More than ever I find myself reminding my students that agriculture is full of complexities. After all, where else do you find a topic that revolves around biology, engineering, economics, marketing, weather, sociology, politics, etc…? Food represents THE ultimate convergence of disciplines.  

As such, it’s the most intricate and dynamic business of all - that’s what makes it so interesting! It also underscores the essential need for critical thinking about important issues related to food production. Shallow, indiscreet criticism simply isn’t constructive. Unfortunately, though, the mindless bashing of agriculture has become favorite sport in some circles. 

I recently stumbled across an editorial where that was on grand display. Specifically, the author was dismissing any thought of unintended consequences associated with heightened food safety regulation.  t doesn’t matter that proposed laws could potentially invoke “higher food prices making meat and poultry unaffordable sources of protein to some.”  Apparently, meat is simply a luxury that should be afforded only to the wealthy and elite.

When it comes to nutrition, how is such purchasing disparity so readily promoted? (Never mind that a sizeable portion of the U.S. population, not to mention the rest of the world, is currently struggling to feed their families.)  Justification for such an outlook is based on wholesale condemnation of animal agriculture. That’s illustrated by the quotes below included in the editorial (in each case the emphasis is mine to highlight some of the more incendiary comments).     

  • “…pigs can be raised sustainably and humanely for only slightly more than conventionally-tortured ones…”
  • Enter industrial agriculturepropped up by massive government tax subsidies…”
  • “Top it all off with government-sponsored “check-off” programs…”
  • While creating a national pastime of eating industrial animal products three times a day may have been a boon to Big Agribusiness (not to mention Big Pharma….for the rest of us it’s been a public health disaster.
  • “Let’s leave alone for now the ethical questions…after all the animals are ultimately killed for our eating pleasure.
  •  “…plus the inevitable greenwashing, all educating consumers on how they can have their meat and eat it too.”
  • “…the American diet became centered on animal products, thanks to subsidized industrial agriculture, combined with incessant marketing bordering on brainwashing (e.g., meat = protein)….”
  • “…for the foreseeable future most food resulting from such animals [raised non-conventionally] will come at higher prices, meaning that only a small segment of the population will be able to afford it and many of these folks will likely be forced to eat less of it.” 
  • “…instead of fretting over the high cost of organic eggs we should focus on changing the bigger picture…Then maybe we would make some progress toward shifting the American diet to health-promoting, disease-preventing plant-based foods.  Just like things used to be.

Amidst the elitist rhetoric and erroneous labeling (e.g. conventionally tortured) there’s a troubling grand finale: the belief that transformation and evolution of food production is the crux of the world’s problems. It’s a preferred argument; agriculture has gotten too modern or too big or too fast. That camp possesses an enduring belief that food production was somehow more commendable, more wholesome, more effective in the good old days. If only agriculture would turn back the clock, then all would be right with the world.     

That’s a scary thought.  While the rest of the world’s economy continues to advance and innovate, food production would be stuck somewhere in time. The Center for Food Integrity addresses that ideology in a meaningful way: “If the number of farms and level of productivity remained constant since1950, there would be no food for anyone in the following states – California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia.” (The nine represent the most populous states in the U.S. accounting for 151 million people – or nearly half of the America’s population.)  Looking backwards has never been a meaningful solution.

In the end agriculture has the greatest responsibility of all – we’re accountable for providing nourishment for our fellow citizens. That’s THE fundamental wheel around which all others turn. And prospects for nine-billion people by 2050, coupled with all the other changes going on in the world, means nothing – especially food production - can ever exist, “just like [it] used to be.”