The morals of farming come by proxy
Prepare to have your moral obligations handed to you. I guess as a farmer, you’re used to such a thing by now. We’ve come a long way in the past 40 years—from fence-row-to-fence-row up to PIK, CRP and transition payments. Then there is the modern food-versus-fuel debate which is fueled by a very moral question indeed: is your obligation to feed the world or fuel it? Meanwhile, if you really want to dice up moral obligations and farming, visit with a Kentucky tobacco farmer about the Tobacco Transition Payment Program. It goes back farther, of course—someone has been telling farmers what they ought to be doing since this republic was founded.
Regardless, by your nature as a producer, you, the American farmer, focus on producing food and fiber in a manner that returns enough profit to risk it all again next year. You’ve become accustomed to allowing someone else tell you just how your efforts fit in terms of moral implications. You are not just a price taker, you’re a morals taker, too.
These thoughts come to mind after having read an interview from the Wall Street Journal Europe’s editorial page featuring Nestlé CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe.
Brabeck-Letmathe helms the world’s largest food producing company, so I give great credence to his opinion. His company moves markets and yours truly moves cursors across computer screens. I won’t soon debate him, but I do have questions generated from the opinions he offered in the article.
Brabeck-Letmathe laid out his vision in three basic generalities: We had ought not to burn food for fuel. We had ought not to fear biotechnology such as genetically modified crops, and we had ought to put market values on water.
On the food-for-fuel front, Brabeck-Letmathe told his interviewer that “What we call today the Arab Spring really started as a protest against ever-increasing food prices.” He went on to say that Westerners face food price spikes in much different ways than people in less developed countries, “people who we have been pushing back into extreme poverty with wrong policy making,” said Brabeck-Letmathe.
The implication is that one country’s attempt to level its resources at fuel independence can be a knock at food security to another country. He may be correct. These moral issues are complicated things, but if that’s true, isn’t it a fuel-producing country’s moral obligation to break price-fixing cartels? Which ones do?
Concerning biotechnology, Brabeck-Letmathe said that “If you look at those countries that have introduced GMOs, you will see that the yield per hectare has increased by about 30 percent over the past few years. Whereas the yields for non-GMO crops are flat to slightly declining.” He called that gap voluntary—a result of politics and emotion.
Is that a moral failing in the sense that there is 30 percent less food from those areas of production? Do we ultimately measure food’s worth by its utility in producing pure calories? Or do we measure by some qualitative scale? Either way, what, then, is our moral obligation to feed people versus blocking off large portions of habitat for nature preserves or species that are labeled as endangered? Should Klamath Valley be farm or desert?
That brings us to Brabeck-Letmathe’s ideas about water. “We would never have had a biofuel policy—never—if we would have given water any value,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “[It takes] 9,100 liters of water to produce one liter of biodiesel. You can only do that because water has no price. Give the 1.5 percent of the water [that we use to drink and wash with], make it a human right. But give me a market for the 98.5 percent so the market forces are able to react, and they will be the best guidance that you can have.”
Hang on a second. Those 9,100 liters it took to make a gallon of biodiesel—how many fell from the sky? How many were captured from reservoirs filled with runoff? And at the risk of sounding like a provincial rube, how much can I get when the waterway in my soybean field fills in a spring thunderstorm?
Water markets would require assigning value, ownership and access. Water markets equate to use rights—use of public goods that rarely end up being driven by markets as much as lobbying and political clout. Who will set those rights? Sadly, the answer is the same people who always have. But the pressure is on. Increasing world population will deliver some interesting mandates—for Nestle, for Brabeck-Letmathe and for you.