America's Agricultural Angst
Joel Kotkin, 01.19.10, 12:01 AM ET
In this high-tech information age few look to the most basic industries as sources of national economic power. Yet no sector in America is better positioned for the future than agriculture--if we allow it to reach its potential.
Like manufacturers and homebuilders before them, farmers have found themselves in the crosshairs of urban aesthetes and green activists who hope to impose their own Utopian vision of agriculture. This vision includes shutting down large-scale scientifically run farms and replacing them with small organic homesteads and urban gardens.
Troublingly, the assault on mainstream farmers is moving into the policy arena. It extends to cut-offs on water, stricter rules on the use of pesticides, prohibitions on the caging of chickens and a growing movement to ban the use of genetic engineering in crops. And it could undermine a sector that has performed well over the past decade and has excellent long-term prospects.
Over the next 40 years the world will be adding some 3 billion people. These people will not only want to eat, they will want to improve their intake of proteins, grains, fresh vegetables and fruits. The U.S., with the most arable land and developed agricultural production, stands to gain from these growing markets. Last year the U.S.' export surplus in agriculture grew to nearly $35 billion, compared with roughly $5 billion in 2005.
Yet none of this seems to be slowing the mounting criticisms of "corporate agriculture." A typical article in Time, called "Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food," assailed the "U.S. agricultural industry" for precipitating an ecological disaster. "With the exhaustion of the soil, the impact of global warming and the inevitably rising price of oil--which will affect everything from fertilizer to supermarket electricity bills--our industrial style of food production," the article predicts, "will end sooner or later."
The romantic model being promoted by Time and agri-intellectuals like Michael Pollan hearkens back to European and Tolstoyan notions of small family farms run by generations of happy peasants. But this really has little to do with the essential ethos of American agriculture.
It’s great to see common sense in the media these days. This columnist realizes that our goal should be to utilize technology, like we have for generations in agriculture, to improve our food supply and stop attacking family farmers and ranchers. The anti-agriculture crowd likes to pretend that they support families that farm but their actions show otherwise. Agriculture can supply the wealthy with their specialized food requests, but it’s unconscionable for them to force this upon everyone else.