Laura asked me to speak to you tonight about alternative agriculture. As I thought about what I might say to you I realized that I don’t believe there are any alternatives. I believe that humankind is at a critical juncture in our evolution and the time has come to re-develop a sustainable farming system that does not attempt to “feed the world”, as some would have us believe our mission is, but enables the world to feed itself. A sustainable food system is not on a list of options from which we can make choices. It is an imperative.
The industrial agriculture model we call the most efficient food system in the world uses 8 calories of fossil fuel to deliver 1 calorie of food to the consumer. This can hardly be called a sustainable or efficient system. And has only been made possible because of cheap oil, poorly compensated farmers and distorted bookkeeping. We must work to develop food systems that rely on a regionally based network of farms producing all of the food needs for all the inhabitants, and not just those who can afford it
I would like you to consider a quote by Wm. McDonough, a systems designer and architect who gave the keynote address at the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture winter conference in 1999. He said, “Design is the first signal of human intention”. The design of our systems is a reflection of our intent. I don’t believe we intended to design a system of agriculture that pollutes our water, degrades our soil, enslaves our farmers and is incapable of feeding all of us. I do believe we are suffering from design failure and that failure is not the fault of well intentioned, hard working farmers but of farm policy designed to favor corporations.
We must ask ourselves some questions about what our food system has become.
Is there a connection between the epidemic of obesity and this country’s fast food diet?
As we moved animals off pasture and medicated them to survive close confinement, is the overuse of antibiotics for them resulting in antibiotic resistance in bacteria that sicken humans?
When we genetically imbedded pesticides in our crops, were the long term health implications that affect humans considered or tested?
Our short term, profit driven thinking has disregarded the unintended consequences of our poor design.
Someone once said that farm bills should be called food bills because they affect all Americans, not just farmers. In a global marketplace, as we have now, the impact of U.S. farm policy is also felt worldwide.
Consider how farms receive public support. Farmers receive subsidies based on how many acres they farm and how many bushels they produce. When the price farmers receive falls below the cost of production, the subsidies cover the difference. This system creates an incentive to produce as much as possible causing surpluses that drive down prices and fuel the need for continued and ever increasing subsidies. This is a vicious cycle. The American taxpayer is funding a system that fuels the engine of commodity overproduction and farm expansion. The ramifications of this failure are felt locally and globally.
Consider these facts that have an impact on the local level:
In 1978, sociologist Walter Goldschmidt wrote a landmark study of agriculture’s effects on economic and social conditions in neighboring communities. It found that communities surrounded by industrial farms display less economic development and more social problems than do rural communities set in the midst of small to medium sized family farms. Where do those costs get figured into the balance sheet?
Over 92% of all farmers rely on off-farm income, but we are looking for jobs that are no longer here and in many cases going elsewhere to seek employment. The Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service, in a report last year, showed a correlation between counties that received the highest crop subsidies and those that suffered the most rapid population decline.
Two-thirds of the nation’s farmers receive little or no benefit from farm programs because they produce “non program” foods like fruits, vegetables, meat and hay. More than 78% of subsidies funnel to 8% of the nation’s producers.
Over 400,000 farms have either gone out of business or been consolidated into larger operations since 1978.
From 1984 to 1998 consumer food prices, adjusted for inflation, increased by 3% while prices paid to farmers dropped 36%. In the early 1900’s farmers received about 50 cents of the food dollar, on average, we now receive under a dime.
A system originally designed as a safety net for farmers now gives the lion’s share of farm payments to those who need it least.
On the global level, the story can be more devastating.
When subsidy driven surpluses of cotton, rice, corn and wheat flood world markets, more than small and medium sized U.S. farms suffer.
Developing nations like Africa’s Mali, Mozambique and Senegal have no tax supported safety nets. Their cotton producers on small landholdings cannot compete against subsidized U.S. cotton that is sold below the cost of production. This forces farm families out of business and into over crowded cities and further adds to world poverty and hunger.
U.S. corn subsidies have had a similar effect on Mexico’s farmers. When their incomes fall too low, these farmers must migrate to cities to find work. They aren’t jumping the fence because life is good! How ironic that the more we produce, the more we contribute to economic inequality, both here and abroad.
So how might we re-design our farm policy?
First of all, public money should not be linked to production as it is now. This practice serves only to distort the market. Tax dollars should be invested in programs that deliver the broadest public benefits and do no harm to poor farmers here or in other countries.
Public money should not be used to clean up the mess we make. Corporate agriculture should be held responsible for cleaning up after itself. Our present system acts as an enabler by rewarding bad behavior and will continue to do so until the incentive to be poor stewards is removed.
We should expand conservation programs. 80% of this money is used to take land out of production and plant it in soil saving vegetation. This is a good practice, but more money should go to active farmers who are using the best environmental practices.
We should expand rural development programs that promote living, local economies. This could provide much needed jobs in rural areas. It would also increase food security by decentralizing our food system making it less vulnerable to contamination (hello, California spinach), terrorism, insect pests and diseases, (hello, soybean rust)
We should redirect agricultural research at public universities toward more sustainable, environmentally friendly farming practices. This would reduce the death grip corporate agriculture has on the land grant university research system. These companies paid lobbyists over $119 million dollars in 1998. To put that figure in perspective, lobbyists for military contractors were paid a measly 49 million dollars in the same year.
Lastly, I would like to see a farm policy that embraces the idea that in a just society no one should go hungry or be malnourished. In a country with a national eating disorder that has resulted in an epidemic of obesity, it is unconscionable that 39 million Americans do not have a secure food supply.
In closing, I would like to say that it is my belief that farmers can and should be the first line of defense in our health care system, providing people with healthy, nutritious food that does not compromise their immune systems. I further believe that we, as farmers, should be well compensated for fulfilling that responsibility.