New scrutiny and a new point of view
When something is dying, something else is always being born. You understand that from being on the farm. There is no vacuum in nature. Skipped rows grow weeds. So does overgrazed pasture.
I write these lines in reflection of the coming farm bill. It’s a time when ag editors typically wring their hands because, just like everyone else, they’re not sure what is coming. And predictions come harder this year.
In the past several farm bill cycles, you could be curious about what might happen, but the narrative was unsurprising. There would be adjusting here and there, maybe a shift in just how support gets paid out, but mostly, U.S. ag policy was steady as she goes. Something seems different this cycle. The billowing federal budget and the nation’s debt means real cuts are much more likely, and from somewhere deeper come reverberations of a fundamental shift.
There have been generally acknowledged grand shifts in agriculture—mechanization, synthetic fertilizer, the ascendence of herbicides and pesticides, and, most recently, the modern age of biotechnology and precision agriculture. All of these transitions in agriculture took place largely out of the public view. Agriculture, like the rest of society, gladly accepted the technological advances of the age, implementing them as logic would dictate into making the home place more efficient and prosperous.
Each new age of agriculture disrupts the last one. Mechanization made animal power redundant, and the feed that used to go to literal horse power was freed to feed livestock, which were shipped to the city (a city that had necessarily grown from the demographic disgorging of the countryside).
Synthetic fertilizer when joined with mechanization meant that grains could be grown far from the source of traditional organic fertilizer (the barn lot), and with greater yield per acre. That, in turn, meant even more folks could leave the farm. And so it went with the chemistry of pesticides and herbicides, biotechnology and precision agriculture. Each stacks on the last to boost the efficiency of human labor in the field.
Somewhere along the way, the public stopped ignoring agriculture. You can trace it back to the 1960s and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” or even farther to the post-World-War-II Rodale Institute if you want the seedlings of this change. But on my timeline of agriculture, I’m sticking a pin in 1996. It was then that biotechnology and this new phenomenon, the World Wide Web, swirled together to turbocharge public perception of agriculture. And that is what is rumbling deep in the memes of the day and threatening great change to agriculture as we know it.
What’s dying is public trust in agriculture. What’s replacing it has yet to come fully into view.
In recent years, the food consumer has been either scared into or coaxed into knowing more about food production. Of course, agriculture does well to expect its customers will be interested in safety and quality, and, if they want to delve into philosophy, ethics.
That kind of interest from the public is good for agriculture. Yet there is a growing notion that all of the shifts in agriculture I’ve just mentioned are a net liability. Public opinion is turned by queasiness about biotechnology (fomented by environmental groups). Local-food purists borrow carbon alarmism claims to suggest theirs’ is the one true path. Animal rights groups find a bad apple in livestock production to claim the entire industry must be curtailed (or better yet, eliminated). And soon, if it isn’t like old grandad’s place, it ought to be reformed.
The USDA said it wants 100,000 new farmers in the next few years, but the focus won’t be on commodities. The announcement generated cheering from the environmental crowd. But when Monsanto says it wants to double yield on commodity crops like corn and soybeans by 2030, there are sneers of contempt for the way they want to do it.
We could have both, but that doesn’t fit the narrative. Better to try to kill the old to make way for the new.
I like how Kurt Anderson put it in a recent Vanity Fair article about modern culture in the United States: “We seem to have trapped ourselves in a vicious cycle—economic progress and innovation stagnated, except in information technology; which leads us to embrace the past and turn the present into a pleasantly eclectic for-profit museum; which deprives the cultures of innovation of the fuel they need to conjure genuinely new ideas and forms; which deters radical change, reinforcing the economic (and political) stagnation.”
I wonder how that translates into farm bill language.