages changed little from 1997 to 2007.
Only the largest farms succeed!!
Reality: Farm size doesn’t necessarily equate with success.
The 2007 Census of Agriculture actually showed an increase in the number of small farms. USDA defines small farms as those with $250,000 or less in agricultural sales. In 2007, small farms accounted for 91 percent of all farms.
Missouri boasts a lot of smaller farms—the census recorded 108,000 farms with an average 269 acres each. Just 17 percent of the state’s farms brought in ag sales of $50,000 or more in 2007.
It’s true that concentration in agriculture continues to rise—it’s mid-sized and large farm numbers that show a decline. In 2002, out of two million farms, just 144,000 produced 75 percent of the value of U.S. agriculture production. In 2007, the number producing that same share declined to 125,000.
None of the data tells us whether larger farmers are more successful. For the answer, we turn to Daryl Oldvader, CEO of FCS Financial, which finances farmers across most of Missouri. “What’s small, and what’s successful?” he asked. “Like beauty, they’re in the eye of the beholder. But when we analyze whether to finance an operation, the size of the operation doesn’t enter into our decision.”
Lenders consider management ability a more accurate predictor of success than size. Most evaluate management ability by assigning a credit rating to each borrower based on the five Cs of credit—character, capacity, capital (net worth), collateral and conditions (loan terms). They also look at a farmer’s business and marketing plans, cost of production, risk management tools and financial ratios.
“If it were true that larger farms do better than smaller farms, then only smaller operators would have credit problems—and that’s not the case,” Oldvader said. “Size doesn’t always relate to financial stability. In fact, larger farms have greater risk potential.”
Danny Klinefelter, an economist and professor with Texas AgriLife Extension at Texas A&M University, concurs. He works with farmers of all sizes and types. “A lot of large farmers get big because they’re good managers,” he said. “But before you get big, you gotta get better.”
While size can lead to economies of scale, Klinefelter believes that farmers of all sizes must use the best available technology to succeed. In addition, he knows many producers who choose to run small or medium-sized operations because they don’t want the extra risk or the hassle of managing employees.
Going local saves resources!!
Reality: It depends on the product, the season and your geography.
Over the past two decades, we’ve heard about consumers going local—demanding food grown closer to home. In many cases going local makes sense. Buying local can mean that your food may be fresher. It spreads your dollars throughout your community and helps the local economy. If you buy from a farmer that you know, you can learn how the food has been raised. Plus, it’s fun getting to know the grower.
Locavores also base their demand for local food on this concept—locally produced food doesn’t travel as far to reach your table, so its production and transport takes less energy. The local food movement coined the term “food miles” to refer to the distance that food travels.
George Mason University recently published an article, Yes We Have No Bananas: A Critique of the Food Miles Perspective, by Pierre Desrochers, associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto, and Hiroko Shimizu, research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
“The evidence presented suggests that food miles are, at best a marketing fad,” the authors state. “But one which so frequently and so severely distorts the environmental impacts of agricultural production that it could be liable to prosecution under false advertising statutes.”
The concept of food miles ignores the advantages that fertile land and agreeable climate give some producers. Blake Hurst, president of Missouri Farm Bureau, reviewed the article in The Weekly Standard in 2010 and interpreted how the concept can be flawed. He compared strawberries grown in California, where the climate is perfect for the crop, and those grown in heated Canadian greenhouses in the winter. “In December, strawberries from California can be shipped to market in Canada with less total energy use than the locally grown crop,” he explained. “The food miles are greater, but the carbon footprint is smaller.”
Hurst also offered a row crop example. “If my corn yield is 200 bushels an acre, while farmers in Tennessee achieve half that yield from comparable inputs, then I can afford to ship my crop a longer distance.”
As Desrochers and Shimizu pointed out, locavores likely pay more, suffer a lack of variety and spend more time shopping. When it comes to variety, are we willing to give up strawberries in February, or coffee, sugar and bananas that aren’t grown in the U.S.?
When it comes to price, according to surveys that Hurst has seen, only five percent of consumers will pay more for local, organic or sustainably grown food. “Many, many more people will pledge allegiance to the local food movement than will actually pay a premium in price or inconvenience for local food,” he said, based on experience at his greenhouse in Tarkio, where he and his wife grow vegetable starts and flowers.
Desrochers and Shimizu concluded their paper with this kernel: “These issues are generally discussed in an emotional context, based on activists’ distrust of large corporations and romanticization of subsistence agriculture rather than on scientific or reliable information based in fact.
Subsistence agriculture, which is ultimately what the food-miles concept boils down to, is of course feasible, but it implies significant trade-offs that may not be readily apparent to most people who fail to understand that our modern food supply chain is a demonstrably superior alternative that has evolved through constant competition and ever more rigorous management efficiency.”
GMOs are dangerous!!
Reality: USDA and the European Commission have conducted up to 25 years of studies and found that biotech crops are as safe as conventionally bred plant varieties.
While some people question the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMO), there is no scientific evidence to support claims that they are unsafe. While this fact doesn’t take long to relate, arguments against GMOs follow a long, emotional path.
When discussing the issue with concerned consumers, you might gently inform them that the horse is already out of the barn. We’ve been eating genetically modified food for years now—America’s farmers have enthusiastically embraced the technology. In Missouri, for example, a 2011 survey of farmers by USDA showed that 85 percent of all corn planted was genetically engineered, and 91 of all soybeans. Other Corn Belt states show even higher adoption levels.
Farmers plant GMO seeds to increase profits. Some seed varieties resist insects (Bt), and others tolerate herbicides. GMO seeds have increased yields dramatically, keeping food prices in check and feeding a hungry world.
The same folks who fight GMOs also demand a more sustainable agriculture. In reality, GMOs have made agriculture production more sustainable in a number of ways.
“Because yields are higher and they require lower inputs, biotech varieties conserve water and farmland and are more sustainable,” said Henry Miller, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, in a recent article in Regulation Magazine. “They lessen the need for chemical pesticides and make possible more environment-friendly agronomic practices such as no-till farming, which causes less soil erosion and runoff and releases less carbon into the atmosphere… Farmers have found biotech crops to be so reliable and cost-effective that plant genetic engineering has been the most rapidly adopted agriculture technology in history, expanding worldwide from just 4.2 million acres in 1996 to over 330 million in 2010.”
Miller criticized the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture’s recent slowdown of USDA’s approval of genetically modified alfalfa and sugar beets, despite 12 years of USDA research showing they’re safe. The objection comes from organic growers and consumers who worry that GMO seeds will drift into organic fields.
Blake Hurst also writes about the controversy. Like many scientists and farmers, he views GMO seeds as a logical step forward from hybridization, which has been around since Gregor Mendel experimented with peas in the 1850s. “Farmers in the U.S. began adopting hybrid seeds in the 1920s, and hybrids have increased yields for every crop which lends itself to hybridization,” Hurst said.
The world needs the increased production made possible by GMO technology. “The UN estimates that we’ll have to increase food production by about 70 percent by the year 2050 in order to keep pace with the expected worldwide growth in population and income,” Hurst added.
We should get back to organic farming!!
Reality: There’s no scientific proof that organic foods are better for you or the environment.
Sales of organic foods grew to $26.7 billion in the U.S. in 2010, according to the Organic Trade Association. And consumer-driven demand for organics continues to grow. There may be nothing wrong with purchasing organic foods—if you can afford them. They generally cost at least 10 percent more than conventionally raised products.
Some conventional farmers have begun producing organic products to capture additional profits. Still, organic farms remain a tiny share of all farming operations. Of America’s 2.2 million farmers, 12,941 of them were certified by USDA as organic operations in 2008, operating on 4.8 million acres of a total of 922 million acres farmed in the U.S., according to USDA’s Economic Research Service.
But raising organic products usually reduces yield. Let’s examine the science before we abandon fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and other technologies adopted over the last century.
Christie Wilcox wrote an article in the July 18, 2011, Scientific American titled Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture. Her first myth: Organic farms don’t use pesticides. “There are over 20 pesticides commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops that are approved by the U.S. Organic Standards,” she said. She pointed out that the government doesn’t record the volume used, that many organic pesticides are used more intensively than synthetic chemicals because organics are less effective, and that organic pesticides may be worse for the environment and food safety than those used on conventional farms. “Organic foods tend to have higher levels of potential pathogens,” she added.
Wilcox’s second myth: Organic foods are healthier. “Some people believe that by not using manufactured chemicals or genetically modified organisms, organic farming produces more nutritious food,” she says. “However, science simply cannot find any evidence that organic foods are in any way healthier than non-organic ones—and scientists have been comparing the two for over 50 years.”
When comparing the benefits of conventional versus organic foods, Wilcox suggests you must know the grower’s practices. “It really depends on exactly what methods are used by crop producers,” she said. “Both organic and conventional farms vary widely in this respect. Some conventional farmers use no pesticides. Some organic farms spray their crops twice a month.” She brings up one benefit of buying locally: “To really know what you’re in for, it’s best if you know your source.”
She also pointed out that organic farms produce far less food per land unit than conventional. “Until organic farming can produce crops on par in terms of volume with conventional methods, it cannot be considered a viable option for the majority of the world,” Wilcox concluded.