Dueling visions of Big Ag

Big Ag! What is it good for? Absolutely Nothing! suggests Mark Bittman. Robert Paarlberg comes to Big Ag’s defense. Bittman gives his assessment on Big Ag and Big Food in Animal, Vegetable, Junk. Paarlberg counters him in Resetting the Table.  Rachel Laudan suggested these two books for us. They provide insight into threats and promises of modern agriculture and food technology.

Steph vineyard
Threat or promise of agriculture? Raffaldini Vineyards in Ronda, North Carolina. Photo by Stephanie Riggan

The downside of Big Ag is what we learn in Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal. Bittman has much to say. The book is not an easy read. I found his account to be rambling and hard to follow. He presents us with a long history of agriculture. He takes us back to the time humans started planting seeds that dropped from plants. About the same time, we discovered fire and prepared the first home-cooked meal. On the whole agriculture wasn’t a good idea. With it brought civilization and all its associated problems. We would have been better off staying with hunting and gathering. It is doubtful that we would be facing the population pressures we have today. Global climate change would not be a problem. Then again, most of us wouldn’t be here today.

Agriculture goes global. Famines plague mankind. Fast forward to agriculture in Europe and America. European farmers abandoned the practices of crop rotation and soil replenishment. Not to worry! Justus von Liebig had the answer—fertilizer!  It came in natural (guano, bird poop) and artificial forms. If the West had not become hooked on fertilizers, we would still use crop rotation and green manure. Americans cultivated a taste for wheat and meat. This preference set the stage for the American way of farming. Corn was a cheap source of animal feed. This preference set the stage for the American way of farming. Then came the 20th Century and the dawning of industrial farming.

The harder farmers worked the sooner Big Ag took them over. The Great Depression winnowed out the farming community. Corporations displaced the family farm. The industrial farm came of age. The Black farmer suffered worst of all. Government policies favored white farms over their Black counterparts. Okies left depleted soils heading west for greener pastures. Animal feedlots took over. These operations were more efficient and reduced costs. If agriculture was a bad idea, factory farms were much worse. The author’s prescription for fixing the American farm is agroecology.  It advocates “producing food in harmony with the planet and its inhabitants.”

long line of cattle feeing at a trough
Cattle feeding operations.  Photo by Brian Prechtel. 

Corporations remove people from the land. Producing food is about people. We need more people on the land, not less, to produce food sustainably. Animal, Vegetable, Junk calls for more fallowing of the land, more crop rotation, and more organic farming. We must maintain the sustainability of the land and its crops. Global climate change knocks on our door. We don’t have much time to make these changes. The challenge is huge but achievable. Bittman makes many valid points. Too often he oversimplifies to paint a bleak preface to the woes we find ourselves in today. Read Rachel Laudan’s Cuisine and Empire for a more balanced view of food in history. Turn to Revolution Down on the Farm for the transformation of American agriculture since the Depression.

A more positive view of the agricultural giant emerges from Resetting the Table: Straight Talk About the Food We Grow and Eat. Robert Paarlberg presents a well-organized defense of Big Ag. His expertise is economics. He is a wizard with numbers. Not a fan of local, organic, slow food, he notes that this is Africa’s strategy. The continent suffers from massive hunger and food insecurity. Resetting the Table tackles industrial farming describing its pros and its cons. Critics of American agriculture cite overdependence on corn and soybeans. These crops are grown to feed cattle and pigs. It’s not Big Ag’s fault. Too little money comes back to the farm. Growers, the preferred term for farmers, receive only 7.8 cents of the food dollar. Processors grab another 15 cents. Over 77% of the food economy is out of the hands of growers and processors.

Combine harvesting barley in a very large field
Barley harvest in Washington’s Palouse Hills.

Local is no longer an option. The eaters of food and its producers do not live close enough to each other. The author takes the class he teaches at Harvard to beautiful, local farms. The experience enthralls the students, but New England farms are insufficient to feed its population. Fresh produce from hobby farms may make it to farmers markets, but small operations can’t fill supermarket shelves. Most of their food comes from the Midwest. America imports much of its fresh produce from other countries.

Organic farming is labor intensive. Labor costs and lower yields make organic crops more expensive to grow. These expenses reflect higher prices at the store. A hostess at a luncheon announced that everything at her meal was organic. The author refrained from telling her that she paid too much. A willingness and ability to overpay for organic reeks of privilege. Organic doesn’t guarantee sustainability of the food supply, but environmental degradation in the country is a concern. The author argues that it is the scale of operations and not the way we grow food that causes these problems.

We produce too much food for an insatiable population. Methods of growing crops have become more sustainable in recent years. We welcome an environmental disaster by trying to go back to the old ways. Agroecology is not the answer. It works well in experimental settings. It is too labor intensive even in countries with vast labor markets to be profitable. We would need to hire many more migrants or workers from our cities to make it work.

Around the world, a consuming public relies on peasants to produce its food. Africa is a case in point. Much of the misery results from lack of access to appropriate technology. African growers need “improved rural roads, rural electricity, powered machines, irrigation pumps, improved seeds, chemical fertilizers, and veterinary medicine for their animals.” Limits to infrastructure result from corrupt governments. Aid organizations pushing agroecology suppress technology that could raise growers out of poverty. Europe exerts a neocolonial mentality on national governments. It ties its foreign aid to unrealistic anti-technological standards. Greater use of GMOs will increase crop yield, but Europe has poisoned the well against them. Most governments ban their use. Amanda Little expressed similar sentiments in The Fate of Food.

Resetting the Table devotes a chapter to the current and future status of farm animals. It points out that farms are more efficient at producing meat and milk than in earlier times. Advances in cattle production reduced methane pollution through technology. Animal husbandry is much more sustainable than it was a few decades ago. These achievements came despite increased demand for food from animals. The downside of the advances is a decline of animal welfare on factory farms. Rather than condemn current practices, Paarlberg points to possible improvements. The Humane Society and fast-food giants aid in improving animal welfare. Europe is more progressive with its animal population. One way to improve their lives is to give them species- appropriate toys. Sound silly? Think about our domestic dogs and cats. We should decrease our consumption of animal products. This single action promotes health, animal welfare, and sustainability.

The book places much of Big Ag’s problems on Big Food. We eat too much junk and not enough healthy food in America. Big Ag needs to stand up to Big Food. The author encourages farming organizations to pair up with public health officials. Growers should be out front in condemning unhealthy foods. “I don’t want my story told by companies that turn my wholesome harvest into Frosted Flakes and Doritos!” states Paarlberg. So where do growers sell their wholesome grains if not to large cereal companies? Placing the blame on Big Food reminds me of a Christmas story. A local reporter interviewed a store owner about unsafe toys. The owner walks over to a nearby shelf and picks up a skateboard. “Some people will sell anything just to make a buck!” Anyone who profits from an enterprise bears responsibility for its injustices. Big Ag and Big Food are dependent on each other.

Which vision is right? I was fortunate to spend time with three uncles who happened to be farmers. One of the happiest weeks of my life was on a grain farm with my cousin, aunt, and uncle. As a pre-teen I drove a truck, a tractor, and a swathing machine! As a food scientist my research focused more on agriculture than most of my colleagues. My vision aligns much more with Paarlberg than with Bittman. Resetting the Table is more organized and easier to read than Animal, Vegetable, Junk. The former sets Big Ag in the 21st Century. The latter harkens back to agriculture in earlier decades. Both books provide food for thought on past, present, and future agriculture. Read them both to make your decision. The perspectives of these authors on Big Food are closer together. But I will save that discussion for next week.

Next week: The problem with Big Food from two perspectives

8 thoughts on “Dueling visions of Big Ag

  1. Here’s how I see things. I’m not a fan of Mark Bittman and the activist agenda, but I do appreciate the benefits of the agricultural system he describes. Regional, seasonal, and smaller scale cultivation produces foods that tastes so good. It’s a system that favors variability and uniqueness. A perfect peach is my idea of a perfect dessert. On the other hand, industrial agriculture favors predictability, sameness, and consistency. There’s a place for both. Folks like me will always be attracted to more regional production. But that doesn’t mean industrial agriculture doesn’t have a viable and necessary role feeding the global population.

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    1. Hi Linn, I know that taste (or flavor) is of utmost interest to you, and you are willing to pay more for high-quality items. I also know that you are sophisticated enough to know the difference. When I was conducting research on fresh fruits and vegetables, I would buy samples from local supermarkets. I also went to a little produce stand just outside the gate of the experiment station. We used it as our negative control. Its wares were always the lowest quality. I actually think they went to the farmers market up in Atlanta and bought the rejects. Because it was an independent stand, consumers who didn’t know better flocked to it and believed that they were getting a superior, local items. It’s not just Big Ag and Big Food that scam consumers. I agree that there is a place for both local and industrial production. If, however, we shut down industrial production of fresh fruits and vegetables, many consumers would not have access to them. That was Paarlberg’s point. Both Bittman and Paarlberg would agree that eating industrial fruits and vegetables is preferable to eating ultra-processed foods.

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  2. I appreciate this post. I have read neither book but I wonder if either of them talked about the cost of water and the impending water shortage that is going to happen. In my experience we don’t take into account the full cost of water that grow fruits and vegetables, and I wonder if that is true with current animal agriculture approaches. I don’t know how agriculture can move forward efficiently without addressing the role of water in food production, and fully accounting for it’s cost. In my relatively uninformed opinion I think how we utilize water in the future may drive different choices about what we eat (and that may be out of neccisity in some areas). While Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger may not be more healthy for you, I wonder what their water foodprint is compared to traditional ranch / poultry house/ CAFO agriculture. I definitely want to check out Paarlberg book.

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    1. Excellent points. I went back to each book, and found that both authors addressed the topic. Bittman writes about how dependent modern agriculture is on irrigation. He predicts that we will have water shortages in the future that will affect food production. Paarlberg focuses more on advances in technology such as smart, drip irrigation that will use water much more efficiently. Water use was not a major point in either book. I may try to devote a month of posts later in the year on water use and its challenges in agricultural production.

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