Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Price of Food

We will not use this site for opinions on a regular basis. However, the issue addressed herein seems to be picking up steam, and I thought it was time to venture away from "planting dates and seeding rates" and respond to the issue. The following are the opinions of Chad Lee and not necessarily those of the University of Kentucky or the Cooperative Extension Service. We will get back to "planting dates and seeding rates" in future postings.

Is a highly efficient agriculture and cheap food necessarily a bad thing? A recent article by Brian Walsh for Time Magazine (Getting Real about the High price of Food, Aug. 21, 2009) suggests that it is and that our cheap food is an illusion and is really costing much, much more. This is the latest in a series of articles, books and films questioning modern agriculture and its methods.

Mr. Walsh ties pork production to pigs grown in extreme confinement, doped on antibiotics and fed with cheap corn grown with “millions of tons of chemical fertilizer.” The events of pork production are grossly distorted. To describe pork production that way is akin to suggesting that mountains of forests were clear-cut, tons of timber were milled and barrels of poisonous ink were used to print the very magazine in which the article appears.

Both statements above have a shade of the truth, but the truth is heavily draped in exaggeration and fear. The argument strikes at emotions, first, by telling people that they should be afraid of their food and then speckles in a few facts, distorted as they are, as an attempt to appeal to logic. The double-pronged approach is extremely effective.

The very tone of the article is indicative of people who worry very little about having enough to eat, a luxury not shared by many people around the world. In some ways, U.S. farmers and agriculture are victims of their own successes. In the United States, we now have the smallest percentage of the population producing the largest supply of food ever. By having a very small proportion of the people producing food, a very large proportion are free to pursue other interests, develop new technologies, advance new policies and to even become journalists.

As people move away from the farm and lose their connection with their distant ancestors, they tend to romanticize agriculture. Farming is often depicted as a “simpler lifestyle” as many urban dwellers remember summer visits to grandparents or cousins in the country. Memories of the old family farm mingle with songs like “Old McDonald’s Farm”, and television shows like “Little House on the Prairie” where all the animals live peacefully together in a single barn and the family spends more time singing or playing than actually working.

The reality is that agriculture always has been challenging. If it were not so, more people would live and work on the farm. Agriculture is inherently risky. It requires huge investments up front with only the potential for profits several months to years away. A drought or a flood or an outbreak of disease or insects can destroy crops and months of hard labor and investment. The goal of farmers, ranchers and researchers is to improve efficiency, quality and consistency of the food supply and the facts demonstrate our shared success. The result is a food supply that is the cheaper, safer and more abundant than ever . . . and unfortunately an urban population completely disconnected from the realities and challenges of agriculture.

This disconnection is clearly on display with what Mr. Walsh deems an acceptable farm. Mr. Walsh decries the modern large farms as being “factory farms” because they sell large quantities of cattle or crops. His alternative is Niman Ranch, which markets large amounts of “all-natural” beef, pork and poultry from many farms, has its own CEO and was founded by a former attorney for Earthjustice. So, Mr. Walsh complains about a modern feedlot operation who buys cattle from many smaller farmers across the country, finishes those cattle, and then sells those cattle at a price that is affordable by most households in the U.S. However, Mr. Walsh favors a farm corporation with a CEO who markets and sells cattle for many farms at a price that only the wealthy can afford. Bashing the large family farm in favor of another large corporation with projected 2008 revenues of $75million (according to Wikipeda) seems highly illogical.

Mr. Walsh says that the recent recalls and outbreaks are examples of a dangerous food supply that is getting more dangerous. The recalls are examples that the regulatory agencies are doing their jobs. Food contamination is as old as agriculture, itself . . . actually, it probably predates agriculture when people first killed animals and didn’t fully cook the meat, or when they used unsanitary methods to handle and consume fruits and vegetables. Mr. Walsh would likely suggest that we didn’t have recalls 100 years ago. He’s right. No one was checking; people just got sick and died!

Mr. Walsh says that farmers are eroding soils with modern agriculture. Erosion has and still does occur in the United States. In fact, erosion has always been a challenge in agriculture. The U.S. farmer in conjunction with researchers at Land Grant universities and the USDA Agricultural Research Service have worked very diligently over the last 100 years to develop production techniques that greatly reduced erosion. By comparison, the largest loss of soil from erosion from farming occurred in ancient Africa with primitive farming techniques. Mr. Walsh praises today’s ‘organic farmer’ as being sustainable. The irony is that organic farming uses practices very similar to those used by ancient Africans as they destroyed their soil resources.

The disconnect between those who consume food and those who produce it likely will widen as agriculture continues to improve production practices. Many modern farms are large farms, and many large farms are family farms. These family farms are intent on producing food safely, efficiently and sustainably. They think long term and are planning to pass on the farm and its natural resources to the next generation. The American consumer should thank the American farmer for producing such a safe, abundant and relatively inexpensive food supply…and for not having to produce it themselves.

The disconnect between people consuming food and the efforts of producing it are fertile ground for seeds of fear and distrust. Those of us who work in Cooperative Extension at Land Grant Universities constantly field questions from well-intentioned citizens who are genuinely concerned about their food. They are not exactly sure where and how their food is produced. Those who adamantly despise modern agriculture, or perhaps the consumption of animal proteins, are prolific at writing and communicating. They are very effective at delivering their message. Those engaged in producing food are much better at …well, at producing food. In general, we are great at talking shop with our counterparts, but we are terrible about explaining to our neighbors what we do. Those of us remaining in agriculture must defend the successes of modern farming.

The opinions of Chad Lee were expressed above and not necessarily those of the University of Kentucky or the Cooperative Extension Service.


  1. Thanks for this great article. Those who would seek to destroy American agriculture do not realize the hunger that will likely come with their success.

    However, I question whether today's organic farmers actually are using similar tactics as ancient Africans. I confess I don't know my African agricultural history well, but I suspect that they did not have access to soil testing, composts of different nutrient blends, or managed rotational grazing. My plea to you is the same as it is to all on both sides of the conventional vs. organic fence. There is room for both camps. Division and an us vs. them mentality will not help in the long run.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Intensive tillage is commonly used in organic production and it was that practice to which I was referring. There is research underway here and othe places to reduce or eliminate tillage in organic production. I probably should have stated "intensive tillage" in the posting.

  3. Tillage, when properly managed as modern organic farmers are required to do to be certified, is not necessarily a path to soil erosion or soil degradation. If I may call your attention to some USDA research from Beltsville


    With the money quote here "Results of this research suggest that organic
    farming systems can provide greater long-
    term soil improvement than conventional
    no-tillage systems, despite the use of tillage
    in organic systems."

    Organic agriculture in the US in 2009 is nothing like primitive African agriculture, and your attempt to somehow connect the two displays a willful ignorance of both types of agriculture. The real irony is that consumers who choose to purchase organic food are often the most educated consumers in the market place when it comes to knowing how food is produced and they know that farmers dont have to apply poisonous pesticides to crops as a matter of course, nor do animals have to suffer in poor living conditions, for good food to be produced. Just imagine, knowing first that just 10 years ago there were 151 certified organic research acres in the US compared to 800,000+ conventional acres and only 8 million of the USDA's 400 million dollars research budget went to organic researchers, what land grant universities could do with organic agriculture over the next 50 years given the money and resources used to study and support conventional agriculture. Even without the benefit of a supportive land grant university system, and having to battle an often hostile extension system, organic agriculture has become a 25 billion dollar segment of the food market and has even achieved yield parity with conventional producers.


    Please visit an organic farm and talk to an organic farmer, or at least read something about the topic not produced by Dennis Avery or anyone else who receives all their funding from chemical companies. Just like conventional farmers, organic farmers know the challenges and risks of agriculture, and are working just as hard at improving their own operations to secure an abundant food supply for everyone.

    Derek M Law

  4. The very tone of the article is indicative of people who worry very little about having enough to eat, a luxury not shared by many people around the world. In some ways, U.S. farmers and agriculture are victims of their own successes.


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