Why do we always seem to take sides these days?
In politics, it’s either hardcore conservatism or bleeding heart liberalism.
In sports, you either love or loathe the Yankees (the latter, thank you very much).
In religion, it’s either My Way or—well, you know what the “alternative” is.
Now with the farm bill (hopefully) nearing enactment, the debates over agricultural policy have taken on a similar polarity, with the most strident voices being the activist groups using farm policy as a club to hammer home their agenda.
Consider this recent appeal from Farm Forward, normally a moderate group that counts among its priorities several initiatives I support: agricultural diversity, funding for specialty producers and an urgency about recruiting the next generation of growers and producers. In a recent outreach to their constituency, the group’s executive director led off with this right hand to the chin:
“We’ve made great progress, but we still have a long way to go. Make your donation now and together we can make factory farming a thing of the past.”
Really? That’s the goal? To eliminate 90%, maybe 95% of all food production in America?
Now, I understand that using loaded terminology is obligatoire for fundraisers. The goal is to press people’s buttons and get them to click on the group’s “Donate Now” button in response. I get it.
But what I don’t get is how any reputable reform organization could advocate for what amounts to the destruction of U.S. agriculture. Of course, the majority of consumers are clueless about food production, so “make factory farming a thing of the past” probably sounds pretty plausible to most people.
The slow pace of real reform
A much better approach to real reform would be to talk about genuine, positive transformation of the system, rather than demonizing our current system, then recklessly calling for its elimination. That’s not only troubling on its face, but ironic in the context of Farm Forward claiming that, “We’re not your average advocacy organization.”
No, you really are typical of every other advocacy group that uses the specter of factory farming as a platform on which to fund-raise.
Without exception, a transformation of any institution—whether it’s agriculture, transportation, medicine, jurisprudence or whatever—involves two parallel tracks. One is the slow, often dissatisfying process of modifying what is typically a huge, cumbersome, non-responsive organization. That takes years, involves inordinate amounts of energy and often yields pitifully miniscule results.
Part of the problem is the entrenched constituencies that stand to lose their position if change sweeps over their profession, so they dig in and resist even incremental change. Health care reform is a great example of that process.
But the other transformation track involves nurturing alternatives that can mature alongside the existing system. Such an approach not only provides added choices and additional opportunities for entry to the institution or profession but adds economic value and growth potential, as well.
Take transportation. You could make a powerful argument that our national freeway system is a net negative. Millions of acres of often prime farmland were paved over and entire neighborhoods in hundreds of cities were leveled to build them, and the resulting traffic, noise and pollution have ruined the quality of life for anyone unfortunate enough to have an Interstate running next to their back yard.
But is anyone seriously going to suggest we rip up all the Interstate highways and . . . and then what?
That’s the problem with the “end factory farming” approach. With what do we replace our current system of food production? Wouldn’t it be better to invest in specialty crop production, small-scale animal husbandry and farm operations focused on higher end markets, such as organic?
That’s how you drive change.
That approach is no different from the practice of diverting a small percentage of gas tax receipts to build bike paths in residential areas or add bus lanes to the freeways: An addition to, not a substitute for an existing transportation system that, despite its downside, delivers an enormous amount of value to virtually every American family every day of the year
Likewise, creating and expanding alternative agricultural systems is a positive addition to the incredibly efficient food production system we already have in place. Not only does it open up possibilities for people to enter farming without the need for immense amounts of land and/or capital, but it enriches and improves the choices consumers are offered in the marketplace.
And it’s a far better mission for groups like Farm Forward than foaming at the mouth about so-called factory farming.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.